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Thanassis Cambanis chat transcript on the Israel - Lebanon conflict

Thanassis Cambanis, The Boston Globe's co-chief of The Boston Globe's Middle East bureau, chatted with our readers on Monday, July 31 about the violent, ongoing conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, a militant group and political party that operates out of southern Lebanon. Normal View Title

Angela_Shaw: Thanassis Cambanis is logging in now and will be chatting shortly. Please send in your questions now! Thanks!
Thanassis_Cambanis: Hello – Sorry to keep anyone waiting. I just got back from a 10-hour excursion to Bint Jbail, in southern Lebanon, right next to the Israeli border. It was the sight of a major battle last week between Israeli ground troops and Hezbollah. Israel pulled out of the town, which is the most destroyed place I’ve ever seen. The entire city center has been pounded to the ground. We walked for an hour through streets in which not a single house was still intact.
Thanassis_Cambanis: At any rate, I’m ready for your questions about what’s happening in southern Lebanon.
ashley: Since so many civilians, including women and children, have been killed in Lebanon by Israeli attacks, do you feel less safe than usual? Are you in more danger than when you were in Iraq?
Thanassis_Cambanis: This war has been brutal for civilians here. Journalists have fared better. So far one has been killed. We worry about getting shelled on the roads or hit by bombs. We hear Israeli drones overhead almost continuously, so we assume -- perhaps erroneously -- that they can see us and recognize that our cars have been marked "press." But that's no guarantee, and driving the roads from Tyre to Bint Jbail or Qana or Tibnene has been an incredibly nerve-wracking and spooky experience.
Thanassis_Cambanis: It's hard and perhaps impossible to compare to Iraq, where the danger was more of getting kidnapped, or finding yourself accidentally in the path of a suicide bomb. In this war, in southern Lebanon, we worry about getting hit by a targeted bomb, or getting caught in the crossfire of shelling.
stan: what's the feasibility of a cease fire happening this week? seems impossible
Thanassis_Cambanis: Certainly, if Israel and Hezbollah saw it in their interests to commit to ceasefire, it would be possible to enact within hours. It seems though that both sides feel they have more to gain from continuing the fighting than from stopping. Israel has stated its aims to destroy or weaken Hezbollah, and wants days or weeks more of strikes to approach that goal. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has seen domestic criticism virtually disappear as Lebanese from factions usually criticial of it have rallied around its cause. The result for Hezbollah has been a conviction, voiced by nearly every Hezbollah supporter I interview in Lebanon, as well as by some opponents, that the longer they sustain a fight against Israel the better the chance they will be able to secure a prisoner trade. On the other hand, the amount of punishment southern Lebanon is taking great, and even if it doesn't cost Hezbollah support the group might still opt to preserve what remains of the homes and infrastructure in the south. I'd say it's a 50-50 chance of a ceasefire this week.
tim: Why would Israel resume air strikes after they promised a 48 hour cease fire?
Thanassis_Cambanis: Israel's stated reason for the ceasefire is to give civilians in southern Lebanon a chance to flee. Already Israel had issued warnings, but tens of thousands had stayed behind. Some wanted to leave but couldn't afford to; others were loath to abandon homes, livestock or farms; and still others stayed as an active act of support for Hezbollah. After a 48-hour suspension of bombing, Israel seems poised to resume its air campaign against villages in the south. Today's suspension of bombing wasn't total, by the way; several targets were bombed, and I heard a fair amount of nearby artillery from the hills around Bint Jbail this afternoon.
True_dat: The New York Times produced a report a little while ago showing that ethnically divided regions, particularly in former colonial areas, show little to no capacity of resolution. Given that, do you think the conflict between Israel and the Arab/Persian countries of the Middle East can ever be rectified? If so, how?
Thanassis_Cambanis: I think people write dissertations about such questions. I don't have an easy glib answer, but I do think that most conflicts can be resolved. That doesn't mean they will be, but they certainly can. Often the most intractable differences are resolved through wars. In this area, Israel achieved a testy peace with Egypt and Jordan after decades of war. But ultimately the parameters will only change if the balance of power changes, and I'm not sure what would make that happen.
dee33: Would you say that Hezbollah was surprised by the perceived magnitude of the Israeli response to the soldier abduction ?
Thanassis_Cambanis: Apparently some Hezbollah leaders have told reporters (the AP, for certain) that they hadn't planned for such a response. I believe Hezbollah had a history of snatching Israeli soldiers and then making trades, and it's likely they miscalculated and thought that this time would be similar. As for the Israeli response, I think everybody in Lebanon was surprised, not just Hezbollah. The scale of the bombing is great, and the civilian death toll very very high. I'm not sure what you mean by "perceived" magnitude -- if you mean the public opinion response, I think that Lebanese rallying around the war effort was to be expected. But Hezbollah has certainly consolidated the internal political advantage from the war, which has shown the Shi'ite group to be better organized and militarily stronger than the national government.
gula: Thanassis - Are you actually IN Lebanon? Is there any word on how long this violence will go on?
Thanassis_Cambanis: I tried to answer this question earlier but the chat mucked up. I'm on a satellite phone which gives awfully slow internet speeds. I was saying that yes, I have been in Lebanon since the first week of the war (it's been 16 long days for me), and have swung between Beirut, where the war often appears only in the form of truncated restaurant menus, refugees and gas lines, to the southern suburbs of Beirut and the south of Lebanon itself, where nearly every road is bomb-cratered and most neighborhoods have a few bombed houses. People here hope it ends soon. Today, a lot of southern villages where people had hunkered down in basements for the duration of the war so far, finally emptied out. I saw tractors pulling trailers packed with 30 people, desperate to leave on the ocassion of today's cessation of bombing.
MidEastChat: Does the US have enough influence with Israel to stop the bombing? Have the bombing really accomplished anything given that rockets are still flying in from southern lebanon?
Thanassis_Cambanis: The bombing has left much of southern Lebanon in ruins. As for its goal of crippling Hezbollah, that's harder to judge. Right now Hezbollah continues to fire rockets and fight, so their military organization has survived. What's unclear is whether Israel has killed a tiny portion of Hezbollah's fighters, or a great proportion. Hezbollah seems to have little trouble recruiting volunteers and followers, so I'm not sure crushing them on the battlefield will affect their long-term viability.
stan: How you think the current conflict will impact Israel's tenuous relationship with Jordan and Egypt?
Thanassis_Cambanis: I'm curious about that. Both Egypt and Jordan have expressed anger at Israel for its tactics in the war. Both country's government's contend with publics far more Islamic and radical than their regimes. But at the same time, Egypt and Jordan are Sunni countries who feel threatened by the notion of an Iranian-steered Shi'ite axis of power, and they see Hezbollah as part of a Shi'ite masterplan. So they've kept the movement at arm's length. I would guess this war will greatly strain relations between Israel and the two Arab neighbors that recognize it, but probably not derail relations entirely.
Thanassis_Cambanis: This is the first time I've done a webchat from a satellite phone in a war zone. For the next one, I'll try to better anticipate the technical difficulties.
Thanassis_Cambanis: Thank you all for your questions. I'll try to do another, better chat later on.

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