No Peace with Syria

By Michael J. Totten

Last summer in the wake of the July War between Israel and Hezbollah I wrote War is coming again, and it’s coming like Christmas.

I may have been off by six months.

The Lebanese Army reports that Syria is sending weapons and terrorist/guerilla reinforcements to the war of the camps in Lebanon.

At the same time, Syrian MP Mohammad Habash confirms (if he isn’t bluffing, and maybe he is) that Syria is preparing for a conventional war against the Israel Defense Forces this summer.

Bashar Assad is perhaps more emboldened by Israeli and American fecklessness and imcompetence that he ought to be. It wouldn’t be the first time in history that a fourth-rate power misjudged the West and blundered into a catastrophe. He may want to consult the ghosts of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein.

Is Iran a threat to Israel or America (or Lebanon)?

By Noah Pollak

I was invited by the editors of “jewcy.com”:http://www.jewcy.com to comment on a week-long “exchange”:http://www.jewcy.com/dialogue/2007-05-21/bomb_iran_now, hosted on their site, between Michael Freund of the Jerusalem Post and Justin Raimondo of “antiwar.com”:http://www.antiwar.com. Freund and Raimondo set out to debate what America and Israel should (or should not) do about Iran, but their epistolary turned sour — and quickly. My contribution is “here”:http://www.jewcy.com/daily_shvitz/is_there_a_real_iranian_threat_to_israel_and_america, and reproduced below. I sought to address what I believe is the heart of the matter — the nature of the Iranian threat.

Justin Raimondo believes, with emphatic certainty, that “Iran is no threat to Israel, and that there is no danger of Iran dropping nukes on Tel Aviv.” Likewise he says that “Iran, with or without nuclear weapons, represents no threat to America.” Far be it from me to take Mr. Raimondo seriously when he says such things — his contributions to last week’s exchange were studded with so many hateful condemnations, bizarre declarations, and quarter-baked ideas that doing so would require me to empty my brain of everything I’ve learned about both the Middle East and foreign policy. But these two platitudes do serve as a good jumping-off point for discussing the true nature of the Iranian threat, which is, I believe, why the editors of Jewcy asked me to contribute to this debate.

Iran is indeed a threat to both the United States and to Israel — but the threat does not come in the cartoonish form of Mr. Raimondo’s fevered imagination, with Iranian bombers nuking Tel Aviv and Iranian ICBM’s rocketing their way toward New York. Those scenarios are red herrings intended to make Raimondo’s task of turning America and Israel into the world’s leading belligerents much easier.

The actual threat posed by a nuclear Iran involves the manner in which such a development would upset the balance of power in the Middle East, which no doubt for Mr. Raimondo is a boring subject as it does not provide ready opportunities for Israel Lobby hysteria and mushroom cloud fantasies. To understand the consequences of a nuclear Iran, we have to look to the recent history of Middle East power arrangements.

Before the American-Israeli alliance was solidified in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s, the Middle East — especially the eastern Mediterranean half of it — was home to regular warfare. This bloodshed arose from the conviction among the Arab nations that they could destroy Israel, which they tried to do repeatedly: in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Even though some of the Arab countries were allied with the Soviet Union, Israel repulsed the invaders, and in the latter two wars even captured territory from the attacking armies. In doing so Israel created for itself a reputation as the most militarily competent country in its half of the region.

And then, as Martin Kramer “explains”:http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=331, “the United States began to look at Israel as a potential strategic ally. Israel appeared to be the strongest, most reliable and most cost-effective bulwark against Soviet penetration of the Middle East. It could defeat any combination of Soviet clients on its own and, in so doing, humiliate the Soviet Union and drive thinking Arabs out of the Soviet camp.”

In contrast to the benefits that Israel’s victories provided the United States in its maneuverings against the Soviets, the 1973 war did create something of a crisis for America, in the form of the Arab oil embargo. Having suffered a gasoline shortage at home, American strategists decided to attempt to impose peace in the region by showing so much support for Israel that the Arab states would henceforth refuse to challenge it. And this strategy has been a resounding success: Since 1973 there have been no more wars between Israel and Arab countries. This security arrangement even ended up prying Egypt away from the Soviets and into an alliance, later joined by Jordan, with America.

What does all of this have to do with Iran today? It has to do with the Islamic Republic’s prospects for success in its endeavor to undermine this American-enforced security architecture. Iran is trying to destabilize the Middle East by creating its own set of alliances and clients that it hopes will rival America’s. This is why it funds Hezbollah in Lebanon and now Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories; has cultivated an alliance with Syria that seeks to engulf Lebanon and allow Hezbollah free reign there; and provides weapons, money, and leadership to insurgents in Iraq.

Iran’s intentions are clear: it wants America out of the Middle East, so that it can control the Persian Gulf and manipulate the rest of the region through its alliances and proxies. Are these goals going to be easier or harder to accomplish with the benefit of nuclear deterrence? The answer is obvious, and it is the real reason why preventing a nuclear Iran is both in the American and Israeli interest. The short-term stakes, though, are higher for Israel (and Lebanon, for that matter). A nuclear Iran allied with Hezbollah to the north and Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the Southwest and East would dramatically embolden Israel’s enemies, suppress foreign investment and tourism in Israel, and over time would cause the economic and psychological attrition of the Jewish state — with no bombing runs over Tel Aviv necessary.

And so the true disappointment of Israel’s war against Hezbollah last summer was its failure to act as a competent American client by dominating the part of the region it is responsible for keeping quiet. The war against Hezbollah was a particularly important conflict for Israel to win, because Hezbollah is more than just another disruptive presence in the Levant — it is a vanguard force in the Iranian arsenal that is attempting to make American involvement in the region as costly as possible. It is one of the means by which Iran can summon a counterattack should the U.S. or Israel strike its nuclear facilities, and it is the primary asset of the Syrian-Iranian project to co-opt Lebanon, defeat the nascent, American-allied democracy there, and bring uncontested Iranian power to Israel’s northern border.

In one of his many dumb asides, Raimondo says that people who favor preventing Iran, by force if necessary, from acquiring nuclear weapons “don’t have any compunction about throwing the entire region into chaos.” This is probably the most wrong-headed of his many ridiculous assertions. Western acquiescence to a nuclear Iran would do perhaps more than anything else to throw the Middle East into chaos. It would shatter the balance of power that has governed the region, however shakily, for nearly forty years. Second-tier powers, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, would be sent scrambling for their own nuclear weapons and new alliances, and the United States would almost certainly be forced from the region. Raise your hand if you’re in favor of handing over control of the U.S. economy to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


by Michael J. Totten

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Al Qaeda has moved into Lebanon.

Fatah al-Islam terrorists in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp (which is an urban ghetto in Tripoli, not a tent city) are, reportedly, mostly not Palestinian. No one has suffered more from Lebanon’s worst fighting since the civil war ended than the Palestinian civilians of Nahr al-Bared. After decades as second-class non-citizens living in dejection and squalor, they are now human shields in a battle between foreign terrorists and the host country.

Lebanon’s freshest and most vicious of enemies have, if reports are correct, arrived from battlefields in Iraq via Syria. Their relationship with the Syrian state and Al Qaeda is murky and hard to sort out, but they do seem to have connections of some kind to both.

An Nahar reports that mosques there now are dual-use. They are places in which to pray. They are also armed camps. They are also, possibly, terrorist targets. Suicide bombers reportedly detonated themselves at the Thawra mosque. Perhaps someone ignited himself a little too early. Maybe the keepers of that mosque were hostile to Fatah al-Islam. I do not know.

The Lebanese Army is clearing the “camp” of terrorists, booby-traps, car bombs, and even domestic animals rigged with explosives. The government says there will be no negotiated truce with the enemy, that their crimes will be punished with the death penalty either in combat or later in prison. It has been years, decades really, since the government and army of Lebanon have shown this kind of resolve.

They had better keep up the resolve. This crisis may be nearing its end, but it could just as easily be merely the opening shots. Jund al-Sham (The Greater Syrian Army) has gone on full alert in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, Lebanon’s largest, outside the Sunni city of Saida south of Beirut. And Al Qaeda has published a most sinister threat to Lebanon on its Web site. (Via Evan Kohlmann at the Counterterrorism Blog.)

On May 25, 2007, copies of a new video recording were publicly distributed over password-protected Al-Qaida Internet websites after being authenticated by the pre-eminent Al-Fajr Media Center. The seven-minute recording contains a speech by a masked individual identifying himself only as the “military commander of Al-Qaida’s Committee in Al-Shams” (“Greater Syria”). This is the first known occasion that any individual or organization inside of Lebanon has explicitly identified themselves as part of the international Al-Qaida terrorist network. The speaker addresses a message directly to the Patriarch of the Christian Maronite church in Lebanon: “pull back your dogs from our people, and cease your artillery fire—or else, from today onwards, there will be no safe place for any crusader in Lebanon, and as you strike, we will strike… If you do not stop, we will tear your hearts out with explosives, and surround your every post with our bombs. We will target your entire economy, starting with tourism and ending with all the incoming resources you [received when you] launched this new crusader war… We have ignored you previously, but we give you this final warning that from now on, an ocean of blood will be spilled.”

Lebanon is a weak and divided country. It is also, by far, and despite Hezbollah’s presence, the most liberal and democratic of all Arab countries. More than two thirds of the people who live there (Christians, Shias, and Druze) are considered infidels fit for slaughter by the salafist groups. A large percentage of Sunnis, in Beirut especially, are irreligious and bourgeois and modern. I, for one, am surprised it took Al Qaeda so long to move on them.

UPDATE: The Lebanese Army foiled so-called Plan 755 which, reportedly, was a plot by Tripoli’s salafists to massacre local civilians, sever the city’s links to Beirut, and enslave the residents who couldn’t get out.

UPDATE: Lebanese troops are preparing to storm Nahr al Bared and finish off the terrorists once and for all.

UPDATE: The Lebanese Army says they nailed a Fatah Al Islam cell that would have “caused destruction similar to the 9/11 attacks in the United States.” That sounds like an exagerration to me — the Twin Towers were bigger and more concentrated with people by far than anything in Lebanon — but of course I do not have the details. The explosives found were reportedly imported from Syria. Presumably this was to be part of so-called Plan 755, but it involved Beirut as well as Tripoli.

UPDATE: Beirut’s Daily Star reports that the military has been given “a green light to deal with the security crisis without state interference.”

UPDATE: Fighting has broken out between the Lebanese Army and the Jund Al Sham (the Greater Syrian Army) at the Ain El Hilweh refugee camp.

UPDATE: Fatah Al Islam’s “9/11 in Lebanon” attack would have destroyed a large hotel in Beirut with four simultaneous truck bombs, blown up embassies on both sides of the city, and collapsed a tunnel.

Syria’s involvement in this particular plan is unclear at this point, but will no doubt be investigated, especially since this entire crisis coincides precisely with the timing of the Chapter 7 UN Tribunal.

Syria threatened to set Lebanon and the region on fire if the tribunal was enacted.

UPDATE: Beirut’s Michael Young writes about Syria’s useful idiots in the Wall Street Journal.

Who’s Afraid of the Tribunal?

by Michael J. Totten

Hezbollah says the Chapter VII United Nations Security Council’s tribunal to try the assassins of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is illegal and illegitimate: “The resolution is a violation of the sovereignty of Lebanon and an aggressive interference in its internal affairs.”

It’s hardly worth arguing with these people, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway: Assassinating Lebanon’s elected officials is a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty and an aggressive interference in its internal affairs.

Those who believe this is all a Zionist-Neocon-Hariri conspiracy might want to note who the United Nations (which is held in low esteem by the Zionists and the Neocons, if not the Hariri family) holds in the dock as chief suspects:

Nine suspects, including Lebanon’s once feared top pro-Syrian security chiefs, have been under arrest for about two years over the murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri.


Four of the main suspects were Syria’s key security generals in Lebanon until Damascus was widely accused of the Hariri murder and forced to complete a troop pullout after 29 years of military dominance.

They include presidential guard chief General Mustafa Hamdan, former general security chief General Jamil al-Sayed, ex-internal security head General Ali al-Hage and former army intelligence director General Raymond Azar.

Since they were arrested in August 2005, the four have been held in a special building at the Roumieh central prison, in a mountainous village northeast of Beirut.

They are accused of murder with premeditation, attempt to murder with premeditation, terrorist actions, as well as the possession of weapons and explosives, according to judicial sources.

As the international tribunal due to try the Hariri murder is governed by the Lebanese criminal law, the four may be sentenced to death if found guilty.

UPDATE: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the United Nations Security Council that Syria refuses to cooperate with the tribunal. They won’t even pretend to cooperate with the investigation.

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan

by Michael J. Totten

Paul Berman has written an epic-sized essay the length of a small book about Islamic activist Tariq Ramadan for The New Republic. It is called The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism. This is not intended to be read in one sitting. You might want a hard copy of this one.

I don’t normally recommend you read something I haven’t (yet) read in its entirety myself. But this is Paul Berman we’re talking about. His books Terror and Liberalism and Power and the Idealists should be considered required reading for every single person who reads this blog.

What Assad Fears Most Has Come to Pass

by Michael J. Totten

Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad has dreaded nothing so much over the past couple of years as a Chapter 7 United Nations Security Council Resolution establishing a tribunal to put on trial the assassins of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Chapter 7 means the international community will impose enforcement mechanisms on the guilty. Assad worries it will be the first step toward internationally-sanctioned regime-change in Damascus.

Today the Security Council passed a Chapter 7 resolution with no votes against. Fireworks lit up the skies over Beirut as a small bomb was tossed into a church near the Hezbollah dahiyeh.

Remember the conventional wisdom?

By Noah Pollak

I’ve had little time to post over the past week, as we’re in full production mode at the “journal I work for”:http://azure.org.il and my days have been busy. But I wanted to make a brief observation about the situation today in Gaza, as by my lights there are three fundamentally important premises of recent Middle East diplomacy that the lawlessness there has overturned — and quite violently, at that.

The first is the notion that power would moderate Hamas. After the terrorist group was elected in January 2006, western interpreters of “the conflict” dreamily predicted that its stridency and absolutism would attenuate; with its constituency being the entire Palestinian population, this thinking went, Hamas’ war against Israel would be necessarily curtailed by the mundane requirements of governance and incumbency. At the time, President Bush said, “I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes, or making sure you got bread on the table.” The AP’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief wrote, “if the elections pull the Islamic militants off the streets and into the corridors of power — shifting their focus from terror to governance — prospects for peace could be improved.” Not only has Hamas not moderated, it has actually become even more self-confident. Islamists, like most people, aren’t “moderated” by winning political power; they only compromise when a more powerful force, or necessity, compels them to.

The second is an idea that dates back at least to the start of Olso in the early 1990’s. It is the belief that Israel must make concessions in order to validate and strengthen the Palestinian moderates and marginalize the radicals. Another piece of conventional wisdom holds that Hamas won the 2006 election primarily due to a widespread feeling of disgust among Palestinians with Fatah’s corruption and fecklessness. Yet Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza happened just four months before the election, and the commotion surrounding that event distracted many people from taking note of what the withdrawal meant for the Palestinians themselves.

And what it meant for the Palestinians, especially the residents of Gaza, was that Hamas’ fierce resistance over the decades had finally forced an Israeli retreat. It was the Shia reaction to the 2000 Lebanon pullout all over again, with Hamas playing Hezbollah. Hamas was able to campaign proudly on this victory, which was viewed as additional evidence of Hamas’ strength and competence. And so it seems clear that a massive Israeli concession — its departure from Gaza — did not strengthen the Palestinian moderates at all, but in fact did the opposite: it vindicated the extremists, who unlike the moderates could declare a great victory and bask in the ensuing public admiration — and collect a lot more votes when election day arrived.

And finally, there is the matter of foreign aid and its relationship to democracy-promotion. The Arab states and Iran have always spoken with great high-mindedness about the plight of their brothers in Palestine, but these regimes in practice have always lustily enjoyed seeing their brothers become “permanent wards of UNRWA”:http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=274, settle into never-ending refugee status, and stagnate in extremism and violence. Since Hamas came to power, as David Frum “helpfully notes”:http://www.aei.org/publications/filter.all,pubID.26206/pub_detail.asp, the gushers of largess that flow into the Palestinian territories have actually increased.

It is a little-known fact that international aid to the Palestinian territories has actually risen since Palestinians elected a Hamas government in January, 2006. According to International Monetary Fund and UN figures, the Palestinian areas received a total of $1.2 billion in official aid in 2006, up from $1 billion in 2005.

America’s contribution rose from $400 million in 2005 to $468 million in 2006. Aid from the European Union and other international organizations also increased handsomely, and the UN has called for still greater increases in aid in 2007.

Look at the incentives that have been created for the Palestinians: vote for terrorism, get an increase in your foreign aid. The Palestinian areas now receive more than $300 per person, per year, making them the most aid-dependent population on Earth. (The people of sub-Saharan Africa receive only $44 per person per year.)

Meanwhile Hamas’ supposed pariah status has allowed it to strike a deal with a generous fellow-pariah, Iran, which since the election has spent well over $100 million directly on the terrorist group. Iran, whose economy is rapidly falling apart, is not providing this money out of altruistic solidarity, or even as cheap symbolism, as Saddam Hussein used to do with his payments to the families of suicide bombers. Iran is “purchasing terrorism against Israel”:http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/2A62C583-E1C7-454E-B0B3-16DB56E3C4FD.htm and improving its already substantial ability to foment crises in the region, which is one of mullahs’ greatest deterrent capabilities.

Add all of this money up, and one confronts the reality that Hamas and the PA today are awash in unprecedented sums of money, absolving both Hamas and Fatah of the need to fulfill the most basic requirements of governance. This largess has so taken the pressure off Hamas that it is free to indulge almost exclusively in its greatest interest, and a major interest of its new patron, Iran — waging jihad against Israel.

The primary givers to the Palestinians — America and the EU — have for years insisted on democracy without “demanding accountability”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/863018.html, or even a modicum of initiative and self-sufficiency. This is not aid; it is welfare. If there should ever be a moment when the institutions that are charged with improving the plight of the Palestinians take stock of what their benevolence has wrought, that moment it now, amidst Hamas’ acts of war against Israel, its entente with Iran, and its civil war with Fatah. Have all of these billions been helping the Palestinians, or hurting them?

Many observers of Hamas’ rise to power have noted that the U.S. wishes for the Hamas government to collapse under the weight of its own narcissistic radicalism and unrestrained ambition. But the U.S., UN, and EU are pumping so much money into the Palestinian territories that they’re preventing that collapse, and the ensuing recognition among Palestinians that their votes were perhaps cast unwisely. With its prolific foreign aid, the West is not just infantilizing the Palestinian people and continuing to thwart any possibility, however implausible, of a Palestinian state. It is now underwriting the emerging Palestinian-Iranian alliance.

Fatah Al Islam Threatens all of Lebanon

by Michael J. Totten

Fatah Al Islam Military Commander Shihab Al-Qaddour threatened all of Lebanon in an interview with Al-Hayat.

During the interview, Al-Qaddour told Al-Hayat that the Fath Al-Islam organization “would respond against the Lebanese military if the attacks on it were to continue,” and added that “[our response] will not be limited [solely] to the Palestinian refugee camps or to Beirut, but all fronts will be opened.” Referring to the battles in Tripoli and the bombings in the neighborhoods of Beirut during the past week, he said: “This is only the beginning… We are ready to blow up Beirut and every other place in Lebanon.”

Al-Qaddour stated that “in addition to the supporters of the organization, Fath Al-Islam has bases and sleeper cells in all the Palestinian refugee camps in the various regions of Lebanon, and they are on alert [to launch] a harsh response – they await only a sign from us.” He said, “Fath Al-Islam’s threat to open the fire of hell against Lebanon is a serious one. As long as we are under attack, we will [defend ourselves] by any and all means. The organization has the full capability to bring the battle to every place in Lebanon. We can easily do this…”

Meanwhile, can we please set aside Seymour Hersh’s story that alleges the United States and Lebanese governments supported these people? I realize, of course, that the both governments have suffered blowback from stupid alliances, but this one makes about as much sense as 9/11 being an inside job.

Here is Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star:

There are few pleasures these days as Lebanon descends into the kind of violence that Syria seems to manufacture so effortlessly. However, one of them is discovering how easy it was for a gaggle of pro-Syrian Lebanese operators to manipulate investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, before he wrote a much-discussed article recently implying that the Lebanese government was financing Islamist groups, including Fatah al-Islam.

In his article for The New Yorker, Hersh faithfully channeled what sources in Lebanon told him, lending legitimacy to statements he otherwise failed to prove. Most prominently, for being so specific, he wrote that “representatives of the Lebanese government” had supplied weapons and money to Fatah al-Islam. But Hersh’s only evidence for this claim was a quote attributed to one Alistair Crooke, a former MI6 agent who is co-director of Conflicts Forum, an institution advocating dialogue with Islamist movements. Nor did Crooke have direct knowledge of what he was saying. In fact, he “was told” the weapons were offered to the group, “presumably to take on Hizbullah.” The argument is now being picked up by media belonging to senior members of the Syrian regime to affirm that the Lebanese Army is fighting an Islamist group in the Nahr al-Bared camp that is effectively on the payroll of Saad Hariri.

Lately, we’ve had more ricochets from that story. Writing in The Independent on May 22, journalist Robert Fisk, who we might forget lives in Beirut, picked up on Hersh, citing him uncritically to again make the case that Hariri was financing Islamists. So we have Fisk quoting Hersh quoting Crooke quoting someone nameless in a throwaway comment making a serious charge. Yet not one of these somnolent luminaries has bothered to actually verify if the story is true, even as everything about the fighting in Nahr al-Bared virtually confirms it is not true.

Also see Michael’s earlier debunking in Reason magazine: Does the New Yorker actually edit Seymour Hersh?

David Kenner, guest-blogging at From Beirut to the Beltway, adds the following:

Hersh (who was a great journalist, though you are excused for not noticing) credits Syria with more rationality than the United States. When the confused CNN anchor asked why — if neither country was ideologically aligned with Fatah al-Islam — it makes sense for America to be funding the terrorists but not Syria, Hersh answered, “You’re assuming logic by the United States government.” And that is about as far as the opposition’s ridiculous explanations for the recent violence extends: forget the regional situation, forget who benefits from chaos in Lebanon. Dick Cheney sure is sketchy, isn’t he?

Syria’s “Resistance” – UPDATED

By Michael J. Totten

Barry Rubin explains Syrian foreign policy in Canada’s Ottawa Citizen. (Thanks to Tony Badran.)

In the Middle East, violence is not the result of poor communication but a tool for political gain. Nothing proves that point better than Syria’s successful use of violence and terrorism to promote its interests. No amount of dialogue is going to change that reality.

Now Syria is using a Palestinian front group to start a war inside Lebanon, just as it employed another Lebanese client organization, Hezbollah, to battle Israel last year. The Syrian government’s message is simple: Lebanon will know no peace until it again becomes our satellite.


What is less understood is how the regime’s radical strategy is used at home and why this makes it impossible to gain anything from engaging with Syria. Like other Middle Eastern dictatorships, Syria’s rulers face a paradox. How to stay in power after failing so completely? The economy is a mess, there is little freedom, and the regime is dominated by a small Alawite minority which is historically secular.

Since taking power in 2000 on his father’s death, Bashar has met this challenge. He sends terrorists against Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and even the U.S. military, but nobody retaliates in kind against him. At home, the regime sounds increasingly Islamist; abroad it is the biggest sponsor of radical Islamist groups in the region.

Bashar has even declared a new doctrine he calls “Resistance,” which combines Arab nationalism and Islamism. The West’s goal, he claims, is to enslave the Arabs. The mistake made by other Arabs was to abandon war. “The world will not be concerned with us and our interests, feelings, and rights unless we are powerful,” and victory requires “adventure and recklessness.”

As Tony reminded us a few days ago (I had forgotten), Syria also sponsored terrorist groups against Turkey. Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel — that’s every single democratic country that shares a border with Syria.

Turkey threatened to invade in 1998. It is the only country on Syria’s border that threatened to respond to violence with violence. And it’s the only country on Syria’s border not terrorized by Assad today.

I saw the Syrian border from the Turkish side while driving to Iraqi Kurdistan from Istanbul. Two parallel fences a mile apart run the length of it. The area between the two fences is a vast minefield. Skull and crossbones signs warn of certain death to anyone reckless enough to cross.

The Turks never fired a shot, but the border is quiet.

UPDATE: Barry Rubin has another article along the same lines in Beirut’s Daily Star:

Syria has been brilliant at creating and maintaining such Catch-22 situations, where the only way to “solve” a problem is to buy Syrian “cooperation” with deals that would make things worse. Syria has acted as the arsonist who sets the fire, then has played the role of fireman who would put it out only on condition that the burning property be given to it. This was how Syria fomented terrorism in Lebanon against Western peacekeeping forces in the early 1980s, driving them out and then offering to stabilize Lebanon by controlling it completely. The same approach was applied to the Palestinians, in post-Baath Iraq, and in Lebanon again.

Lebanon was indeed the masterpiece of this political genre. Thus, Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal explained, “How can we be asked to disarm Hizbullah [since] we’re out of Lebanon?” But what if Syria was allowed to return to Lebanon in force, would it then clamp down on Hizballah? Well, on another occasion, Bilal was asked: “Will you be using your influence to persuade Hizbullah to disarm, or not?” His response: “Why on earth should we?” In fact, Hizballah is the main element in Syria’s plan to recapture Lebanon entirely. If the West wants a stable Lebanon, or to avoid more Lebanon-Israel wars, it has to confront Syria, not make a deal with it.

Look, I realize I’m telling you to “eat your peas” here, that hardly anyone wants to confront Syria. But there aren’t any good options. Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq can continue suffering Damascus-sponsored terrorists attacks, they can make a “deal” and surrender to Assad what he wants, or they can push back. That’s all there is. Convincing him to be a good boy and an all-around pal over tea isn’t an option.

War in Lebanon (Again)

By Michael J. Totten

Robert Fisk:

Butchery was the word that came to mind. Twenty-three Lebanese soldiers and police, 17 Sunni Muslim gunmen. How long can Lebanon endure this? Just before he died, one of the armed men – Palestinians? Lebanese? – we still don’t know – shot a soldier right beside me. He fell down on his back, crying with pain, and I thought he had slipped on the road until I saw the blood pumping out of his leg and the Red Cross team dragging him desperately out of the line of fire. Not since the war – yes, the Lebanese civil war that we are all still trying to forget – have I heard this many bullets cracking across the streets of a Lebanese city.

NOW Lebanon:

[T]he situation in Lebanon today could easily be taken from a B-movie, so rarely does life provide circumstances where the Good Guys and Bad Guys are this clearly differentiated. One can easily imagine movie goers rolling their eyes at such a simple representation of good versus evil: the under-equipped but terribly brave, multi-faith group of telegenic young soldiers battling evil, murderous terrorists to defend democracy and freedom.

The word terrorist has been devalued and possibly rendered useless by overuse, but there are still those for whom the title applies: groups and individuals whose only discernible ambition is, to put it quite simply, to terrorize. If ever there was an indisputable frontline in the international “war on terror,” it is at the entrance to Nahr el-Bared.

Charles Malik:

Most Lebanese go to work, and return home immediately. Friends, the other day, came over to my place. They said, “We’ll go out after the bomb.” There has not yet been more than one attack on the same night. Most nightspots are closing early or not opening at all. And the ones that remain open are empty, and the owners are jittery. The other night was the first time that I saw the owners of an unpopular local pub look upset when more patrons arrived. It was as if they thought, “The more popular we are, the more likely it is we will become a target.”

David Kenner, filling in for Abu Kais at From Beirut from the Beltway:

People were greeting friends and smiling, in that rueful way that Lebanese smile when they know that something is very wrong but that there is nothing to be done about it. People were scared, but they were still functioning. The bomb broke most of the windows for an approximately 300- foot radius, and totaled four or five cars.

This is what characterized the entire trip, for me. People were calmly repairing the damage. This Vero Moda store was open for business. People were shopping inside, thumbing through clothes..The conversation on the street was uniformly about how quickly everything could be rebuilt, when Aley would be up on its feet again. The cell phone store bragged about reopening on Monday; the bank employee said that he would be doing business again tomorrow.

I thought the citizens of Aley exhibited just the right mix of resolution, self-control, and defiance.

Michael Young:

The Assad regime never reconciled itself with its forced withdrawal from Lebanon, and is now actively seeking to reimpose its hegemony over its neighbor through a network of allies and agents. A return of tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers may not be achievable in the short term, particularly as the main barrier to such a return would, this time, be an outraged Sunni community. This could have severe implications for President Bashar Assad at home. However, the Syrians often operate according to an obsolete template – that of Hafez al-Assad. While it may be easy for them to provoke conflict in Lebanon, as they did throughout the war years between 1975 and 1990, the Syrian leadership might not be able to resist the blowback this time around if new hostilities break out.


As the battle in Tripoli continues between the Lebanese Army and Fateh El Islam and as another explosion occurs, this time in Aley, the Lebanese seem to be ALMOST united once again. It’s sad how such matters unite us.

On Facebook, groups have been emerging calling for the support of our army, the love of Lebanon, encouraging people to vacation in Lebanon, and much more.

Almost every Lebanese I know, has changed their MSN display picture to some sort of symbol of patriotism such as the flag, or the army’s emblem and almost every one of them have placed a flower (F) before their display name symbolising their support for the Lebanese Army.

Perpetual Refugee:

The Lebanese were collectively punished last summer for not being able to control a mad man who thought that kidnapping the cubs of a lioness was a game. As he hid safely like a pussy behind a chastity belt, over 1,000 Lebanese died. And the dreams of millions along with them. I hated the Israelis then. Even though I knew a lot of them personally who did not hate me back each time a missile hit Haifa.

And as we collectively punished the Palestinians in their camp for not being able to control mad men who thought that killing the kittens of a declawed housecat would demonstrate their power, I felt no remorse. None. Hypocrite. They should have controlled the madmen, I thought.

Then Boom. A bomb in Achrafieh. Again. A dead innocent woman. Again. Boom. Another bomb in another affluent neighborhood. Verdun. Boom. Another bomb in Aley. Here we go. The birthing pangs of our rebirth.

While the mad men of Damascus started softly gloating, my numbness turned to rage. And while we exercised power over the powerless, I thought back to July of 2006. And I realized. Realized that I was guilty. Of hypocricy.

The terrorists need to be eliminated.

Tony Badran:

The bottom line is this: everyone knows that this is a rabid terrorist campaign by a psychopathic murderous thug in Damascus, who will stop at nothing. The tribunal must be established without delay, and Assad must be made to pay a tangible painful price for his murderous policy. It’s as simple as that. “Engagement” (I.e. appeasement) will only be seen by Assad as a sign of surrender and encouragement to commit more terrorism. It’s telling that the only time the thuggish Assad Sr. was persuaded to back off his terrorism against one of his neighbors (and Syria is guilty of exporting terrorism to all its neighbors) was when Turkey threatened to invade Syria in 1998.

Meanwhile, United States military aid is rushed to Lebanon, as it should be.

The Story of Gaza

By Michael J. Totten

Last year I visited Southern Israel after the Lebanon war winded down. The Israelis were then engaged in a similar fight against the rocket launchers in Gaza. The situation in the meantime has hardly changed at all. Once again — still — Israelis are under Qassam rocket fire from Gaza and are planning an IDF operation to stop to it. The crisis, if anything, is only worse now because the rockets are even more frequent. I wrote three articles about this in August last year and I realize now they could have been written today. Here they are as they originally appeared and as relevant as they were when I wrote them.

Part I: Eyeless in Gaza

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The engine of a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into Israel by Palestinian terrorists

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA — All eyes turned from Gaza to Lebanon as Israel fought a hot war with Hezbollah across its northern border. Before the Lebanon war broke out, the fighting in and around Gaza was the big story in Israel. But once the media coverage ended it stayed ended, even after foreign correspondents were free to pick up where they left off. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists by the latest in a long line of Palestinian terrorist groups — the Holy Jihad Brigades — all but guaranteed reporters wouldn’t go back.

Even though I’ve been in Israel for a couple of weeks, I still didn’t know any more about what’s going on down there than people who have never been here before. News from Israel’s other rocket war barely trickles up to Tel Aviv. So I hopped in my rental car and drove down to Mishav Klahim, just east of Netivot and 20 kilometers from Gaza, to meet Shika Frista who promised to show me what’s going on.

I missed a turn on the coastal road when I was supposed to veer left to avoid driving straight into Gaza. Suddenly mine was the only car on the road. An aerial surveillance balloon hovered in the air up ahead. It looked just like the one I saw flying on the border with Lebanon while Hezbollah fired barrages of Katyusha rockets into Israeli cities.

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The war of the rockets was supposed to be over. But I was back in it.

The left turn I needed to take was behind me. But I kept driving, slowly, so I could see what was ahead. I rolled down the window and listened for sounds of war. All was quiet, oppressively hot, and still.

The road dead-ends at the Erez Crossing Point. No one was going in or out of Gaza that day. It looked like no one was even there working or watching, like the place had been abandoned and left to itself.

I took a quick picture…

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…then turned the car around and realized I had made a mistake. Any Israeli military personnel who watched me drive up, take a quick picture, and leave right away would have good reason to be suspicious and even arrest me. But no cars followed in the rear view mirror.

The map led me straight to Shika Frista’s house on his Moshav. We sat at little table under the shade of palm trees next to his swimming pool.

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Shika drank a glass of red wine.

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It was too hot for wine, so I asked for a beer. The air outside is drier in the south, though, not humid and heavy like it is in Tel Aviv.

“I can hear the Qassam rockets fired at us from Gaza,” he said and gestured to the farmland beyond. “They shake the windows of my house when they hit.”

Israel ended up with two rocket wars at the same time. One in the north, and one in the south. Unlike Hezbollah’s arsenal, Qassam rockets aren’t made in Iran. They’re made in Gaza itself. They’re smaller, though, than Katyushas. The south has not been evacuated like the north was, even though people still occasionally are killed by the rockets.

“How often does Hamas fire rockets?” I said.

“Hamas doesn’t shoot them,” he said. “Islamic Jihad shoots them.”

“How close to your house has a Qassam hit?” I said.

“About…four or five kilometers away,” he said.

“And you can hear them here,” I said, “even from that far away?”

“Oh,” he said. “Of course.”

We finished our drinks and drove toward Gaza in his truck.

“Ariel Sharon’s farm is near here, right?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “A Qassam landed twenty meters from his wife’s grave on the family property.”

We passed Sharon’s farm and in minutes reached the city of Sderot.

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“Lots of Qassams hit this city,” Shika said. “Most people killed by the Qassams live here.”

“How many rockets are hitting the city right now?” I said.

“Not as many today,” he said. “Because of the war in Lebanon.”

“What does Lebanon have to do with it?” I said.

“All the journalists forgot about us during the Lebanon war. So the terrorists are waiting for the media to come back before firing rockets again. They don’t want to waste those they have.”

“That can’t be the only reason,” I said. “The IDF has been active in Gaza this entire time. Surely that has something to do with it.”

“Yes,” he said. “Also because of the IDF.”

Later two more Israelis repeated what Shika said about Hamas and Islamic Jihad cooling their rocket launchers while the media’s attention was elsewhere. I haven’t heard any official confirmation from either side that it’s true.

“How long do people here have from the time they hear an air raid siren until the rockets land?” I said.

“About 20 seconds,” he said.

We reached a small IDF base near the Israeli town of Nir Am where Shika’s friend Zvika waited for us.

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Shika’s friend Zvika

The parking lot was shielded by concrete bomb-blast walls.

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A civilian overlook tower was erected next to the military compound. It was not shielded by walls of any kind. But Gaza was still a comfortable distance away. No sniper could possibly shoot us from the other side of the vast and eerily empty no-man’s wasteland that lay between the de-facto end of Israel and the beginning of Gaza.

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An aerial surveillance balloon flew right over our heads.

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Zvika knew the area well. Shika had asked him to meet us so he could tell me what we were looking at.

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“Over there,” Zvika said, “is the town of Beit Hanun.”

Beit Hanun was far, and I had to zoom my camera lens all the way out to take a picture.

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The Gaza city of Beit Hanun from Nir Am with a zoom lens

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Here is a severely cropped piece from the photo above

“You see those towers off in the distance,” Zvika said. “With the sun shining on them? Those are apartment buildings in Gaza City that Arafat built for members of Fatah.”

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“Where are those smokestacks in the distance off to the right?” I said.

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“That’s Ashkelon,” Zvika said. “Islamic Jihad fires Qassam rockets at that city all the time.”

“Is this overlook point always open to the public?” I said. It felt strange just driving up to an IDF base, even if it was just a small one, and hanging out right next to it without having to even say hi to a soldier guarding the road.

“Very few civilians know about this place,” Zvika said. “Only the people who live nearby ever come here.”

“Is this interesting to you?” I said. “Or is it normal?”

“It is normal,” he said.

“It is interesting for me,” Shika said. “It has been three years since I saw anything like this.”

“There used to be plantations just on the other side of the fence,” Zvika said. “But the IDF uprooted them because Qassams were being launched from there. Now they have to fire Qassams from the buildings farther away.”

“If they fire a rocket you will see it,” Shika said.

“Will we see a trail of smoke?” I said.

Oh yes,” Zvika said and raised his eyebrows. “You will see the smoke.”

Just then several IDF soldiers in the base below shouted something in Hebrew and ran to one of the tanks.

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Several men jumped in, cranked up the tank’s engine, and roared with surprising speed into the field toward Gaza in front of the overlook tower.

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I braced myself for the thunderous racket of combat or a possible incoming or over flying Qassam. Nothing happened. The Gaza area was tense and sporadically violent, but the conflict was significantly dialed down compared with the just-ended open war against Hezbollah in the north.

It was time to move on. Shika and Zvika had much more to show me.

Zvika hopped in his van. Shika and I climbed into the truck and followed Zvika as he drove south down the length of the Gaza Strip.

“You see that dirt road on the other side of the trees next to this one?” Shika said.

I did, and I took a picture of it.

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“Every day a machine goes over it and smoothes it out,” he said. “Trackers, mostly Bedouin, search the dirt every day for fresh footprints. They can tell when someone has come out of Gaza and which direction he’s going. If you put one foot on that road right now you will be arrested.”

“I’m partly relieved that I can’t go into Gaza right now,” I said. I’m being prevented from going into Gaza for a variety of security, logistical, and bureaucratic reasons beyond my control. “But I also partly wish that I could.”

“The beach in Gaza is amazing,” Shika had told me earlier. “It is virgin. You wouldn’t believe it.”

“You’ve been there?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “We used to go there and eat in the restaurants.”

“When?” I said.

“In the early 80s,” he said.

“It was friendly then?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Israel ruled there. The Palestinians were friendly, I think they miss that period. They had money, they could walk freely.”

We continued following Zvika in his van to the abandoned Karni Terminal.

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“That’s Gaza, man,” Shika said. “Do you want to go inside?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Not without the army, though. If you and I go in there right now, we’re both in trouble.”

“Me more than you,” Shika said.

We were much closer to Gaza this time than we were at the overlook tower. Buildings inside the strip loomed just over the tops of concrete bomb-blast and sniper-fire walls.

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“We are probably over some tunnels right now,” Shika said. “It is very dangerous and we have to be careful.”

The Karni Terminal was a major crossing point for people and goods into and out of Gaza before the place went completely to hell. Today it is abandoned.

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The spooky silence and emptiness only hinted at the violence and anarchy being walled off on the other side after the Israeli withdrawal.

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It wasn’t a safe place to linger. So we moved along and headed further south without getting out of our vehicles.

“The last three prime ministers want peace,” Shika said. “They go out of Lebanon, they go out of Gaza. And look what [Arab terrorists] continue to do.”

“Do you think it was right to leave Gaza?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”

“Even though there are rocket attacks?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “This is occupied land. They always have excuses to do what they do. Do you know what’s going on in Gaza now?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t.”

“Whew,” he said. “You can’t imagine.”

“What do you know about it?” I said.

“Everybody has weapons,” he said. “The strongest is the ruler. It is not like in Ramallah.”

Smoke rose from Gaza off to the right.

“You see that fire?” Shika said. “It is from missiles. Israel is shooting at where the terrorists hide.”

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Vicious dogs chased the truck and ran right alongside it, furiously barking, snarling, and threatening to lunge at us.

The only thing less dodgy about this environment than the war zone on the northern border is that I couldn’t hear or see live explosions.

I did, however, see a tank moving fast among some trees.

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Once again I braced myself for the unspeakably loud explosions of combat. Once again, though, the IDF just seemed to be moving its forces around. There was no fighting at that particular time on that particular day.

We kept driving and passed by more tanks.

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“They are getting ready to go into Gaza,” Shika said.

Some of the tanks looked idle, though. Notice in the photo below that a cover of some sort has been placed over the barrel.

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“Roll down the window,” I said. “I want to talk to these guys.”

Shika rolled down the window and shouted at an IDF officer. The officer shouted back.

“I told him you are a journalist,” Shika said. “And he said It’s about time you got down here.”

“Ask him if I can interview some of the soldiers,” I said.

Shika asked my question in Hebrew.

“No,” the officer said.

“Can I take pictures?” I said and held up my camera.

“No,” the officer said. Then why did he say It’s about time you got down here? He didn’t send us away, but he didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.

It was okay, though. Noah Pollak and I were already wrapping up the week-long process of securing interviews with IDF soldiers and military intelligence officers out of Gaza. We had plans to get that side of the story soon enough from people who know who we are and are willing to talk.

You can drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza in an hour. How strange, then, that there’s a little war down there that no one else in Israel — not even the foreign correspondents — have any interest in or are really even aware of. I felt like I had slid off the edge of the country and through a hole in the dimension into a violent alternate reality. It’s as if the Gaza war does not exist in Israel now even though it’s right down the road.

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If a terrorist army fired rockets into Jersey City and the US military deployed tanks and heavy artillery against them, those who live in New York would take a keen interest in the goings-on. So would, I suspect, the people of Britain, France, Israel (!), and Cairo.

People get used to war, though. So do countries. Arabs are firing rockets at Jews? Israelis are sending tanks after their hides? Yeah, well, what else is new. Right?

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It’s tourist season now, just one hour north. And the beach is calling.

Part II: Israel’s Other Rocket War

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA — Israel’s other war-without-a-name in the summer of 2006 is eerily similar to the one in the north, the one that got all the attention, against Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

Palestinian terrorists kidnapped the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit just across the border from Gaza and ramped up their Qassam rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel.

Shika Frista and his friend Zvika took me to Kibbutz Alumim, where Zvika lives with his family, and showed me some of the rockets that landed in and around the community recently.

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Several Qassam rockets had been placed beneath a palm tree.

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Oddly, the Gaza rocket factory took the trouble to brand their weapons in English.

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Elsewhere exploded Qassam rockets and parts were used as garden art.

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There is something slightly creepy about using Qassam rockets as garden art. But Qassams are a part of life in Southern Israel. And there’s something slightly defiant as well as creepy about integrating them into the landscape.

Turning a murderous instrument with your name on it into a community showpiece is a way of taking ownership of it, laughing at it even. Your rockets don’t scare us. They’re just garden art now. We’re still here. And you keep missing the target.

Zvika did seem to think the rocket parts were a little bit funny. He held them up for my camera with the same good cheer as a fisherman who just caught a seven pound bass.

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I, too, picked up some of the rockets, thinking while doing so that thugs from Hamas or Islamic Jihad had handled them before I did, hoping against the odds that they could use them to kill a few Jews.

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Unlike Northern Israel during the Hezbollah war, Southern Israel has not been evacuated. Rockets flying out of Gaza are fewer and smaller than those that were shot out of Lebanon. Terrorism usually doesn’t work as well as its practitioners wish. So far the only thing terrorists in Gaza have accomplished is bringing about the return of the Israeli Defense Forces.

I saw a huge pile of busted up pavement next to one of the streets. “What’s that?” I said to Zvika.

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“It is from a Qassam,” he said. “It landed right next to these houses and shattered the road.”

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“The houses look okay,” I said. But I remembered the damage I saw from Katyusha attacks by Hezbollah in Kiryat Shmona. Most of the damage done to buildings is cosmetic and easily fixable even while Katyushas are extraordinarily dangerous to human beings.

“If the Qassam lands next to you,” Zvika said, “it will kill you. But it if lands ten meters away it won’t kill you. Qassams are lightweight. If they had more explosives and weighed more the rockets wouldn’t go very far. They would land on the Palestinians.” He laughed and made a diving gesture with his hand. “The rockets are made in Gaza. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are not technologically sophisticated like the Hezbollah.”

If Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers compared with IAF missiles, Qassams are practically spit balls compared with Katyushas. Then again, a Qassam is huge compared with a bullet, and a great deal more dangerous. They have only killed a handful of people, even so. The biggest danger from the Palestinian rocket war against Israel isn’t the damage Hamas and Islamic Jihad are able to inflict today. It’s the damage they could inflict tomorrow if they find a way to equip themselves with more powerful missiles that could render Southern and even Central Israel uninhabitable.

Zvika pointed to the alarm system on top of the roof of a school.

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“You have twenty or thirty seconds after you hear that alarm to get to a shelter,” he said. “It scares the children every time it goes off.”

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“Do they ever fire rockets at night?” I said. Hezbollah hardly ever fired Katyusha rockets at night because they did not want to give away the positions of the launchers to the Israeli military.

“Oh yes,” he said. “All day, all night, all the time.”


Earlier we had coffee at an outdoor café just far enough away from Gaza that we couldn’t quite see it.

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Zvika’s two children joined us.

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They had accompanied us during our entire tour along the border with Gaza, which just goes to show how normal-seeming such places can be when you live near them. I doubt many tourists ever take their kids to that border.

A Qassam could have struck us at any moment, although the odds were low enough that I didn’t worry about it. I even tried to worry about it just so I would have an idea what it can feel like to live next to Gaza. After spending a day and a half under fire from Hezbollah, though, Qassams didn’t seem like that big a deal.

Just as we were sitting there drinking our coffee, Zvika received a text message on his cell phone telling us that an incoming rocket struck Kibbutz Kissufim.

“That happened just now?” I said.

“Just now,” Zvika said.

It was far enough away that we didn’t hear it.

I wanted to know what Zvika thought about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year now that he has to live under rocket fire in part as a result. Was withdrawing the settlements and the army the right thing to do?

“Yes,” Zvika said. But he does not want to withdraw from the West Bank. “It is our land. They can have Gaza. But Hebron has always been ours. They have only been there for 200 years.”

The United States has barely existed for more than 200 years. No one thinks non-native Americans should have to pack up and go back to Europe or wherever else their families came from. At some point the statute of limitations has to run out on these things. George Santayana famously said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. P.J. O’Rourke went further and said it goes double for those who can’t remember anything else.

“Do you just want to sit on top of Palestinians forever?” I said to Zvika.

He shrugged.

“What is the solution to this problem?” Shika asked Zvika. Zvika had no answer, not even a bad one.

“What is the solution?” Shika said again. “What do you think is the solution?”

Zvika didn’t say anything.

“You want to keep the West Bank but give them Gaza?” I said.

“We gave them Gaza,” Zvika said, “and Lebanon. But Hamas and Hezbollah still want to kill us. Why? What did we do to Lebanon? Nothing. And they want to kill us!”

“The West Bank is different from Lebanon, though,” I said.

“Yes,” Zvika said. “It is our land.”

Zvika is in the minority. Shika calls him a “fanatic,” even though they are friends. The Israeli center as the well as the left wants out of the West Bank as well as out of Gaza. Ehud Olmert was elected in part on that platform.

There’s an old formula that has been floating around for a while.

1. Greater Israel

2. Democracy

3. Jewish Majority

Pick two.

Zvika and the rest of Israelis to the right of the mainstream still think, somehow, they will find a way to hold onto all three.

It didn’t matter what I said to Zvika. He just kept saying “It is our land,” as if that settled everything and there was nothing left to be said.


Shika and I left Zvika at Kibbutz Alumim and continued by ourselves in his truck to Kelem Shalom, where Israel, Gaza, and Egypt converge.

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This is where the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on June 25, triggering Operation Summer Rain that continues in Gaza today, almost entirely beyond any media coverage.

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Shalit was inside a tank near the tower pictured above. Eight terrorists emerged from an underground tunnel 700 meters long that began in a building in Gaza and ended as a hard-to-see hole in the middle of an Israeli field. They fired an RPG at the tank and killed two soldiers. Gilad Shalit emerged from the tank. The terrorists snatched him off the tank and stole him to Gaza. The whole operation took seven minutes.

Tunnels are appearing all over the place. Tunnels from Gaza into Egypt for smuggling weapons. Tunnels from Gaza into Israel for carrying out terrorist actions.

The Egyptian border patrol (pictured below) does shut down some of the smugglers’ tunnels, even though it is not their top priority.

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Tunnels are a top priority for Israel, though, along the border with Egypt as well as underneath their own territory.

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Those tunnels get people killed. They keep finding new ones beneath the houses.

Part III: A Volcano of Terror

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SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – On June 25, 2006, eight armed Palestinian men emerged from an underground tunnel through a hard-to-see hole in the ground, fired an RPG at an Israeli tank, killed two soldiers, snatched another young soldier, Gilad Shalit, and stole him away into Gaza. The attack lasted seven minutes. The Israeli Defense Forces then launched Operation Summer Rain against the kidnappers, against those who fire Qassam rockets at Israeli civilians, and against those who dig tunnels under the earth so they can smuggle weapons out of Egypt and carry out terrorist attacks inside Israel.

Soldiers keep watch on the border at a small military outpost just south of Kibbutz Nir Am.

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There I met Major Tal Lev-Ram, Spokesman for the IDF Southern Command. He unfurled an enormous map of Gaza and asked me please not to take any pictures of it. Code names for villages and neighborhoods were hand-written with red ink in Hebrew.

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“When we left the Gaza Strip we didn’t think the terrorism would stop,” he said. “We understood that there would no longer be any legitimacy for them to act. A year after they continue to re-arm. The terrorist groups — Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad — they did not turn the areas we left into schools, factories, and so on. They became training camps for the terrorist groups.”

The major knows passable English, but he chose to speak to me in Hebrew through a translator. I had hoped for an interview with an English-speaking officer. But none of the spokesman for the Southern Command are fluent in English. All the English speakers were sent to the Northern Command so they could talk to foreign media during the Lebanon war. Only Israeli journalists who write and broadcast in Hebrew showed much interest in the military confrontation in Gaza.

“We also left the Egypt-Gaza border,” he said. “The Egyptians are responsible for it now. They are doing an okay job, but there is still a lot of smuggling and so on.”

“They’re using tunnels?” I said.

“We found two tunnels just two weeks ago,” he said. “They are very organized, with electricity and everything. One city straddles the border. It’s basically one city on each side. They are digging tunnels to connect them.”

“Do the Egyptians shut down the tunnels?” I said.

“We spend great effort finding and exposing the tunnels,” he said. “The Egyptians make an effort, but it is not the highest priority for them.”

I taped our conversation with a digital voice recorder, as is routine for me lately. A young Israeli soldier took notes by hand at the same time. Perhaps it was her job to make sure I did not misquote the spokesman. Or maybe she was checking on him. It’s hard to say. I didn’t ask her why she recorded everything, and no one in the military ever told me I need to clear my work with any censors.

“We have good defenses on the border fence,” the major said. “Last year more than 70 terrorists were killed trying to breach it. Because the area is very confined, terrorism is brewing. They keep trying to find ways to go outside. It is like a volcano of terror. It needs to go somewhere. They try to go around, out into Egypt, and then over to the Israeli side. Sometimes they try to cross back in right next to Gaza. Other times they go down near Eilat [at the bottom of Israel.]”

Gaza is tiny. It’s 30 or so miles long and only a few miles wide.

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“[They try] to go around the border,” he said, “in order to move information, training, and terrorists, and ammunition to their side from the West Bank. They are always trying to find ways to go around the Israeli border. They also fired something like 1,000 Qassam rockets since the disengagement until now. For no reason.”

“How many people have been killed by the Qassams?” I said.

“This year?” he said. “Zero.”

Zero! No wonder the Israelis who live near Gaza haven’t evacuated. Southern Israel at war is not like Northern Israel during Hezbollah’s Katyusha war.

“But terror is terror,” he said. “If you are afraid to send your child to a kindergarten, for me it’s the same. For now it’s the Qassam. In the future they will have more than today. 20 people in the past were killed by the Qassams. And like I said, terror is terror. You feel terror.”

I asked him if he thought the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a good idea. He wouldn’t answer and said that his opinion as a military man didn’t matter. The Israeli military takes orders from the democratically elected government, and that’s that.

“One of the major events after the disengagement,” he did say, “was the election of Hamas. They became the government in the Gaza Strip. Their principal goal is to destroy Israel. And they actually commit terror. Israel can’t accept that we left the Gaza Strip and still face daily terror attacks on and over the fence. Around 60 times charges of 50 kilograms were exploded on the fence. Also RPG and M-16 attacks on the fence against our forces. On Passover an attempt was prevented to go into a Kibbutz near the Karni Terminal…The second event that had a significant role in changing the rules of the game was the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. We came to the decision that we need to take some sort of aggressive action in the Gaza Strip. The decision was to act against specific cells in different places. So we’re not talking about conquering land. We’re talking about operations of a few days each. We’re going in to destroy the infrastructure of terrorists. We can’t finish all the terror. But we can punch against it. During these operations more than 200 terrorists were killed. Weapons storages, training camps, all the infrastructure, factories where they make Qassam rockets.”

“How do you know where the factories are?” I said. “Do you have Palestinians informers?”

“We have good intelligence,” he said and laughed. “We have good military intelligence.”

It’s no secret that many Palestinians cooperate (or “collaborate”) with Israel against terrorists. But I decided to be a good sport and let him deflect the question. He wouldn’t be able to say anything on the record that isn’t already widely known anyway.

“Another pattern that’s unusual,” he said. “They use the civilian population as human shields.” It’s not really unusual. Hezbollah did the same thing in Lebanon. Fighters in Iraq do it there, too, although some in Iraq also deliberately murder Iraqis.

“Does the local population let them do this?” I said.

“It’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes we see resistance. But it’s difficult to judge from our perspective. We see a lot of cases where Katyusha or Qassam rockets are fired from within populated areas. More than that, they came up with a system that was based on the fear that we would find the exact location of the rocket launchers. So they place the launchers with a timer. And ten, eleven, and twelve year old children come and take the launcher away afterwards. Often we’re faced with fourteen or fifteen year old youth who come, armed, and place charges along the fence. When we see them, even when we see that they are armed, if they are only fourteen or fifteen we only shoot to scare them. We don’t actually fire at them. Of course, only if there is no immediate danger to our forces.

“Our general instructions,” he continued, “not just in the these cases, is if we see a militant who is armed, a terrorist, and there is no immediate danger to our forces, we don’t fire if there is a danger that we would hurt the innocents, people who are not involved. But with that, it’s important to say that when we have such aggressive fighting in populated areas, when there’s an exchange of fire between terrorists and the IDF, there are cases where innocent people get hurt. But we warn as much as we can to step back, step away, to clear the area. So we see the terror organizations as responsible when civilians get hurt. And when there is a case and we know that a civilian was killed by mistake or unnecessarily, we check ourselves. When a rocket is fired and we respond with artillery fire, there could be civilians hurt. We don’t fire into populated areas. Only to the exact spots where they fired Qassams. If it’s in the middle of the city, we will not shoot.”

Sadly it’s impossible to fight terrorists, guerillas, or whatever you want to call them, in populated areas without hurting civilians. No one has yet invented the Bad Guy Bullet that flies safely past innocents and hits only the armed. The fact that Palestinian terrorists, like those everywhere else in the Middle East, make blending in with the civilian population part of their modus operandi means civilian casualties are unavoidable in a fight. It doesn’t help that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth.

“About a month and a half ago,” he said, “another event that shows you the dilemma here: Two terrorists with an RPG tried to shoot a tank. We shot back. In the same house the mother of them, and a cousin, were in the same house. They fired five meters away from where the mother and cousin were standing. The Palestinian headline said that a mother and child were killed. The child was twenty two years old. And he was a member of Hamas. So, I am not happy about the mother. But, this is my right. You know? In the houses of Hamas militants, and all the other terrorist organizations, there are storages of weaponry. That’s because in the past we would avoid attacking houses with families. Which raises the question: Sometimes we as the IDF care more about the families and the children than he who would put them in danger. In a house, let’s say of three floors, a whole floor may be used as a storage.”

A tunnel had recently been found near the Karni terminal where goods and materials cross from Israel into Gaza. I asked if I could see it.

“I will take you to Karni,” he said. “But you cannot see the tunnel. It is inside the Palestinian territory. One kilometer inside. You understand? It is one kilometer inside the Palestinian territory.” In other words, the tunnel diggers are determined. They will spend Lord only knows how many hours digging and digging and digging, knowing most tunnels are discovered before they’re completed, just on the off chance that they’ll make it all the way into Israel and get to maybe kill one or two people.

“One more thing I want to say,” he said. “We will not stop the military action until Gilad Shalit comes back to us. But — and I say this to the press all the time — if there will be silence on our side for our villages it will be quiet on the Palestinian side.”

“How many soldiers have been killed since Gilad Shalit was kidnapped?” I said.

“All the year, before Gilad Shalit, no one. In the Shalit event, two soldiers died. And after that one more soldier died from friendly shooting. That’s all. So this is the big question for them. The spokesman of the government for Palestinians three days ago said the same thing I say all the time. For what? For what? For three soldiers who were killed in Gaza. In all the year something like 500 terrorists died in Gaza. So for what? The organizations of terror need to understand that it’s not worth it for them. And they can choose. We left the territory in the Gaza Strip, so it’s up to them. We will not stop the Qassam only with military pressure. They need to decide that they want to stop it. And if they will stop the Qassams, if they will stop the terror, free Gilad Shalit, we won’t have anything to fight about. And Karni will be open more. And everything will be better for them, not for us. This is the question. This is the biggest question, I think. And if you have time to read what the spokesman for Hamas government said, I think he can replace me.” He laughed. “Yeah? This is the truth. He is a good man.”

And he laughed again. Not because he was joking, but because it truly is an alternate Middle Eastern universe when the spokesman for Hamas echoes precisely the views of the spokesman for the IDF Southern Command.

Skeptical? Read for yourself. Hamas Spokesman Ghazi Hamad comes across like a world-weary man ground down and plainly despondent from a largely self-imposed Palestinian catastrophe.

I had a faint hope after Hamas was elected that the reality check from hell might finally kick in. And at least in one case, and for one day, it did.


The major drove to an area near the Karni Terminal in his jeep.

Karni Terminal Sign.jpg

I followed behind him in my rental car. He took us straight into a dirt field. I nearly took the muffler off my poor little Hundai when I drove over a basketball-sized dirt clod as hard as a rock. We stepped out into the open where there was no shade from the fierce Levantine sun at the end of the summer. Distant machine gun fire was almost, but not quite, drowned out in the wind.

“Kalashnikov,” said my translator who, like many Israelis, can identify weapons by sound.

A large truck-mounted surveillance camera monitored Gaza just to our left.

Gaza Surveillance Truck.jpg

“Two days ago was Gilad Shalit’s birthday,” said the major. “One soldier from his unit said he was glad to be in Gaza fighting the people who took him. His family and friends released hundreds of balloons into the air from the place where he was kidnapped.”

I wanted to know about that tunnel the IDF found.

“The plan was to use it for suicide bombings at Karni,” he said. “I can’t understand it. Karni is their lifeline, their life. This is the biggest reason we closed it. It’s hard to understand why they keep doing these things at the crossing points unless they are trying to make life harder in Gaza.”

Two months ago Palestinian police stopped a car bomber heading toward Karni. Six months ago the IDF stopped three terrorists with M-16s, grenades, and suicide bomb belts at the Erez crossing point where people, rather than goods, transit into and out of Gaza.

“We think there are many many more tunnels,” the major said. “The Kelem Shalom action [where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped] was through a 700 meter-long tunnel. We can’t just stay here and wait for the tunnels to come to us. In a few hours we will bomb that one we just found.”

And bomb it they did, from below. Click here to watch the video.

“How many Qassam rockets are they firing now?” I said. I saw more than a dozen Katyushas fired from Hezbollah in the north, but I did not see a single Qassam fired from Gaza.

“Sixty per week at the start of Operation Summer Rain,” he said. “Ever since the number has been going down. Now there are only five per week. Hamas has partly put a stop to this because they know terror does not work for them.”

“How good are the fighters in Gaza compared with the Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon?” I said.

“I don’t mean to dismiss anyone,” he said. “Some fights are serious here. But you can’t compare them with Hezbollah. Hezbollah has more weapons and uses more guerilla activity. Hamas doesn’t have big rockets yet. Yet. The word yet is very important. Hezbollah also is more organized. You shouldn’t underestimate anyone. We had some people wounded in the fight here. Some in Gaza fight very good. But we killed hundreds of terrorists since Summer Rain. We had only one soldier killed in friendly fire, and ten to twelve wounded.”

“How long until this fight is over?” I said. I meant the current fighting in Gaza, but he seemed to have thought I meant the Arab-Israeli conflict in general.

“I don’t see the end now,” he said. “Maybe this part will be soon be finished. Shalit will be back. For a while it will be quiet. The question, you know, is for the other side. Because we went out of Gaza and then it started. If they get more democratic and reduce the chaos…that’s my hope. We need to be strong and give a chance for something else. It’s in the interest of the Palestinian side now to have another life.”

We left the field and drove straight to the fence. I wanted to get as close to Gaza as possible. We parked next to large concrete wall placed there for protection.

“So this wall,” I said. “Is it to protect us from snipers or from rockets?

“From everything,” the major said. Barriers of all kinds are erected near the Palestinian territories. One road I took next to the West Bank was shielded on one side by bullet-proof glass because some Palestinians like to randomly shoot rifles at cars.

The fenced border between Israel and Gaza was right in front of us. The fence is electric. It won’t shock you if you touch it. But it will send a signal to the Israeli military telling them where contact was made so they can dispatch soldiers to that location.

“What would you do,” I said, “if you saw somebody from the other side walk up and stand right there?”

Gaza Through Barbed Wire 3.jpg

“Eh, it depends,” he said.

“It depends on what he’s doing?” I said.

“Of course.”

“If he’s just standing there it’s not a problem?” I said.

“No, it’s a problem,” he said. “Because sometimes they come like a citizen and they put charges there. If it’s in the day and we see a man, the soldiers come. If someone goes to the fence he has some reason. If we see some people come in the night we have a procedure. We start by shouting to them to go. But if they continue…okay? If it’s in the night, well you know, night is night. The thing is to make them understand not to come. Sometimes Palestinians come and want to go into Israel to work. They want to come into Israel not for military action but to come inside for working. But it is very complicated, especially in the night, to know who is the person.”

“How many people who come to the fence aren’t here to fight?” I said.

“Here is a sad story,” he said. “One Palestinian went to the fence with a grenade. Not a militant. He came to the fence and we did not understand it. Because we told him to stop and he dropped it and everything was okay. Sometimes they want to be in the Israeli jail.”

“To get out of Gaza?” I said.

“Because maybe the food in the jail is better,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s a few, it’s not, you know, all the time.”

Gaza itself is often described as a prison. The reason I didn’t go in there myself is because I was briefly affiliated with Time magazine and they ordered me to stay out. They had neither the time nor the inclination to take out a war insurance policy on me. But a Danish journalist I know, Louis Stigsgaard Nissen, did get a brief tour of Gaza and she described it as an absolute horror, a far worse place than the West Bank which both of us had visited in the past.

Trash has not been collected for months, so much of Gaza City looks like a garbage dump that happens to have buildings inside it. The garbage is seeping now into the water. Israeli doctors are returning because the Palestinians desperately need medical help. She interviewed a man who lives in a sports stadium with his children. She was nearly run over in the street by a truck driven by gunmen and bristling with weapons.

Gaza Through Barbe Wire 2.jpg

“Is anyone really in charge inside Gaza?” I asked the major.

“That is the question,” he said. “They have a government, but there is a power struggle among the armed groups.”

Once again we heard rapid machine gun fire in the middle distance. He and I stood right next to the concrete wall and could have taken cover. But the shooting had nothing to do with us and sounded just barely far enough away. So we didn’t move. It’s funny what you get used to. I’ve never been in the army, and I’m unaccustomed to being in war zones. But it doesn’t take long to get used to it.

“We have a connection with the Palestinian police and with the army,” he said. “For example if we found some charges that they put on their side of the second fence the Palestinian police come to take it or to boom it. In the operations today because of the army, and the pressure, and the militants, there was a fire between us and the Palestinians next to a place where gasoline was stored and also some baby chickens, you know, the little ones. And we talked with the Palestinian police and they brought some trucks in to take them out. We saved them from the RPGs.”

He spoke in English now instead of through a translator, and I wasn’t sure I understood.

“So the Israeli side and the Palestinian side cooperated in the middle of a war to save baby chickens?” I said. “And then started fighting again?”

“Not exactly,” he said. “If you see the story as a simple one, yes. But the ones we talked with were not the ones shooting the RPGs. So it’s a very complicated story. But we talked with the police and the citizens talk with the army to help them. We told the citizens: Not now. It’s dangerous. The militants are firing RPGs.

Gaza Through Barbed Wire.jpg

“It is very strange,” he continued. “But it is our world. It is us against them, but they are divided inside. This is the story of Gaza.”

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal button and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help. I want to do more of this in the future, and I’m working on getting myself to Baghdad as soon as possible.

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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

The Ice is Cracking

by Michael J. Totten

Here is a terrific article by Mario Loyola about the unfolding crisis in Lebanon:

Perhaps the single most surprising, and enchanting, thing about Lebanon is the stillness of the place. High above Beirut on Mount Lebanon, signs at the Monastery of Saint Maron-Anaya admonish visitors to respect the quiet: “You can hear God in the silence.” At night even Beirut sleeps peacefully. When I was there two months ago, I stayed in the heart of Christian east Beirut; I slept with the sliding glass door to my balcony wide open, the curtains waving in the soft breeze, and I think I’ve never slept so soundly in my life.

A few blocks away from that place, just after midnight last Sunday night, a massive car bomb blew the façade off the main shopping mall in east Beirut, killing an elderly woman and demolishing dozens of cars. Monday night, with all Lebanon glued to the television, another car bomb destroyed another quiet corner of the city — this time in Sunni west Beirut. Yesterday, suicide bombers struck army targets for the first time. The heralds of terror and civil war have come to remind the people of Lebanon that their tranquility is on thin ice — and the ice is cracking.

Needless to say, after 15 years of civil war, and 15 more years of Syrian occupation, the people of Lebanon need little reminding how precious and fragile are their peace and their freedom. Monday night on the phone, one friend of mine in Beirut cried softly as we spoke, not because of what’s happened in recent days — Lebanon has seen much worse — but because of the inevitability of whatever is going to happen next.

Next has already happened. Another bomb exploded, this time in the mountain resort town of Aley:

The blast which went off at around 9:00 pm damaged several buildings and shops along the street, which was immediately cordoned off by police.

It sheared off walls of apartments, tore down electrical cables and wrecked parked vehicles. It also blew off shutters on the many shops in the street.

UPDATE: Trying to read the logic behind the last three car bombs is a little bit like reading tea leaves. But as someone named Triok pointed out in the comments, it may not be an accident that the first bomb was in a Christian area, the second bomb was in a Sunni area, and the third bomb was in a Druze area.

The overwhelming majority of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are in the anti-Syrian coalition. And until this week, no bombs have exploded in Sunni or Druze areas since Syria’s withdrawal. Perhaps this is enough to discern a deliberate pattern, especially since the UN is gearing up to impose a tribunal against Syrian regime suspects for assassinating Rafik Hariri.

As Triok pointed out, no placement of bombs in Lebanon is ever random. Of course this will not stop a certain kind of person from thinking Christians, Sunnis, and Druze bombed themselves, or that Jews did it.

UPDATE: See also Mustapha at Beirut Spring.

Who is responsible for Gaza? A reply to Matthew Yglesias

By Noah Pollak

There has been a dustup between New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz and Atlantic magazine blogger Matthew Yglesias (see “here”:http://www.tnr.com/blog/spine?pid=109588, “here”:http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/05/more_atlantic_for_me.php, “here”:http://www.tnr.com/blog/spine?pid=109593, and “here”:http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/05/whats_my_name_fool.php). It is an unimportant tiff over an important question: Why are the Gaza Palestinians killing each other? Peretz blames the situation on the immutably violent characteristics of Palestinian society — a culture, he emphasizes, in which genuine nationalist sentiments do not actually exist — whereas Yglesias says the carnage is pretty much the Bush administration’s fault.

Peretz clearly has the better understanding of Gaza, and the better argument. But he became annoyed, told Yglesias to shove off, and let the ignorant party come away appearing more reasonable. That’s too bad, because Yglesias’ writings on the Middle East, I’m afraid to say, have a distinctively hanging-out-at-the-coffee-shop feel to them. Yglesias believes that “Hamas-Fatah violence is largely the result of deliberate American policy.” If Peretz won’t have a go at this argument, I will. Says Yglesias:

Fatah used to rule the roost on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. Then the US proclaimed that the Palestinian Authority needed to implement political reforms and hold elections. The Palestinians went to the polls and duly booted out the ruling party in favor of the main opposition party. At this point, the US government, apparently run by morons, realized that the main opposition to Fatah was . . . Hamas. … At which point the United States embarked upon a campaign of funneling all monies away from the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government and directly into the hands of Fatah-run security services. Shockingly, this has tended to fuel rather than constrain intra-Palestinian fighting.

There is a great deal of history and nuance ignored above, the kinds of things that get in the way of indulging in what are no doubt very satisfying denunciations of the “morons” who run the U.S. government. If I may rephrase Yglesias’s argument and add a helpful enumeration to his points, he says that (1) the Fatah party was keeping things under control until (2) the foolish Bush administration pushed the PA to hold elections. These brought Hamas to power, and (3) now the administration is making the problem worse by helping Fatah wage street battles with Hamas.

Amazingly, none of these assertions are true.

In the case of the first point, the Fatah party most certainly did not “rule the roost” in the territories — especially not in Gaza, where Hamas was founded and has always enjoyed its greatest popularity. The first major suicide bombings that certified the onset of the second intifada were perpetrated by Hamas (including the one that blew up the café next to my office), Yasser Arafat all the while insisting that his government should not be held responsible for such terrorism because Hamas was simply beyond his control. And at least in this case, Arafat was probably saying something close to the truth. When he arrived in the West Bank from Tunis in 1994, Hamas had already been around for eight years. The Fatah party, ruling the roost? Certainly not in Gaza.

And most certainly not in 2004-2005. Does Yglesias remember four very important events that happened during those years? First, Israel defeated the intifada; second, Arafat died; third, Mahmoud Abbas was elected the new PA president; and fourth, Israel removed itself from Gaza. The latter three in particular served to strengthen Hamas — not Fatah. The reality of the fractiousness of the Palestinian cause was already coming into view in 2005, before Hamas was elected, when more Palestinians were killed in internecine fighting than in battle against Israel. It might be gratifying to make a post facto declaration that in 2005, the old hands among the Palestinians had their territory under control until the Bush administration, which can’t do anything right, forced inadvisable changes on them. But that idea is simply a flight of fancy.

Even the use of the phrase “Fatah party” here is misleading. Fatah didn’t rule anything — Arafat did. “Fatah” is a moniker given to the collection of gangsters, sycophants, and terrorists Arafat assembled around himself to protect his rule. Upon Arafat’s death, Fatah became adrift and leaderless. Abbas was elected two months later, and the only thing that has given his rule any salience at all is America’s rather desperate backing.

And now we get to point two, which is that the Bush administration was mistaken in pushing for the PA elections (I assume Yglesias here is talking about the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power, not the 2005 presidential election that Hamas boycotted). The ’05 and ’06 elections were the first of their kind since 1996 (they were supposed to have happened sooner, but the intifada stood in the way), and holding them had been not just a stipulation of Oslo and a longstanding U.S. objective, but a goal of the EU, the UN, and the entire constellation of Middle East peace agitators in think tanks, universities, and the media (Yglesias among them).

By late 2004, the desirability of holding elections became not just a consensus position, but an actual necessity. The president of the PA had just died. Does Yglesias believe that with the old kleptocrat finally gone, the United States and the massive alliance of nations and organizations committed to Palestinian democracy shouldn’t have pushed the PA to finally, after a decade, hold elections?

And now the final point, about the fighting itself.

There is something very consistent about governance in the Arab world. Among the Arab countries today in which there is a modicum of internal stability, each is controlled by an Arafat-type figure — an anti-democratic strongman who is able to crush all challenges to his authority. Likewise, among those Arab countries that aren’t ruled by a despot, the political dynamic is also consistent: In Lebanon, Iraq, and now Gaza, sectarian violence is the dominant form of political expression. It’s true that Arafat’s authority was weaker in Gaza than in the West Bank, but in Gaza there was always another strongman present to keep a lid on things: the Israeli occupation. When Israel disengaged in the summer of 2005, suddenly Gaza was without any master at all, and that’s exactly when the territory started going full-tilt toward the Hobbesian state of nature it now finds itself in.

And so to blame recent Bush administration choices for this lawlessness — or more precisely, to invent stories about administration choices — is more than a bit much. Even if the PA elections in 2006 hadn’t occurred, I doubt the battle we are seeing today wouldn’t have happened. The fight is foreordained by Gaza’s demography, its political and religious extremism, Arafat’s death, and Israel’s unwillingness to police the territory. The Bush administration is simply along for the ride — as is Israel. And the reason why Abbas has never been able to emerge as a leader of the Palestinians is because his weakness is similarly foreordained. Consensus-based political leadership is anathema to the Arab world. We’re seeing that rather starkly today in Gaza.

All of that said, I think that Yglesias ends up being partially right (even though he doesn’t mean to be) when he lays the lawlessness in Gaza at Bush’s feet. The sad truth is that Gaza today is a testament to the failure of the entire 14-year project of creating the Palestinian Authority, retrieving Arafat from exile, and attempting to drag the Arabs of Palestine, against their will, into western political modernity. This process was started, and most forcefully pushed forward, by the Clinton administration, and today its corpse is still being dragged around the Middle East, Weekend at Bernie’s-style, by Condoleezza Rice.

Readers might be surprised to hear — Mr. Yglesias probably among them — that less than a year ago, Yglesias “wrote the following”:http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/08/01/opinion/main1855020.shtml: “I happen to think the White House made the right call on the question of Palestinian elections — even in retrospect, even knowing that Hamas won.” A couple of days ago, he called these administration officials “morons” for having supported the very same elections that he now condemns. I know it’s best to just hurry past the contradictions, especially when they involve the reshuffling of positions in order to condemn the Bush administration. But it is too enjoyable to avoid the conclusion that here, Yglesias is calling himself names.

UPDATE by MJT: Don’t miss the exhaustive Story of Gaza which is up now on the main page of the blog.

Syria Targeting Russia?

Mustapha at Beirut Spring makes an interesting point about the escalation of terrorism in Beirut and its expansion into the posh Sunni neighborhood of Verdun. The target was (possibly) the Russian Cultural Center, which reportedly was right near where the car bomb exploded, in order to pressure the Russian government to veto the pending tribunal against Hariri’s assassins in the United Nations Security Council.

It’s unclear to me how close the bomb actually was to the Russian Cultural Center so I don’t know if Mustapha is right or if this is a bit of a stretch. But he could be right, and if so this is a serious escalation.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese government has orders to “finish off” Fatah Al Islam in the Palestinian camp in Northern Lebanon. Fatah Al Islam exists in other camps, as well, and this fight could go on for a while. The group is small enough, though, that they can be erased from the world if the army doesn’t stand down. The fact that they are using Palestinian civilians as human shields means they have no sea to swim in and no place to hide.

For background on the Syrian connection to this group, see Tony Badran and William Harris.

Violence in Beirut Continues

Naharnet reports (no link yet) that a “huge blast ripped through Beirut’s Verdun district at 10:50 p.m. Monday, gutting several apartments and storefronts.”

This, I believe, is the first time since Syria’s withdrawal that a terrorist bomb has exploded in a Sunni area. The others have been in Christian areas.

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari laughably says the terrorists in Northern Lebanon — who are still battling it out with the Lebanese Army — are Al Qaeda and that they are fighting for the UN tribunal to punish the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It will require a gullible mind indeed to believe Al Qaeda has taken up the cause of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.


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