By Ramzi Kassem
Lebanon has come under Israeli attack countless times before. But, for the first time, I am not there with my mother, grandmother, and loved ones as the steel and fire rain down. With no safe way into or out of the country, all I can do is write.
The cause of the crisis is plain. Operating under an outdated set of assumptions, Hizballah failed to recognize that capturing Israeli soldiers at this juncture offered Israel an opportunity to further strategic objectives beyond the return of those prisoners. Instead of the customary limited cross-border reprisal raids and heated rhetoric followed by back-channel negotiations and prisoner exchanges, Israel launched its cynical collective punishment campaign against mostly civilian targets in Lebanon, prompting Hizballah to launch rockets on Israeli towns. Hundreds of Lebanese civilian deaths later, Israel’s gambit appears to be that its siege will bring internal and international pressure on Hizballah to disarm or withdraw from the border. Hizballah, of course, will seek to survive as Lebanon’s only credible deterrent against lasting Israeli occupation.
Israel is presently attempting to accomplish through indirect means what it failed to do through direct military confrontation with the Hizballah guerrilla during its twenty year occupation of southern Lebanon. Because the Israeli military was powerless against the resistance, they decided to exploit Lebanon’s impotence against the lethal combination of Israeli military might and unconditional U.S. diplomatic cover. The U.S. government’s role in greenlighting this unrestrained onslaught, offering Israel effective impunity as it targets civilian infrastructure, killing innocent men, women, and children, is not lost on people in the Middle East and beyond. The incalculable damage to America’s already severely depleted credibility as a result of Israel’s actions in Lebanon and Gaza will be hard to compensate.
But for America and Israel — as indeed for all those who enjoy absolute power — credibility is expendable and they would sooner dispense with building good will than delay asserting total hegemony. What illustrates this abysmal chasm in power and military capability separating Israel from its neighbors far more than the morbid statistics reflecting the greater loss in blood and treasure on the Lebanese and Palestinian sides is a simple object carrying radically different meanings for the powerful and the powerless: the candle. Sitting here in New York today, I see the candle much as you do: a quaint, ceremonial object, an obsolete, sometimes-fragrant luxury. But in the back of my mind it still carries an altogether different significance, a remnant of days and nights spent in stuffy, dank cellars serving as makeshift bombshelters. The year was 1982 and I was a child huddled with other unarmed and frightened civilians — not unlike the people of Lebanon and Gaza today — trying to survive the Israeli siege and the war raging outside. With scarce provisions, no electricity and no light, the candle was our precarious, flickering rampart against darkness and death.
That lone, lit candle represents the helplessness and subjugation of the Lebanese and Palestinian civilians who are paying the ultimate price. Those of us privileged enough to live far from harm’s way should light a candle in solidarity with the powerless and to reject the Bush administration’s unquestioning support for the Israeli war machine. As for the powerful of this world, they should pray that these isolated flames never grow into a fire.
Ramzi Kassem was born in Beirut and practices law out of New York City, focusing on litigation relating to police misconduct and wrongful conviction cases. He is also an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School.