Middle East: Israeli capitalism suffers defeat in Lebanese war

Limits of Israeli military power exposed. Part One

The barbarous 34-day assault on Lebanon saw the deaths of at least 1,300 Lebanese, thousands injured, up to a million people forced to flee their homes, and civilian infrastructure shattered. On the Israeli side, 157 were killed, including 118 soldiers. But none of the Israeli regime’s objectives were achieved. The war exposed the limits of Israel’s military power, and that of its sponsor, US imperialism. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has been strengthened politically. This has provoked a crisis for Ehud Olmert’s government. The ceasefire has brought fighting to a halt for the time being, but the US-French brokered UN resolution will resolve none of the region’s problems.

On August 14, a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire in the latest Israeli-Lebanese war came into effect. Sporadic clashes have continued. However, for the moment, the Israeli regime’s murderous violence against Lebanon has ceased and Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on northern Israel’s civilian areas have halted. It is not clear how long this period of relative quiet will last. For example, Israel blatantly violated the ceasefire by attacking Hezbollah fighters in a village deep in the Beka’a valley just six days after the UN resolution was signed.

Rather than improving the position of capitalism and imperialism in the Middle East, this war has vastly worsened the situation. The proposals in the UN resolution, even if implemented, would solve none of the underlying contradictions which led to the war. The deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon and the promise of a 15,000-strong multinational force are a face-saving way out of the impasse, mainly devised to allow Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to withdraw Israeli forces. Under present social and economic conditions further conflicts will take place unless the Arab and Israeli Jewish working class can find a route out of the periodic descent into bloody wars which has been all that imperialism and capitalism have offered the region since the end of the second world war.

What has been dubbed the ‘sixth Israeli-Arab war’ will be recorded in the history books as a major defeat for Israeli capitalism, its first on the field of battle since the founding of the state in 1948. The Israeli regime had to change its stated war aims half-way through the conflict, from “destroying” Hezbollah to “weakening” Hezbollah. Israel failed to gain the return of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah on 12 July, the immediate pretext for Israel’s offensive. The Chief of Army Staff was replaced during the war, and there were public divisions between different parts of the military elite and within the cabinet over whether to go ahead with a full land invasion in the 48 hours before the UN resolution came into effect.

Reuven Pedatzur commented in the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper: “This is not a mere military defeat. This is a strategic failure whose far-reaching implications are still not clear… In Damascus, Gaza, Tehran and Cairo too, people are looking with amazement at the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] that for more than a month could not bring a tiny guerrilla organisation to its knees, the IDF that was defeated and paid a heavy price in most of its battles in southern Lebanon… What happened to this mighty army which after a month was not able to advance more than a few kilometres into Lebanon?” (16 August)

The result of the war will also be recorded as a political victory for Hezbollah. Paul Moorcraft, director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, said: “Hezbollah has done a lot better than the conventional forces of all the Arab states that have fought Israel since 1948. It has won a stunning propaganda victory and shattered Israel’s defensive posture”. (Guardian, 11 August) Hezbollah has become hugely popular across the Arab world. A recent opinion poll in Egypt found that Sayyad Hassan Nasrullah, the general secretary of Hezbollah, is now the region’s most popular leader, despite the fact that he is a Shia while the majority of Arabs are Sunni.

The result of the war is a setback for US imperialism, Israeli capitalism’s main backer in the Middle East. Undoubtedly, it also spells trouble for the corrupt and spineless Arab elites who have bent the knee before the Israeli regime and the capitalist west for decades.

Clearly, the Middle East will become more unstable; US imperialism’s influence will be undermined further; and the Arab regimes, already under siege because of the anger of the Arab masses towards mass poverty and corruption, could face major social upheavals.

What is completely different about this war is that there is a clear understanding internationally that the imperialist powers, particularly the Bush and Blair administrations, rather than playing a moderating role on Israeli capitalism, blatantly gave it full support and encouraged the war aims of the US’s client state in the Middle East. The result will be even higher levels of anger amongst the Arab and Muslim masses around the world and a further slipping in the authority of the imperialist powers amongst the working class internationally. The effects of this will echo through political developments regionally and internationally over the next few years.

Collective punishment

From the beginning it was clear that the military bombardment, rather than being an attempt to destroy Hezbollah, was designed to crush an entire nation into submission. The Israeli Air Force flew over 15,500 sorties against 7,000 targets while its navy fired more than 2,500 shells at Lebanon’s coast. Lebanon’s infrastructure has been devastated with over £2.5 billion worth of damage being done. Schools, hospitals, power stations and even milk factories have been destroyed. Over 1,300 Lebanese civilians were killed and tens of thousands more injured. Lebanese journalists have commented that more damage was inflicted by Israel’s month-long bombardment than the entire 20-year-long civil war.

Even by the standards of Israeli capitalism, this was a particularly brutal war. The Israeli regime committed war crimes in areas like Tyre and Sidon. They threatened to bomb any traffic moving on the roads and refused requests by the UN and Red Crescent for safe transit for vehicles going to rescue civilians dying in the rubble. Towards the end of the war, the Israeli regime, increasingly desperate to achieve at least some of its war aims, dropped a leaflet over Lebanon which stated “each expansion of Hezbollah’s terrorist operations will lead to a harsh and powerful response, which will not be confined to Hassan’s [Nasrullah] gang of criminals”.

If ever a formal admission by the Israeli state was needed that it was involved in the collective punishment of the Lebanese working class and rural poor, this was it. What makes this even more monstrous is that US imperialism and the Blair administration openly and cynically supported these tactics. Both refused to call for an immediate ceasefire and instead rushed bunker busting bombs from the US, via Prestwick airport in Scotland, to Israel’s war machine. In this context, Condoleezza Rice’s statement that the war represented the “birth pangs of a new Middle East” is seared into the minds of millions around the world, particularly the Arab masses, as the pinnacle of imperialism’s barbarism in the modern era.

The cessation of violence has, of course, brought some sort of relief to the working class of Lebanon and Israel. But the war’s effects will be felt for generations to come. Hundreds of thousands of mainly Lebanese families have had their lives shattered, through the loss of loved ones but also in the destruction of homes occupied for generations; the flattening of whole villages and towns; the destruction of the livelihoods of millions of people; and a health and environmental disaster which modern warfare with its depleted uranium tipped armaments always leaves in its wake.

Working-class Israelis, both Jewish and Palestinian, have lost much too, although not on the same scale. This was Israel’s longest war since 1948 and also the first time that civilian areas have come under sustained military attack since the founding of the state. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets, 250 on the last day of hostilities. Apart from the Palestinian intifada this conflict saw the highest number of civilian casualties in any conflict since 1948.

The Israeli working class will bear the costs of the war through increased taxation and cuts in living standards. The government estimates that the assault cost $2.3 billion, but the newspaper, Yediot Aharonot (15 August), calculates that it will be upward of $5.7 billion when the costs of war damage in Israel are taken into account. Although not necessarily apparent now, the biggest blow for the Israeli ruling class will be the further shattering of the idea that the Israeli state, with the fourth strongest army in the world, can protect their security from outside attack. This will have profound effects on the psychology of the Israeli Jewish masses and therefore on social and political developments in Israel.

Above all, what stands out is that the Israeli ruling class and US imperialism completely failed to achieve any of their major war aims. Moreover, they have no clear strategy for the next period.

‘The deterrence factor’ undermined

Undoubtedly, the Israeli regime wanted to completely destroy Hezbollah. In part this was to put to rest the ignominy of the IDF’s early withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 as a result of Hezbollah’s guerrilla war against it. The Israeli military elite also saw Hezbollah as perhaps one of the sharpest military thorns in its side. Above all, the Israeli regime had a much broader aim in mind in prosecuting this war. It was an attempt to reassert the military superiority of Israeli capitalism across the region – in the jargon of the military analysts, “to re-establish the ‘deterrence’ factor”.

Despite the apparent differences on foreign policy between numerous Israeli governments, in reality, the strategy of the Israeli ruling class has remained fairly consistent since 1948. This has been the policy of the ‘Iron Wall’, essentially, the creation of an overwhelming military force which is used regularly to crush enemy opposition. It is only on the basis of the application of this force that the Israeli regime is prepared to negotiate under conditions where its adversaries are forced to accept whatever is on offer.

The Israeli regime more recently has drawn the conclusion that despite the IDF’s brutal tactics in Gaza and the West Bank (the Occupied Territories), its image as a powerful, regional military superpower has been undermined. This was emphasised by the IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 and also by the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January this year. The political and military setbacks of its main backer, US imperialism, in the Iraq quagmire, also undermined the image of invincibility of the Israeli regime. Other processes, such as the growing regional influence of Iran, in part because of events in Iraq, where parties with links to the Iranian regime now dominate the political scene, have also added to this process.

It was for these reasons that the Israeli military elite laid plans for a massive show of firepower in Lebanon at least two years ago. These were to be set in motion as soon as a pretext was given by Hezbollah. This it did on 12 July with the cross-border incursion which involved the taking prisoner of two soldiers and killing of three others. In an article by George Monbiot, Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, commented: “Of all Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared… By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board”. (Guardian, 8 August)

What is more, US imperialism was kept fully informed about these plans with a senior Israeli army officer giving off-the-record presentations to US diplomats and others from more than a year ago.

According to some reports (including in the right-wing Jerusalem Post), Washington neo-cons saw the war on Lebanon as an opportunity for an attack on Syria and even a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear processing facilities. In reality, however, the US is bogged down in Iraq, while Iran’s regional influence has been strengthened, making it unlikely that the Bush regime, even if the war had continued, would have contemplated military attacks on Syria or Iran. Instead, the US is likely to push harder for UN-authorised sanctions against Iran, though even this is problematic given opposition from Russia and China, and Iran’s threat to cut off oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.

The Olmert government’s plans lie in tatters, shattered in the hills and valleys of south Lebanon. This is where the IDF came up against ferocious resistance from Hezbollah fighters, despite a ferocious ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign by its air force. Rather than re-establishing the deterrence factor of the IDF, the military prowess of the Israeli regime has been massively undermined. US, and to a lesser extent British, imperialism have been exposed once again just as they have been by the failure of their occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. Once again, the Bush administration’s campaign to ‘reshape’ the Middle East has been shaken to the core.

The character of Hezbollah

An important lesson which can be drawn from this conflict is that the outcome of wars is determined by many factors, not just military ones. Social and political factors can play just as much if not a more important role in determining the result of any conflict.

This is where the Israeli ruling and military elite made a fundamental error in underestimating Hezbollah and its ability to resist the might of the IDF. Undoubtedly, Israel’s military tacticians looked to the bombing campaign of US imperialism at the start of the Iraq war as its model.

However, the social and political conditions in Lebanon were completely different from Iraq. The conscripts of the Iraqi army, while not wishing foreign occupiers on their soil, had no wish to sacrifice their lives for a dictator under whom they had suffered for decades. This was one of the factors in paving the way for a relatively easy dash to Baghdad by the US army.

In contrast, even before the conflict started, Hezbollah had mass support in the southern, mainly Shia, part of Lebanon where the conflict took place. This arises from the history and development of this organisation, whose leadership has been able at times to appeal to audiences beyond its main Shia support base in the south and the poor southern Beirut suburbs. The evolution of Hezbollah shows that the national political conditions that exist in Lebanon, including the existence of 17 ethnic and religious groupings, have had an important effect on its orientation and propaganda.

The Shia population has always formed the most oppressed section of Lebanese society. One of the first Shia-based parties reflected this by calling itself the ‘Movement of the Dispossessed’. In 1974 when, as a result of government grants and outside investment, Beirut was flourishing (the ‘Switzerland of the East’), the Lebanese Shia population (20% of the total at that time) received only 0.7% of the government budget. As well as facing the worst poverty and discrimination, the Shias also bore the brunt of the Israeli occupation 1982-2000.

Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God’, formed in 1982, was created as a reaction to the occupation. It arose from the more combative rank-and-file members of the secular Shia Amal movement who believed their leadership had ceased to be an effective fighting force against Israeli aggression. These members looked to what they saw as the success of the Iranian revolution and were helped by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to set up their new organisation. Hezbollah looked ideologically to Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini in its early years as an inspiration.

More recently, however, Hezbollah has taken the complexion of a more populist Islamist resistance organisation, with a strong nationalist tinge. The building of a powerful militia force has been combined with the provision of social and welfare services by its political wing. Some of its activists play a role in the trade unions, the majority of which are divided along sectarian lines. In the last few years it has become one of the strongest and most influential political and military forces in Lebanon, more powerful than the Lebanese army.

Like all populist organisations it appeals to many different audiences through the skilful use of radical demands and propaganda. Hezbollah does not hide its Islamic roots, but has recently tried to appeal to a much wider audience, mainly on the basis of Lebanese nationalism. Under Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah, the Hezbollah leadership dropped mention of its earlier aim of transforming the country into an Islamic state. Over the years, although often describing itself as the ‘Islamic resistance’ (which was taken to mean a fighting resistance on the part of Shias and Sunnis), it increasingly asserted that it was fighting for all Lebanese, be they Christian, Druze, Shia or Sunni, against aggression by the Israeli state. This was especially the case in the fight against Israeli occupation which culminated in victory for Hezbollah when the IDF were driven out of Lebanon. Following this, Hezbollah entered ‘official’ politics and stood in elections, winning 14 seats in parliament. In these elections it stood Christian candidates on its lists. Earlier this year it formed a bloc in parliament with the populist Christian leader Michel Aoun.

In the latest war it once again referred to itself as the ‘Resistance’ as opposed to the ‘Islamic Resistance’. Hezbollah leaders’ speeches stressed that this was a nationalist struggle for the future of Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s main base of support is undoubtedly among the Shia rural poor and working class, but it has not based itself on a class-struggle approach. Hezbollah has two ministers in the national unity government in Lebanon which recently voted for the privatisation of electricity services. At the same time, it helped organise a mass protest movement against the rise in electricity prices in advance of privatisation. This shows the contradictory nature of Hezbollah and the way in which its leadership attempts politically to face in different directions.

Some on the left internationally have compared Hezbollah to the African National Congress, the national liberation organisation whose supporters fought against the white apartheid regime in South Africa. This is a false comparison to make.

It is true that Hezbollah is fighting against US and Israeli domination of Lebanon and has mass support among big sections of the population. Although the ANC had a multi-class makeup, the specific weight and influence of the working class played a much greater role within it. Socialist and revolutionary ideas were discussed within the organisations ANC supporters built on the ground, and were the basis on which the COSATU trade union federation was built. This working-class base played a major role in defeating apartheid. The movement against apartheid was a mass struggle by the working class for social, political and economic change. The Freedom Charter, which was the political manifesto of the ANC called for nationalisation of the mines and the banks. At the height of the battle against apartheid in the townships, committees were set up to decide through democratic discussion and debate how to take the struggle forward. Unfortunately, because the ANC was not committed to a rounded-out programme for the socialist transformation of society, the leadership became more and more detached from the rank and file and subsequently adopted blatant pro-capitalist policies.

Hezbollah, however, does not deploy the methods of working-class struggle used by the ANC in the period of mass struggle against the apartheid regime. While Hezbollah has organised mass protests movements, this is an auxiliary tactic rather than a way of encouraging the development of organised mass movements of the working class and rural poor as a central aspect of the struggle. While they have opposed some of the worst excesses of neo-liberal economic policies in Lebanon they are not explicitly against capitalism. The problems of mass poverty, price rises and cuts can only be ended through the overthrow of capitalism in Lebanon and the Middle East, and the organisation of society along socialist lines. This is not the political position of Hezbollah.

part two

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August 2006