Many parts of Lebanon were bombed heavily by Israeli warplanes on 4 June, 1982. Two days later the Israeli army entered Lebanon through the country's southern border. Menachem Begin was prime minister, Ariel Sharon his minister of defense. The immediate reason for the invasion was an attempted assassination in London of the Israeli ambassador, but then, as now, the blame was placed by Begin and Sharon on the "terrorist organisation" of the PLO, whose forces in South Lebanon had actually observed a cease-fire for about one full year before the invasion.
A few days later, on 13 June, Beirut was under Israeli military siege, even though, as the campaign began, Israeli government spokesmen had cited the Awali River, 35 kilometres north of the border, as their goal. Later, it was to emerge without equivocation that Sharon was trying to kill Yasser Arafat, by bombing everything around the defiant Palestinian leader. Accompanying the siege was a blockade of humanitarian aid, the cutting off of water and electricity, and a sustained aerial bombing campaign that destroyed hundreds of Beirut buildings and, by the end of the siege in late August, had killed 18,000 Palestinians and Lebanese, most of them civilians.
Lebanon had been wracked with a terrible civil war since the spring of 1975 and, although Israel had only once sent its army into Lebanon before 1982, had been sought out as an ally by the Christian right-wing militias early on. With a stronghold in East Beirut, these militias cooperated with Sharon's forces right through the siege, which ended after a horrendous day of indiscriminate bombing on 12 August, and of course the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. Sharon's main ally was Bashir Gemayel, the head of the Phalanges Party, who was elected Lebanon's president by the parliament on 23 August.
Gemayel hated the Palestinians who had unwisely entered the civil war on the side of the National Movement, a loose coalition of left-wing and Arab nationalist parties that included Amal, a forerunner of today's Hizbullah Shi'ite movement that was to play the major role in driving out the Israelis in May 2000. Faced with the prospect of direct Israeli vassalage after Sharon's army had in effect brought about his election, Gemayel seems to have demurred. He was assassinated on 14 September. Two days later the camp massacres began inside a security cordon provided by the Israeli army so that Bashir's vengeful fellow-Christian extremists could do their hideous work unopposed and undistracted.
Under UN and of course US supervision, French troops had entered Beirut on August. They were to be joined by US and other European forces a little later, although PLO fighters began their evacuation from Lebanon on 21 August. By the 1st of September, that evacuation was over, and Arafat plus a small band of advisers and soldiers were lodged in Tunis. Meanwhile the Lebanese civil war continued until about 1990, when a concordat was fashioned together in Taif, more or less restoring the old confessional system which remains in place today. In mid-1994, Arafat -- still head of the PLO -- and some of those same advisers and soldiers were able to enter Gaza as part of the so-called Oslo agreements.
Earlier this year Sharon was quoted as regretting his failure to kill Arafat in Beirut. Not for want of trying though, since dozens of hiding places and headquarters were smashed into rubble with great loss of life. 1982 hardened Arabs, I think, to the notion that not only would Israel use advanced technology (planes, missiles, tanks, and helicopters) to attack civilians indiscriminately, but that neither the US nor the other Arabs would do anything at all to stop the practice even if it meant targeting leaders and capital cities. (For more on this episode see Rashid Khalidi, Under Siege, New York 1986; Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, London 1990; more specifically on the Lebanese civil war, Jonathan Randall, Going All the Way, New York, 1983).
Thus ended the first full-scale contemporary attempt at military regime change by one sovereign country against another in the Middle East. I bring it up as a messy backdrop to what is occurring now. Sharon is now Israel's prime minister, his armies and propaganda machine once again surrounding and dehumanising Arafat and the Palestinians as "terrorists". It is worth recalling that the word "terrorist" began to be employed systematically by Israel to describe any Palestinian act of resistance beginning in the mid-1970s.
That has been the rule ever since, especially during the first Intifada of 1987-93, eliminating the distinction between resistance and pure terror and effectively depoliticising the reasons for armed struggle. During the 1950s and 60s Ariel Sharon earned his spurs, so to speak, by heading the infamous Unit 101, which killed Arab civilians and razed their houses with the approval of Ben-Gurion. He was in charge of the pacification of Gaza in 1970-1. None of this, including the 1982 campaign, ever resulted in getting rid of the Palestinian people, or in changing the map or the regime enough by military means to ensure a total Israeli victory.
The main difference between 1982 and 2002 is that the Palestinians now being victimised and besieged are in Palestinian territories that were occupied in 1967 and where they have remained despite the ravages of the occupation, the destruction of the economy, and of the whole civilian infrastructure of collective life. The main similarity is of course the disproportional means used to do it, eg, the hundreds of tanks and bulldozers used to enter towns and villages like Jenin or refugee camps like Jenin's and Deheisheh, to kill, vandalise, prevent ambulances and first-aid workers from helping, cutting off water and electricity, etc.
All with the support of the US whose president actually went as far as calling Sharon a man of peace during the worst rampages of March and April 2002. It is significant of how Sharon's intention went far beyond "rooting out terror" that his soldiers destroyed every computer and then carried off the files and hard drives from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of Education, of Finance, of Health, cultural centres, vandalising officers and libraries, all as a way of reducing Palestinian collective life to a pre- modern level.
I don't want to rehearse my criticisms of Arafat's tactics or the failures of his deplorable regime during the Oslo negotiations and thereafter. I have done so at length here and elsewhere. Besides, as I write the man is quite literally hanging on to life by his teeth; his crumbling quarters in Ramallah are also still besieged while Sharon does everything possible to injure him short of actually having him killed. What concerns me is the whole idea of regime change as an attractive prospect for individuals, ideologies and institutions that are asymmetrically more powerful than their adversaries.
What kind of thinking makes it relatively easy to conceive of great military power as licensing political and social change on a scale not imagined before, and to do so with little concern for the damage on a vast scale that such change necessarily entails? And how do the prospects of not incurring much risk of casualties for one's own side stimulate more and still more fantasies about surgical strikes, clean war, high technology battlefields, changing the entire map, creating democracy and the like, all of it giving rise to ideas of omnipotence, wiping the slate clean, and being in ultimate control of what matters to "our" side?
During the current American campaign for regime change in Iraq, it is the people of Iraq, the vast majority of whom have paid a terrible price in poverty, malnutrition and illness as a result of 10 years of sanctions, who have dropped out of sight. This is completely in keeping with US Middle East policy built as it is on two mighty pillars, the security of Israel and plentiful supplies of inexpensive oil. The complex mosaic of traditions, religions, cultures, ethnicities, and histories that make up the Arab world -- especially in Iraq -- despite the existence of nation-states with sullenly despotic rulers, are lost to US and Israeli strategic planners.
With a 5000-year old history, Iraq is mainly now thought of as either a "threat" to its neighbours which, in its currently weakened and besieged condition, is rank nonsense, or as a "threat" to the freedom and security of the United States, which is more nonsense. I am not going to even bother here to add my condemnations of Saddam Hussein as a dreadful person: I shall take it for granted that he certainly deserves by almost every standard to be ousted and punished. Worst of all, he is a threat to his own people.
Yet since the period before the first Gulf War, the image of Iraq as in fact a large, prosperous and diverse Arab country has disappeared; the image that has circulated both in media and policy discourse is of a desert land peopled by brutal gangs headed by Saddam. That Iraq's debasement now has, for example, nearly ruined the Arab book publishing industry given that Iraq provided the largest number of readers in the Arab world, that it was one of the few Arab countries with so large an educated and competent professional middle-class, that it has oil, water and fertile land, that it has always been the cultural centre of the Arab world (the Abbasid empire with its great literature, philosophy, architecture, science and medicine was an Iraqi contribution that is still the basis for Arab culture), that to other Arabs the bleeding wound of Iraqi suffering has, like the Palestinian cavalry, been a source of continuing sorrow for Arabs and Muslims alike -- all this is literally never mentioned.
Its vast oil reserves, however, are and, as the argument goes, if "we" took them away from Saddam and got hold of them we won't be so dependent on Saudi oil. That too is rarely cited as a factor in the various debates racking the US Congress and the media. But it is worth mentioning that second to Saudi Arabia, Iraq has the largest oil reserves on earth, and the roughly 1.1 trillion dollars worth of oil -- much of it already committed by Saddam to Russia, France, and a few other countries -- that have been available to Iraq are a crucial aim of US strategy, something which the Iraqi National Congress has used as a trump card with non-US oil consumers. (For more details on all this see Michael Klare, "Oiling the Wheels of War," The Nation, 7 Oct).
A good deal of the bargaining between Putin and Bush concerns how much of a share of that oil US companies are willing to promise Russia. It is eerily reminiscent of the three billion dollars offered by Bush Senior to Russia. Both Bushes are oil businessmen after all, and they care more about that sort of calculation than they do about the delicate points of Middle Eastern politics, like re-wrecking Iraq's civilian infrastructure.
Thus the first step in the dehumanisation of the hated Other is to reduce his existence to a few insistently repeated simple phrases, images and concepts. This makes it much easier to bomb the enemy without qualm. After 11 September, this has been quite easy for Israel and the US to do with respectively the Palestinians and the Iraqis as people. The important thing to note is that by an overwhelming preponderance the same policy and the same severe one, two, or three stage plan is put forward principally by the same Americans and Israelis.
In the US, as Jason Vest has written in The Nation (September 2/9), men from the very right-wing Jewish Institute for National Security (JINSA) and the Center for Security Policy (CSP) populate Pentagon and State Department committees, including the one run by Richard Perle (appointed by Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld). Israeli and American security are equated, and JINSA spends the "bulk of its budget taking a bevy of retired US generals and admirals to Israel". When they come back, they write op-eds and appear on TV hawking the Likud line. Time magazine ran a piece on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, many of whose members are drawn from JINSA and CSP, in its 23 August issue entitled "Inside the Secret War Council".
For his part, Sharon has numbingly repeated that his campaign against Palestinian terrorism is identical with the American war on terrorism generally, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qa'eda in particular. And they, he claims, are in turn part of the same Terrorist International that includes many Muslims all over Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, even if Bush's axis of evil seems for the moment to be concentrated on Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
There are now 132 countries with some sort of American military presence, all of it linked to the war on terror, which remains undefined and floating so as to whip up more patriotic frenzy and fear and support for military action on the domestic front, where things go from bad to worse. Every major West Bank and Gaza area is occupied by Israeli troops who routinely kill and/or detain Palestinians on the grounds that they are "suspected" terrorists and militants; similarly, houses and shops are often demolished with the excuse that they shelter bomb factories, terrorist cells, and militant meeting places. No proof is given, none asked for by reporters who accept the unilateral Israeli designation without a murmur.
An immense carpet of mystification and abstraction has therefore been laid down all over the Arab world by this effort at systematic dehumanisation. What the eye and ear perceive are terror, fanaticism, violence, hatred of freedom, insecurity and, the ultimate, weapons of mass destruction (WPD) which are to be found not where we know they are and never looked for (in Israel, Pakistan, India and obviously the US among others) but in the hypothetical spaces of the terrorist ranks, Saddam's hands, a fanatical gang, etc. A constant figure in the carpet is that Arabs hate Israel and Jews for no other reason except that they hate America too.
Potentially Iraq is the most fearsome enemy of Israel because of that country's economic and human resources; Palestinians are formidable because they stand in the way of complete Israeli hegemony and land occupation. Right-wing Israelis like Sharon who represent the Greater Israel ideology claiming all of historical Palestine as a Jewish homeland have been especially successful at making their view of the region the dominant one among US supporters of Israel. A comment by Uzi Landau, Israeli internal security minister (and member of the Likkud Party) on US TV this summer stated that all this talk of "occupation" was nonsense. We are a people coming home. He was not even quizzed about this extraordinary concept by Mort Zuckerman, host of the programme, also owner of US News and World Report and president of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations.
But, Israeli journalist Alex Fishman, in Yediot Aharanot of 6 September, describes the "revolutionary ideas" of Condoleeza Rice, Rumsfeld (who now also refers to "so-called occupied territories"), Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle (who commissioned the notorious Rand study designating Saudi Arabia as the enemy and Egypt as the prize for America in the Arab world) as being terrifyingly hawkish because they advocate regime change in every Arab country. Fishman quotes Sharon as saying that this group, many of them members of JINSA and CCP, and connected to the AIPAC affiliate the Washington Institute of Near East Affairs, dominates Bush's thinking (if that's the right word for it); he says, "next to our American friends Effi Eitam [one of the Israeli cabinet's most remorseless hard-liners] is a total dove."
The other, more scary side of this is the unchallenged proposition that if "we" don't pre-empt terrorism (or any other potential enemy), we will be destroyed. This is now the core of US security strategy that is regularly drummed out in interviews and talk shows by Rice, Rumsfeld, and Bush himself. The formal statement of this view appeared a short time ago in the National Security Strategy of the United States, an official paper prepared as an over-all manifesto for the administration's new, post-Cold War foreign policy.
The working presumption is that we live in an exceptionally dangerous world with a network of enemies that does in fact exist, that it has factories, offices, endless numbers of members, and that its entire existence is given up to destroying "us", unless we get them first. This is what frames and gives legitimacy to the war on terrorism and on Iraq, for which the Congress and the UN are now being asked to give endorsement.
Fanatical individuals and groups do exist, of course, and many of them are generally in favor of somehow harming either Israel or the US. On the other hand, Israel and the US are widely perceived in the Islamic and Arab worlds first of having created the so-called jihadi extremists of whom Bin Laden is the most famous, and second of blithely overriding international law and UN resolutions in the pursuit of their own hostile and destructive policies in those worlds.
David Hirst writes in a Guardian column datelined Cairo that even Arabs who oppose their own despotic regimes "will see it [the US attack on Iraq] as an act of aggression aimed not just at Iraq, but at the whole Arab world; and what will make it supremely intolerable is that it will be done on behalf of Israel, whose acquisition of a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction seems to be as permissible as theirs is an abomination" (6 Sept).