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The Daily Star - May 22, 2010

by Rami G. Khouri

Ten years ago next week, the Israeli armed forces unilaterally withdrew from most of the territory that they had occupied in south Lebanon. The withdrawal did not lead to a peaceful border, but instead clarified that territory is only one aspect of a conflict with many dimensions. Ten years later, the south of Lebanon today is a region pregnant with tension, and perhaps the best microcosm we have of the nature of conflicts in the Middle East.

The Israel-Hizbullah war of summer 2006 was the most violent and destructive incident in the period that followed the withdrawal, and has since triggered significant military and other preparedness measures on both sides of the border. This is perhaps the most militarized and politically confrontational border in the world, with armies from every concerned quarter. Israel and Hizbullah are the main antagonists, but also present in the immediate area or nearby are the Lebanese Army, United Nations peace-keeping troops from many countries, Syria’s armed forces further eastward, and, by proxy, interested state parties in the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Nowhere else in the world is there such a dense concentration of armed units and political antagonists in a tense face-off that largely avoids routine clashes, but in the past four decades has erupted into active fighting and massive attacks on a regular basis. This is not because the piece of territory is so strategic – if it were, the Israelis would never have withdrawn from it. It is because south Lebanon has become the symbolic front line of today’s ideological big battle – the Berlin Wall and the DMZ of the new Cold War-like confrontation in the Middle East.

The last two months have witnessed many rumors and media reports about an imminent war in the south Lebanon region. This is always possible, but unlikely in the short run, in my view. For like the Cold War between the Russians, Americans and their proxies and allies, this regional face-off has reached a new balance of mutual deterrence that makes it unlikely that Israel or Hizbullah will attack the other unilaterally, without a compelling self-defense rationale. The cost of an attack to civilians and the national infrastructure has become so high that warfare no longer makes the same kind of sense it did in decades past. It is also certain that there can be no real “winner” of a new war in which Hizbullah, Israel and assorted other potential warriors attack each other with every weapon at their disposal.

Israel’s air superiority makes it likely that it would not hesitate to bring modern life to a halt in much of Lebanon by destroying civilian infrastructure while it tried to wipe out Hizbullah’s weapons capabilities. The response from the Arab side is likely to be equally ferocious. One possibility is that Israel would attack Hizbullah and Iran simultaneously, seeing them as two wings of a single strategic foe. If Israel were to suffer serious losses or even brief vulnerability in such a war, it is likely that the United States would get involved on Israel’s side, engaging in its third active war in Asia.

Any scenario is frightening, with its most terrible dimension being the realization that warfare would not resolve any of the underlying conflicts – just as Israel’s unilateral redeployments from south Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in the past decade have not resolved anything, but only ended up transforming the nature of the conflict. Neither long-term occupation nor unilateral withdrawal seems to have given Israel the sort of security, recognition and peace that it has sought from its northern and southern neighbors. Instead, Israeli policies seem mainly to have spurred a greater determination by various Arab and Islamist groups to resist and fight it.

The political complexity and ideological interconnections among near and distant players in south Lebanon these days are staggering. The large-scale presence of the UN peacekeeping forces and the Lebanese Army does not seem in itself to have calmed the tensions there. It has only transferred them to points further afield, including melding Hizbullah, Syria and Iran into a single actor in the eyes of many. The talk now is about Scud missiles on the Lebanese-Syrian border, rather than only flash points in the far south of the country.

I still tend to assume that the cost of a new conflict will be so high for all that incentives to avoid fighting are now greater than the pressures to go to war. Like the former global Cold War, this Middle Eastern version could end when one side collapses and transforms itself into something less belligerent, or it could go on for many decades, experiencing only limited proxy military operations while the larger conflagration is avoided due to the prevailing balance of power.

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