Chris Hedges: Mutually Assured Destruction in the Middle East
Editor’s note: The former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times and author of the bestseller “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” argues in this Truthdig column that the bloodshed now engulfing Lebanon and Israel will only worsen as long as extremists on both sides continue to indulge in “collective necrophilia.”
ISRAEL’S air, land and sea blockade of Lebanon, which includes jet fighter strikes against the airport in Beirut, presages a new era in the Middle East, one in which the center has collapsed and Muslim and Jewish extremists, capable only of the language of violence, determine the parameters of existence. These strikes, like the suicide bombings carried out by Islamic militants in Iraq or Israel, expose the Ahab-like self-immolation that now inflects the region. And unless it is halted soon, unless those fueling these conflicts learn to speak another language, unless they break free from an indulgence in collective necrophilia, the Middle East will slip into a death spiral.
This has been a long time coming. The Bush administration never had any interest in helping to broker Middle Eastern peace agreements. This willful negligence was seen as befriending Israel, along with the bizarre demands of the Christian right. In fact, the administration befriended only an extreme political wing in Israel that, since the death of Yitzhak Rabin, has done a pretty effective job of endangering the Jewish state by dismantling all mechanisms for peace and turning Israel into an international pariah. As the machinery of Middle Eastern diplomacy rusted shut with disuse it was gleefully replaced by harsher Israeli closures, curfews, shelling and airstrikes. Palestinians have, since Bush arrived in office, been reduced by Israel to a subsistence existence matched only by Africans’. And the tools of repression against Palestinians now match those once imposed on South African blacks by the apartheid regime, with the exception that the South Africans never sent warplanes to bomb the townships.
And why should this not be so? In this binary worldview, force is the only thing Arabs understand. This logic only fuels those in the Arab world who also speak exclusively in the language of violence. The escalating repression by Israel, like the escalating repression by the American occupiers in Iraq, has become the most potent recruiting tool for Islamic extremists. It has rendered each side deaf and dumb. As those under the boot of Israel or America lose all hope for justice, as they give up on peaceful recourses to ameliorate their plight, as they fall into despair, it throws them, by default, into the hands of extremists. And as the extremists grow and their attacks became more deadly, it likewise helps silence those in Israel and the United States who call for compassion, restraint and understanding. It is difficult to argue with those holding up bloodied corpses. Each side finds it useful to keep the supply coming.
In this demented world, friend and foe need each other. Hamas and Hezbollah yearn, on some level, for Israeli airstrikes against civilians just as the hard right in Israel yearns in some dark way for suicide bombers. The indiscriminate violence of one justifies the indiscriminate violence of the other. The violence stokes the fear that is the driving force behind all messianic, violent movements — American, Jewish and Muslim. And since these groups have nothing to offer other than violence, they need fear to keep those around them compliant. The atrocities committed by one — real or imagined – make possible the atrocities of the other.
Does anyone in the Israeli government really believe that attacking Lebanon and killing more than 60 Lebanese civilians will ensure the freedom of the two captured Israeli soldiers? There have been hostages, including Israeli hostages, taken captive in Lebanon before, and most have been freed through long and painful negotiations. If the Israelis do believe in this violence, it is a sad indication of how out of touch they are with the world that opposes them.
We cannot ascribe equal amounts of moral blame to all sides. Israel is the oppressor in Gaza, the West Bank and now Lebanon. America is the oppressor in Iraq. And there can be no hope for a peaceful resolution to these conflicts until Iraqis are freed from American occupation and Palestinians are allowed to build a viable state. It is the distorting and dehumanizing effects of occupation that made possible the proliferation of extremist groups that, albeit on a smaller scale, simply hand back to the occupier some of their own medicine. The numbers, after all, make clear that most of the victims are Palestinian, Iraqi and now Lebanese civilians, although the numbers game can also obscure the fact that the murder of any innocent by any group is indefensible.
This is the world of the apocalypse. It is the world where those on either extreme become indistinguishable. And if we do not find a new way to speak, and soon, there will be untold suffering — not only for many innocents in the Middle East but eventually innocents at home. It was the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that spawned and empowered Hezbollah. It was the decades-long occupation and humiliation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank by Israel that spawned and empowered Hamas, and it is the brutal American occupation that has bred the legions of extremists in Iraq. And when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promises “open war” against Israel, as he did in an address shortly after his Beirut offices were bombed, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he won’t cease his attack until Israel is secure, it is time to run for cover, especially when George W. Bush is our best hope for peace.
Chris Hedges, the former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. He has 15 years of experience reporting from war zones in the Persian Gulf, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, the West Bank and Gaza, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, the Punjab, Bosnia and Kosovo.
In 2002, he shared a Pulitzer Prize for The New York Times’ coverage of global terrorism. Hedges is the author of the bestseller “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.”