There is a huge tragedy unfolding in the Middle East, and the killing of civilians, including over 200 children, is only its visible tip. Even as I write Israel has resumed its bombing and ground operations in Lebanon racing to maximise the military 'degradation' of the Hezbollah before a five- or six-day deadline for imposing a cease-fire and deployment of an international peace-keeping force, hinted at by Condoleeza Rice in Jerusalem, expires.
But anyone who has followed the history of the Middle East during the last half century knows that deploying such a force, making Hezbollah disarm and introducing the Lebanese army into Southern Lebanon against its wishes is pure fantasy. We have heard the word 'degrade' before. President Clinton used it to justify operation Desert Fox, the year long bombing of Iraq that began in December 1998 after the UN weapons commission, UNSCOM, was pulled out of the country.
Three months later NATO resorted to the aerial bombing of Kosovo to 'degrade' the fighting capabilities of the Yugoslav army that had 'invaded' it. Neither operation proved conspicuously successful - the NATO bombing damaged or destroyed less than 15 per cent of Yugoslav armour and munitions in Kosovo and the American general, Wesley Clark, had to adopt a scorched earth policy towards the whole of Yugoslavia to bring Milosevic to his knees. Israel is going to be even less successful.
Hezbollah showed how much punch it had left by responding to the kidnapping of its leaders in Baalbek with the heaviest rocket attack of the war. That was after 18 days of incessant bombing. But even if Israel does manage to dent its military capability seriously how long does it think Hezbollah will take to build it back again?
The bombing has released a surge of anger in Lebanon that has made the Hezbollah heroes even to many Christians. Older and wiser voices, which blamed it for having provoked Israel to the point of desperation have been silenced. In the coming weeks Hezbollah will be flooded with young recruits. The flow of arms too is most unlikely to stop. Israel claims that Iran is shipping them by air to Damascus, from where they go to Lebanon by road. Is Israel willing to expand its war to Syria?
An international peacekeeping force, no matter how large, is no answer. It will only be effective if both parties want peace. If Hezbollah does not, the vast expanses of terrain, and the total sympathy of the population, will allow it to regroup under the force's noses without the latter being any the wiser. And if the two clash, how many casualties will Canada, or France or Ireland or Germany or Japan be prepared to take before public opinion forces them to pull out?
The idea that the Lebanese army can take over the southern belt without Hezbollah's cooperation is laughable. No Lebanese government will even try. Israel may well find, therefore, that it has exchanged the frying pan for the fire. Sooner or later it, and the US, will be driven to conclude that the only way to kill the snake is to bash in its head - in short, start the scorched earth bombing of Iran.
If sanity still exists in Jerusalem and Washington then both capitals must realise that bombing Iran, especially after Lebanon and Gaza, will unite the entire Middle East against them. This unification has already begun: mainly Sunni Syria and mainly Shia Iran are already working together to support Hezbollah. Today the 'Arab Street', which is overwhelmingly Sunni, is convulsed as never before. This is forcing its conservative, pro-West, regimes to distance themselves hurriedly from Washington in order to prevent revolution, or terrorism, at home.
More ominous for its longer-term implications is the agonised appeal to the world by the Imam of holy Mecca to go to the aid of Lebanon.
An attack on Iran will not only send revolutionary guards streaming across the Iraqi border, but could easily bring the Shias into the battle against the occupation forces in Iraq.
Israel will be the worst victim of such a consolidation because it is smack in the middle of the Arab-Muslim world. Indeed the last three weeks have already eroded its security. Throughout its 58 years of existence, Israelis have been utterly convinced that their army will keep them safe. They have therefore been unable, or unwilling, to convert their many military victories into a peace settlement by offering timely concessions. That option may now have expired, for the message is slowly sinking into the Arab people, as indeed into the rest of the world, that conventional armies are no answer to determined guerrilla fighters. Almost anything they do to its cadres ends by making them stronger.
At the end of this road lies Armageddon. This will be a tragedy to dwarf all other tragedies, because Israel too deserves better. Israelis are also victims. They are in the Middle East because of an insanely stupid, two thousand year-old prejudice against them based upon a misinterpretation of the Christian religion. And in the last century they have suffered as no other people have been made to suffer.
Looking back over six decades one cannot help wondering whether they would not have made peace with their neighbours decades ago if the US had not, for its own reasons, encouraged them to believe that it would endlessly reinforce their military superiority. How tragic, yet ironic, will it be if their staunchest ally turns out, in the long run, to be their greatest enemy?
* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.
(The author's articles can be read at www.premshankarjha.com)