Israel-Lebanon: the War for Recognition

This is not a traditional clash over territory or influence. It looks more like the continuation of the politics of identity by other means.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Why are Israel and Hezbollah fighting a bloody war? It depends on which politician you listen to and which newspaper you read. According to some this is a ‘war on Israel’ by Islamofascist forces supported by Iran and Syria. Others claim it is a ‘war of resistance’ by Hezbollah, which is now apparently part of an ‘arc of resistance’ in the Middle East standing up to Western-backed Israeli aggression. Others still say that Israel’s incursions in Lebanon are the latest stage in an American grand plan to topple hostile regimes across the Middle East and replace them with US-friendly puppets. Or, if you listen to Israel itself, then this is a ‘war against terrorism’ to force Hezbollah 13 miles north of the Israeli border; if you prefer to believe Hezbollah then it is a ‘brave war’ by the guerrilla group to secure the release of their comrades from Israeli jails. Take your pick.

All sides of the debate are trying to force the conflict into old political categories where it simply does not fit. Politicians and pundits are using the language of state, nation and citizenship to describe the 21-day-old war, when in fact there seems to be something new and dangerous going on here. The Israel-Lebanon spat looks less like a traditional war over territory and influence, or even over terrorism and prisoners, and more like a ‘war for recognition’ being waged by both sides. Both Israel and Hezbollah seem to be waging, not a strategic war designed to secure a decisive victory over the other side, but rather a media war aimed at winning the recognition of their rights or their pain from the international community. If war traditionally was the continuation of politics by other means, then this new war looks like the continuation of the politics of identity by other means.

Both sides admit that this is not a war for territory, or even a war designed to defeat their opponents. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert says he has ‘no interest’ in Lebanese territories; indeed, he points out that there is no territorial or ideological dispute between Israel and Lebanon: ‘There is no cause for conflict between us. There is no territorial dispute and no ideological abyss between us. We and you want the same thing – the right to a simple, quiet and safe life.’ (1) Olmert says his aim is simply to force Hezbollah, the guerrilla group originally formed in 1982 to expel Israeli forces from Lebanon during an earlier war, 13 miles back from the Israeli-Lebanese border. Despite the fact that Hezbollah is anti-Israel, and uses inflammatory anti-Israeli rhetoric, even Olmert’s bombing of the group’s strongholds in southern Lebanon does not appear to be an ideological act of war. Rather, he wants merely to push them 13 miles north, presumably because that would mean their rockets could no longer reach northern Israel. To the extent that Israel has defined its ‘war aims’, they appear extremely short-term and tactical.

For its part, Hezbollah might occasionally talk about destroying Israel or ‘liberating the Palestinians’. But every observer with more than a few brain cells knows that these guerrillas – who were increasingly isolated within Lebanese society, at least before this latest conflict began – do not have the means to do anything of the sort. Nor does Hezbollah want to, really. In recent years Hezbollah has become more and more mainstream: its political wing now has 14 members in the Lebanese Parliament, two of whom sit in the current Lebanese Cabinet, and it is better known in southern Lebanon for its community work, even its ‘environmental programme’, than for issuing any daring military challenge to the existence of Israel (2). Like Olmert, Hezbollah claims it has very specific aims in this conflict: to secure the release of a certain number of its prisoners.

Both Israel’s demand that Hezbollah shift 13 miles northwards and Hezbollah’s demand that Israel release its prisoners look like conveniently specific justifications for their military antics, attached as afterthoughts once the conflict had begun. In reality, this war looks less like a clash over specific local issues and more like a play for international attention and patronage – less a war to achieve any tangible political goal and more the use of military force to demonstrate the parties’ values and seriousness. Could it be that the current war is less the pursuit of politics by other means, and more simply the pursuit of meaning?

It is striking, for example, that Israeli leaders and their supporters in the West continually talk about Israel’s ‘right to exist’. Justifying his bombing of Lebanon, Olmert said: ‘We will not apologise to those who dare to question Israel’s right to exist.’ Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israel Defence Force, gave a speech to troops in which he said the war was about ‘defending the integrity of our country’; Israel is ‘fighting an extremist Islamic terrorist organisation that denies our right to exist’, he told them (3). Yet as some Israeli commentators have pointed out, no Arab state seriously challenges Israel’s right to exist today, and those militant groups that do – such as Hezbollah and Hamas – are too small to do anything about it. More to the point, both groups have made moves to recognise Israel’s right to exist in recent years. One Israeli commentator argues that the ‘right to exist’ question is more an obsession of the Israeli elite itself, a ‘metaphysical issue’, rather than being forced on to the agenda by any serious military force from outside Israel (4).

Israel seems effectively to be projecting its own crisis of legitimacy – its own doubt about what it exists for, and even where exactly it exists in terms of territory – on to those isolated groups that challenge its right to existence. Israel’s own existential crisis, if you like, translates into an obsession with those who say it should not exist in the first place. Here we can see that one reason why Israel is pursuing a war against Hezbollah is in order to alleviate its own doubt about the purpose for its existence. In a sense, it uses military force in order to assert, even to prove, that it exists, and that it exists for a reason. Israel hopes that by attacking those who challenge its right to existence – however isolated and minuscule they may be – it can demonstrate why it exists and, as the IDF’s Halutz says, that there will be a ‘continued existence’ (5).

You can see something similar in the discussion about Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’. Many Israeli leaders and supporters seem more concerned with asserting their right to use force than with simply getting on with the business of using force to defeat an enemy that allegedly threatens their security. President George W Bush said: ‘My message to Israel is that as a sovereign nation, you have every right to defend yourself.’ (6) Another US official said America ‘recognises Israel’s right to defend itself’ – a way of supporting the theory that Israel can use force without necessarily signing up for the practical consequences of such force in Lebanon (7). It is almost as if Israel uses force in order to show that it has a right to use force. This looks less like the use of military force to achieve a definite end (except maybe that 13 miles thing) but rather the use of military force for its own sake: to show both that Israel exists and that it can use force to ensure its ‘continued existence’. There seems to be something new here: a war to assert legitimacy.

Hezbollah, also, uses force to make a point rather than to achieve an aim. The military wing of Hezbollah has become isolated in Lebanese society, seen as unnecessary by many Lebanese people and as a burden, increasingly, by its bespectacled and respectable members of parliament. Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on northern Israel look like a desperate attempt to show that, contrary to all the evidence, Hezbollah is still a force to be reckoned with. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, says the attacks on northern Israel show that Hezbollah has ‘brains, capacities and expertise’ (8). He seems more concerned with the symbolism of Hezbollah’s attacks rather than with their strategic impact. Following a successful Hezbollah strike on an Israeli navy ship, Nasrallah said: ‘Look into the middle of the sea, facing Beirut, the Israeli warship that has pounded the infrastructure, people’s homes and civilians – look at it burning. It will sink and with it will sink scores of Israeli Zionist soldiers.’ (9) In fact, the rocket caused very little damage on the ship, and no casualties at all.

Unable to launch anything like a real military attack on Israel, Nasrallah instead ‘looks into the middle of the sea’ at a minor Hezbollah hit on an Israeli ship, and imagines that Israeli soldiers, possibly even Israel itself, will ‘sink’ as a consequence. These are symbolic assaults intended to demonstrate that Hezbollah is brave and brainy, even though, as a serious military outfit, it is actually on its last legs.

Both Israel and Hezbollah use force as a substitute for politics and purpose, rather than in pursuit of those things. They are effectively staging a war in order to show that they should be taken seriously. This is why the media are so important to both sides. As Michael Ignatieff has argued, the more virtual war becomes, the more ‘the media becomes the decisive theatre of operations’ (10). Both Israel and Hezbollah are obsessed with ensuring they get the best and most positive media coverage, particularly in the West. US National Public Radio reported this week that Hezbollah is ‘running a savvy media war through their own television station Al-Manar’. It was recently reported that Assaf Shariv, Olmert’s media adviser, ‘boasted that Israelis have been interviewed by the foreign press four times as much as spokespeople for the Palestinians and the Lebanese…and [he] cited a poll of Sky News viewers that found that 80 per cent believe Israel’s attacks on Lebanon were justified.’ (11)

Meanwhile, Western supporters of both Israel and the Lebanese seem singularly obsessed by media coverage. In their columns and their blogs they monitor in minute detail what each broadcaster and newspaper says about the war. It is telling that instead of plotting the strategic developments in the conflict they analyse the extent to which media support is shifting in favour of the Israelis or the Lebanese. In war-as-stunt, where the aim is merely to assert your power or bravery to an international audience, the media become the real battlefield, where things are won and lost. Northern Israel and southern Lebanon, where the bombs are falling and people are dying, become merely a backdrop to the real battle for attention and favour.

In effect, we might say that Israel and Hezbollah are complicit in some ways: they created this conflict in an attempt to rise above their own political and moral crises and assert themselves in a seemingly dynamic and forceful manner. This takes the era of ‘humanitarian warfare’, where Western powers launch wars to demonstrate their moral superiority rather than to win territory or resources, to a new level. War is no longer fought out of necessity but rather out of narcissism. As the pretty narcissistic war reporter Chris Hedges argued in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, which told of his ‘addiction’ to the thrill of wars in Latin America, Bosnia and elsewhere: ‘War makes the world understandable, a black-and-white tableau of them and us…. [W]ar is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.’ (12) The Israel-Lebanon spat is best seen as an attempt by both sides to ‘make their world understandable’, and to ‘achieve meaning’ through force where they have failed to do so through politics or progress.

Today, launching a war can be seen as an opportunity to give an impression of agency and purpose, at a time when both of those things are absent in the world of politics. It gives an impression of agency through the calling up and deployment of thousands of soldiers and their machines, and it hints at a sense of purpose in its aim to punish an enemy in the name of some national good. Of course, such wars provide only a temporary ‘thrill’, and do nothing to resolve the crisis of purpose and legitimacy that nurtured them.

Where once states and even non-state groups fought for sovereign independence and sovereign equality, today they demand international protection or recognition. Such recognition can easily lead to occupation. At an individual level, the politics of recognition is a demand for the state to value and appreciate an individual’s identity, to affirm it on his behalf. At an international level, it effectively means the international community taking seriously a state’s right to exist in peace and security – and if necessary enforcing this right by sending in peacekeepers or setting up new borders and forms of partition. This is not a demand for sovereign independence but for continual and neverending international recognition.

That the basis for this current war is flimsy does not make it any less tragic. Indeed, it seems a war for recognition can dehumanise its victims as effectively as did earlier wars over territory or ideology. The people of Israel and Lebanon are not the subjects of this war, pushing it forward for their own aims and desires; rather, they are its objects. In a media war for international attention, the people of the region become little more than front-page symbols, of either defiance or victimhood. They are not dying in some grand battle over politics or statehood. They are dying for nothing.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Middle East

(1) Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addresses meeting of heads of local authorities, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 31 July 2006

(2) See Hezbollah, Wikipedia

(3) Peretz hints at ground operation in Lebanon, Ha’aretz, 20 July 2006

(4) Peretz hints at ground operation in Lebanon, Ha’aretz, 20 July 2006

(5) Peretz hints at ground operation in Lebanon, Ha’aretz, 20 July 2006

(6) On the brink of chaos, Guardian, 17 July 2006

(7) Bush’s indifference drives conflict, Guardian, 14 July 2006

(8) Defiant Nasrallah warns: ‘We are ready for open war’, Daily Star, 15 July 2006

(9) Defiant Nasrallah warns: ‘We are ready for open war’, Daily Star, 15 July 2006

(10) Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond, Michael Igntieff, Vintage, 2001

(11) Unfriendly fire from all sides, Guardian, 31 July 2006

(12) War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges, Public Affairs Ltd, 2002

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Topics Politics


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