Smoke billows from a fuel dump at Beirut International airport in Lebanon.
THE Lebanese, well-versed in the lethal, violent and unexpected, have awoken to the kind of situation they thought they had put behind them. Their airport, the pride of postwar reconstruction, has been bombarded by Israeli war planes along with a host of other infrastructure projects, bringing death and devastation on a more than Gazan scale.
For some it inevitably brought to mind a bleak winter day in 1968 when, out of the blue, Israeli commandos landed at the old airport and blew up 13 passenger jets. The pretext: of two Palestinians who killed an Israeli at Athens airport, one came from a refugee camp in Lebanon, then an entirely peaceable country.
The significance of this most spectacularly disproportionate reprisal was something the Lebanese could hardly even have guessed at then. But it was an early portent of the long nightmare to come: military conflict with Israel, eventually to be compounded with an atrocious civil war that it did much to engender.
There is something ominously similar, in possible consequences, about Thursday’s repeat Israeli performance. Ever since the Israelis ended their occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, this weak and diminutive country has enjoyed an almost unmarred respite from the turbulence of the region to which it so easily and habitually falls victim. But overnight it has been plunged back into the role it endured for a quarter of a century and more — that of hapless arena for other people’s wars, as well as pawn in the ambitions and machinations of regional players far more powerful than itself. It is only the players who change. After 1968 it was to be the Palestinian resistance movement that was Israel’s antagonist in Lebanon. Now it is Hezbollah.
To be sure, Hezbollah is Lebanese in everything that defines nationality, and it has cabinet ministers and members of parliament. That is why Israel could so plausibly blame the Lebanese Government for the seizure of its two soldiers. Yet if Islamists act on their own in Palestine, Hezbollah does so even more blatantly in Lebanon. It is a virtual state within a state, with a militia more powerful than the Lebanese army.
And Hezbollah has another agenda: universal jihad and all that now implies in terms of non-Lebanese regional ambitions, allegiances, obligations and constraints. Hezbollah’s task is not merely to liberate the last pocket of Lebanese soil, but to help shape the outcome of the Arab-Israeli struggle.
The other regional parties to this Hezbollah agenda are the Syrian and Iranian governments. Both have long been eyeing the ever-deteriorating Palestinian situation as a platform for the advancement of their own strategic or ideological agendas.
When Hezbollah did its latest deed it must have known that Israel’s military response would out-Gaza Gaza. It must also have known that it would exacerbate already serious political and sectarian tensions inside Lebanon. And, finally, it must have known it would take the whole of the Middle East another step towards the unprecedented tumult that likely awaits it.
As for Israel, there could hardly be a more apt example of a nation reaping what it has sown. Israel took 18 years to extricate itself from the Lebanon morass — and only then at the price of leaving in place a triumphant Hezbollah. Even as, on its new Gaza front, it is turning Hamas and other Islamists into more formidable future foes than they already are, it suddenly finds itself confronted, in alarming and maddening fashion, with this monstrous legacy of an old one.