The death of Israel's dreams

Concern is mounting among senior Israelis that the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon is only the star

Omar al-Khatib is by some measures a lucky man. One Thursday evening in late July, he was taking a stroll near his home in Gaza City when his mobile phone rang.

"It was a number I didn't know," he recalls. "The voice said: 'Hello, Abu Arafat.'" (This is the name by which al-Khatib is commonly known, meaning father of Arafat, his eldest son.)

"I said: 'Hello, who is it?' He said: 'This is Captain Ami from Israeli intelligence.' I said: 'What's up?' He said: 'Go back home, evacuate your house and tell your neighbours, because we're going to bomb it tonight.'"

Eight minutes later, just as he was dragging out the fridge, he heard the familiar drone of an Apache helicopter. Everyone hurtled down the narrow alleyways of the neighbourhood as the missile was launched that demolished Omar al-Khatib's house. It was a precise strike; no other building was damaged. The goods he managed to salvage now lie piled in the garden, and his children play climbing games in the rubble.

Al-Khatib is a haunted-looking man, with a thin face, one eye half closed and the long beard of an Islamist. He is not what you might call an innocent civilian. A black flag flutters in the ruins of his home, symbol of his allegiance to the militant group Islamic Jihad. Realising that the Israelis might be after him, he had already sent his wife and children to his in-laws for safety. Israeli intelligence knew exactly who he was: a small-time commander of the local military wing - big enough to threaten, but not big enough to kill.

If the aim was to deter, it appears to have failed. Al-Khatib says he is even more determined to destroy the state of Israel. To him and to millions of others, including Arabs who are not members of militant groups, the war in Lebanon is simply an extension of the Palestinian conflict.

"People look to Hezbollah as heroes, the true ones who support the Palestinians, because really we feel we are alone all the time, under the aircraft, the targeting, the killing," said Ghazi Hamad, a Palestinian government spokesman.

In 1982, Israel succeeded in expelling the Palestine Liberation Organisation from Lebanon to exile in Tunis. That same year, Israel's continued occupation of Lebanon inspired Iran to create Hezbollah, the Party of God, specifically to take up the struggle where the Palestinians had left off. Israeli troops did not leave southern Lebanon until 2000. Most Arabs saw the withdrawal not just as a victory for Hezbollah, which had kept up a relentless pressure, but also as a sign that it was possible to end an Israeli occupation by guerrilla warfare. Lebanon first, Palestine next.

While world attention fixes on Lebanon again, the conflict in Gaza continues unabated, the forgotten front in the wider war that Israel is fighting. Since Palestinian militants tunnelled under the barrier into Israel and seized a soldier, Gilad Shalit, on 25 June, the Israelis have launched about 150 shells a day into Gaza.

According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), 170 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the past month, 40 of them children; more than 650 have been injured. Since Israel bombed the local power station in late June, electricity and water are intermittent. Borders are closed, and so commerce is blocked. Occasionally, when Israeli tanks move in to search for Corporal Shalit, people have to flee their homes to take shelter in schools.

"I perfectly understand that the world attention is focused on Lebanon at the moment, but I really implore people to remain conscious of what's going on here," says John Ging, UNRWA operations director in Gaza. "Every day, it's worse. For the people here, the major problem in terms of their outlook is: when is it going to end? The mood is one of desperation, frustration and anger, and it's getting worse and worse."

The Israeli government is well aware that this is one war which is being fought on two fronts. Hezbollah itself has no significant territorial dis pute with Israel. The Hez bollah leader, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, invokes a dual cause for his desire to eradicate the Jewish state: radical Islam and Palestinian statelessness. Increasingly, the two are intertwined in a way that may make Israelis nostalgic for the good old days of Yasser Arafat, when the Palestinian cause was purely nationalist and could have been solved by the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Unwinnable war

This war with Lebanon may mark the moment when that dream dies - not the Palestinian dream of statehood, but the Israeli dream of secure borders. The creation of Palestine behind the Green Line, which marks the border between Israel and the land it occupied after the 1967 Six Day War, could yet satisfy a majority of Palestinians. Hamas and Islamic Jihad might settle for that in the end, and even recognise the state of Israel, if pushed by serious international interlocutors. But Hezbollah is now riding a tide of anti-US, anti-Israeli feeling across the Muslim world, which adds the occupation of Iraq to the occupation of Palestine as a collective grievance.

"This is a war between all Islamic nations and the US," said Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. "Nasrallah is an Arab hero, but this is the view of all Islamic peoples." He did not even mention "the Zionist entity", reserving all his ire for the Great Satan. Some in Washington complain that US foreign policy has been taken hostage by Israeli interests, but now Israelis may wonder if they are the ones being used. Israel v Lebanon could be seen as a proxy war, with Israel fighting at the behest of the Americans, who regard Hezbollah as a weapon in Iran's arsenal that must be neutralised now, before any future US attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Israeli soldiers who have been fighting in Lebanon for the past month understand the potency of this enemy, which has the flexibility of a guerrilla force combined with the discipline and some of the weaponry of a conventional army.

Israeli reservists and conscripts gather outside the cemetery at Kfar Giladi, near Kiryat Shmona, a few miles south of the Lebanese border. Some will go over the border and fight Hezbollah up close, while others are firing artillery from a range on the other side of the hill.

"Hezbollah are very effective," said a 20-year-old lieutenant in an artillery unit, based at Kfar Giladi. "They have been well-trained and armed by the Iranians. We're surprised at the strength of the enemy." Four days later, a Hezbollah rocket barrage landed in the spot where he had been speaking to me, killing 12 Israeli soldiers.

In 1967, Israel won a war against the combined armies of Jordan, Syria and Egypt in six days, but the five weeks of inconclusive fighting in this war show that today's battles are more complex, both militarily and politically.

"The war is unwinnable," says Reuven Merhav, a former Mossad operative in Lebanon, who also served as Israeli foreign ministry liaison in Beirut during the Israeli occupation in the early 1980s. "We cannot break the backbone of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is the majority of the Shia in Lebanon. They have a charismatic leader. It's a very interesting movement - it has the support of the majority of the Shia of southern Lebanon because it gave them true expression."

Merhav supports the idea of creating and temporarily occupying a buffer zone, but he knows that in the end only broader political negotiations will bring calm.

"We should try to reach as quickly as possible a political arrangement that will include the Syrians, and by convincing the international community of this feasible goal, avoid such terrible things in the future."

But it may prove optimistic to hope to achieve even this narrow aim of getting Hezbollah's other backer, Syria, to act as guarantor of a peace agreement. According to the Israeli commentator Ari Shavit, in all wars since 1967, "Israel achieved a stalemate of one kind or another, which was not decisive but allowed a certain stability to persist until the next campaign." This time, Shavit fears that Israel will be defeated, because its failure to wipe out Hezbollah as it initially promised will show the world that it is weak, its borders indefensible.

Elephant trap

For the past six years, since the end of the occupation that started in 1982, the border with Lebanon has been a model of how Israel would like to conduct relations with its neighbours. There were no friendly handshakes through the razor wire, but few missiles were lobbed over it either. Israel was thus lulled into the belief that good fences make good neighbours.

This war disproves that thesis. If Hezbollah can launch missiles from Tyre that reach as far south as Haifa and Hadera, what is to stop the Palestinians sending missiles over the "separation barrier" that Israel has built to annex part of the occupied West Bank and protect itself from the inhabitants? A cartoon in al-Quds newspaper this past week showed missiles passing through the wall, together with the caption: "Israel didn't take this into account." The project to erect a permanent, impenetrable barrier between the Jewish state and the Palestinians, which has caused immeasurable disruption to Palestinian lives, suddenly seems futile, as well as inhuman.

As long as the Palestinians remain stateless, George W Bush's desire to end this war by putting Hezbollah out of business will seem impossible. Hezbollah's support across the Arab world depends on outrage at the Palestinians' plight. But the usual European view that a two-state solution will bring the wider Middle East conflict to an end may prove equally flawed.

Israel fell into an elephant trap when it hit Lebanon with disproportionate force after Hez-bollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers on the border, on 12 July. Maybe Hezbollah simply struck lucky, or maybe Iran had managed to provoke the Israelis into fighting. Now Israel has reoccupied southern Lebanon, igniting more anger and enmity across the Muslim world just as Iran starts to show how confident it feels because oil prices are high, and just as its big enemy, the US, gets bogged down in an unwinnable war in Iraq.

On Monday, in a speech to the nation and to worldwide Jewry, a solemn-faced Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said the war in Lebanon is about Israel's existence. It's the old cry - they hate us for what we are, not what we do.

But this time, he could be right. Even if the Palestinians got their country, with Jerusalem as its capital, and refugees were allowed to return home, many across the Muslim world would still want to fight the Jewish state and its US backers. The summer of 2006 may be just the start of it.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Burma Special: A nation in waiting