I knew Israel was in real trouble this summer when I read in The New York Times that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on television: “You Zionists. … Now you know whom you’re fighting with.” What is this, the Wild West? But he continued, “You are fighting the sons of Muhammad and Ali.”
In one speech, Nasrallah explained a great deal about this summer’s savage Mideast war. Many “freedom fighters” wage guerrilla campaigns, seeking an occupier’s liberation. You may not agree with the tactic, but you can sympathize with the oppressed people in the story. This summer’s campaign is not one of those stories.
Hezbollah’s attack on Israel came six years after Israel’s pullout from southern Lebanon. The group used Lebanon’s new independence to strike Israel, just as Palestinian militants in Gaza have since last year’s Gaza pullout. Long after liberation, reasons can be found to fire rockets at Jews.
Worse, these rockets are aimed not at Israeli military bases, but at civilian centers: the port city Haifa, the Jewish holy town Zefat. Israel’s policy is just the opposite: It targets only terrorist strongholds. “When Hezbollah kills civilians in Haifa, they see it as an operational success, but when we harm civilians, it’s a failure,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said. Knowing this, Hezbollah sets up shop in civilian areas, gleaning sympathy from civilian casualties.
To kill civilians when you mean to spare them, as Israel has, is tragic. To kill civilians when you mean to kill them, as Hezbollah does, is evil — let alone using your own people as a human shield.
For Hezbollah, this war is not about a tactical military victory, for intentionally striking civilians does not achieve one. It is not about liberation, for liberation came years ago. It does not even keep the Lebanese safe; it puts them at great risk. This war is about beefing up tribal pride. It is about extremist Shiite Muslims — “the sons of Muhammad and Ali” — yearning to make Muhammad and Ali proud of their boys. For that religious high, there is no opiate quite like killing and humiliating Jews.
Nasrallah makes it no secret. At a graduation ceremony, he said that if the Jews “all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”
For years, Hamas has crafted this terrorist doctrine. Hezbollah’s missiles and Iran’s nuclear ambitions enlarge its setting. During the second Palestinian intifada, Hamas murdered as many Israeli civilians as they could, blowing up buses and cafes. These attacks did not follow renewed occupation; they followed Israel’s 1995 pullout from all major Palestinian cities and its peace offer in 2000, which, like all of Israel’s peace offers, the Palestinian leadership rejected.
In its charter, Hamas praises Muhammad for describing the apocalypse thus: “The Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, ‘O Muslims, O slaves of God, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”
Israelis see the conflict differently. “We are tired of fighting … we are tired of defeating our enemies,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last year as vice premier. In another country, such dovish pragmatism might torpedo an incipient prime-ministerial campaign. It brought victory to Olmert, who ran on a platform of giving Palestine independence.
Yassir Arafat and Hamas scarred and betrayed Israel when they funneled the peace process into the Intifada. By 2005, Israeli life had finally returned to vibrancy. Tel Aviv’s stock exchange rocketed to all-time highs; the Black Eyed Peas played a concert in Tel Aviv. Israelis tasted the dream that ignited Zionism all along: that the Jewish people might find a place on Earth to live in calm and independence, a nation like all the others.
Terrorists like Nasrallah may love that the Arab-Israeli conflict preserves the chance to destroy Israel, perfecting their bloody machismo. But Israelis loathe the conflict for blocking their dream: to get on with their lives.
Olmert’s tone reflects this difference. “We are at … a political process … [toward] a cease-fire under entirely different conditions,” he said at a commencement this summer. His focus on the war’s strategic purpose, and tactical steps to get there and end the violence, is worlds apart from Nasrallah, for whom war is not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself.
Certainly, one can criticize how Israel behaved in this war and others. Israel, like any country, is imperfect. For instance, Israel should have opted for a ground force originally, rather than trusting less-precise air strikes. As we wonder where to go from here, how to turn this ashen cease-fire into a shred of progress, criticism of how Israel responded to the threat it faced is both welcome and necessary.
But first, one must understand the threat itself. One must reckon with the difference between Israel and its enemies. If we do not understand that moral distinction, we fail to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College.