On 11 April 1996, Israeli Labour Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered Operation Grapes of Wrath, a 16-day bombing and shelling attack on southern Lebanon to eliminate Hezbollah bases. Almost 200 Lebanese civilians died and up to half a million were displaced. Roads, bridges and power stations were destroyed. The victims included more than 100 civilians killed when Israel shelled a UN compound in Qana where they were seeking refuge.
On 12 July 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party ordered attacks across Lebanon following a cross-border raid by Hezbollah into northern Israel which led to eight Israelis being killed and two kidnapped. As this piece was being written, roads, bridges, power stations and Beirut’s port and airport had been hit. Almost half a million Lebanese civilians have fled Israel’s bombs and more than 200 have been killed.
There are parallels connecting all three events. But today’s avoidable crisis is not a repeat of 1982 or even of 1996. History records that the previous two were spuriously justified by cross-border incidents of little consequence. The real motivation in 1982 was Israel’s desire to destroy the PLO and impose a government in Lebanon willing to make peace. In 1996, it was to convince the Israeli people that Peres was as tough as his Likud opponent Binyamin Netanyahu in the run-up to the prime ministerial election. None of these objectives was achieved.
In 2006, Israel’s attack is disproportionate and in breach of the 1949 Geneva Accord which outlaws collective punishment of civilian communities. But, as Saudi Arabia has acknowledged, it was provoked by the lethal Hezbollah adventure.
In 1982, Israel’s actions were reported at a distance by a press corps that was partly subject to military censorship. Israel’s Phalangist allies were given more than a day to butcher Palestinian civilians with an impunity reminiscent of Nazi death squads in World War II. Press scrutiny was closer in 1996. The slaughter at Qana was quickly detected and the outcry brought the operation to an end.
This year, reporting of events in Lebanon has been comprehensive and instantaneous. Arab satellite television channels, which did not exist in 1996, have covered the war relentlessly. Mass murder of civilians has been made much more difficult.
In 1982, the US government turned a blind-eye on the assault and privately urged Israel on. In 1996, it took US President Clinton eight days to issue a ceasefire call which only came after the Qana atrocity. In contrast, the US this year was almost immediately put on the defensive by complaints from practically every quarter about Israel’s overheated response. The joint statement issued by the G8 countries at St Petersburg on 16 July failed to criticise Israel but included a qualified ceasefire call.
Neither Iran nor Syria, which some blame for Hezbollah’s actions, have been hit. Back in 1982, Israel’s freedom to do what it liked included attacking Syrian ground forces and shooting down an estimated 80 Syrian jets.
The world has changed radically in the past quarter of a century. Governments can no longer get away with phoney excuses for war and massive attacks on civilians. Israel is damaging Lebanon and terrifying the innocent. But it is not being allowed to ruin an entire nation as it was in the pa