Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip to the Middle East was belated, and her misplaced rhetoric could end up only exacerbating the violence.

Her trip began with an unannounced visit to war-torn Beirut, Lebanon, a stop that must have been cleared with the Israeli military authorities beforehand. Israel paused its shelling of the city to allow her to deliver her message to Lebanon, where she told the Lebanese people how she was “deeply concerned” about their fate. Since she stopped short of calling for an immediate cease-fire between all parties, her concern was not that deep.

But a cease-fire is urgently needed, and the Israeli assault on Lebanon must stop right now.

The Israeli campaign far exceeds “surgical strikes” on Hezbollah military objectives and has instead been targeting the civilian infrastructure of an entire country. Thus far, about 400 people, the vast majority of them civilians, have reportedly been killed in Lebanon and more than 1,500 have been wounded.

UNICEF, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, reports that more than one-third of the Lebanese dead are children.

The Israeli bombardment has also displaced a quarter of the entire Lebanese population. Significant parts of the country lie in ruin, totaling billions of dollars of damage. The longer the Israeli assault continues, the more likely it is for this disaster to escalate even more dramatically, both within Lebanon and in the region.

In Israel, too, there have been unacceptable costs, though they are nowhere near in proportion to what Lebanon has suffered. Hezbollah rockets have killed more than 17 civilians and have sent hundreds of thousands of Israelis to regularly seek refuge in bomb shelters where they, too, live in fear.

And in the Gaza Strip, a forgotten front in this tragic and cynical war, more than 120 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed while the population there – about 1.5 million people – ekes out survival under conditions of siege.

What is desperately needed across the entire region is the immediate cessation of all hostilities. Only real dialogue between all parties can resolve the conflicts. It may be difficult, but it is far from impossible.

But instead of assisting such an aim, Rice has been reiterating the Bush administration’s line that what is needed is not an immediate cease-fire but an “enduring” cease-fire.

This is nothing but a linguistic sleight of hand. It confuses the idea of long-term peace agreements, which can come about only with the cessation of violence and the resumption of diplomacy, with an immediate de-escalation of violence, which will protect the lives of the innocents who are so at risk today.

What’s more, the administration has repeatedly been leaking to the press that it will be pressing Israel for a cease-fire, but only sometime in the future. Not only does this allow Israel to continue its military assault against Lebanon, it actually intensifies the violence. This is because Israel understands very well that it has a limited timeframe in which to accomplish its military objectives.

Meanwhile, the administration is caught in its own absurd contradictions. It promises $30 million of humanitarian aid to Lebanon while at the same time completing a rush delivery of more bombs to Israel, munitions that will be dropped on more Lebanese civilians.

The administration talks endlessly about peace and democracy but its actions run counter to the rhetoric. This results in more needless deaths and foments more instability in the region.

By delaying a call for a cease-fire, Rice promises peace by promising more war. This continues to hurt not just the millions of innocent civilians in the region but also American credibility throughout the world.

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor in the English Department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and co-editor of “The Edward Said Reader” (Vintage, 2000). He is also an editor at Middle East Report (www.merip.org).


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