Michael Young
The National (Opinion)
March 31, 2010 - 12:00am

In a recent interview with Hizbollah’s Al Manar television station, Bashar al Assad, the president of Syria, was asked about the state of Syria’s relationship with Lebanon after years of tension following the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq al Hariri, in 2005. “Damascus cannot be neutral when one side is engaged in resistance and another is against the resistance,” he responded.

At the Arab League summit in Libya last weekend, Mr Assad again defended “resistance” against Israel, this time on behalf of Hamas. Syria was only upholding its political stakes, yet in recent years the notion of resistance has taken on a near mystical quality in some Arab quarters and in the West, beyond the narrow calculations of Arab regimes.

Why is that? Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians and anti-Americanism have long fuelled support for armed resistance movements in the Middle East. However, the enthusiasm waned in the 1990s once the Madrid conference sparked Arab-Israeli negotiations. Even Hizbollah’s military operations against Israeli soldiers occupying southern Lebanon only took on larger meaning when the Israelis withdrew in May 2000, supposedly substantiating the idea that “resistance” could reverse Arab humiliations.

The paradox is that Hizbollah’s triumph marked the high point of the resistance strategy. After that, things could never quite be as successful. But it also was the moment when many in the Middle East and beyond adopted the resistance mantle in earnest. The Israeli withdrawal came only three months before the start of the second Palestinian intifada, essentially aborting the Oslo process that the more uncompromising supporters of Palestinian rights had spent years denouncing.

That Oslo returned the Palestinian leadership to the land was of no consequence; critics regarded the compromises imposed on the late Yasser Arafat as unacceptable when successive Israeli governments continued building settlements in the occupied territories. With armed resistance having won out in Lebanon, the Palestinian intifada took that logic a step further. The purists, frustrated by years of haphazard diplomatic movement, approved. Resistance was the new imperative, which they usually justified from the safety of Arab capitals or foreign universities.

Had they looked more carefully, they might have seen that resistance was also a byword for disaster. Over 5,000 Palestinians were killed in the intifada, and in 2002 Israel reoccupied large parts of the West Bank after a suicide attack in Netanya. The uprising, this time using weapons rather than stones, brought nothing to Palestinians but more suffering.

But the resistance fetish survived. In Lebanon, Hizbollah continued to fire at Israeli soldiers, saying that they still occupied a sliver of Lebanese land known as the Shebaa Farms, but it was mainly interested in finding a pretext to retain its weapons. Syria encouraged this in order to use Hizbollah’s weapons as leverage in any new talks with Israel over the Golan Heights.

Hizbollah’s sporadic attacks on the unpopulated outpost highlighted the diminishing returns of resistance. It concealed this by obliging Israel to engage in a prisoner swap in January 2004 that was to Hizbollah’s advantage. Yet the Hariri assassination a year later led to a Syrian military pullout from Lebanon, provoking anxiety in Hizbollah that the aftermath might bring on the party’s disarmament.

On July 12, 2006, in a move designed to indirectly impose a Hizbollah-defined “defence strategy” on its Lebanese partners, Hizbollah militants abducted two Israeli soldiers inside Israel’s borders, unintentionally killing them in an operation that also led to the death of five others. This provoked a month-long war that Hizbollah’s admirers insisted confirmed the merits of armed resistance. The party managed to continue firing rockets into Israel throughout the conflict, declaring this a “divine victory”.

Was it really so? Over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, and nearly a million thrown out into the streets. Israel bombed Lebanese infrastructure and placed the entire country under siege, closing all ports and Beirut airport. Later, Hizbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, declared that had he known that Israel would respond in the way it did, he would not have abducted the soldiers.

The costs of war were lost on the nearly 450 intellectuals, many of them Lebanese living abroad, who signed a petition at the height of the fighting declaring their “conscious support” for Hizbollah’s resistance against Israel, “as it wages a war in defence of our sovereignty and independence, a war to release Lebanese imprisoned in Israel, a war to safeguard the dignity of the Lebanese and Arab people”. The signatories also affirmed that “resistance is an intellectual act par excellence … [and] cultural and critical activity [is] an integral part of Lebanese national resistance, indeed of resistance to injustice anywhere in the world.”

Similar obduracy greeted Hamas’ return to arms in December 2008, when it ended a truce with Israel by bombing Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip. As usual Israel responded harshly, entering Gaza, killing nearly 1,500 Palestinians, and extending a blockade that continues to this day. Yet aficionados of resistance never paused to ask whether Hamas’s choices were to the Palestinians’ benefit, even as everything indicated they were not.

In Lebanon and the Palestinian areas, society needs to be brought in on the debate over the desirability of armed resistance. Hizbollah and Hamas have employed “resistance” more often to marginalise their national authorities than to fight Israel, in the process destabilising their societies. Israel has undermined its Arab interlocutors over the years, but nothing has damaged the Arabs more than resorting to wanton violence that leads nowhere. Such behaviour betrays only vanity, with little chance of reversing injustices.


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