Leading article: An atrocity that only aids the cause of Hizbollah

The Independent

Published: 31 July 2006

Cana is a town implanted on the hearts of Christian Europe. The marriage scene, which was the site of Christ's first miracle, turning water into wine, was a much-loved theme for artists of the Renaissance. Sadly, Qana, as it is now known, has gained a new and very different fame today, as the site of an atrocity. Moreover, what took place there is a symbol of everything that is most wicked and foolish about the American and British-backed war against Hizbollah in Lebanon.

It is hypocrisy for Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to claim that the dozens of dead civilians, of whom many were children, trapped in the apartment block in Qana, had time to get out of the way before Israeli jets bombed their hideaway. In its scattergun approach to dealing with Hizbollah militants over the past 19 days Israel has deliberately bombed Lebanon's roads and petrol stations, making escape from the war zone difficult. In any case, where were these people supposed to have gone?

By refusing even to apologise for the Qana bombings, Mr Olmert has revealed just how barren is his policy. Had he the marks of a statesman he would have realised that his goal of breaking Hizbollah, and of checking the regional ambitions of Iran and Syria, was backfiring. He should now be ordering his generals to rethink their tactics. Instead, he blunders on, because the Americans and Britain permit or encourage him to, and because he is desperate to assume a warrior's mantle.

But Mr Olmert is not the only figure to appear morally and strategically bankrupt as the drama unfolds. Observe Condoleezza Rice, forced to cancel her visit to Lebanon after the government there declared it did not wish to receive her. Her immobility well illustrates how Tony Blair's and George Bush's strategy in this conflict is also mired in the sands.

That strategy, to recap, was to encourage Israel to "take on" Hizbollah and to hope this would enable a weak Lebanon to assume control of the southern border zone. Both neighbouring countries, Washington and London assumed, stood to benefit from muscular action by Israel, which Lebanon was too weak to carry out. The moderate Lebanese would be empowered by this short sharp war and Hizbollah crushed.

But the opposite has happened. Hizbollah looks less isolated than ever, as Israel's violence drives the whole of Lebanon, including Israel's former Christian allies, into the militants' arms. Who now will ever again even try to put pressure on Hizbollah to disarm, either in Lebanon or elsewhere? Throughout the Arab world, anti-Hizbollah voices have been silenced. If and when this conflict in Lebanon recedes, Hizbollah will be seen to have emerged all the stronger for it.

In the meantime, the rest of the world is becoming increasingly exasperated with American and British obstructionism and with the use of weasel words expressing nothing stronger than "sorrow" or "shock" over Lebanon's war dead - already 750 and climbing.

As pressure grows for a vote in the UN Security Council on an immediate ceasefire, Britain and America will have to support or veto this proposal. The Bush-and-Blair strategy will be on floodlit display, with Britain looking even more isolated than usual in its seemingly limitless support for the US and Israel. It is time that Mr Blair realised that this policy has reached a crossroads. Jack Straw's critical comments to his constituents in Blackburn should have alerted him to the real state of opinion in the country. Britain must join with the world in pressing for an immediate ceasefire. If not, part of Mr Blair's "legacy" will be remembered as complicity in the destruction of Lebanon - and the sight of children's bodies being pulled from the rubble of Qana.