David Hirst: Overnight Lebanon has been plunged into a role it endured for 25 years

Roundup: Media's Take

The Lebanese people, habitues as few people are of the lethal, violent and unexpected, yesterday awoke to the kind of news they thought they had put behind them. Their brand-new airport, the pride of their postwar reconstruction, had been bombarded by Israeli war planes along with a host of other infrastructure projects, bringing death and devastation on a more than Gazan scale.

For some it inevitably brought to mind a bleak winter day in 1968 when, out of the blue, helicopter-borne Israeli commandos landed on the old airport and blew up 13 passenger jets, almost the entire fleet of the national carrier. The pretext: of two Palestinians who killed an Israeli at Athens airport, one came from a refugee camp in Lebanon, then an entirely peaceable country. The significance of this most spectacularly disproportionate reprisal was something the Lebanese could hardly even have guessed at then. But it was a very early portent of the long nightmare to come: military conflict with Israel, eventually to be compounded with an atrocious civil war that it did much to engender.

There is something ominously similar, in possible consequences, about yesterday's repeat Israeli performance. Ever since the Israelis ended their occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, this weak and diminutive country has enjoyed an almost unmarred respite from the turbulence of the region to which it so easily and habitually falls victim. But overnight it has been plunged back into the role it endured for a quarter century and more - that of hapless arena for other people's wars, as well as pawn in the ambitions and machinations of regional players far more powerful than itself.

It is only the players who change. After 1968 it was to be the Palestinian resistance movement, with Lebanon as its principal power base, that was Israel's antagonist in Lebanon. Now it is Hizbullah. To be sure, Hizbullah is Lebanese in everything that defines nationality, and it has cabinet ministers and members of parliament. That is why Israel could so plausibly blame the Lebanese government for the seizure of its two soldiers. Yet blaming Lebanon was as about as futile as blaming President Mahmoud Abbas for the earlier capture of an Israeli solder in Gaza. If Islamists act on their own in Palestine, Hizbullah does so even more blatantly in Lebanon. It is a virtual state within a state, with a militia more powerful than the Lebanese army. Of course, in its Lebanese self Hizbullah places that army in the defence of Lebanon. But it has another self - another identity, mission, agenda - that it always tries to reconcile with its Lebanese one, but in the final analysis cannot: that of universal jihad and all that now implies in terms of non-Lebanese regional ambitions, allegiances, obligations and constraints. Palestine now looms largest in that. Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, openly asserts it: Hizbullah's task is not merely to liberate the last pocket of Lebanese soil, the Sebaa farms, it is to help shape the outcome of the Arab-Israeli struggle....

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