Today is the 10th anniversary of the day on which Israel’s forces, acting on orders from then-PM Ehud Barak, undertook a chaotic, humiliating retreat from South Lebanon, bringing to a nearly complete end their 22-year-long military occupation of the area.
That retreat was important for a number of reasons:
- 1. It marked the first time Israeli forces ever retreated from occupied territory in the absence of pressure from the United States (as had happened in 1956, from Sinai and Gaza) and also in the absence of a peace agreement with the government of the country occupied (as happened with Egypt in 1979.)
2. The 2000 withdrawal therefore marked a new phase in Israeli strategic decisionmaking, one in which the stress that all Israeli leaders had previously placed on the need to secure strong, binding peace agreements with their neighbors in “return” for Israeli withdrawal from their lands was now replaced by a disdain for peace agreements and an insistence that Israel would “draw its own borders.” This preference for unilateral rather than negotiated action marked Israel’s evacuation from the body of the Gaza Strip (though not its international borders) in 2005. It also marked the construction of the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank from 2002 on, and the arrogance and almost palpable disdain with which Israeli leaders have approached the tasks of peace diplomacy from the premiership of Barak until the present.
3. Israel was not the only party to eschew negotiations. Hizbullah’s leaders have always refused to engage in direct negotiations with Israel. On occasion they have taken part in indirect negotiations with it– as happened in 1996, which marked the strategic turning-point in the balance between the two forces. Hizbullah has also remained extremely wary of the readiness of the U.N. to take any decisive action to liberate occupied lands. The fact that Hizbullah and its Lebanese allies liberated South Lebanon without engaging in negotiations and without relying on the support of the U.N. provided a new example for Arab communities chafing under foreign occupation– primarily, the Palestinians. Four months after Hizbullah’s supporters liberated South Lebanon, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza launched the Second Intifada, with many participants citing south Lebanon’s example as their inspiration.
4. The Lebanese people’s liberation of their land marked a real achievement for “people power” at both the tactical and the strategic levels. Tactically, the development that in May 2000 set off the final rout firstly of Israel’s proxy forces in south Lebanon, and then of the IDF forces themselves, was a cavalcade of unarmed villagers returning to their homes and farms in south Lebanon. Strategically, the will, unity, and pro-liberation determination of south Lebanon’s civilians formed the essential sinews of the entire resistance movement that grew up after Israel’s second major offensive into the country, in 1982. Yes, Hizbullah also used many violent tactics throughout the years against both the Israeli occupation forces and the Israeli proxy forces of the SLA. And that violence seemed to have some effect: The steady and unstoppable toll of losses among Israeli soldiers in Lebanon slowly incubated a strong desire among Israelis to withdraw– on almost any terms. But throughout the years of occupation, the IDF and the SLA had enacted horrendous violence against Hizbullah fighters, suspected Hizbullah sympathizers, and the South Lebanese population in general. Hizbullah could never have developed and maintained its capabilities if it had not also been able to organize the civilian population with great effectiveness.
5. Hizbullah had shown its talents as an effective and disciplined force– both on the battlefield and in civilian affairs– on numerous occasions before 2000. (For example, it participated successfully in Lebanese elections since 1992, and helped to democratize the country’s internal political life significantly, throughout the 1990s. It also participated skilfully in those indirect ceasefire negotiations that halted the big Israeli assault of 1996.) But in masterminding the civilian-led recovery of south Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah’s leaders demonstrated their smarts, and the discipline of their followers, in another extremely important way: They laid great stress on urging their victorious followers not to undertake any extrajudicial retaliations against the numerous Lebanese who had been part of Israel’s proxy-force structure, and expressed pride in the near-total absence of any such retaliations after liberation.
In sum, Hizbullah’s emergence into the Lebanese and Arab body politic marked the arrival of a force of considerable depth and sophistication. It has also served as a new example of a specifically Islamist, specifically anti-colonial form of Arab modernism.
Western analysts who look at only at superficial phenomena such as whether women wear head-veils or not tend to miss completely the modernizing nature of Hizbullah’s project in Lebanese politics and society. Those who look only at the organization’s military prowess tend to miss the importance of its sturdy, mass-organizing underpinnings. Those who spout off about “implacable Sunni-Shiite hatreds” have no understanding of the degree to which Hizbullah’s victories of 1996, 2000, and 2006 served to inspire millions of Arabs and Muslims from the whole Middle East region, regardless of of their form of worship.
Here’s hoping– and working– for an end to all military occupations, everywhere!