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What Is Israel’s Goal in Lebanon? Increasing Cross-Border Attacks Risk Expanding the Gaza War

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Israel is expanding its attacks in Lebanon for the third day in a row, with Israeli warplanes striking deep in the country amid growing concern about a regional escalation, and Hamas ally Hezbollah launching a barrage of over 100 rockets at Israel in response. Tens of thousands of residents of northern Israel and southern Lebanon have fled their homes as attacks rise. Israel expects “the Americans will come in and help them … knock down Hezbollah’s power,” says Rami Khouri, a Palestinian American journalist and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut. “This is not something that we should celebrate,” adds Khouri, who also discusses the historical context of decades of conflict in the Arab region, and Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Lebanon, where Israel is expanding its attacks for the third day in a row, with Israeli warplanes striking deep in Lebanon amidst growing concern about a regional escalation. Today, an Israeli drone struck a car outside the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidieh, near the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, killing both passengers. This follows a pair of Israeli airstrikes Tuesday that killed two and wounded nine in northeastern Lebanon. On Monday, Israel struck areas near the Lebanese city of Baalbek. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is an ally of Hamas, responded by launching a barrage of over a hundred rockets at northern Israel Tuesday in what’s been described as the heaviest attack since October 7th.

For more, we’re joined by Rami Khouri, Palestinian American journalist, senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut. His most recent piece for Al Jazeera is headlined “Watching the watchdogs: Biden, US media and Arab-American political power.”

Rami, welcome back to Democracy Now! We want to talk about Gaza —

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: — in a minute, but let’s begin with Lebanon and what’s happening with the attacks between Israel and Lebanon. If you can talk about the significance? Are we talking about an escalation into a regional war? What’s happening on the border, Rami?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, we are definitely witnessing an escalation. It’s been going on since the beginning of the current phase of fighting in Gaza in early October. It’s picked up a lot in the last two weeks. The Israelis have made it very clear, in public statements, openly, they want to not destroy Hezbollah, but they want to reduce its power or neutralize it as a possible military force that will threaten them, because they see Hezbollah, correctly, very closely linked to Iran, and they see Iran — I’m not so sure correctly, Israel sees Iran as its major threat in the region.

So, the Israelis keep talking about “We’ve got to do something about Hezbollah,” including they’re willing to have a war, which they expect the Americans will come in and help them on, just as the Americans are helping them do the genocide in Gaza, and now the Americans, oddly, are helping them do the humanitarian food deliveries into Gaza. So, the United States seems to be a kind of button that Israel pushes when it needs assistance in some kind of dramatic, usually illegal and often ineffective action. It pushes the Washington button, and Washington jumps up and says, “Yes, sir. What can I do?” And the Israelis expect the Americans to help them knock down Hezbollah’s power. It’s not clear that this is easily done.

And the reason Hezbollah is so strong is because it forced Israel in 2006, in the last big war in Lebanon and Israel, forced it into a ceasefire and new rules of engagement, which have generally held and still kind of hold now, because it’s sort of tit for tat: You kill one of our men, we kill one of yours; you attack a post, a military post, we attack one of yours.

But this is escalating now, and it’s not clear if Israel is really ready to or wants to actually have a full-scale war. Neither side, I think, will achieve very much, other than massive destruction in both countries. So, I remain skeptical about a full-scale war, but I’m expecting this level of tit for tat and even a higher level of assassinations, maybe hitting some infrastructure here and there — I expect that to ramp up a little bit, but not an all-out war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But already the tit for tat, Rami Khouri, has led to considerable displacement. Some 90,000 people have been forced to flee southern Lebanon. And at the same time, about 80,000 Israelis have been evacuated from the northern towns and villages by the Israeli government. If a greater conflict was to break out, what would be the impact, in your assessment, throughout the Middle East?

RAMI KHOURI: That’s always difficult to predict. What we can predict — and we see it now — is that Arab governments will not risk anything in terms of helping the Palestinians or opposing the Israelis. They will issue statements, they’ll do press conferences, they’ll send some aid, but they won’t risk anything strategic or substantive in confronting Israel, while the majority of Arab people are critical of Israel, but they’re helpless. They have no power. They used to be citizens. They’ve now been transformed into basically consumers. All they can do is buy fried chicken and go to the movies, and they have no power. Arab citizens are powerless. They’re neutered beings politically. Therefore, the policies of Arab governments tend to dominate. And that’s why in the last 30 years you’ve seen the rise of these very powerful nonstate armed actors — Hezbollah and Hamas, Ansar Allah in Yemen, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and Syria and a bunch of others. And so, what we would expect to see is more military action by some of these nonstate very powerful actors against Israel, if there’s an all-out war, and the Arab countries, you know, asking for a ceasefire.

The Iranians are the big question mark. Would the Iranians get involved in a direct confrontation with Israel? My suspicion is that they probably would not want to do that, because they know that that will bring in the Americans. Now, some people argue, “Well, that’s what they want. They want the Americans to do another foolish military adventure, like Vietnam, like Afghanistan, like Iraq. They would like the Americans to do one more in Iran.”

So, these are all speculative ideas. Nobody really knows. The only thing we know for sure is that Hezbollah and Hamas, and Ansar Allah in Yemen, the Houthis, they’re ready to fight. They’re prepared to fight. Whether this is a suicidal, you know, stupid policy is up for history to tell us. But what we’ve seen so far is that they have been able to exchange fire with Israel — and the U.S., in some cases — and wake up and do it again the next day.

This is not something that we should celebrate. You know, the Middle East is a cauldron of nonstop violence, including what you mentioned, the huge amount of displaced civilians. This is painful to ordinary families. I witnessed it in Lebanon, in Palestine, in Jordan and Syria, to see the refugees that have to run around when wars happen. You know, it happened in Iraq. It happened in Kuwait, in Yemen, all over the place. And we don’t want to see another round of this.

But this is the inevitable consequence of allowing the Arab-Israeli conflict to expand for a hundred years, for a century, with direct, explicit, ongoing and expanding American and British aid and arms and political protection at the U.N. If you do that, this is what you’re going to get. So, it’s kind of insincere and rather immature and comic for American officials or British officials to say, “Look, there’s a danger of a war.” Of course there’s a danger of a bigger war, because your policies, combined with the policies of the Israelis and some of the Arabs, have brought us to this point, so that if you want to stop a future war, you address the underlying conditions. Why is there no big war in Afghanistan right now or Vietnam? It’s because the underlying conditions were removed, and therefore there’s some kind of normal situation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you characterize Hezbollah as a nonstate actor, but what about the relationship between Hezbollah and the Lebanese central government, for those people not familiar with Lebanese politics?

RAMI KHOURI: Hezbollah is stronger than the Lebanese government militarily. There’s no question about that. But they recognize that they are part of the Lebanese government. They’re in Parliament. They have ministers in the government, on and off. They’re not an alien force. But they expanded and became strong because the Lebanese government was unable to protect the south of Lebanon in the '60s and ’70s and ’80s, when it increasingly came under threats from Israel. When the Palestinians' guerrillas set up shop in south Lebanon at one point, that brought in Israeli reprisals. And because the Lebanese government could not protect Lebanon, Hezbollah emerged organically as the military force that both protects the south and protects all of Lebanon, in cahoots with others in the country. There’s other smaller leftist and other forces working with it. And they have a very uneasy relationship, because they are so powerful. They can spark a war, as has happened before, between Israel and Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government just can’t do anything about it. And the Lebanese people suffer, because the airport gets bombed, the electricity system stops, and terrible things happen during war.

And the Lebanese government constantly is trying to work out with Hezbollah an understanding of how they can coexist, but this is really pretty impossible to do, again, until you resolve the underlying Arab-Israeli, Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And once that is resolved, there will be no need for Hezbollah to have all these arms to protect Lebanon from Israeli attacks, because Hezbollah is not going to go and try to destroy Israel. It’s been clear that these groups, they’re critical of Israel, they trash talk it, they badmouth it, they make all these threats, but they also negotiate with it, they make prisoner exchanges, and they’ve all made it clear: If the Palestinians reach an agreement with Israel that is fair to both sides and the majority of Palestinian people support it, they will go along with it. There’s no question about that.

So, we have to constantly take our gaze away from the awful, terrible things happening now, or the potential for worse things to happen, and look back on the central, defining issue in this region. And there’s two of those issues. One of them is nonstop foreign military intervention since Napoleon, and that foreign military intervention is expanding, as we see now, especially with the Americans and the Russians and Iranians and Turks and others and British. And the other one is the Arab-Israeli conflict. These are the two biggest drivers of regional tension and warfare and instability. And those have to be addressed.

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Rami Khouri: U.S. Airdrops & Floating Pier Plan Are “Not Serious Responses” to Gaza Suffering

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