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Lebanon as Battleground for the Arab-Israeli Conflict
on 15 July 2011
David Hirst, a former Middle East correspondent of the Guardian, has written a superb history of Lebanon's involuntary role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The first half of the book is mostly a detailed examination of Israeli-Lebanese relations from the early days of Zionist settlement in the 1920s until the 1982 Israeli invasion. For Hirst, force has been a cardinal principle in establishing the Zionist state, combined with ambitions to establish a friendly Christian-Lebanese dominated client state in Lebanon.
Israel's overt motive to invade in 1982 was to secure its northern settlements from Palestinian rocket attack. But, infuriatingly, the PLO's strict observance of a ceasefire, despite Israeli attempts to provoke a breach, and strenuous international efforts to mediate a resolution on the border, gave lie to this.
The war was an imperial venture, with stupendous ambitions: under the auspices of its then defence minister Ariel Sharon (`described `as a war looking for a place to happen') Israel sought to refashion Lebanon as a Christian-dominated client-state, destroy the PLO (and by extension break the will of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories to resist) and deport Palestinians en masse to Jordan, whereby it would become `the Republic of Palestine.' Thus the Palestinians would have their `state' and Israel's supremacy over the Occupied Territories be assured.
The plan ended in failure, but not before the grisly massacres at Sabra and Shatila, perpetuated by Israel's Christian allies, with Israeli connivance. The PLO was evicted from the country but replaced by an even more implacable foe: Hizbollah, a movement which went on to inflict on the Israel what no Arab army had ever been able to do: defeat.
The rest of the book mostly discusses the relationship of Shiite-dominated and Islamist Hizbollah to Lebanon's other principal groups (Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims), its Iranian and Syrian sponsors, and, of course, its arch-adversary, Israel, right up to the present.
Hizbollah was founded on two pillars: first, as a Lebanese nationalist-resistance movement against Israeli occupation, second, as Jihadist movement, pledged to Israel's ultimate destruction (not just ending its occupation of the Palestinian Territories). Its first pillar has commanded widespread assent from Lebanese of all communal stripes but its second does not. Outside its core Shiite support, and its patron, Iran, broader Jihadist ambitions are not shared by Lebanon's Sunnis, still less its Christians. Both groups inclined to view Hizbollah's links with Iran and Syria with suspicion, and a fear of being caught in between the crossfire in a proxy war.
The movement was Iranian-inspired and sponsored but essentially home grown. Its rise mirrored the eclipse of secular, leftist nationalist ideologies and the emergence of radical, fundamental Islamist ideologies throughout the Middle East as challenges to the received order - compare Hamas' rise against an increasingly enfeebled PLO. Syria and Iran are in cahoots with it but with different aims: Syria's confined to realpolitik (getting the Golan back) while Iran's have been ideological and much more ambitious, of the Jihadist sort.
The narrative brings us to the 2006 Israel-Hizbollah war and the 2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The 2006 war is seen by Hirst as a failed proxy war against Iran: the next war, the seventh Arab-Israeli (or Arab/Persian-Israeli) war, is not a question of if, but when.
These complexities are laid bare with commensurate skill. Hirst sets out the perspectives of the Lebanese participants with forensic precision and clarity (the chapter on the expulsion of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005 and the country's Cedar Revolution is a brilliant exposition which sets out precisely the issues at stake for all parties).
The book does, however, have some limitations.
First, the book is less a history of Lebanon but more of an historical analysis of outside powers' (especially Israel's)interference. There is little space is allocated to the origins and course of the long civil war from 1976 to 1990. It doesn't tell you anything about the origins of the communal divisions that have so blighted the country and allowed outsiders to interfere.
Second, his access to Israeli documents allows him to build up a comprehensive picture of Israel's motivations and actions. But this is not the case for its opponents. So their motivations are not well-treated or exposed to the same level of forensic analysis as Israel's. While Israeli influence has been baleful, it does not follow that Iranian/Syrian/Hizbollah designs on the country are any more benign in intent than Israel's.
Third, he anticipates that the future history of the Middle East will be defined as a struggle between the US, Israel and its `moderate' Arab allies on the one hand and Islamic-nationalist movements like Hamas, Hizbollah and `radical' states like Syria and Iran on the other. This master-narrative is too schematic. The Arab Spring, affecting `radical' anti-Israeli and `moderate' pro-American regimes alike, shows that Israel-Palestine is not the only major fault line in the region.
On a minor point, Hirst also refrains from offering any anecdotes relating to his own fifty-year residence in the country (including surviving a kidnap attempt) which is a shame, for surely this would add extra human interest to the book. But neither the book's narrative pace nor readability suffer on account of this omission.
These qualifications aside, I can still wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of the modern Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. If you are remotely interested in these subjects, then get hold of this book.