The sound of scratching fills the airwaves of the all-news cable networks, but there is no need to adjust your TV audio. Ex-officios and pundits are merely scratching their heads, 24/7, because they have just been asked: Why did Hezbollah’s massively armed militants in southern Lebanon suddenly attack Israel? And why now?

Here is the only explanation that seems plausible: Hezbollah, its confused but unrepentant backer, Syria, and mainly its provocative chief benefactor, Iran, all went to school on the recent actions of the militant Palestinians of Hamas. They watched as Hamas militants achieved their goal of blowing up the fragile pathway toward peace that Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to be walking. Hamas did it by firing rockets into Israel that killed innocent Israeli civilians; then Hamas entered Israel and kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Predictably, Israel retaliated massively.

Hezbollah leaders, surely encouraged by Iran, figured they could do the same. So from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel, killing innocent Israeli civilians. Then it boldly invaded Israel, kidnapped two soldiers and killed three others. Predictably, Israel retaliated massively.

Hezbollah made sure there would be many civilian deaths. Hezbollah’s leaders shield themselves, their troops and even their rockets and launchers in the houses of civilian families. Yes, one room in a house is the rocket room, from which rockets are launched at Israel; another might be the children’s bedroom. Of course, Hezbollah knew Israel would track back on the fired rocket and bomb the launch site. Arab news reports would call the dead civilians "martyrs." (And no one would note that the total of Arab and Jewish civilians killed is still a fraction of the number of Arab civilians killed by Shiite and Sunni Arab militants in Iraq.)

And lo, it came to pass.

Hezbollah and Iran surely expected that the killing of many civilians would be condemned instantly and instinctively all along the Arab Street and then by the governments of the Arab world. Also, they probably figured that most of Europe plus Russia and China would condemn Israel for killing many civilians and would demand a cease-fire. That would leave just Israel and the United States basically standing alone.

And all of the above would lead Iran closer to its real goal _ becoming the dominant influence in the Middle East, diminishing America’s already self-diminished influence in the region. That is the dream of Iran’s demagogic new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has famously declared that the Holocaust never happened (the extension of that being: thus there is no justification for Israel’s existence). But that is not quite the way it has worked out, so far. While Israel was roundly condemned up and down the Arab Street and by citizens throughout the Islamic world, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan took stances that surprised many experts.

At an emergency Arab League meeting in Cairo, they (along with some smaller Persian Gulf states) blamed Hezbollah for "unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts." Saudi Arabia’s official news agency declared: "A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside Lebanon and those behind them." Translation: Iran.

As always in the Middle East, there are motives within motives. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are Sunni-Arab nations with internal opposition movements seeking to foment revolution. Each is worried about its region being dominated by Iran, a Shiite non-Arab state that helped create the radical Shiite organization Hezbollah in 1982 to fight Israel. Iran and Syria armed Hezbollah. Iran provided most of Hezbollah’s estimated 12,000 rockets.

Now for the rest of the world: The industrialized nations of the G8, whose leaders were conveniently meeting in Russia, blamed Hezbollah for launching its attack, while urging Israel to be restrained in its response. And finally, last and determinedly least, there is the U.N. Security Council, which has been forced to confront the pathetic result of its diplo-penchant for enacting toothless resolutions. In this case, Resolution 1559.

Enacted two years ago, it called for all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon; Syria eventually did. It also called for the disbanding and disarmament of all militias _ but provided no way to make this happen. So Hezbollah ignored the United Nations. And the agency, the United States, the G8 and all the rest of the world ignored the fact that they were being ignored.

Now, from its rocket rooms in Lebanese civilian homes, Hezbollah is killing Israeli civilians and Israelis are retaliating by targeting the rocket rooms and killing Lebanese civilians. And now the world’s leaders must face the sad truth: Their own indifference is the ultimate difference between life and death for those innocent civilians in the Middle East.




(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)