A lesson from Qana

August 02, 2006

When Israeli warplanes bombed the village of Qana in the spring of 1996, killing dozens of south Lebanese, including many children, it was part of a 16-day campaign to stop Hezbollah rockets from terrorizing Israeli towns. An international outcry and calls for an immediate cease-fire followed, as also happened this week. But, unlike in the present conflict, America's chief diplomat was shuttling between Damascus, Syria, and Jerusalem for a week, until a cease-fire was negotiated. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice needs to revise her travel plans; she can't negotiate an end to the bloodshed staying put in Washington.

The Bush administration is trying to have it both ways: Lead an effort to negotiate a cease-fire and weaken Hezbollah as much as possible. Israel's decision to drive deeper into south Lebanon to rout Hezbollah fighters will prolong and complicate efforts to reach a cease-fire because it will extend and intensify the fighting. And, as the Israeli bombing in Qana on Sunday showed, precision airstrikes can be devastating when the target hides among civilians.

The televised images of dead children pulled from the wreckage of a suspected Hezbollah site in Qana provoked international outrage - but not against Hezbollah. Instead, they served Hezbollah's interests by demonizing Israel (and by association, the United States) and enhancing the reputation of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

For the deaths at Qana to be a catalyst for ending this 20-day conflict, as happened in 1996, the Bush administration has to shift course and engage the behind-the-scene power brokers it has ignored. Neither Israel's military might nor Lebanon's government alone can break Hezbollah's stranglehold on south Lebanon.

A decade ago, Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent more than 22 hours talking with then-Syrian President Hafez el Assad to hammer out a cease-fire. Syrian forces occupied Lebanon then, and Israel controlled a buffer zone in the south. Neither is true today, but Damascus remains an influential ally of Hezbollah and serves as a transit point for its weapons, many of them from Iran.

Israel's 1996 bombardment of Lebanon began as this one did - in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks. And through all the seismic changes since then, the maddening reality is that Hezbollah remains entrenched.

And the longer Hezbollah can engage Israel, the stronger its political standing will become in Lebanon - and beyond.

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