A column about war

The perennial conflict in the Middle East always seems so far away. The ancient, bombing-riven desert landscape that we see on the news bears more in common with George Lucas’ fictional Star Wars landscape of Tattooine than the comfortable, urbanised Sydney we live in. Even further away for us predominantly secular Australians is the mindset that has fuelled this conflict. It’s hard to relate to bearing a massive grievances on the basis of territory and past conflicts. Most Australians only get fired up about land ownership issues at home auctions.

It’s even harder to imagine being willing to die for your religion. You’d have to imagine Hillsong Church’s huge numbers would drop away pretty quickly if they started asking their members to destroy themselves in a rain of holy fire rather than clap their hands and sing uplifting songs.

Most Aussies simply can’t understand why they can’t all sit down and work things out without avoiding such a fuss. Our solution would be for both parties to sit down, and maybe have a barbeque together. Everyone in the Middle East, Jewish or Muslim, loves barbequed meat, and no-one eats pork, so the catering would be simple. It’d be a whole lot better than the current situation, where everyone’s trying to barbeque each other.

But as we’ve seen this week, this conflict isn’t far away at all. Thousands of Australians were stuck in Lebanon needing urgent evacuations. And thouseands more numbers took to the streets last weekend to march against Israel’s bombing campaign. And Asaf Namer, a young Sydney man who had volunteered for the Israeli Army, was killed by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon last Wednesday. I know people who knew him at high school. In this increasingly interconnected world, we’re never more than a few connections from any crisis. As reluctant as I am to admit it, that loathesome Will Smith movie Six Degrees of Separation has a point.

No-one is without blame in this conflict. Lebanon has Hezbollah as part of its government, which was always likely to bring it into conflict with the terrorist group’s sworn enemy, Israel. Virtually all impartial observers agree that Israel has massively overreacted in the current campaign, and the Jewish state has alienated many supporters because of the high number of civilian casualties. Syria and Iran are connected with Hezbollah, and America’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s attempt to negotiate a ceasefire was laughable when her country had sold Israel a load of bombs only a few days earlier.

It’s hard to imagine anything we Australians would less like to do than get involved in a peacekeeping effort in Lebanon. Alexander Downer described the idea as “suicide”. But it’s hard to know what else we can do, because we can no longer trust anyone actually involved in the conflict to even try to resolve it.

The reality is that we as a nation already are involved. The war has dragged all of us into it to a certain degree. Israel has tried to teach Hezbollah the lesson that if it hurts Israel, the reaction will be dramatic. We need to teach Israel that if it hurts innocent civilians, our reaction will also be substantial.

John Howard said that an international deployment would need to be massive to succeed – 10,000 or more. But is there any way? International aggressors must learn that if they kill civilians, the world community’s reaction will be massive in both military and economic terms. It needs to be so inevitable that leaders are discouraged from acting by the inevitability of a fierce response. If they know they cannot achieve their aims (and really, someone should have pointed this out to new-boy Ehud Olmert), the point of a protracted campaign becomes more elusive.

As the world has shrunk, we were supposed to become friends and stop killing each other. We haven’t. Instead, one group of our friends – and more significantly, one country in which many of our compatriots hold dual citizenship – is killing another. Intervening will be highly dangerous and unpleasant. But less so, ultimately than allowing this situation to continue. The only thing you can predict in the Middle East is that the conflict simply won’t ever stop while the region is drawn up with the current parameters. So it will simply have to be stopped instead.

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