Over the top

By Dale McFeatters

While Israel has been horribly provoked — the Hezbollah raid into northern Israel and the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians are an act of war by any definition — its strategy of wholesale reprisals against the Lebanese generally is deeply disturbing.

Even Arab nations like Egypt and Syria do not question Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah itself, but it can’t be in Israel’s long-term security interests to leave behind an embittered, impoverished Lebanese population, people who were innocent bystanders and unwilling hosts to Hezbollah, an Iranian-funded legacy of the Syrian occupation.

Israel’s attacks on bridges, roads, power plants, factories, airports, TV towers, telephone networks, fuel storage, ports and even a Procter & Gamble warehouse seem more like indiscriminate collective punishment than any coherent military strategy.

The Israelis would point out that it’s easy to say that at a safe remove when Hezbollah’s rockets — over 2,000 so far — have brought economic life in northern Israel to a standstill.

But even in the Mideast wars have to stop — or at least pause — sometime, and one hope of doing that is preserving the elected government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. The Lebanese, who now seem equally angry at Hezbollah and Israel, may take out their frustration on Saniora and his government, still fragile and uncertain after the welcome "Cedar Revolution" of last year that saw the departure of Syrian occupation troops.

Saniora’s government is in all probability eager to comply with the U.N. resolution calling for the Lebanese regular army to reoccupy the country’s south, along the border of Israel, but is clearly incapable of doing so in the face of the heavily armed and entrenched Hezbollah.

The Bush administration seems to be edging toward some kind of "international stabilization force" in southern Lebanon. This would have to be, in the current term of art, a "robust" force, meaning capable of carrying out offensive military operations, with other nations going along, under U.N. authorization.

The usual kind of U.N. peacekeeping operation won’t do. There are U.N. observers already in southern Lebanon, and they didn’t even rise to the level of speed bumps as impediments to Hezbollah as it brought in fighters and munitions.

Any international force would have to be militarily capable of forcing Hezbollah to disarm and, if it refused, expelling it from Lebanon. That, in turn, would buy time for a reinvigorated Lebanese regular army to take over.

In short, the international force would stand down as the Lebanese army stands up. We’ve heard that before, and not in the context of great success, but it may be the best of a dwindling number of options.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)