The Qasmiyeh bridge in South Lebanon [Nabil Mounzer/European Pressphoto Agency]
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, July 13, 2006
There is fair retaliation, then there’s malice: the destruction of the Qasmiyeh bridge on Lebanon’s coastal north-south highway by the Israeli army dispels any notion that the July 12 attack was motivated purely by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers. Malice, the kind of malice that’s been uprooting Palestinians’ olive trees purely as expressions of vindictive power for years (“terrorists” don’t grow on trees, nor have olives been known to be used as particularly effective projectiles by Palestinian insurgents) was at play in this latest “incursion,” the first serious one in six years. Not that the attack itself was justified retaliation: countries don’t generally invade other countries with tanks and bombing runs when a few of their men are captured. But we’re in the Middle East, where nut-mongering is the rule and the laws of war a punch line to something Cheneyesque. Invasions are Mideast history’s commutes.
Rest assured I’m not defending Hezbollah’s capture of Israeli soldiers, though terming it a “terrorist” act, as the Israeli Prime minister well knew, would be flatly wrong: Hezbollah captured two soldiers, and Olmert correctly, if hyperbolically, characterized the capture in these terms: “The murderous attack this morning was not a terrorist act, it was a war-like act by the state of Lebanon against Israel in its sovereign territory.” The punch-line in this case is the oxymoron “state of Lebanon,” a state of disgrace if there ever was one in the annals of statehood: The existence of Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state in South Lebanon, armed enough to defy the Lebanese army, is testament to the Lebanese government’s pitiful and resilient impotence. But Lebanon isn’t waging war with Israel. It never has had the capability nor the will, except through silly sloganeering that persists to this day.
Israel and Hezbollah have been at each other’s sweetbreads ever since Israel’s 1982 invasion (an invasion that would turn into Israel’s Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq: take your pick). Operation Peace for Galilee, as it was then known, planted then fertilized the seeds of Hezbollah’s kudzu-like sprawl as it filled the vacuum left behind by South Lebanon’s former occupiers (the PLO), and did in South Lebanon what the Lebanese government never deigned to do: give the place a sense that someone was looking after it, however medievally. Wednesday’s capture of Israeli soldiers is a tactical error, a sign of desperation, I suspect, for some of the relevance Hezbollah lost when Israel withdrew in 2000 from that slice of Lebanese territory it occupied so long. Hezbollah probably thought the Israelis were too busy invading Gaza to venture back into those parts of Lebanon they so gladly surrendered six years ago. But if Hezbollah erred, it did so to its own delight: there’s nothing like an Israeli invasion to revive the flagging fortunes of a militia that needed a little raison d’être in the eyes of its people. Israel, stupidly, obliged.
Put the tactical and strategic and political and rhetorical gossip aside. The destruction of Qasmiyeh bridge speaks louder than all that chatter about motives and intentions. In the scheme of things, the destruction of a bridge might not seem that consequential, especially to people on this side of infrastructural luxury. There are more than half a million bridges in the United States. I cross a half dozen on my way to work every day down I-95 and through its arterial capillaries—even here, in flat-chested Florida. They’re part of the landscape, as mundane and reparable as a burst pipe. Not so in Lebanon. A bridge is still half-marvel half-lifeline, and on that coastal highway it’s either a bridge or nothingness. Blow it up, and it’s an instant rewind to the nineteenth century for the Qasmiyeh Valley’s inhabitants, to its civilian inhabitants. Its gun-toting ones will always find a way to their targets, bridge or no bridge.
Israel had nothing to gain by blowing it up except to do it, as it so often has with Lebanese infrastructure (electric grids, water plants, fruit distribution centers, Lebanese fruit being a direct competitor of Israeli fruit on the European market) to make a point: It did it because it can, the way it would fly a pair of air force jets daily over Lebanon to cynically break the sound barrier like a reminder of omnipotence from on high. Cutting off the escape route of Hezbollah and its captives might be dangled as a reason for the Qasmiyeh blow-up in retrospect. But that’s assuming that Hezbollah captors, veterans of many lasting captivities at American and European expense in the 1980s, are stupid. Hezbollah’s fighters are fanatics, they’re ideological cinder blocks, they’re pawns of a little theocratic tyranny that gives Shiitism its equivalent of Taliban and Qaeda debility. But stupid they unfortunately are not (except in their belief in that double-edged god of blood and gore if it suits their dogmas, though that makes them brethren of every cult and religion from here to the Council of Nicea). And ignorant about the lay of Lebanon’s milk-and-shrapnel-land, they definitely are not. Israel knows it. But Israeli pilots and tank gunners like their live practice, American military contractors like video of their wares in action, and Israel can never resist pairing punishment with the afterburn of subjugation.
So it destroyed a bridge. The act is revealing of the Israeli government’s character at this stage, a character not significantly changed from what it’s been since its fateful turning point 1982: Israel’s survival instinct is never far from its capacity to undermine it. But the destruction of a bridge for purely malicious reasons is symbolic of the Mideast’s character in general, too. It’s simplistic to say that all sides there mirror and deserve each other. That doesn’t make it any less accurate, and heartbreakingly so, whether you’re among those who depend on those bridges or not.
Postscript: What Blogs are Reporting from Lebanon
- Our friend and blogger Moussa Bashir, whose wife is pregnant, and whose family's neighborhoods as well as his own are under alerts of Israeli bombings, "feels like sitting ducks." "I moved my pregnant wife and my kid to a supposedly safe area in Beirut. Somewhere near the Bristol hotel. I can not tolerate more “collateral” damage. Forty civilians are already dead. 14 are children." See the full post...
- And from Saida, south Lebanon's largest coastal town, this from Ibrahim Jouhari: "While shells are falling a few miles away from my home, I cannot but remember this afternoon, while I was driving back home from Beirut Hezbollah sympathizer where offering passerby cookies and candies! While my ear rings from the sound of explosions I cannot but see the firecrackers Hezbollah sympathizer where launching this afternoon rejoicing in their “great victory” And tomorrow when I will see the bridge linking my home town of Saida to Beirut, I will only say from the bottom of my heart: Enough! Enough wars, death and destruction! Curse you Hezbollah to hell and back! For all this destruction, for all this death! No it is not Israel fault! It is your own! Curse you!"
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