Psychological warfare

Diplomacy has replaced mass destruction as the preferred weapon to eliminate the Lebanese resistance, writes Serene Assir from Beirut

(24 August 2006) - THE small town of Tiri, not far from the better-known Bint Jbeil and Maroun Al-Ras, is typical of many towns and villages in southern Lebanon. It commands a bird's eye view of the surrounding hills and villages. It was also the scene of one of the fiercer standoffs between Hizbullah fighters and invading Israeli troops. Not far from the Israeli border, there is little in the way of geography, the massive destruction caused by Israeli bombing, or support for Hizbullah that distinguishes Tiri from great swathes of the south.

Despite the destruction inflicted by 34 days of continuous bombing it is hard to escape the pervasive sense of Hizbullah's military victory in southern Lebanon.

"After what they suffered here, the violence, the psychological torture, there is no way the Israelis will dare reinvade," Ali, a native of the town, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"The Israelis may have had tanks, planes, helicopters, but they lacked the Hizbullah fighters' self-reliance. The minute they sensed danger they would squeak like chicks. You saw the images of Israeli soldiers crying on television -- you know what I'm talking about. They knew they could no longer fight their war on the military front and even hope to win."

Instead the war against Lebanon is now being fought on the diplomatic front, with rumour and Israel's continued naval blockade among the weapons. And if Israel, along with some in Lebanon, claimed that the 1,183 mostly civilians who perished in the bombardment were "collateral damage", the new front makes no such distinctions. It is the whole of Lebanon that is now being squeezed.

While the continued naval blockade is not yet hampering the arrival of humanitarian aid, it is strangling the Lebanese economy.

"Humanitarian assistance is only a small input and it targets the most vulnerable. But overall, if the naval blockade continues, then the whole of Lebanon becomes more and more vulnerable," says UN Humanitarian Coordinator David Shearer. Israel, though, according to statements issued by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has no plans to end that blockade despite repeated calls by the Lebanese government for it to do so.

Israeli breaches of United Nations' Security Council Resolution 1701, met by and large with silence on the part of the international community, appear designed to intimidate the Lebanese public by suggesting that Israel is willing and able to reignite hostilities.

"The situation could spin out of control very easily," said Khaled Mansour, the UN spokesman in Beirut, echoing statements made by UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen following Israel's raid in Baalbek earlier this week. UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan condemned the raid as a breach of the resolution but, typical of the international community's chastisements of Israel in the past, the condemnation was verbal and there was no suggestion of any action being taken.

Israel's attempts to propagate the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in Lebanon are, argue some observers, a strategy to underline who it is that really calls the shots when it comes to regional diplomacy.

"The statements issued by Larsen act as a form of psychological pressure," says Charles Harb, a social psychologist at the American University in Beirut, adding that at this point the potential for an actual re-escalation of the brutal war is next-to-nil.

And fear there is, along with a yearning for greater stability among the better off sectors of Lebanese society.

"We are sick and tired of war," said Hani, a young supporter of the 14 March bloc headed in parliament by Saad Al-Hariri. "What we want is a long-term, sustainable ceasefire with Israel."

Indeed, it already appears that overtures for even more than that have been made.

Statements made by Olmert earlier in the week suggest the Israeli government is seeking a peace settlement with Lebanon, something which Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Al-Siniora has not rejected out of hand.

"The challenge is how to convert what happened in Lebanon -- the calamity that was inflicted on Lebanon -- into an opportunity to move toward real peace," Siniora told reporters.

While peace talks between Arab countries and Israel have historically been long and complicated, and have sometimes ended in failure, Olmert's recent statements on the current Lebanese government's position speak volumes. "If the Lebanese government continues this way and if Prime Minister Siniora continues with his efforts to bring about a change in Lebanon, I have no doubt that negotiations with Beirut will lead to formal relations between the two states," he said.

It would be foolish, though, to take the unreality characteristic of both Lebanese governance and Israel at face value. Statements by UN officials, and even by US President George W Bush, on the dangers of a power vacuum in south Lebanon continue to ring true, and the situation on the ground is completely different from that which a humiliated Israel and an uncertain Lebanese government want to imagine. Now, more than ever, the only force with any presence or outreach among the population in the south -- and elsewhere in Lebanon, though particularly among the majority Shias -- is Hizbullah.

Al-Ahram Weekly 24-30 August 2006


Images of Bint Jbeil - before the invasion - now half-destroyed

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