In 1982, then US secretary of state Alexander Haig warned Israel that "only an internationally recognised provocation" would justify "a proportionate retaliation" against Yasser Arafat's forces in Lebanon. The Israelis saw the attempted assassination of their ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, as a perfect pretext to strike at the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Lebanon. This, despite knowing perfectly well that Arafat had nothing to do with the London incident and that it had been hatched by his arch nemesis, Abu Nidal.
In November 2009, the Israeli army seized a German ship that it claimed was loaded with 500 tons of Katyusha rockets, sent to Hezbollah by Syria.
Now, Israeli President Shimon Peres claims that Syria has provided Hezbollah with medium-range Scud missiles, a claim strongly denied by both Syria and Lebanon. Scuds, it must be noted, which were first developed by the USSR during the Cold War, were first used in combat by Egypt against Israel during the October War and famously landed on Tel Aviv having been fired by Saddam Hussain's troops during the 1991 Gulf War. This explains why they strike a particularly raw nerve in Israeli society.
The US State Department, without a shred of evidence, reacted to the Israeli claim by summoning a senior member of the Syrian embassy in Washington to say: "The United States condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the Scud, from Syria to Hezbollah." Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, and Mark Kirk, a Republican, have introduced a resolution in Congress calling for tightened restrictions against Syria and strict enforcement of sanctions against Hezbollah.
The mainstream media in the US and a colourful array of European newspapers have built upon the Israeli claim, weaving a story about how dangerous it is to appease and engage the Syrians as long as they remain affiliated with Hezbollah.
A fallacy in this reporting needs to be urgently corrected: that Hezbollah needs Scud missiles in the event of a war with Israel.
The truth is that Hezbollah has far more sophisticated and accurate weapons already at its disposal, as Israeli analysts have stated. During the war of 2006, Hezbollah fired a six-metre Iranian missile, the Al Nour, into an Israeli warship. That missile, which is based on a Chinese model, has a range of 200 kilometres. Scud missiles have a range of 500 kilometres. Why would Hezbollah need missiles with this range when all Israeli cities are within a 150-200 kilometre range of its missiles? Hezbollah already has the Fatah-110; a solid-fuel rocket with a similar range, which weighs only half a ton. The Scud weighs one ton. Two Fatah-110s would theoretically have a similar effect to a single Scud missile.
British defence analyst Charles Heyman put it best when he said, "Hezbollah needs to float like butterflies, and sting like bees. They don't need something that lumbers along like an ox." Scud missiles are bulky and would only handicap Hezbollah.
Regardless of the veracity of Israel's claims that Hezbollah has acquired Scuds — or whether or not the international community accepts Israeli falsifications as fact — they will be used to justify a new war in the Middle East, some time in the foreseeable future.
There are many reasons for Israel to trumpet such a story at this stage. One is Israeli rage at the honeymoon Hezbollah is enjoying with Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri, who promised to "protect and embrace" the arms of the Lebanese resistance in his Cabinet policy statement. The Scud issue could empower anti-Hezbollah figures in Lebanon, such as Samir Geagea, who is still loudly calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, despite strong resentment from the entire Lebanese political community.
A second reason would be to divert the world's attention away from Israel's decision to build 1,600 new colonist homes in occupied Jerusalem and to deport up to 70,000 Gazans from the West Bank. Also, the Israelis are clearly not interested in peace with the Palestinians, putting forward offers that Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cannot but refuse. Just this weekend, they proposed a Palestinian state on 55 per cent of the West Bank, with strategic issues such as refugees and occupied Jerusalem to be discussed later — a ludicrous offer made by Ariel Sharon to Arafat in 2002, and categorically refused. With wild suggestions such as these, the Israelis are clearly trying to buy time, ease tension with a US administration breathing down their necks, and thwart any peace process that Obama may plan to jumpstart in the second half of 2010.
The issue of the German ship and the story of the Scuds will both eventually be used by Israel to justify a war against Hezbollah. The pretext will be fabricated, as it was in 1982. The Middle East, after all, is riddled with lies that have been accepted as fact — Arafat ordering the Argov assassination in 1982, Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, Iraq's links to Al Qaida under the Baath party, Hezbollah provoking the war of 2006 — all thanks to the mega-media machines of the US and Israel.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria