The war gets wider and worse

It would be astonishing if Hizbullah and Israel were not now both reflecting on the old adage that it is easier to start a war than to stop one. A week ago it seemed reasonable to predict that a few days of Israeli bombardment would be followed by a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners – because the stakes were just too high for any other outcome. Israeli officials spoke then of needing 72 hours to crush their enemy as the US, tacitly backed by Britain, sidestepped increasingly urgent demands – from Lebanon, the UN, France and others – for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Ten days on, the rockets are still flying, bombs falling and innocent civilians dying or fleeing for their lives. Apparent preparations for substantial Israeli ground operations in south Lebanon yesterday opened up new dangers that must include the risk of a clash with Syria.Through the smoke of battle, several alarming themes have become apparent. The first is that the US has lost much influence as a result of the war in Iraq and its acquiescence in the deadlock of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s siege of Gaza is an indispensable part of the disaster now unfolding further north. George Bush has no leverage with Iran and Syria, Hizbullah’s patrons, and backs Israel’s actions as part of the “war on terror”. But if Hizbullah were just “a bunch of terrorists”, as the US envoy John Bolton put it as he played for time at the UN, things would be simpler – just as they might be if the Islamists of Hamas could be dismissed in the same glib way.

Hizbullah is a radical Shia organisation with deep roots in Lebanon, as well as powerful backers in Tehran and Damascus who have agendas of their own and are content to let others die in a proxy war with Israel and the US. If many Lebanese began a dreadful week blaming Hizbullah for provoking Israel, more ended it by directing their fury at Israel for ripping their country apart in a rerun of 1982. Even if Israel could defeat the guerrillas – a very big if, judging by the missiles falling on Haifa – could it do so without destroying Lebanon or triggering a new civil war? As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, put it, Hizbullah is using Lebanon as a human shield as Israel hammers it mercilessly.

A second source of concern is the way Hizbullah is now being feted across the Arab world. The conservative Sunni regimes which are US allies – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – were already worried about the Shia ascendancy in Iraq and the growth of Iranian influence. But too many Arabs prefer a violent confrontation with Israel to the equivocations of their rulers. And that, thirdly, by feeding hatred, augurs badly for already slim hopes that a peace settlement can ever be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. In Israel it is hard to see Ehud Olmert following last year’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza with a similar pullout from the West Bank.

These bleak future prospects are overshadowed by many clear and present dangers. An immediate ceasefire to halt the suffering must remain the priority for the international community, because every day that goes by without one will make a terrible situation worse. Condoleezza Rice should insist on one before her far too leisurely departure for Israel tomorrow. Until the shooting stops, both sides should reread the Geneva conventions and allow the creation of humanitarian corridors to let civilians flee the killing grounds. Relief agencies and the Red Crescent must be given access to all battle zones. Mediation should be launched to free Israeli soldiers and Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners so there is a mechanism for each side to back down. The US, Europe, the UN and others will then have to work out in good faith just how they will help keep a very volatile peace. For if outsiders do not make the necessary effort, it will only be a matter of time before it all happens again.

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