Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 21 August 2006

Fighting stops, problems remain

The Middle East crisis seemed to ease a bit last week, when fighting in Lebanon stopped several days after the UN Security Council resolution.  But the Israeli blockade of Lebanon continues, and disagreements emerged on the nature and role of the UN peacekeeping force.  Meanwhile, the plight of the Palestinians has worsened.


At last the fighting in Lebanon has stopped, at least for the time being.  Several days after the United Nations Security Council resolution of 11 August, Israel stopped its bombing raids in Lebanon, and began pulling its ground soldiers out.

By last Friday, the UN team in Lebanon was reporting that the ceasefire was “holding out”.

According to news reports, the Israeli army took a heavy beating early last week when it poured thousands of troops into Lebanon in one last big attack on the country, even after the Security Council resolution was adopted.

The Independent of London reported that up to 40 Israeli soldiers were killed by the Hizbollah in one day, something that was not widely publicized.

The Hizbollah continued winning the public relations war, as the Arab public seems to consider that it defied and won out against the Israeli war machine.  Its handing out compensation of US$12,000 to each Lebanese family whose home was destroyed by Israeli air strikes earned more support from the Lebanese public.

Meanwhile, the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Lebanon are yet to start and it will take time and lots of money. Whether the country will get the many billions of dollars of aid needed to rebuild the bombed houses, buildings, roads, bridges and factories is doubtful.

If the Israeli bombing on Lebanon breaks various international laws, as the UN Human Rights Council and several other organizations have declared, then Lebanon should take a case against Israel to pay for the reconstruction.

Ironically, pro-Israel advocates were first off the mark:  they launched a petition calling on the UN to provide reparations to Israel for damage caused by Hezbollah.  As one critic remarked:  “This is the limit, that they have the gall to ask for reparations after the blanket bombing of Lebanon!”

The UN is now trying achieve the enlargement of its peacekeeping force in Lebanon, in keeping with the Security Council resolution.  Israel has objected to a few countries, including Malaysia, contributing to the UN force, on the ground that these countries do not have diplomatic relations with it.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar rebutted that Israel has no right to stop Malaysian troops from joining the force as it was up to the UN and Lebanon to decide.  “We are going there to protect Lebanon, we are not going to Israel,” he said.

This interpretation was supported by UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown last Friday when he appealed to European countries to provide troops to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). 

He told reporters that "enormously helpful" offers had emerged from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Nepal, but it was vital for UNIFIL to have a strong European as well as Muslim content.           

A key point of contention arising out of the Security Council resolution, which will figure very largely in future developments, is the fate of the Hezbollah forces.

Israel, backed by the United States and other Western countries, want Hezbollah to be disarmed.  But Hezbollah itself is opposed to this, and it appears the Lebanon government is also opposed.

There is no guarantee that Israel will not attack Lebanon again, and the Lebanese feel they will not have a credible defence if Hezbollah were to be disarmed.

Though its bombing has stopped, Israel has continued its naval and air blockade of Lebanon.  A senior UN relief official has called for this blockade to be lifted immediately to allow urgent assistance to reach hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who are returning to their homes.

Margareta Wahlström told the Security Council that the end of the fighting has allowed some access for aid to reach many affected areas, but the damage inflicted on road networks was making things very difficult.

“The enormous damage to most road and bridge infrastructure leading to the south requires an immediate lift of the continuing sea and air blockade on Lebanon” she said, also warning that the 400,000 returnees are facing the threat of unexploded artillery, airborne missiles, and cluster ammunition. 

“Reports of civilian casualties have been reported.  The contamination presents a risk to people returning to their homes." 

Meanwhile the Lebanese crisis has diverted attention away from the increased plight of the Palestinians, who have continued to suffer heavy Israeli bombardment in Gaza during the period of the war with Lebanon and even now, after that war.

Many Palestinian civilians have been killed and displaced from their homes in the past month as Israeli forces intensified their attacks on the occupied Palestinian territories.

Also, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees reported that hundreds of containers full of food for Palestinians in Gaza are still being held up in the Israeli port of Ashdod because of a backlog caused by the recent conflict in Lebanon.

Now that the fighting in Lebanon has stopped, action should be focused on resolving the Palestinian problem, which must occupy top priority on the international agenda.