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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 31st, 2008 - 01:10:27

�Divide and rule� in the Mideast
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 31, 2008, 01:08

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Both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories are in crisis. Superficially, their respective problems appear very different, but, in fact, they are similar in more ways than one. The troubles of both Arab nations in large part stem from divisions deliberately engendered by major powers for their own ends.

Divisions in Lebanon have virtually paralyzed the country. The government is rudderless, disunited and, according to the opposition, unconstitutional due to the Shiite bloc�s walkout. It cannot even agree on who should fill the void left when Emile Lahoud moved out of the presidential palace last November. The Hariri coalition insists the army chief, Gen. Michel Suleiman, should be president. Hezbollah is rooting for the Free Patriotic Party�s Michel Aoun, who accuses the US of blocking his candidacy. Stalemate! Laws needing to be passed are left pending while the economy totters. Rampant inflation has triggered strikes and violent demonstrations. The capital�s beating heart, Downtown, has been taken over by opposition protesters complete with tents and primus stoves. Tourism, once a money spinner, is practically nonexistent. Donor countries that pledged huge sums in aid to Lebanon at last January�s Paris conference are reluctant to cough up due to the unstable environment.

The pro-Western March 14 coalition, led by Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, blame Hezbollah and its foreign backers for the country�s woes. Conversely, Hezbollah accuses March 14 leaders of being Washington�s puppets. Stalemate!

It�s a similar story with the Palestinians, who, unlike the Lebanese, were united against a common enemy until the death of their former president, Yasser Arafat, in 2004.

Nobody can say he was faultless but he was the glue that kept Palestinians together, perhaps because his patriotism and his credentials as a freedom fighter were never in question. Arafat had, albeit reluctantly, anointed Mahmoud Abbas as his successor and to the latter�s credit he managed a reasonably seamless succession.

Then, in 2005, along came the so-called international community that takes its marching orders from the US. Palestinians must have free, fair and internationally monitored elections, said the Westerners.

The Palestinians enthusiastically fell into line and the result was a massive parliamentary victory for Hamas. Well done on your fair and free elections was the international community�s verdict with the caveat �Sorry, we can�t accept the result. Hamas is, after all, a terrorist organization.� Worse, it then orchestrated a deliberate campaign to bring down Hamas based on bringing the Palestinian people to their knees. It backed the losing side, Fatah, and encouraged its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to confront Hamas in a power struggle with devastating results in terms of division and bloodshed.

The labeling of Hezbollah and Hamas as �terrorist� by Washington and its allies is the crux of the problem in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Both are groups that emerged in answer to Israel�s respective occupation of Palestine and southern Lebanon. Both are committed to freeing their lands from occupation.

Furthermore, both Hezbollah and Hamas boast large followings and cannot be written off as inconsequential splinter organizations. So when they are treated as terrorist, so are their followers, who make up a large percentage of Lebanese and Palestinian populations.

Such Western-imposed labeling stands as a barrier to unity governments in Lebanon and Palestine, and pits one side against the other without providing any channels for dialogue. In both countries under discussion, the side that is backed by the US is either forbidden from accepting olive branches from the other or decline to do so for fear they will be internationally tarred with the same brush. Stalemate!

Political and economic inertia in Lebanon, and the separation of the West Bank, governed by Fatah, from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip plays right into the hands of Israel. As long as the Lebanese and the Palestinians are busy warring against one another, they remain perpetually weak and ineffectual.

Certainly keeping Palestinians divided is in Israel�s interests because it can shore up international good will with gestures toward the creation of a Palestinian state and, at the same time, bemoan the fact it doesn�t have a credible peace partner. There also remains the possibility that Israel is following another agenda: the creation of a non-threatening mini Palestinian entity on the West Bank with Gaza left to fend for itself or turned over to Egypt.

There will be no light at the end of the tunnel for either the Lebanese or the Palestinians unless they can free themselves from foreign interference and bury their differences. Ideally, they need leaders in the mold of Nelson Mandela able to inspire all factions and persuade them to adopt a policy of forgiveness and reconciliation. If not, the crack between the secular progressives and the religious ideologues will widen until it becomes an eternally impassable chasm.

When will people in this region learn that those lurking foreign powers are out to further their own agendas? They care not one jot for the well-being of either the Lebanese or the Palestinians. Theirs is a deceptive and deadly dance of power with the soil of Lebanon and Palestine their chosen venues.

They tease the audience with their cash and weapons. Like sirens they sing out unattainable promises of freedom and democracy or of helping to eradicate an enemy. Their smiles are as empty as their hearts, while under their elaborate cloaks hides a sword. In truth, they are the enemy and the only hope for the peoples of Lebanon and Palestine is to quit internal squabbling and unite against them . . . all of them.

The strategy of divide and rule, perfected by the British, is one of the oldest known to mankind. It�s time Lebanese and Palestinians recognize they are currently its victims before it�s too late to turn back the bloody tide of hatred and despair.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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