The Middle East is a tinderbox, with key players on all sides waiting for every opportunity to destroy their enemies with bullets, bombs and missiles. One of the special vulnerabilities of Israel, and a repetitive cause of violence, is the taking and holding of prisoners. Militant Palestinians and Lebanese know that a captured Israeli soldier or civilian is either a cause of conflict or a valuable bargaining chip for prisoner exchange. This assumption is based on a number of such trades, including 1,150 Arabs, mostly Palestinians, traded for three Israelis in 1985; 123 Lebanese for the remains of two Israeli soldiers in 1996; and 433 Palestinians and others for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers in 2004.
This stratagem precipitated the renewed violence that erupted in June when Palestinians dug a tunnel under the barrier that surrounds Gaza and assaulted some Israeli soldiers, killing two and capturing one. They offered to exchange the soldier for the release of 95 women and 313 children who are among almost 10,000 Arabs in Israeli prisons, but this time Israel rejected a swap and attacked Gaza in an attempt to free the soldier and stop rocket fire into Israel. The resulting destruction brought reconciliation between warring Palestinian factions and support for them throughout the Arab world.
Hezbollah militants in south Lebanon then killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others, and insisted on Israel's withdrawal from disputed territory and an exchange for some of the several thousand incarcerated Lebanese. With US backing, Israeli bombs and missiles rained down on Lebanon. Soon, Hezbollah rockets supplied by Syria and Iran were striking northern Israel.
It is inarguable that Israel has a right to defend itself against attacks on its citizens, but it is inhumane and counterproductive to punish civilian populations in the illogical hope that somehow they will blame Hamas and Hezbollah for provoking the devastating response. The result instead has been that broad Arab and worldwide support has been rallied for these groups, while condemnation of both Israel and the US has intensified.
Israel belatedly announced, but did not carry out, a two-day cessation in bombing Lebanon, responding to the global condemnation of an air attack on the Lebanese village of Qana, where 57 civilians were killed and where 106 died from the same cause 10 years ago. As before there were expressions of "deep regret," a promise of "immediate investigation" and the explanation that dropped leaflets had warned families in the region to leave their homes.
The urgent need in Lebanon is that Israeli attacks stop, that Lebanon's regular military forces control the southern region of the country, that Hezbollah cease as a wholly separate fighting force and that future attacks against Israel be prevented. Israel should withdraw from all Lebanese territory, including Shebaa Farms, and release Lebanese prisoners. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected such a ceasefire.
These are ambitious hopes, but even if the UN Security Council adopts and implements a resolution that would lead to such an eventual solution, it will provide just another band-aid and temporary relief. Tragically, the current conflict is part of the inevitably repetitive cycle of violence that results from the absence of a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, exacerbated by the almost unprecedented six-year absence of any real effort to achieve such a goal.