The Mideastwire Blog

Excerpts from the Arab and Iranian Media & Analysis of US Policy in the Region

Did Nasrallah just end the 1996 April Understanding? Probably not…

Angry Arab suggested that he read Nasrallah’s speech as ending the landmark April Understanding of 1996 (an agreement that sadly very few current analysts, especially in the field of human rights, are aware of).

I will defer to him for the moment since I was live blogging from Ali Rizk’s simul-cast English translation at Press TV.

BUT, my initial interpretation is that these words, for example, do not signal an end to the 1996 understanding:

“…Nasrallah also announced that his party “no longer recognizes rules of engagement.”

“This issue of you strike me here, and I strike you there, that’s ended,” he added, but did not elaborate further on his dramatic statement two days after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a border attack near the Shebaa Farms.

“We no longer accept dividing up the battlefield,” the Hezbollah chief also said, in a reiteration of his statement in an interview with Al-Mayadeen television earlier in January that the Golan front against Israel was linked to Hezbollah’s Lebanese one.”

— For me the key component of the April Understanding (AU) logic – which I linked to and referred to the other day here (including the counter-productive US “side letter” which undermined it) – is not about how a response to an attack might be disproportionate or not…. or that it may occur anywhere in the field of battle etc….this is NOT a part of the AU.

The critical part of the AU is the idea of leaving civilians and civilian populated areas out of the battle… even if there is a military base in downtown Tel Aviv (and yes that is where the IDF HQ is, next to a hospital…) or if hizbullah is hiding rockets under a kids bed in the suburbs, that is not fair “game”.. at least not until the other side breaks the AU (which of course, in so far as civilian populated areas may then become targeted, is NOT an ok practice and is illegal even if it is “revenge” for an obvious wrong).

In this reading I do not see how Nasrallah’s speech today “ended” the AU which has been a critical text for Hizbullah and for domestic consumption/legitimacy. I think he said that the military area of operations is now clearly from Naquora to the eastern edge of the occupied golan, and that 1:1, tit-for-tat conflicts are no longer a rule. This is NEW…. but not an abrogation of the key AU text.

Some more on the The April Understanding, April 30, 1996, from our “Voice of Hezbollah” book (Verso, 2007)

Buffered by a joint Israeli-Syrian willingness to finally negotiate, the verbal Understanding of 1993 generally held in Lebanon to the extent that the country did not again incur another massive attack by Israel. However, as Hezbollah operations against Israeli forces within the “security zone” intensified in March 1996, perhaps as a means of signifying Syrian President Hafez Assad’s dismay over the US-led Sharm El Sheik anti-terrorism conference of that month (which he was not invited to and which he had refused to attend), the always tenuous verbal terms of 1993 quickly began to unravel as Israel sought to retaliate widely both inside and outside of the “security zone.” Although the sequence of causality and blame is difficult to reconstruct in the absence of a written document, US peace negotiator Dennis Ross, in his post mortem, The Missing Peace, acknowledges that Israeli fire into civilian areas of Lebanon served as the catalyst for the first Hezbollah rocket fire into Northern Israel. He reiterates his particular understanding, however, that the terms of the 1993 agreement permitted such Israeli action and that Hezbollah, in any event, had begun to “show far less concern than previously about [actually] shooting [rather than merely staging attacks] from Lebanese civilian areas.”

Israel’s “Grapes of Wrath campaign that followed started on April 11, and ended 16 days later with 165 Lebanese civilians killed, 401 wounded and widespread damage to civilian infrastructure including highways, bridges and electrical stations. Although there were far fewer refugees than in 1993, the Israeli shelling – deliberate or not – of a UN compound at Qana on April 18 that killed 98 Lebanese villagers dealt a similarly powerful moral blow to Peres’s claim to be merely trying to end “Hezbollah terror.” More of a blow than Qana, however, was the fact that Peres and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) were forced to recognize that its enemy was simply not going to run out of Katyusha rockets, contrary to earlier, widely incorrect assessments. In other words, if the IDF campaign continued without a large-scale, sustained ground operation, the attacks within Israel might continue all the way up to the Israeli elections in late May.

         Given all this, the US was forced to change its course from supporting Israel’s campaign to intervening in the hopes of achieving a cease-fire that might simultaneously end the carnage and bolster Peres’s increasingly precarious position well before voting actually started (a Labor victory was seen as vital by the Clinton administration for moving the peace process forward).

         Apparently undeterred by its weakened bargaining position however, the initial US proposal sought to end attacks on civilians but also, according to Hala Jabber, “called for Hezbollah to be disarmed and for an end to its resistance against Israeli troops in the security zone. Provided no attacks took place for nine months, Israel would then commence discussions on a military withdrawal from Lebanon [emphasis added].”

         The maximalist US proposal was roundly rejected by the Lebanese government, Hezbollah and Syria. Instead, the dynamics of the situation which had turned so strongly against the US and Israel shortly promulgated a far different, written agreement – “The April Understanding” – promoted by the French. Most significantly, the Understanding 1) affirmed the legitimacy of violent operations in Lebanon 2) greatly restricted attacks on Lebanese civilians by the Israelis, and 3) placed a modest prohibition on Hezbollah rocket attacks launched, though not staged, directly from civilian areas.

         In a surprising turn, however US Secretary of State Warren Christopher immediately undermined the agreed upon language by sending a “side letter” to Peres which read: “The United States understands that the [latter] prohibition refers not only to the firing of weapons, but also to the use of these areas by armed groups as bases from which to carry out attacks.” Of course, a new debate over what constituted a “base” might have been joined, and Nasrallah was certainly well prepared for such a legalistic discussion, but the damage had already been done: Israel had language which the parties had not agreed upon that gave it a far freer hand in the future to again fire into civilian areas.

         That said, the Understanding itself still stands as a remarkable document in the history of US foreign policy. Having designated Hezbollah by name as an enemy of the peace process by Executive Order in 1995, the Clinton administration now recognized, though not in name, the intrinsic right for Hezbollah to carry out attacks within Lebanon, irregardless of any preconditions or the immediate needs of the peace process.

            For Hezbollah, as Nasrallah makes clear in the interview below with As Safir, this obviously represented a crucial victory. Equally important, as Jabber explains, “Prior to ‘Operation Accountability,’ the Lebanese government had disputed the merits of the Islamic resistance. The Lebanese public had also voiced criticisms of Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel’s northern border and the government had deployed the army in the South in an attempt to disarm and control the guerrillas. In the wake of ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath,’ Lebanon was prepared to defend Hezbollah’s right to exist before the world.”

Of course, the entire episode and even the Understanding itself also exposed a continuing vulnerability for the Party – mainly in terms of the pain which its operations were acknowledged as having wrought for many Lebanese and Lebanese Shiites exposed to Israel’s massive attacks. Hezbollah was therefore, in a sense, weaker after Grapes of Wrath since it now had to even more carefully calibrate its future operations according to the far clearer terms of a public document. Irresponsibly causing widespread dislocation would, in the future, be a far easier charge to level, all the more so since Israel would occasionally single out Christian and Druze infrastructure (like electricity plants) for attack as a means of dividing Lebanon against the Shiites.

Indeed, although the Party, supported, in part, by funding from Iran, made a point of rebuilding the homes destroyed by Israel, such efforts did not prevent then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who at least one report said had been privately dismayed by Hezbollah’s willingness to wager the country’s reconstruction, from calling the parliamentary elections which followed in the fall of 1996 a battle between “moderation” and “extremism” – a dichotomy which Nasrallah goes to some length to reject.

Written by nickbiddlenoe

January 30, 2015 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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