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Ceasefire in Mideast Is Welcome, But Precarious
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By Liu Qiang

Ceasefire, at last. Israel and Hezbollah stopped hostilities Monday, after a UN Secretary-General statement was released in Beirut on Sunday, starting a precarious period in the 33-day strife. In the short term, it is hard to predict whether the ceasefire accord can be carried out to the letter. In the long run, the conflict is not the first in the region and surely not the last. In the absence of a final settlement, fighting could break out any time. But ceasefire is welcome, anyway. People's strained nerves can now be put at ease, at least for the time being.

During the 33-day conflict, Israel's powerful war machine tried to hunt down the elusive Hezbollah forces, killing more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians. One hundred or so Israelis died in rocket bombardment launched by Hezbollah. In addition, four United Nations military observers were killed and a number more wounded.

Furthermore, nearly one million people became displaced or homeless. Israel sustained colossal losses worth US$5 billion and its GDP this year is set to drop by 1.5 percentage points. The astronomical losses on the Lebanese side are yet to be calculated.

The conflict is bound to profoundly impact the regional strategic patterns.

First, Israel failed to achieve its ultimate goal and its military operations only served to fuel hatred, which could blossom into war or conflicts in the future.

Using two abducted Israeli soldiers as an excuse, Israel aimed to wipe Hezbollah out in southern Lebanon and establish a buffer zone along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz emphasized that Israel's maneuvers in Lebanon were "limited" and "pin-pointed," zeroing in on Hezbollah's warehouses, barracks, and rocket-launching sites, as well as its leaders' hideouts.

But the bombardment carried out by nearly 7,000 sorties of Israeli warplanes was not that "precise," killing and wounding large numbers of civilians and even UN observers while destroying Hezbollah targets. Conversely, Hezbollah's rockets also caused casualties among Israeli civilians.

All this rubs salt into the wounds of a 60-year-old hatred in the region. The hatred could be the detonator that could ignite another war at any time in the future.

In view of this, Israel has failed to fulfil its goal to make its borders safer.

Second, the Lebanese government troops that, together with UN peace-keeping forces, are mandated by the UN Security Council's resolution to set up a buffer zone in southern Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah, are not likely to bring the tense situation along the Israel-Lebanon border easily under control.

Taking into account that the Lebanese Government has long been unable to rein in Hezbollah's operations in the country over the years, tough measures abruptly taken by the Lebanese Government towards Hezbollah are bound to trigger Hezbollah's antagonism, or even touch off domestic strife in the country. As a result, the Middle East situation would become all the more chaotic.

In this scenario, Hezbollah, caring little if Lebanese government troops take care of the borders or not, will likely stick to its traditional hostile stance against Israel, which in turn renders it extremely difficult for the Lebanese troops to rein in tensions along the Israel-Lebanon frontier. To make matters worse, stationing Lebanese government forces in the area could lead to friction between the troops and Hezbollah and make the bad security situation worse.

Third, Hezbollah will not sheepishly turn over its arms to others. More than two decades of operating and growing in Lebanon have made Hezbollah a well-organized political-military group with a predominant role in Lebanese politics.

Its combat power and ability to survive, demonstrated during the latest conflict with Israel, caught the world by surprise. It is estimated that Hezbollah lost merely 50 men against heavy odds in the conflict with Israel. This means it retains much of its strength. Its striking power, for instance, asserted itself in the barrage of rockets fired at Israeli targets on the eve of the ceasefire.

It is hard to predict that the Lebanese government forces and UN peace keepers, in their attempt to disarm Hezbollah as is decreed by the UN Security Council's resolution, will not meet armed resistance from Hezbollah.

We may as well stretch the scenario a bit, with fairly good reason, to suppose Muslim volunteers from across the world would rally around Hezbollah, fighting Israel in a jihad. This could bring chaos to Lebanon and, in turn, the Middle East at large, facilitating the breeding of extremism and terrorism.

Fourth, conflicts over interests between Western countries, the United States in particular, and regional players will become more intense, rendering the complex Middle East issue all the more complex and altering the delicate strategic balance in the region.

The Middle East issue stems from the long-standing conflicts of interest between Israel and Arab nations. It also reflects the clashing interests of Western countries on the one hand and the regional players on the other. Some countries in the region blame the failure to settle the Middle East issue on Western countries, especially the United States, because they are partial to Israel in the six-decade standoff.

The United States, for example, did very little in the latest Israel-Hezbollah conflict, hoping that heavy strikes against Hezbollah would alter the political balance in the Middle East. Some US officials call the conflict a "surrogate war," meaning Israelis fought for the Americans and Hezbollah for the Iranians.

US President George W. Bush made it clear in his July 28 speech: "This is a moment of intense conflict in the Middle East. Yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for a broader change in the region.... The United States is committed to using all of its influence to seize this moment to build a stable and democratic Middle East."

Now that the ceasefire is being put in place, however, the United States' goal of weakening Hezbollah and, in turn, Iran has not been achieved completely. In addition, anti-Israel and anti-US feelings are running high in the Middle East, which cannot be cushioned by any buffer zone.

The ceasefire may stabilize the regional situation a bit for some time to come but cannot settle the Middle East issue once and for all. New problems may crop up from this and changes will take place on the strategic landscape in the region.

In view of all this, war can never bring stability to the Middle East. Only negotiations and dialogue offer a way out.

The author is director of the Institute of International Relations under the Jiangsu Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily August 15, 2006)


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