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Israel, the US and key Arab regimes are now determined to crush widely popular Hizbullah
The story reported in much of the western media in the past few days has painted a straightforward picture: Hizbullah's militants suddenly decided to launch an attack against Israel, killed some of its soldiers, kidnapped two, and has bombed Israeli cities. Israel, acting on its right to self-defence, retaliated by bombing the "infrastructure of terror" in Lebanon. The crisis will end when Israel's terms are implemented: the kidnapped soldiers are returned, Hizbullah is disarmed, and the Lebanese army protects Israel's northern border. This narrative borders on the dangerously naive.
Since Israel's 1996 massacre of Lebanese refugees at Qana in Lebanon, and the end of the 22-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, an agreement between the various parties - sponsored by France, the US, and the UN - has reflected the "balance of terror": Israel would refrain from bombing Lebanese civilian structures, and Hizbullah would not bomb civilian structures in northern Israel.
Although several military operations by the Israelis and by Hizbullah have occurred since 2000, neither side has violated this understanding. In 2004, Hizbullah secured the release of some prisoners held captive in Israeli jails in an exchange with Israel. And Hizbullah's military operation last week falls squarely within that framework.
Israel's immediate reaction broke the established rules of the game by bombing civilian structures across Lebanon, imposing a land, air and sea blockade, terrorising the population, and killing more than 100 civilians in a disproportionate display of power not seen since 1982. Hizbullah then retaliated by bombing northern Israel, in line with the "balance of terror" equations, and the escalation of the conflict has spiralled.
Israel's significant policy shift is linked to domestic politics, psychological factors and power plays. The wider geostrategic implications are more important then the operational details. For the first time in recent history, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli and US interests now converge in an implicit alliance to quell Hizbullah. Reactions by these states in the past few days have been strongly indicative of such a stance, from the Saudi statement implicitly condemning Hizbullah, to the US president's explicit refusal to "rein in" Israel.
US rhetoric last year about spreading "democracy and freedom" in the Middle East was ended when the administration realised that the outcome might lead to governments more in tune with national interests than American ones. The complacent reaction by US (and, to some extent, European) officials to the widespread election fraud and repression in Egypt as well as the open war on the democratically elected Palestinian government reflect this change. The question is increasingly whether entire populations are being punished for making the "wrong" democratic choices.