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Israel's Attack On Syria Really A Conflict With Hezbollah

Daniel Rais |
February 10, 2013 | 9:26 p.m. PST


Israel's attack on Syria is really about its conflict with Hezbollah. (Hovic, Creative Commons)
Israel's attack on Syria is really about its conflict with Hezbollah. (Hovic, Creative Commons)

Israel attacked Syria last Wednesday. As of today, it is still unclear exactly what happened. According to some, Israeli planes struck an arms convoy headed towards Lebanon. According to others, Israeli planes struck a scientific research facility near Damascus. It’s all a matter of perspective, really. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has repeatedly refused to comment on the attack.

So, here’s the scoop. On January 30, the New York Times published an article covering an anonymous report from American officials saying that Israel had attacked a “convoy carrying sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry.” The convoy was heading south toward Lebanon, allegedly delivering arms to Hezbollah, an Israeli enemy considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Determined to stop Hezbollah from getting its hands on chemical and antiaircraft weaponry from Syria, Israel has continualy asserted that it would take this sort of preventive action.

Syrian officials deny the Americans’ version of the story, however, insisting the attack was on a scientific research center near Damascus. Syria and its allies Iran and Russia condemned the attack as a “flagrant violation of Syrian sovereignty and airspace” and went so far as to suggest that, if confirmed, the Israeli attack violates the UN Charter. In this version of the story, the target in question is the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) located in a suburb of Damascus called Jimraya. The target itself poses some interesting questions of its own. According to a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the research center at Jimraya is supposedly linked to the Syrian military establishment, and is responsible for “new research and development of nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile-related technology.”

As a result, the SSRC has received a series of international sanctions, among these a 2005 executive order from George W. Bush disallowing Americans from doing business with it, and a 2007 freezing of assets of several SSRC affiliates by the U.S. Treasury Department.

So, yeah. A lot of information here. A lot of players. A lot of uncertainty.

Whatever the case may be, though, it seems pretty safe to say that Israel acted to defend itself against future attacks from Hezbollah. Sensing the imminent fall of the Assad regime, Israel has expressed concerns about Hezbollah getting its hands on advanced weapons from Syria, and it’s clear that the beef here is between Israel and Hezbollah, not between Israel and Syria.

As a western Jew, my first instinct is to support Israel. I grew up idealizing the idea of a Jewish state, and having lived in Israel myself from ages six to eight, I’ve always supported it wholeheartedly, even unquestioningly. “Go ahead, Israel,” I thought, “You do what you gotta do.”

But then, I started investigating the matter more closely. I had labeled Hezbollah the “bad guys” years ago and I wanted to see what they were all about. I wanted to know why they are bent on the destruction of Israel, why the U.S. considers them a terrorist organization and how they came to be such a strong political force in Lebanon.

So I went back. Back to the beginning. And what I found wasn’t pretty.

Hezbollah emerged out of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War of 1982. Leading up to the occupation, Israel had been embroiled in a series of deadly conflicts with militiamen from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), many of whom were living in southern Lebanon. After weeks of continuous fighting at the Israeli-Lebanese border, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon sent more than a hundred thousand soldiers to invade Lebanon, and within weeks, Israel controlled an enormous part of the South.

During the occupation, on September 16, 1982, Israeli soldiers allowed militant Christian Phalangists to enter refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. There, in one of humanity’s worst moments, the Christians massacred thousands of civilians. And the Israelis stood by and let it happen. Trained by expert soldiers from Iran, Shi’ite Muslims from southern Lebanon reacted. They wanted a Lebanon free from foreign occupation, a sovereign Muslim land.

It was thus that Hezbollah was born. “The Party of God.”

It wasn’t just Israel that was occupying Lebanon, though. In an attempt to bring peace to the region, a multinational peacekeeping force comprising American, French and Italian soldiers had been sent to occupy Lebanon as well. Hezbollah saw the soldiers as extensions of their imperialist countries, and after a series of deadly terrorist attacks that included the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Hezbollah managed to drive away the foreign soldiers. Israeli troops were pushed all the way to the border and finally ousted in 2000, after eighteen years of fighting.

I am not the little boy that I once was. Today, good and evil seem cloudy predicates at best, and I can see how, despite being considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and other Western countries, Hezbollah can be held in high regard by the Lebanese public. Like I said, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Israel’s attack on the Syrian research center, or on the Syrian convoy headed toward Lebanon, is not, by any means, an isolated incident. It is part of a war that goes back all the way to 1982. And back to 1948 before that. The history and politics of the region are long and complicated and for now, it seems like the war will go on.

As westerners observing all of this from the other side of the pond, it may become increasingly difficult for us to choose sides. If we do choose sides, however, let that choice come with a profound understanding of the complex history of the region.


Reach Contributor Daniel Rais here.


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hombre (not verified) on March 13, 2013 12:45 AM

The problem with Israel invading and bombing either the research center or an arms convoy is that Israel bombed a research center or an arms convoy. Israeli war planes are not welcome over Syria's or Lebanon's air space, and yet fly overs are frequent in the OCCUPIED Golan Heights and South Lebanon--terrorizing the population there that feels vulnerable at any day to another attack, some residents having rebuilt their homes several times over the past few decades. Israel would like to prevent HizbAllah from receiving anti-aircraft weaponry so as to continue its illegal air force maneuvers unchecked above Lebanon, as Lebanon DOES NOT have its own air force.

The author is correct above, in that the term terrorist is a cloudy one at best. All war is terror, and if you go by the US government's definition of terrorism it applies to any legitimate army and every war that was ever fought. And the terror list in the US and Israel is political-organizations are added and removed according to the political interests of the time.

It is also worth noting that Europe does not consider HizbAllah a terrorist organization, perhaps because it has no political incentive to do so, or perhaps out of the recognition that it was created during a war and is yet the only force in Lebanon preventing continued Israeli assaults, incursions, or occupation of the long coveted southern hills and rivers of Lebanon.

HandsomeDan (not verified) on February 11, 2013 12:00 PM

The question is not whether Israel takes responsibility for its actions or not. I think its more about coming to terms with the "complex history of the region" and recognizing that everything's not so black and white, even when it comes to a "terrorist organization" like Hezbollah. Michael, I don't think the article aims at justifying acts of terror. I think perhaps it justifies a general stance, a position towards Israel that can be understood in light of the history of Lebanon and the Middle East in general. I also think we ought to think about what we mean when we use phrases like "terrorism," "acts of terrorism," "terrorist organization", and the like. I don't know much about warfare, but I don't think these acts can be isolated as incidents that happen outside the sphere of warfare. We have to remember that the parties involved are at war. Perhaps not an official one, perhaps not a universally recognized one, but a war nonetheless. In that light, I think "terrorist acts" are the way militarily inferior parties are conducting war these days. I agree that it's fucked up, but hey, that's the way war is.

Anonymous (not verified) on February 10, 2013 10:41 PM

I agree that Israel has not always acted so kosher, but whenever it hasn't, it takes the time to punish its own citizens who acted unethically (even against Hezbollah). Examples of this range from when an Israeli soldier was thrown into military jail for 7 months for stealing a Palestinian's credit card and withdrawing $405 during the Gaza War in 2009, to the Sabra and Shatilla massacre discussed here, when Defense minister Ariel Sharon took personal responsibility and resigned. What other country in the Middle East does this?

michael (not verified) on February 10, 2013 10:15 PM

but do you think this in any way justifies acts of terrorism directed at civilians? an unfortunate tragedy, but it happened 30 years ago