Strategic Aims of the "Grapes of Wrath" Operation

by Israel Shahak

(Mirrored from Columbia University - Area Studies MIDDLE EAST STUDIES)

Even when facing atrocities and massacres like those caused by Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" operation in April 1996, we should not allow ourselves to lose sight of the strategy for whose sake the atrocities and massacres are committed in the first place. Also, some Israeli acts committed at the beginning of "Grapes of Wrath," and condoned by the United States and other states, are in their long-range significance even worse that the massacres of Qufr Qana and Nabatiya.

I refer, first of all, to the total naval blockade imposed by Israel on all Lebanese ports, condoned by the United States. It is not by chance that exactly the same kind of naval blockade was imposed by Israel only two months before Lebanon on the Gaza Strip, over which Israel claims and exercises sovereignty. It is quite obvious, even from this single fact, that the first and most important Israeli aim to be established in the "Grapes of Wrath" is to establish its sovereignty over Lebanon--to be exercised in a comparable manner to its control over the Gaza Strip. Orders, enforced by shelling and bombing, given by Israel to the Lebanese population, to evacuate cities and villages or move on the Lebanese roads only in one direction are--in addition to their cruelty--also an exercise of sovereignty, comparable to Israeli orders given to Palestinians within areas supposedly ruled by the Palestinian Authority, to use one road but not another one.

Another and even more important indication of the real Israeli aims in regard to Lebanon is "the solution," often proposed by outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres with regard to the "security zone." He offers an Israeli withdrawal from it (after some months of quiet), but only on the condition that the "South Lebanese army will be integrated in the Lebanese army." I ask:, "What state dares to dictate to another sovereign state what would be the composition of its army, and this not covertly, as is perhaps done by the United States in the case of Central American states, but openly?"

A similar condition was indeed imposed on the armies kept by the Indian princes in British India, but it was a sign of the British sovereignty. Now a similar condition is imposed in the case of "policemen" of the Palestinian Authority, each group of whom arriving from abroad needs Israel's approval to enter the area "ruled" by the PA. In short, the first and more important Israeli aim is to reduce Lebanon formally to the condition of the Palestinian Authority by abolishing its sovereignty.

The demand, frequently made by Israel, that an outside force, such as Syria, will disband or perhaps only demilitarize Hizbullah is part of the same concept. As rightly pointed out by Graham Usher (Middle East International, 29 March 1996) "the main task of the Palestinian police ... during the intifada closure was to keep an eye on the simmering population." This is exactly the role of such external forces in any "solution" acceptable to Israel. For the same reason, it is necessary from the Israeli point of view, as was noted by Jacques Neriya, an important former advisor to the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Davar, Friday Supplement, 19 April 1996), that the Syrian alliance with Lebanon be shown as ineffective to defend either the Lebanese people or Lebanese territory. This aim, as he duly noted, was achieved, and it was to show the Syrian lack of effectiveness that Israel has attacked places very close to Syrian positions without encountering any reaction. The military forces which are to control Lebanon on Israel's behalf are, if the "Grapes of Wrath" be terminated successfully from the Israeli point of view, to be as subservient to Israel as the Palestinian police is. This will be then only a step toward establishing Israeli hegemony over the Middle East. Peres may have changed right-wing Likud politician Ariel Sharon's style but not his 1982 aims.

But, in addition to this primary aim, the "Grapes of Wrath" operation is part of a wider Israeli plan of enveloping and threatening Syria until it agrees to the Israeli (and American) demands. This is, in my view, the second strategic Israeli aim. In order to see it clearly we must consider current Israeli relations with Turkey. As pointed out by the Hebrew and Turkish press at the beginning of April and after some time confirmed by Turkish authorities, the Israeli Air Force has been permitted to train in all areas of Turkey. Alex Fishman, the knowledgeable military correspondent of Yediot Ahronot (5 April), referred in this context to the "Israeli Air Force's desire to fly in Syria's backyard," but mentioned specifically the Turkish airbase at Adana as useful for this purpose. It is also important to note that, according to Fishman, "Adana is for all intents an American airbase located on Turkish territory. This means that training of the Israeli Air Force in it had received US prior approval." He concludes that "the most important feature of this is that the Turkish airbases in which the Israeli Air Force will now train are situated, for all purposes, in Syria's backyard. They will serve as a powerful deterrent against Syria." The relations between Turkey and Syria are anyhow very tense for many reasons, which I will not rehearse here, except to say that it is clear that Israeli Air Force activities in Lebanon and Turkey are a part of the same strategic pattern.

The third Israeli strategic aim is economic. As noted by Neriya (ibid.) "the Lebanese economy, now thriving, is becoming a competitor of Israel." In this connection it can be readily understood why the two electricity power plants in Beirut that Israel had damaged are in the Christian part of the city, although as Neriya (ibid.) notes, there are electricity power plants also in the neighborhoods inhabited by Hizbullah supporters and that, as the Hebrew press commentators reported, the order to hit the first of those plants came from Peres himself. The reason, in my view, is that the present Israeli strategic aims are much wider than fighting Hizbullah. Many rich Lebanese who began to bring back their money to Lebanon and invest it there are Christians, while the Shiites are a poor community. Thus, the Israeli economic interest, as interpreted by Peres, the inventor of the "New Middle East" slogan, demands that the Christian Lebanese investors be frightened and their investments damaged by the loss of electricity. Presumably, some at least among them will take their money out of Lebanon again.

The fourth Israeli strategic aim is to increase the efficiency of the Israeli army and its self-confidence by the assault on Lebanon, which is treated as a valuable exercise under "real" but not dangerous conditions. As is know to those who pay attention to Israeli financial and military affairs, its security budget grows significantly when the Israel government talks about peace. As noted by Meir Stieglitz (Yediot Ahronot, 18 January 1996) "the first doubt [about peace] sprouts when it becomes clear that Peres the Defense Minister is not aware of the views of Peres the Prime Minister. The [Israeli] defense establishment got this year as large a budget as if it was preparing for a big war and not for a comprehensive peace." Although Stieglitz suggests, ironically, that the reason why Israel does not cut its huge army budget is that a "short circuit exists in the communication between the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister," I am of the opinion that the real reason is simpler: Israel indeed prepares for what in its habitual army jargon is called "the next war."

In support of this view it is sufficient to make an effort and read what the army officers have said to correspondents of the Hebrew press during "Grapes of Wrath." Alex Fishman reports (Yediot Ahronot, April 19) that the Israeli Air Force "acquires experience whose value cannot be compared to gold." For this reason, the Air Force went through the trouble to assure that as many of its pilots as possible would benefit from the valuable experience the "Grapes of Wrath" provides. A table was prepared (called, by the way, "Table of justice") according to which every pilot gets an equal opportunity to bomb Lebanon. The experience, so the Air Force experts told Fishman, is especially valuable for young pilots who have never yet participated in a war and who naturally fear their first real military mission. The experience of bombing Lebanon is liberating a whole generation of young pilots from this fear. The men who deal with "more complicated operations" are also acquiring more experience.

The same is true, according to other correspondents, with regard to the Artillery, which has proudly invented a new slogan: "A Golani or Paratrooper may fight, but it is the Artillery that shoots now!" Two Davar correspondents, On Levi and Guy Leshem (19 April), report on their visit to a "Colonel Ruby" who sits on a hill in Lebanon and supervises the shelling of the villages around him. They report that he feels like "Zeus on Olympus while throwing his lightning bolts around." His soldiers also reported their satisfaction: they can exhibit "their professional capabilities." Many similar accounts have been published and there can be no doubt that the general content prevailing in the army is, among other factors, influencing the Jewish Israeli public to support the "Grapes of Wrath." Since it was widely reported that the Israeli army high command had pressured Peres to begin the war in the first place (although in my view he wanted it as much as they did), the only too visible feeling of satisfaction on the part of the Israeli officers should be added to the more important wish of the army to acquire experience for "the next war."

To conclude: the "Grapes of Wrath" operation must be seen as an inseparable part of Israeli regional strategic aims. If those aims do not undergo a radical change, which in turn depends on a basic ideological change among Jewish Israelis, it can be assumed that even if a cease fire will be patched now, a similar and perhaps a worse operation will follow soon.

Israel Shahak is an Israeli peace activist and writer.