Friday, July 14, 2006

A Hard Lesson in the Middle East

Two Middle East governments are being taught the lessons of statehood the hard way this week. Both Hamas and the Lebanese government are learning that one of the most critical abilities of a sovereign government is the ability to maintain a monopoly of large-scale violence within its borders.

In the wake of the killings and abductions of Israeli soldiers, Israel has launched major military operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as well as Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. In the case of Hamas, Israel has been attacking PA offices and arresting and killing members of Hamas' military and political wings. In Lebanon, Israel has imposed a naval blockade and rendered Beirut's international airport inoperable in an effort to prevent Hezbollah from smuggling the captive Israelis out of the country. Israel is holding the Lebanese government as whole responsible for Hezbollah's actions, as Hezbollah holds two seats in parliament and is largely left alone in southern Lebanon.

The immediate cause of the current crises (setting aside the overall setting of the Arab-Israel problem, which I have neither time nor space to discuss here) is the unwillingness or incapability of the Arab governments to exert control over rival internal powers, particularly those with the capacity for violence. Recently, the biggest obstacle to a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestinians has been the presence of rival militias, each with its own agenda and the ability to undermine the government. When Fatah ran the Palestine Authority, neither Arafat nor Abbas was willing to take on and disarm Hamas (and Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, or any of the other serious milita groups). When Hamas came to power, it in turn was not willing to break the military power of Fatah. Thus, the government in Gaza has not and does not have one of the most basic components of governance; a monopoly on organized violence. The problem is similar in Lebanon, where the government has refused to challenge Hezbollah, leaving them more or less uncontrolled in southern Lebanon and armed to the teeth.

Both governments have their reasons for not wanting to challenge their armed rivals. Each is relatively young and dependent on a public support that may not support a move against fairly popular rival groups. Any attempt to disarm the rival parties could easily devolve into civil war. And, it may be useful to have armed parties running around outside of the government, as it enables the government to say one thing (yes, we want peace, e.g.), while the armed struggle continues in the face of governmental disavowal.

Now, the governing authorities are paying the price for their fecklessness. This also helps to explain the lack of international outcry at the Israeli military actions. True, there have been some perfunctory calls for a cease-fire or condemnations of Israel, but compare the international sentiment today with that when Israel invaded Jenin several years ago? Witness the silence from Russia, in particular. It's one thing when Israel is attacking a people fighting for their independence; it's another entirely different situation when Israel is defending itself against border incursions, kidnappings, and rocket strikes launched by neighboring governments. No country can truly put itself in the position of defending Hamas or Hezbollah or even condemning Israel too strongly, as one of them could be, some day, in a similar position.

The lesson being taught by the Israel Defense Forces is a harsh and brutal one. But it is a necessary one. A government cannot function if it can not or will not exert political and military control over its own territory. Whether Hamas and Lebanon will learn from this remains to be seen.

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