Reality in Lebanon, July 20, 2006

By Rasha Salti | August 17, 2006

Here are three dispatches from Lebanon, dated July 20, 2006, published in the August 3 edition of the London Review of Books that we think are worth reading.

Rasha Salti

14 July. I am writing from a café in the Hamra district of West Beirut. The electricity has been cut off for a while now, and the city has been surviving on generators. The café is dark, hot and humid. Espresso machines and blenders are silent. Conversations, rumours, frustration waft through the room. Occasionally the sound of Israeli warplanes overwhelms us. They drop leaflets. Yesterday, they advised inhabitants of the southern suburbs to flee because the night promised to be ‘hot’. Today, the leaflets warn that all remaining bridges and tunnels in Beirut will be bombed.

This morning, I sent emails telling people that I was safe, that the targets seemed to be strictly Hizbullah sites and their constituencies. I regret typing that. Until a few hours ago, Israel had only bombed the airport runways, as if to ‘limit’ the damage, but then four shells were dropped on our brand-new terminal building.

The apartment where I am living has a magnificent view of the bay of Beirut. Last night I could see the Israeli warships firing at their leisure. It’s astounding how comfortable they are in our skies, in our waters.

The French and English-speaking bourgeoisie has fled to the Christian areas in the mountains. Most of the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other Gulf Arabs left the country in Pullman buses via Damascus, before the road was bombed. The contrast between their panic and the defiance of the inhabitants of the southern suburbs was almost comical. This time, though, I have to admit, I am tired of defying whatever for whatever cause.

This is all bringing back memories of 1982. It was summer then as well. The Israeli army marched through the south and besieged Beirut. For three months, the US administration kept urging the Israeli military to act with restraint. And the Israelis assured them they were doing so. The PLO command was in West Beirut then. I felt safe with the handsome fighters. How I miss them. Between Hizbullah and the Lebanese army I don’t feel safe. We are exposed, defenceless, pathetic. And I am older, more aware of danger. I am 37 years old and scared. The sound of the warplanes frightens me. There is no more fight left in me. And there is no solidarity, no real cause.

I am also pissed off because no one realises how hard the postwar reconstruction was. Hariri did not work miracles. Every single bridge and tunnel and highway, the airport runways, all of these things were built at three times their real cost, because of kickbacks. We accepted this just to get things done. We wanted only to have a society which stood on its feet, more or less. A thriving Arab civil society. Schools were sacrificed for roads to service neglected rural areas or so that Syrian officers could get richer, and we accepted that the road was desperately needed, and that there was the ‘precarious national consensus’ to protect. Social safety nets were given up, as was universal healthcare, unions were broken and co-opted, public spaces taken over, and we bowed our heads and acquiesced. Palestinian refugees were hidden from sight, and we accepted it. In exchange we had a secular country where Hizbullah and the Lebanese forces could coexist and fight their fights in parliament, not with bullets. We bit our tongues, we protested and were defeated, we took to the streets, defied curfews, time after time, to protect that modicum of civil rights, that semblance of democracy. And it takes just one air raid for the fruits of all our sacrifices to be blown to smithereens.

16 July. The day was heavy with shelling from the air and sea. So far the night has been quiet, though we were advised to brace ourselves. Most advice is about as reliable as reading tea-leaves, however.

I visited friends this morning. Most cafés in West Beirut are closed and the streets are quiet. The city huddles in its neighbourhoods; main thoroughfares are avoided. People now gather in the houses of those who have electricity, whose lift works, whose family obligations are minimal enough to enable them to play host to an antsy crowd eager for social exchange. Everyone this morning apart from me seemed resigned to the siege. Israel’s aim is not only to dismember this country and cripple communication, but also to challenge support for Hizbullah. When I complain that my life is a small hell and I can’t take it anymore, as I did yesterday and maybe a little bit today, I am being an agent of Israel.

I am still dumbfounded by the response of Arab regimes. Do we not deserve their outraged support? Do we not deserve mass mobilisation? How does it feel to watch Beirut go up in flames? There is continual TV coverage only on al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya and the Lebanese channels. The ‘war’ is just a news item on the other Arab stations.

17 July. I started writing these diary notes to friends outside Lebanon to remain sane and give them my news. I was candid about my emotions, the ones I had and the ones I did not have. I was trying to overcome the isolation of the siege rather than to fight the media blackout, racism or prejudice. Now that they will have a wider audience I am more than ever conscious of a sense of responsibility in drafting them. Should I keep on being candid, critical, spiteful, cowardly, or should I write in a wholly different idiom? There is of course a happy medium, but I don’t have the mental capacity to find it at the moment.

I have been in the café in Hamra for an hour now. This is what I have gleaned so far.

A text-message to my friend’s cellphone: breaking news from Israeli military command. If Hizbullah does not stop shelling Galilee and northern towns, Israel will take out Lebanon’s entire electricity network.

Hizbullah shells Haifa, Safad and colonies in south Golan.

A text-message to another friend’s cell-phone, from an expat who went to Damascus to catch a flight back to London. ‘All flights out of Damascus are cancelled. Do you know anything?’

An Israeli shell fell near the bartender’s house. His family is stranded in rubble in Hadath. He frantically calls to secure passage for them to the mountains.

Hizbullah downs an Israeli plane over Kfarshima (near Hadath). Slight jubilation in the café; we thrive on denial.

‘Breaking news’ marks the passage of time. You catch a piece of breaking news, you leap to the next room to tell your family although they heard it too, and then you send it on via text-messages to others. Along the way you collect other pieces of breaking news which you also deliver. Between the two sets of news, you assemble the facts and try to fit them together. Then you recall the other attempts you’ve made to do this. Then you realise none of them works. Then you exhale. And zap. Until the next piece of breaking news comes.

The foreign nationals are an issue now. With so many visiting for the summer, and so many Lebanese holding dual nationality, it’s been tough for the G8 to plan their evacuations: 40,000 Canadians (seven of whom died yesterday in the south); 20,000 French. What to do with all these people? Create categories: on the one hand, genuine, white-skinned, tax-paying, valuable citizens; on the other, recently integrated, recently assimilated, brown-skinned, tax-paying, not so valuable citizens.

The best evacuation plan is the American one. They are directing their ‘nationals’ to a website (with the power cuts, that’s kind of funny) where they promise an airlift from the airport (although the air strips have been destroyed) to Cyprus. But there is an evacuation fee. For those with no money, the US government generously offers a loan.

19 July. It’s 11.30 p.m. I have about half an hour before the generator shuts down. Most of Beirut is in the dark. I daren’t imagine what the rest of the country is like. A few hours ago I was offered the chance to leave tomorrow morning. I hold a Canadian passport because I was born in Toronto when my parents were students there. I left when I was two, and have never gone back. I could leave here tomorrow by car to Syria, then to Jordan and onto a plane. For days I have been itching to go because I have a job to do, deadlines to meet, a life to live. And yet when the phone call came telling me to be ready at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning, I asked for time to think. I was torn. The destruction, the number of those dead, injured or displaced, bind me here. It isn’t patriotism so much as the will to defy Israel. (I suppose I am no longer tired of defying.)

I am a secular person and I’m democratically inclined. I have never supported Hizbullah, but I do not question its legitimacy as a political force in Lebanon. It would be folly to regard Hizbullah as just another radical Islamist terrorist organisation. It is a mature political organisation with an Islamist ideology. It has learned (very quickly) to coexist with other political agents in the country, as well as other sects. There have been exceptional moments when the country has united willingly and spontaneously (as during the Israeli attacks in 1993 and 1996), but other less spectacular moments have punctuated the lived postwar experience of every single Lebanese, in which sectarian prejudice was easily set aside. When Hariri was assassinated, the country seemed divided into two camps. There was, however, an overwhelming consensus that we would not go back to fighting one another. If Israel plans to annihilate Hizbullah, it will annihilate Lebanon. Hizbullah is an essential element of contemporary Lebanon.

I don’t know when I will have another opportunity to leave. The roads to Damascus are shelled every day.

20 July. I went with journalists to the US Embassy compound to watch the evacuation. US personnel instruct you not to use the word ‘evacuation’. ‘Out of respect for the Lebanese people’, you are told, the massive evacuation effort is referred to as ‘assisted departure’. It is important to emphasise ‘agency’ and ‘choice’. No one is ‘forced’ to leave.

After several body searches, we were ushered into a tiny waiting-room. People were seated in small groups. There was one woman sitting alone with her head bowed. She wore a long black dress, black open shoes and a headscarf. When eventually she raised her head I saw she was a white American. She’d come from her husband’s native village near the border. She has three children, all very young. They were visiting her husband’s family for the summer.

‘You should not go to the window,’ she said, ‘but I am curious, you know, human beings are curious. So I looked out of the window, and I saw a house fly up in the air. I saw that.’ Her husband decided the children should not go through this. He drove the family to the US Embassy, though they didn’t know about the evacuations. It took them 14 hours to reach the eastern suburbs of Beirut. As they tried to find the embassy, her husband’s wallet with all their ID was stolen along with $400 in cash, which seems to be all they had.

She came originally from Portland, Oregon. Her husband had never applied for a passport and was not allowed inside the compound. He was sitting in the car with the children. By the time we left the compound, along with most of the Embassy employees, she was the only person in the waiting-room. It seemed to me she could neither leave Lebanon nor stay.

Maria, one of my closest friends, left yesterday. She has two boys aged nine and five. She and her husband lived in London for a long while and eventually took citizenship there. She had moved from Beirut to the mountains on the second day of the siege. We kept in touch by phone. Invariably we ended conversations with: ‘I’ll call you back.’ We called one another with pointless information, breaking news. Our conversations reminded us of the people we once were, the lives we once lived. We asked the same questions over and over: ‘Should I leave?’ ‘Should you leave?’ She did not want to but felt she ought to for the boys’ sake. The elder was seized with anxiety and panic at the escalating military campaign. She caved in yesterday. I called her as they waited at the docks. ‘It’s awful, it’s awful,’ she kept saying. ‘It’s awful, it’s awful,’ I echoed. ‘Have I done the right thing?’ she pleaded. ‘Absolutely,’ I replied. Three times I told her: ‘I will call you back.’

Rasha Salti, a curator and freelance writer, lives in New York and Beirut.

Elias Khoury

It is the time for death in Lebanon. Anyone who has followed the country’s modern history might well be confused. In 2000 Lebanon’s resistance expelled the Israeli army from the land it had occupied in the south. A popular intifada expelled the Syrian army in 2005. How could a minor military operation undertaken by Hizbullah send Lebanon back to square one? We seem to be entering a labyrinth from which nobody can find the way out. The only certainty is that Lebanon is facing destruction, that the dream of restoring the country to independence is on hold.

In 1978 Israel devastated Lebanon and established a military cordon in order to protect its northern settlements from the PLO’s Katyusha rockets. The country became the site of a series of wars, invasions and retreats. Then in 1982 Israel, under the leadership of Menachem Begin, decided that a decisive victory was necessary. Armoured columns invaded Lebanon, and reached the outskirts of Beirut. The objective was to get the Palestinians out of the way and to end their hopes of creating an independent state. Yasir Arafat and his men were forced to leave Lebanon by sea and go into exile in Tunisia.

With the massacres in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, the Israelis visited new humiliations on the Arab world. They were convinced that the confrontation on their northern border was over, and that their armies had managed not only to end the threat against them, but also to subjugate the Palestinians and the Lebanese. It didn’t work out like that. Arafat moved to Ramallah, where he would become the first Palestinian leader after the nakba of 1948 to live until his last days in his homeland, and the Israeli army was forced to withdraw from Lebanon.

Why has the battle between Hizbullah and the Israeli army assumed such proportions now? The question is of course bound up with all the other questions surrounding the Palestine problem, and bound up too with the oil wealth in the Middle East that has become a curse.

Lebanon emerged as a distinct entity after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The state founded in Damascus by King Faisal I after the end of the First World War was supposed to include Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, but then Palestine became a British mandate, and the Zionist movement took over there. After the Second World War and the end of the French mandate in Syria and Lebanon, both countries became independent, but Syria seemed to lose its identity, unsure whether it should ally itself with Iraq or join a political union with Egypt. Then in 1963 there was a Baathist coup in Syria, and Hafiz Assad, an air-force officer, triumphed in the subsequent power struggle, becoming president in 1971. Assad extended his sphere of influence to Lebanon and turned it into a pivot of regional politics during the latter stage of the Cold War.

Lebanon was unaffected by the military revolutions in the Arab East after 1948. It was an oasis of cultural freedom in a region dominated by revolutionary military regimes. It was also the region’s weak spot, vulnerable to outside influence, since the religious diversity of its citizens meant that it was difficult for the state fully to control internal security or foreign policy. There were severe strains in the first years of independence, reaching a climax in 1958 with the surge in Arab nationalism which resulted from Nasser’s influence. A small-scale civil war that year ended in an Egyptian-American settlement after US marines landed in Lebanon.

Since 1978 Lebanon has been subjected to five Israeli invasions, each aimed at destroying rockets: in 1978, 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006. On each occasion the Israeli army fought only against semi-organised Palestinian and Lebanese militias. Did the Israelis score a victory in 1982? You couldn’t call it that, not after the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, nor could you call 1993 a victory, involving as it did the recognition of the PLO. After Israel’s 2000 withdrawal under fire, during which the inhabitants of northern Israel were required to live in shelters as rockets were launched by Hizbullah, that description seemed even less appropriate.

A war but not a war, because the aggressors did not acknowledge the existence of the other side, until the Palestinians agreed to what was tantamount to surrender at Oslo. But they did not in the end surrender, and Israel took advantage of the attacks of 9/11 to bring down the Palestinians’ more moderate leaders. This led to total chaos in occupied Gaza and the West Bank. The violence that has engulfed Lebanon today is part of this pattern. When Palestinians in Gaza succeeded in capturing one of Israel’s soldiers, Israel refused the logic of reciprocity. Instead it has plunged Gaza into a state of lethal anarchy. Israel refuses to exchange prisoners because it sees Hamas and Hizbullah as terrorists. The problem in Gaza and the West Bank is clear: Israel wants to create cages and ghettos for Palestinians. In Lebanon the situation is more complex.

The Israelis say they do not want to occupy Lebanon. This is also what the Americans say about Iraq. The issue, however, is not what they want but what they are doing. Can Israel tolerate religious and ethnic chaos on its borders? Is it performing a service to the United States by trying to weaken Hizbullah, Iran’s strongest ally in the region, prior to the opening up of the Iranian nuclear file? What is clear, beneath the drone of the missiles hurled at the southern suburbs of Beirut, is that Israel, realising it is incapable of destroying Hizbullah, has decided to destroy Lebanon. But the madness is not just Israeli. Much of the Arab world is following the road to self-destruction, via a fundamentalist ideology that, perhaps unwittingly, reflects the worldview of Bernard Lewis’s disciples, the neo-orientalists.

Lebanon is caught between Israel’s strategy and Syria’s. Israel, like the wolf in sheep’s clothing in Aesop’s fable, has taken on the role of the victim. But Israel also claims that its prey is not a sheep but a wolf, and it’s certainly true that Israel forces it to act like a wolf.

Syria’s strategy, fashioned by the late President Assad and used whenever his regime was under threat, can be understood by adapting the story of Abraham and Isaac. Syria needs a lamb to sacrifice instead of a son. If necessary, it will appear to protect the lamb, making the lamb seem to be wolf-like, even as it waits to be sacrificed.

Lebanon has been caught between these two strategies for thirty years. But now there are new actors on stage: the US and Iran. In the 1980s, the Americans encouraged Iraq to contain Iran by means of a crushing war, just as they gave Syria the task of imposing peace on Lebanon. The fear now is that the US has given Israel a green light to destroy Lebanon. The Iranians adopted sensible policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have been the sole beneficiaries of the turmoil of the American war. Iraq has more or less collapsed into their hands: with the withdrawal of the US and British armies it will become a civil war zone directed by Tehran. Afghanistan is permanently on the edge of an abyss. Iran exploits this by trying to destabilise America’s allies in the region. The way the United States and Iran behave on the battlefront in Lebanon will decide the fate not just of Lebanon, but of the whole of the Middle East.

It has been clear during the first days of the confrontation that Hizbullah has prepared for conflict in a manner that has aroused admiration in a region where wars with Israel have resulted only in frustration. It is clear that Hizbullah’s weapons are not only intended for the defence of Lebanon but are being held in reserve for a greater battle, a battle to defend Iranian nuclear weapons. Lebanon has to join the battle against Israel not because it wants to, not because there are still Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, but because the only options Israel offers the Arab Middle East are to submit or to collaborate in the crushing of the Palestinians.

This is not to defend Hizbullah’s military strategy, or a Syrian vision that is based on exporting tension beyond its borders at the expense of the Lebanese and Palestinian people. An alternative strategy must emerge in the Arab world, before fundamentalism takes over everything, turning every Arab country into a site of battle and destruction. The last bastion of secular resistance, the PLO, has been destroyed. Perhaps Arafat made a mistake at Oslo, but a greater mistake was to allow the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, which meant that it was unable adequately to react to the rising tide of fundamentalism. A fresh vision based on justice, peace and democracy is needed. The problem is the influence of the Arab oil states, which are oligarchic both politically and culturally. Lebanon is today paying the price for their folly and impotence and their subordination to the United States.

I do not exonerate the Lebanese from responsibility for the horrors that are taking place. Building a democratic country is the duty of all Lebanese. The different religious groups have to find a way to unite in a political project. Factionalism and fear will make it impossible to confront the weapons that are destroying a country that has risen from the rubble only to find itself once again buried in rubble.

Before me I see the same images of death that I witnessed 24 years ago. The pictures themselves, the noise of invading aircraft in the skies of Beirut and all over Lebanon, are the same. Do I see or do I remember? When you are incapable of distinguishing between what is in front of you and what you remember, it becomes clear that history teaches nothing – and clear too that what the Israelis call war is not war but merely the first skirmishes of a war that has not yet begun. Woe to anyone who believes that this massacre is war. Since 1973, the Arab world has fought only on the sidelines.

The Israelis should take care not to deceive themselves and believe that they have achieved victory, because the nature of such non-wars is that they can be repeated over and over again.

20 July

Elias Khoury is director and editor-in-chief of the culture supplement of the Beirut daily An-Nahar. His most recently translated novel is Gate of the Sun. His piece in this issue was translated by Peter Clark.


I was in Japan with my wife when we heard the news. The memories flooded back: Israel was once again attacking Lebanon. We were frantic because our two daughters were there with their grandparents. We flew to Damascus via Dubai, and after a flurry of telephone calls and consultations with fellow travellers who had similar plans, we took a taxi and went by the recently hit but shortest route via Zahle and Tarshish. Along the way, we passed a convoy of ambulances. When we arrived home two and a half hours later, my parents greeted us with tears in their eyes. The road we had been on was hit several times, and the ambulances destroyed.

Yesterday the Israeli military targeted water-drilling machines that lay idle on a construction site in the Christian district of Ashrafieh in the centre of Beirut. It is difficult to think of anywhere in Lebanon where Hizbullah ‘terrorists’ are less likely to be hiding. A few hours earlier the Israeli foreign minister had announced that Israel was not attacking Lebanon as such, but Hizbullah, because of its capture of two Israeli soldiers. Such claims are intended to align this war with the US ‘war on terror’, and also to quell guilt on the part of those in the West who might otherwise feel uncomfortable with the carnage. But the overwhelming majority of casualties have been civilians, and the targeting of infrastructure – the airport, ports, bridges, electricity stations, roads, factories, hospitals – is the latest instance of the long-standing Israeli policy of collective punishment of Arab civilian populations that resist Israeli dictates. The world meanwhile looks on.

Hizbullah’s capture of the Israeli soldiers had a specific objective: to exchange the soldiers for Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. This was neither a new strategy nor was it unexpected. The last time Hizbullah seized Israeli soldiers, in 2004, international mediation resulted in prisoner exchanges. There are some 9000 prisoners (including women and children) in Israeli jails, many of them detained without trial. Among these prisoners are Lebanese citizens abducted by Israel from Lebanese territory. Israel’s stated objective is to destroy Hizbullah. Its more realistic actual goal seems to be to terrorise the Lebanese people to such an extent that they collectively turn against Hizbullah and remove them from the political scene. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been expelled from the mostly poor rural areas of southern Lebanon into the larger urban centres, particularly Beirut, which will put intolerable strain on Lebanon’s delicate social structure. Shimon Peres attempted the same tactic during the brief incursions into Lebanon of 1996, which led to the massacre of unarmed civilians taking refuge with UN peacekeepers in the village of Qana.

Another Israeli objective, perhaps less obvious to the outside world, is to reassert the reputation of the Israeli military after its humiliation in 2000 at the hands of the Lebanese resistance, which succeeded in forcing the Israeli army to withdraw under fire from southern Lebanon. The psychological effect of this dishonourable retreat on the Israeli military should not be underestimated. Israel fears Hizbullah both for its military capabilities and for its intransigence and status as a role model in the wider Arab world.

There does not appear to be any end in sight to this latest Israeli attack. The Lebanese have reluctantly accepted that the international community – that increasingly cynical euphemism for the Great Powers – have abandoned them, though France, China and Russia at least have made reassuring gestures. George Bush and Condoleezza Rice have backed Israel’s right to ‘self-defence’ and blamed Hizbullah’s very existence for the current violence. Meanwhile Tony Blair – in an ironic reversal of the Blair Doctrine, which calls for intervention for humanitarian reasons – has called for more UN peacekeepers to be deployed in southern Lebanon ‘to protect Israel’. Together Bush and Blair stifled the G8 call for an immediate ceasefire and have threatened to veto any Security Council resolutions calling for an end to hostilities. The consensus in Western foreign policy circles is that Hizbullah is only a proxy for Iran and/or Syria. Fear of the ‘Shia crescent’ that supposedly connects Iraq, Iran, Syria and Hizbullah also explains the unprecedented Saudi and Egyptian acquiescence to the Israeli attacks.

It is clear that Israeli and American foreign policy officials have not learned the lessons of the past couple of decades: namely, that it is their policies – and not some cultural or religious backlash – that make resistance certain and foster support for resistance groups across the Arab world. Hizbullah was itself born out of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut that claimed more than 20,000 civilian lives and culminated in the massacres of Palestinians and Lebanese in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Hizbullah grew in influence and effectiveness; its popularity peaked with the forced Israeli withdrawal. The current war will not only once again increase support for Hizbullah, it could turn Hassan Nasrallah into a hero almost on a par with Nasser.

The US has made a grave mistake in lumping all Islamist organisations together as ‘terrorists’, and in associating itself so strongly with Israeli interests in the region. In the Arab world today, Israel’s activities in Gaza and Lebanon are referred to as the ‘Israeli-American’ war. John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, has refused to sanction a diplomatic end to the current conflict because ‘I’d like to know when there’s been an effective ceasefire between a terrorist organisation and a state in the past.’ Such sentiments indicate a total ignorance of the politics of the region. Not everyone in Lebanon supports Hizbullah, yet, for better or worse, its reputation is growing across the Arab world as an organisation that represents Arab peoples ashamed of their corrupt and servile leaders. (In the same way, Hizbullah’s missiles are taken as a sign, again for better or worse, that the havoc caused by the Israelis in Palestine and Lebanon is having repercussions in Israel itself.) America’s supposed efforts at democratisation have been given the lie by its backing of the Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi regimes, which have been encouraged to crack down on their citizens’ civil rights while the democratically elected representatives of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are attacked. The ultimate irony is the Israeli claim that the purpose of this war is the ‘implementation’ of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which calls for the disarming of ‘militias’ in Lebanon): this from a country that has an unrivalled record in defying UN resolutions. Hizbullah’s response must be read as part of a political struggle against the uneven distribution of rewards in the US-dominated world order. Essentially, this is a fundamental – and very secular – resistance to the idea that Arabs must accept Israel as a regional hegemon, with all the benefits that accrue from that status, including the stockpiling of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons denied to all other states in the region.

There is a huge gap between Arab rulers and the people they govern. Islamists have understood this; Western governments have not. The neo-cons in the US have joined Israel in actively promoting sectarian conflict in the Arab world, frightening the ruling Sunni factions in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan into further repression of their own citizens in the name of ‘combating terrorism’. These Sunni leaders fear the ‘Shia crescent’, but what they fear most is any challenge to their unpopular and illegitimate rule.

The Israeli war on Lebanon will probably end in one of two ways, neither of them promising for the hawks. The first possibility is that a stalemate will be reached, after Israel realises that it cannot destroy Hizbullah because Hizbullah has support not only from the Shia but from many others across Lebanon’s sectarian spectrum. The international community will step in, making appropriate noises about the need for a ‘buffer zone’ and kick-starting the ‘peace process’ yet again. The Arab League will rubber-stamp whatever the Great Powers tell it to. Civilian deaths will be described as unfortunate collateral damage, and members of the EU will pledge technical assistance to repair damaged infrastructure. The status quo will be reimposed until the next conflict, and Israel will escape unpunished and free to continue its occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Or there is a more optimistic scenario. The US will realise that the best way to protect its people is to pursue a multilateral approach that seeks a just and equitable resolution both to this war and the larger question of Palestine. It will stop making a mockery of international law and the UN, abandon its failed ‘war on terror’ which has led only to the destruction of its credibility in the region; and use its influence to support real democracy and the rule of law. The US has a choice to make. For the Lebanese, there is no choice but to resist.

20 July

Karim Makdisi teaches at the American University of Beirut.


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