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  • Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East
  • Kail C. Ellis
Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, by David Hirst. New York: Nation Books, 2010. iv + 427 pages. Notes to p. 460. Index to p. 480. $29.95.

The weakness of Lebanon’s inter-sect political system1 and its strategic location in the Middle East has since the 19th century allowed outside forces to influence its domestic affairs, and has led the small state into both regional conflicts and entanglements with the Great Powers. David Hirst’s Beware of Small States demonstrates the disastrous effect of these deficits on Lebanon’s recent history. Hirst, a 50-year resident of Lebanon as a reporter for The Guardian, relates in vivid detail a tragically familiar chronology, culminating in the attacks of 9/11 and a new era of upheaval: Lebanon’s slide into the Arab-Israeli conflict after the 1967 War; the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) state-within-astate; the disintegration of Lebanon and its collapse into civil war in the 1970s; Israel’s invasion in 1982; the rise of Hizbullah, with Iranian support; the ascendancy of fundamentalist Islam; and the attempt to redraw the map of the Middle East to make Israel the cornerstone of a peaceful region.

Israel’s role in Lebanon features prominently in Hirst’s narrative. He acknowledges that this book did not start out as a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At every stage, however, that conflict intruded on his subject, and became the lens through which he viewed Lebanon. Hirst’s history of Lebanon encompasses the history of the Arab-Israeli struggle, including the ways in which not only Israel, but Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the PLO — all of which fought proxy wars in Lebanon — contributed to Lebanon’s destruction.

Syria’s occupation of Lebanon was both strategic and pragmatic: it ruled the Lebanese Government through compliant agents and plundered it financially of several billion dollars a year. Syria also exerted military [End Page 487] pressure on Israel through its Lebanese agents without engaging its own military. Iran, through its support of Hizbullah’s fight against Israel, used Lebanon to enhance its pan-Islamic credentials.

Hirst’s chapter on Husayn Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hizbullah, whom he calls the “Warrior-Priest,” contains a crucial account of the issue of Hizbullah’s sophisticated weaponry, which has engendered sectarian tensions, especially between Sunnis and Shi‘ites. According to the Lebanese Government and its supporters, it was Hizbullah’s weaponry that brought the catastrophe of a month-long Israeli invasion in 2006, and then the threat of civil war in 2008. Yet Hizbullah enjoys significant support among Lebanese Shi‘ites — one third of the population — because its weaponry connects the concept of resistance with the Shi‘ite need for empowerment.

One chilling result of Hizbullah’s July 2006 conflict with Israel is the latter’s Dahiya Doctrine, named after the southern suburb of Beirut where Hizbullah had its headquarters, which the Israeli Air Force reduced to rubble. Under the Dahiya Doctrine — and here Hirst quotes Israeli military leaders — there will be no distinction between civilian and military targets in Israel’s next round of war with Hizbullah. Hirst asserts that since 1973, when Israel ceased fighting wars against regular Arab armies, and began battling non-state militias (first Fatah, and then Hizbullah and Hamas) it never has truly won a war. Alarmed that its deterrent power had been declining, Israel has developed not only new military tactics, but also new ethical codes. Israeli leaders concluded, according to Hirst, “that the whole body of international law which governs the conduct of conventional warfare was no longer applicable to these new forms of unconventional, ‘asymmetrical’ or Islamist warfare; as far as Israel is concerned, to continue to abide by the old moralities was effectively to deny one side, the legitimate state, the right and ability to defeat the other, the ‘terrorists’ who would destroy it” (p. 412).

Hirst takes the title of his book from an 1870 letter that Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote to a friend, in which Bakunin advised “beware of small states...


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