Britain’s Role in the Israeli-Hezbollah War
Though the US is Israel’s major military ally, Britain also helps to arm the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Since the Oslo Accords were signed Britain has sold Israel submarines, combat helicopters, combat aircraft, tanks, bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, mines, machine guns, ammunition and electronic equipment according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Between 2004 and 2005, arms exports to Israel approved by the government doubled to £22.5m. In contravention of the government’s own guidelines prohibiting the sale of weapons likely to be used "aggressively against another country" or fuel regional tensions, Britain provided Israel with key components for Apache combat helicopters, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets deployed in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. (2)
Britain also gave active military support to Israel’s attacks on Lebanon, granting permission to refuel at British airports to US flights carrying shipments of arms to the front, after the Irish government denied Washington such permissions. In late July, as the conflict escalated, sources at one of those airports told The Times that by that stage the number of refuelling stops had become “absolutely unreal”. (3)
The use to which Israel puts these arms is well understood. After Hezbollah’s cross border raid of 12 July 2006 in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured, Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told Israeli television that "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back twenty years". Halutz declared that “Nothing is safe (in Lebanon), as simple as that”. Elsewhere, The Washington Post reported that "According to retired Israeli army Col. Gal Luft, the goal of [Israel’s military] campaign is to “create a rift between the Lebanese population and Hezbollah supporters.” The message to Lebanon's elite, he said, is this: “If you want your air conditioning to work and if you want to be able to fly to Paris for shopping, you must pull your head out of the sand and take action toward shutting down Hezbollah-land”." (4)
The intention to send a message to the people of Lebanon through the medium of extreme violence was illustrated by the propaganda campaign mounted by Israel against the people whose country it was in the process of destroying. Leaflets dropped from Israeli planes demanded that the population “remove the sore known as Hezbollah from the heart of Lebanon”. On the last day of the war, with over 1,100 Lebanese killed, 3,600 injured and around a fifth of the population displaced Israeli leaflets dropped on Lebanese cities claimed that Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers had brought destruction on Lebanon, and asked the pointed question "Will you be able to pay this price again?" (5)
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines terrorism as “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”; precisely what is described above. We need hardly therefore waste any words on the idea that Israel took proportionate military action simply to defend itself, since its stated intention from the outset was to wage a terrorist war on the entire Lebanese nation. Nor can the British government deny the true nature of its allies actions, with which it was fully complicit.(6)
During a tour of Beirut on 23 July, the UN's emergency relief chief Jan Egeland described the destruction wrought by the Israeli air force as "horrific" and "a violation of international humanitarian law” with “block after block of houses” destroyed by Israeli air strikes. Patrick McGreevy of the American University in Beirut described in the wrecked southern residential districts of Beirut “a landscape the likes of which no one has seen since Dresden in 1945” as the UK-supplied Israeli air force made good on Halutz’s threat. (7)
Fearsome terrorist targets neutralised by the British arms industry’s valued customer included various factories producing materials such as glass and milk, farm workers loading vegetables onto refrigerated trucks, and a Greek Orthodox church. At the end of the conflict, Reuters reported that according to the Lebanese government “more than 15,000 houses, 900 businesses and factories, 630 roads, 77 bridges, 25 fuel stations and 31 utility plants” had been destroyed. Middle East scholar Juan Cole described the campaign as “total war on the Lebanese civilian population”. (8)
On 25 July, The Guardian reported an Israeli missile strike on “two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances”, and on 26 July a strike on a refugee convoy waving white flags which had been fleeing southern Lebanon under Israeli orders. On 28 July, Israeli justice minister Haim Ramon said that anyone who had failed to comply with those orders - which would have required dodging air strikes and circumnavigating bombed-out roads and bridges amongst other obstacles - would henceforth be considered fair game, effectively turning southern Lebanon into a free-fire zone. According to Ramon, "all those now in south Lebanon are terrorists”. (9)
A report from Agence France Presse described how Israel dealt with those it now defined as terrorists. On 7 August the Israeli air force killed fourteen civilians in a bombing raid on the village of Ghaziyah in southern Lebanon. When the victims' families and friends held a funeral procession the next day, Israel struck again, killing six more innocent people. For those who have observed the methods of Iraqi sectarian terrorists in recent years, follow-up attacks on funeral parties are of course an instantly recognisable phenomenon. (10)
The intended message to the Lebanese was underlined by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who proudly boasted in an interview with Reuters at the start of August that “All the population which is the power base of the Hezbollah in Lebanon was displaced. They lost their properties, they lost their possessions, they are bitter, they are angry at Hezbollah and the power structure of Lebanon itself has been divided and Hezbollah is now entirely isolated in Lebanon”. (11)
One notable example of Israel’s self-declared “purity of arms” came with its sustained, deadly attack of 25 July on unarmed UN peacekeepers. As they came under bombardment from the IDF, the UN staff had made several calls to the Israelis begging them to stop. According to the UN, after each call, it was assured that the firing would cease. In fact, the bombing continued until their post – which was clearly marked and had been long established - was destroyed by a precision guided bomb. Later, UN soldiers who came to retrieve the bodies of their comrades also came under fire. The Israeli government, never afraid to lapse into self-parody, described the incident as “unintentional”. (12)
In early August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing “serious violations of the laws of war” by the IDF. It found that "in dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians". HRW described “the IDF’s extensive use of indiscriminate force” stating that in none of the cases its report documented was there “evidence to suggest that Hezbollah…were in or near the area”; “the pattern of attacks suggests [that the failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians] cannot be explained or dismissed as mere accidents”; Israel had “repeatedly attacked both individual vehicles and entire convoys of civilians who heeded the Israeli warnings to abandon their villages" as well as "humanitarian convoys and ambulances" that were "clearly marked". After a UN ceasefire was eventually implemented, Amnesty International said that its own findings indicated “an Israeli policy of deliberate destruction of Lebanese civilian infrastructure, which included war crimes”, and called for an immediate UN inquiry. (13)
The HRW report aimed particular remarks directly towards “the United Kingdom and other countries through which weapons, ammunition, or other military material may pass in transit to Israel”. Noting their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, it called for these states not to “permit the use of national territory for the transit or transshipment to Israel of arms….that have been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law”. It should be noted that at no point did Britain give any indication that Israel’s committing of war crimes would cause it to reassess the military assistance it was providing to that country. Indeed, UK assistance went well beyond simply providing the technological means of destruction for Tel Aviv’s campaign of terror.
As Lebanon was being “torn to shreds”, “cut to pieces” and subjected to “barbaric destruction”, in the words of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, British diplomats worked to head off any pressure on Israel from the international community. At the UN security council on 14 July, the G8 on July 16 and the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on 17 July, British efforts helped to block international calls for an immediate ceasefire. On 21 July, a hospital in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, overwhelmed by the number of casualties, began burying the dead in a temporary mass grave. On 25 July, a coalition of the leading aid agencies urged the Prime minister in an open letter “to rethink your policy as a matter of urgency and do what you can to reduce the horrific toll that this conflict is having on ordinary people across the region.”. The next day, at a crisis summit in Rome, Britain again joined the US in blocking calls for an immediate ceasefire. On 1 August, another meeting of EU foreign ministers failed to call for an immediate ceasefire at Britain’s insistence, ignoring further pleas from Oxfam, who described “levels of destruction of civilian infrastructure” as “catastrophic”. (14)
Leading aid agencies spoke out again on 3 August, with Christian Aid asking the Prime Minister “to have the moral courage to reverse his policy and call, without qualification, for an immediate ceasefire". Oxfam worker Shaista Aziz described the British position as “an absolute disgrace". The consequences of Britain’s ignoring the pleas of aid agencies were illustrated on 4 August when Israel bombed bridges in the Christian areas of northern Beirut, cutting what the UN described as the “umbilical cord” for humanitarian aid to Lebanon. On 7 August the IDF warned UN troops that they would be attacked if any attempt was made to repair bombed out bridges in the south. (15)
In his 3 August press conference, the Prime Minister explained the UK position by saying that he wanted to see a ceasefire “as soon as possible”, but not before a “lasting settlement” had been agreed – saying, in other words, that the violence could continue until that point. Whilst Winston Churchill had famously said that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, Tony Blair apparently did not believe this necessarily to be true. Bradford University security expert Paul Rogers described “the signals from Washington and Downing Street” as “more of an insistence that any end to the fighting had to involve the disarming of Hezbollah, whether or not an international force was involved. In other words, the war had to end with what amounted to a clear victory for Israel”. Israel no doubt also wanted this sort of “ceasefire” as soon as possible. Once victory had come it would of course cease firing, since no one keeps fighting a war after they have won. Blair’s affected concern for the human costs of the war and his professed wish for a ceasefire was therefore simply another dose of his familiar brand of cynical sophistry. (16)
In essence, the British policy was ‘give war a chance’, to slightly paraphrase John Lennon. The UK fought on the diplomatic front, alongside Israel’s military campaign, to secure its ally’s victory settlement, and to ensure that no international body would be able to demand an end to the onslaught until that victory was won.
As it became clear by early August that Israel’s serious underestimation of Hezbollah might result in failure to achieve its objectives militarily, Britain and the US finally agreed to a draft UN resolution calling for a ceasefire, but one whose terms would secure through diplomacy what the IDF had so far not achieved through violence. The draft resolution implicitly permitted Israel to occupy southern Lebanon, and gave it the right to take military action in self-defence, which as Tel Aviv would no doubt claim, covered all the acts of violence described above. But whilst Israel was instructed to cease “offensive military operations” by the draft resolution, Hezbollah was instructed to cease “all attacks”. That the eventual UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of 11 August was a watered down version of the initial draft was due mainly to the weak position of Israel and its backers by that stage (and that Lebanon was prepared to sign up to a still slanted resolution was due mainly to its being desperate for an end to the crippling Israeli offensive). (17)
Exasperated onlookers might ask how hard it could have been to call, at the earliest possible point after 12 July, for both sides to cease all military activity and comply with international law. That would depend, it would seem, on what principal outcome you were looking for; an end to the killing, or a victory for one of the belligerents.
Alongside the military and diplomatic assistance detailed above, Britain also provided political support to the Israelis by contributing its own voice to the propaganda campaign aimed at Western audiences, designed to frame the conflict in terms flattering to Israel and to obscure the reality of what was taking place.
Or, to put it less kindly, we might quote the words of Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former UK ambassador to Moscow 1988-92 and also a former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Braithwaite described Blair’s performances as those of “a frayed and waxy zombie…from the Central Intelligence Agency’s box of technical tricks, programmed to spout the language of the White House in an artificial English accent". (18)
Thus, in his press conference on 3 August 2006, Blair told reporters that “the reason why this problem has arisen is that in defiance of previous UN Resolutions, Hezbollah has continued to operate with their militia outside the control of the government of Lebanon down in the south of Lebanon. That is why they then began these rocket attacks and the attacks on Israeli soldiers when they crossed the UN Blue Line and that is when Israel then retaliated”. (19) Under this description, Israel lies at the mercy of events with no aims or objectives beyond reacting to the security threats it faces (and with the question of how it should act never arising). However, the reality excluded from Blair’s narrative was that this was not a war that Israel was forced into, but a war of choice.
Hezbollah’s incursion on 12 July was not the first violation of the ‘blue line’ between the two countries since the IDF ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. There have been hundreds of violations since then, including those committed by Israeli aircraft “on an almost daily basis” between 2001 and 2003, and “persistently” until 2006, according to the UN. Other hostilities on the border include the IDF shooting at unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in October 2000, and Hezbollah’s crossing the line and kidnapping three Israeli soldiers in response. There have been periodic fatal exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and the IDF over the last six years but, as the UN records, “none of the incidents resulted in a military escalation”. Although the border “remained tense and volatile”, it was “generally quiet” until 12 July. (20)
Hezbollah’s aim was to exchange the Israeli soldiers captured on 12 July for fifteen prisoners of war taken by the Israelis during the occupation of Lebanon. Israel had exchanged prisoners with Hezbollah three times in the past: in July 1996, June 1998 and January 2004. It had also swapped prisoners with the PLO on a number of occasions. (21) Why then, having negotiated prisoner exchanges on numerous occasions and having instigated and reacted to many cross border incidents since 2000, did Israel choose to act differently on this occasion and escalate the level of violence to such a shattering pitch?
On 21 July, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matthew Kalman revealed that Israel had been giving a presentation explaining its war plans for Lebanon to Washington diplomats, journalists and think tanks as early as last year. Kalman quoted Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, who said that “By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we're seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it's been simulated and rehearsed across the board”. Kalman’s revelations were later backed up by the findings of veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, writing for the New Yorker, who said that Washington had been closely involved in the war planning process. Despite his efforts to portray Israel’s actions as a spontaneous response to the events of 12 July, it appears that Blair knew full well of these plans, though given the recent relationship between the White House and 10 Downing Street one could hardly have imagined otherwise. (22)
Indeed, one didn’t need an off-the-record briefing to grasp what was happening; the public record more than sufficed. The political context and the way in which the war was conducted strongly indicates that Israel reacted differently to this latest border skirmish and capture of prisoners because it had been waiting for an opportunity to launch an aggressive strategic war against Hezbollah. For Israel, Hezbollah is a key ally of a Palestinian people facing national obliteration at Tel Aviv’s hands, one of Tehran’s counterattacking options in any future war on Iran (something Israeli officials have been advocating for sometime) and one of the principal opponents of Western regional dominance in the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice indicated the strategic nature of the war when she spoke on 21 July of “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” (which was not without irony since only a day earlier, the UN had said that nearly a third of the dead or wounded in the conflict were children). Nevertheless, the British government endevoured to sell Israel’s actions to the public as no more than a regrettable necessity in the interests of self-defence. (23)
In summary, Israel pursued a war of choice in the interests of strategic power, not defence. Lebanon was “cut to pieces” by Israel’s war, in a deliberate attempt to terrorise its population, which behaviour was roundly condemned by aid agencies and human rights groups across the board. And though the appalling costs were well known, Israeli terrorism and war crimes continued with substantial military, diplomatic and political support from the British government.
In a famous leaked internal memo, Tony Blair called for “eye-catching initiatives” with which he “should be personally associated”. The Israel-Hezbollah war no doubt falls squarely into this category. But as Westminster gossip over the diverting subject of the Prime Minister’s retirement continues, no one should assume that any substantial change from the policies highlighted here will be forthcoming after Blair’s departure. As polls revealed strong popular opposition to Britain’s handling of the conflict, media reports informed the public of “unease”, even “serious concerns” amongst members of Blair’s cabinet. Yet at no point during or after the thirty-four day bloodbath did this purported “unease” move a single senior member of the British government to resign their position rather than continue their complicity in war crimes and acts of terrorism. To them, none of the horrors visited by Britain’s ally on innocent Lebanese civilians represented a moral concern of greater magnitude than keeping their own job. (24)
These facts should be noted well by the British public, including this writer, since we by extension, share responsibility for our government’s conduct. Outside of the UK, those who have not already done so must now recognise Britain – not just its current Prime Minister - as nothing less than a fully paid up and active member of the neo-conservative imperial project, and deal with it on that basis.
(1) For example, on the recent debate over the alleged influcence of the ‘Israel Lobby’ on Washington policy makers, see "The Israel Lobby", John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, 23 March 2006, and "The Israel Lobby?", Noam Chomsky, ZNet, 28 March 2006. On criticism of London “standing back and doing nothing” see "Got The Message Yet, Mr Blair?", Bob Roberts and Oonagh Blackman, Daily Mirror, 31 July 2006
(2) “Arming the Occupation”, Campain Against the Arms Trade, M Turner, 2002, cited in "Israel’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Cause for Concern", Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 13 July 2005; "British arms exports to Israel double in a year", Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, 25 July 2006; "Made in the UK, bringing devastation to Lebanon - the British parts in Israel's deadly attack helicopters", Benjamin Joffe-Walt, The Guardian, 29 July 2006
(3) "Irish refused bombs sent to Prestwick airport", Eddie Barnes and Murdo MacLeoad, Scotland on Sunday, 30 July 2006; "Britain lets more US arms flights land in Scotland", Philip Webster, The Times, 28 July 2006
(4) "Israel authorizes 'severe' response to abductions", CNN, 13 July 2006; "Our aim is to win – nothing is safe, Israeli chiefs declare", Stephen Farrell, The Times, 14 July 2006; “Air Power Won't Do It", Philip H. Gordon, The Washington Post, 25 July 2006
(5) "Israel steps up "psy-ops" in Lebanon", Peter Feuilherade, BBC Monitoring, 26 July 2006; “The Cost of War”, The Guardian (print edition), 16 August 2006; "Ceasefire holds as Olmert admits tactical deficiencies", Julian Borger and Conal Urquhart, 15 August 2006, The Guardian
(6) "Terrorism", Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
(7) "Rice finally sets out in search of ceasefire formula", Ewen MacAskill, and Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, 24 July 2006; "The Descent into Hell is Optional", Patrick McGreevy, Informed Comment, 24 July 2006
(8) "Lebanon: Factories come under fire", IRIN News, 4 Aug 2006; "Israel accused of 'intentional' attack", Agence France Presse, 6 August 2006; "Israel Targets Milk, Medicine Factories. Hizbullah Kills One in Nahariyah", Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 19 July 2006; "Lebanon: Reconstruction effort begins", IRIN News, 25 Aug 2006; "Israelis Kill UN Peacekeepers. Halutz Commits to War Crimes. Israeli Airstrikes Kill Nabatiyeh Family. $150 Million Damage to Factories", Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 26 July 2006
(9) "Red Cross ambulances destroyed in Israeli air strike on rescue mission", Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, 25 July 2006; "Blasted by a missile on the road to safety", Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian, 24 July 2006; "Diplomats argue as all of south Lebanon is targeted", Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph, 28 July 2006
(10) "Israel in new deadly strike on grieving Lebanon village", Agence France Presse, 9 August 2006
(11) "Reuters interview with Israeli PM Olmert", Matthew Tostevin, Reuters, 2 Aug 2006
(12) "Purity of Arms", Wikipedia; "How UN Lebanon post was bombed", BBC News, 27 July 2006; "UN observers begged Israelis to stop shelling their position", Steve Farrell and Nicholas Blanford, The Times, 27 July 2006
(13) "Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon", Human Rights Watch, August 2006; "Lebanon: Destruction of civilian infrastructure", Amnesty International, August 2006
(14) "Lebanon 'has been torn to shreds'", BBC News, 20 July 2006; "Mideast talks fail to reach cease-fire agreement", CNN, 26 July 2006; "Diplomatic timeline: Lebanon and Israel, July 2006", David Fickling, Guardian Unlimited, 2 August 2006; "South Lebanon hospital puts war dead in mass grave", Reuters, 21 Jul 2006; "Open Letter to the Prime Minister", various aid agencies, 25 July 2006; "Britain blocks EU's ceasefire call", The Press Association, 1 August 2006; "EU Foreign Ministers must call for an immediate ceasefire in the run up to an expected UN Security Council resolution", Oxfam Press Release, 31 July 2006
(15) "Aid groups urge Blair to back ceasefire", David Fickling and agencies, 3 August 2006, Guardian Unlimited; "Lebanon bombings cut off umbilical cord for aid: UN", Agence France Presse, 4 August 2006; "Bloody night in Beirut as Israel intensifies aerial bombardment", Clancy Chassay, Conal Urquhart and Jonathan Steele, The Guardian , 8 August 2006
(16) "PM's monthly press conference", 10 Downing Street, 3 August 2006; "After Qana: a false dawn?", Paul Rogers, Open Democracy, 31 July 2006
(17) "Israel’s strategic impasse", Paul Rogers, Open Democracy, 1 August 2006; "Lebanese officials reject Security Council resolution", staff writers, The Daily Star, 7 August 2006; "Text: Draft UN Security Council resolution on 'cessation of violence'", via Reuters, 6 August 2006; "Lebanon: The 33-Day War and UNSC Resolution 1701", Gilbert Achcar, ZNet, 16 August 2006
(18) "Mr Blair should recognise his errors and go", Rodric Braithwaite, Financial Times, 2 August 2006
(19) "PM's monthly press conference", 10 Downing Street, 3 August 2006
(20) See “Israel’s Attack Was Premeditated” by George Monbiot, 8 August 2006, and sources cited there
(21) "Political Prisoners and Arbitrary Arrests: A History of Israeli-Palestinian Prisoner Exchanges", By Samar Assad, Counterpunch, 14-17 July 2006
(22) "Israel set war plan more than a year ago", Matthew Kalman, San Francisco Chronicle, 21 July 2006; "Watching Lebanon: Washington’s interests in Israel’s war", Seymour M. Hersh, 14 August 2006; "Blood on his hands", John Kampfner, THe New Statesman, 7 August 2006
(23) "On the US-Israeli Invasion of Lebanon", Noam Chomsky, Al-Adab, 19 August 2006; On Palestinian national obliteration via Israel's "convergence plan", see my "Colonialism in the 21st Century: our ally the state of Israel (part 2)", The Democrat's Diary, 2 September 2005 and sources cited there, see also "Palestine: Hamas besieged", Wendy Kristianasen, Le Monde Diplomatique, June 2006; "Iran: Consequences of a War", Paul Rogers, Oxford Research Group, February 2006; "Israel pushes U.S. on Iran nuke solution", Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, 21 February 2005; "Hizballah: A Primer", Lara Deeb, Middle East Report Online, 31 July 2006; "One Ring to Rule Them All", Juan Cole, Informed Comment, 6 August 2006; "Special Briefing on Travel to the Middle East and Europe", Secretary Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Department of State, 21 July 2006; "Fighting inside Lebanese border", BBC News, 20 July 2006