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Selections Book Review: Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East by David Hirst
Beware of Small States is a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict as seen through the prism of its impact on the internal development of neighbouring Arab states, particularly tiny, fragile Lebanon, the sectarian state par excellence and historic battleground for other peoples' conflicts. As a long- term Middle East correspondent of the Guardian, few people are as well qualified as David Hirst to write it.
Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East by David Hirst 480pp, Faber, £20 Buy Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East at the Guardian bookshop He deals well with the complex historical relations between early Israeli leaders and the "pro-Zionist" Maronite Christians who dominated the neighbouring state. Both sought their raison d'etre in a real or imagined past in opposition to Middle Eastern, Arabic and Muslim culture and heritage, and a "minority alliance" between their two religious communities. Subsequent Israeli leaders envisioned a more ambitious, "fantastic" grand design to transform "Christian Lebanon" into Israel's "natural" ally. In the 1970s Lebanon was plunged into all-out civil war and by the time of the 1982 Israeli invasion, "Greater-Israel expansionists" such as right-wing Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his then defence minister Ariel Sharon saw in the disintegration of Lebanon a historic opportunity to redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East which included securing the whole of Palestine for themselves and extinguishing any rival claims to the occupied territories.
Hirst notes astutely that Israel's imperial hubris coincided with the advent of the Reagan administration; as Begin acknowledged, there had never been an administration as favourable to Israel as this one. No wonder then, says Hirst, that before Begin and Sharon sent their army to Lebanon – 90,000 men, 1,300 tanks, 1,500 armoured personnel carriers – they got a green light from then US Secretary of State Alexander Haig that was so phrased that a man like Sharon could only see it "as a hunting licence".
That war killed 20,000 people, mostly civilians. Israel laid siege to an Arab capital, Beirut; drove out Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership and destroyed the guerrilla state-within-the state; and presided over the pro-Zionist Maronite forces' genocidal slaughter of 3,000 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Although Hirst argues that Sabra and Shatila in fact marked the beginning of Israel's decline, his narrative is filled with evidence that Israeli society and its leadership have not learned from history. Targeting civilians, he writes, has emerged as the very essence of Israel's deterrence, as demonstrated by the more recent wars against Hezbollah (2006) and Hamas (2009). But Hirst is not only critical of Israel. Beware of Small States is a demolition exercise that doesn't spare Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the PLO who also fought proxy wars in Lebanon. Hirst contends that Syrian leaders used blood and iron to perpetuate their domination of Lebanon, secure their own backyard and siphon off nearly $2bn a year. He also notes that Ayatollah Khomeini's interest in Lebanon was strategic and pragmatic. The struggle against the Jewish state allowed him to pose, in an ecumenical, pan-Islamic spirit, as the champion of a cause that was not a monopoly of Sunni Arabs and Palestinians.
But it was the 1982 war (which lasted till 2000) that transformed Lebanese domestic politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The war inflicted irreparable damage on Israel's aura of invincibility and created a new Shiite enemy from whose ranks arose a grass-roots resistance movement, Hezbollah, more formidable than the bureaucratic and corrupt PLO. "Had the enemy not taken this step," said its leader Hassan Nasrallah many years later, "I don't know whether something called Hezbollah would have been born. I doubt it."
Hezbollah now projects itself as the spearhead of the whole Arab/Muslim struggle against the Jewish state, and much of the global Muslim community seem to see it that way too. According to Hirst, Israel's colossal strategic and moral failure in Lebanon has also further delegitimised pro-US "moderate" Arab regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia and strengthened the Islamo-nationalist resistance camp led by Iran and Syria.
In his post-2006 war speech, Nasrallah told the immense, euphoric throng that the victory they were celebrating had transformed Lebanon from a "small" state in the Middle East into a "great" one. Hirst agrees that Lebanon is no longer the hapless object of others' actions but also an active agent in its own right because of Hezbollah's powerful influence in the region. "Lebanon – the eternal victim – has now become an active player too, posing no less a threat to greater states than they habitually posed to it."
That is a mixed blessing. Hirst cites Israeli leaders who say they are readying themselves for the "next war", the "second round" against Hezbollah and the Lebanese state, which they deem to be all but inevitable. And while Hezbollah has evolved into a conventional political party with a domestic agenda, he argues it still possesses a potent militia, with an external, visionary, Islamist agenda and is aligned with Iranian and even Syrian foreign policy. In other words, Lebanon is still a battlefield for others' wars. The only difference now is that if Israel fires the first shot in the "seventh Middle Eastern war", the war might not remain confined to Lebanon.
Source: The Guardian, 15/5/2010