Features » Politics And Society


Vocation battlefield

Lebanese author Selim Nassib writes an instructive history of the Lebanese inferno, fired by other peoples' wars as well as its own

Until the end of the 1960s, Lebanon is an almost scandalously pleasant place. Here, all the misfortunes of the Arab world, the wars against Israel and the crises and coups are transformed into currency that flows into the countless pockets of Beirut. Caught between Syria and Israel, blessed with an agreeable climate, this small country has for years boasted of its parliamentary democracy, freedom of the press, banking confidentiality, the beauty of its women, its water skiing and winter sports. Lebanon is a part of Europe, a privileged territory, a Switzerland in the Middle East, a peaceful harbour in a brutal region, francophone, anglophone, tolerant and blessed.

The Six-Day War in 1967 destroys this illusion. Israel captures the remaining parts of historical Palestine (the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem) as well as the Sinai in Egypt and the Golan Heights in Syria. This time the Arab defeat is such that no one escapes a beating. In that scene of general chaos, the "Palestinian Resistance" enters the stage, grabs its weapons and swears to rescue its lost honour. Over the next two years, the organization sets up camp in Jordan, organizes the hijacking of jets to draw attention to itself, and demands the return of a land, their land - Palestine. King Hussein of Jordan is furious and takes tough measures against the group, which lead to their expulsion from the kingdom in 1970 and their return to Lebanon.

A year earlier, Lebanon's unstable central power had had the bad idea of signing a document, "The Cairo Accords," which allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organization to settle down there, to take over large areas of southern Lebanon and use them to launch attacks on Israel. The result is predictable: The border catches fire, and the extreme fragility of the Lebanese structure becomes evident - a democracy only on the surface, but in truth an extremely unstable mosaic of different religious groups.

Up to to this point, the weakness of Lebanon is seen as a virtue enabling it to avoid the regional wars. With the outbreak of this crisis, this norm is upended. Armed militias are formed - "Christian" on one side, "leftist and Muslim" on the other, fighting for the division of power between the religious groups as well as over the question of the military presence of the Palestinians in Lebanon.

Suddenly, Lebanon finds itself again in the position of the region's weak spot, the substitute location where all conflicts are carried out in microcosm, instead of growing to their full size. The paradise that the land had previously known turns against it. Lebanon becomes the inferno of other peoples' wars, as well as its own. In 1975, civil war breaks out - generously supported by Lebanese militia, various Palestinian groups, Syria, Israel and practically the entire world. The war lasts 15 long years, claims 150,000 lives and fathomless destruction.

At the outset of the conflict, the Syrian Army changes sides and comes to help the Christian militia, taking advantage of their military defeat. That enables Syria to occupy the northern and eastern regions of Lebanon. In 1978, the Israeli Army marches in with the goal of creating a buffer zone, which they hand over to a Lebanese militia.

The most important turning point takes place in 1982, when Israel's then defence minister Ariel Sharon sends his troops right to the gates of the Lebanese capital to curb once and for all the Palestinian military presence. After three months of siege and bombardments, the goal appears to to have been reached: 14,000 Palestinian fighters are forced to leave Beirut and scatter through the Arab world. Yassir Arafat and his general staff go into exile in Tunis. There are no more Palestinian weapons on Israel's borders.

But appearances are deceiving, victory and defeat are often very close neighbours. A few days before be becomes president of the Lebanese Republic, the main ally of Israel, Bachir Gemayel, is killed, The Israeli Army reacts. It closes off Beirut and allows Christian militia to force their way into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they carry out a bloodbath, killing at least 1,000. An Israeli investigating commission later places indirect responsibility on its Army and on its chief of staff, Ariel Sharon.

So the invasion of Lebanon ends dishonourably. In the months that follow, Israel tries in vain to sign a separate peace treaty with Lebanon. Israel is forced to return to the southern part of the country. Slowly, Syria takes the upper hand. But this does not solve the problems in Lebanon. As if to contradict everyone who insists that the Palestinians are the source of all problems, war breaks out: between the Druse and Christian militia, between Shiite militia and Palestinian refugees, as well as between various Palestinian groups in the north and east of the country.

The Syrian Army, which plays its classical role as one who both sets the fire and puts it out, returns in 1987 to Beirut. Two years later, this provokes a Christian military uprising of General Michel Aoun. This uprising leads to clashes between rival Christian groups. Lebanon's calling as a battlefield is maintained, throughout the chaos.

The most important event following the Israeli invasion of 1982 is the founding of Hizbullah through revolutionary guards sent directly from Teheran via Syria. They are not an additional party in the Lebanese scene, but rather the establishment of a new mentality, a new logic. Because despite everything, the majority of the militant organizations up to this point identify with a more or less secular Arab nationalism. The goal remains the "liberation of the earth" (in other words, the liberation of the Palestinian territory) and the alignment of the Arab world with modernity and "progress" (takaddom), more or less on the Western model.

However Hizbullah is no longer interested in opening itself up to the West, but in delivering the West the hardest blows it can, to show that the battle supported by "God is the greatest" is more effective than all else. The attack on the American and French multinational troops in Beirut resulting in 299 fatalities and the kidnapping of foreigners in Lebanon open this new Islamicist era. Bit by bit the Shiite community, which represents the bulk of the troops of the Lebanese Left, joins up with Hizbullah or its Shiite rivals, the Amal Movement.

At the end of 1989, Saudi Arabia invites all Lebanese parties to the city of Taef in an attempt to end the war. The conference concludes with a series of resolutions. These realign the division of power between the communities in favour of the Muslims, recognise Syria's role of godfather in the Lebanon, and decree the disarmament of all militias with the exception of Hizbullah. Why? Because Hizbullah is not a militia, it is "an organisation of legitimate resistance" fighting for the liberation of the South. The fuse is lit on the bomb that has now gone off today.

In the meantime, the Lebanese hesitate to look back and are delighted at the return of peace. They put their energies into rebuilding their country under the leadership of Rafik Hariri, a Sunni businessman who has become a billionaire. The years pass and the war abates, although it continues in the south. In 2000, under military pressure from Hizbullah, the Israeli army unilaterally pulls back behind the border, letting the Shiite organisations cry "victory" and regain military control over the south. The country congratulates Hizbullah on this unexpected result, and invites it to relinquish its weapons and once more fall in line with the civil, normal life of all Lebanese.

But just like Syria and Iran, the Party of God is deaf in one ear. In truth, the army and the Syrian hotbeds across Lebanon have considerably gained in influence. Over the years, a consensus develops between Lebanon's political powers and religious communities, calling for Syria to withdraw. The Syrians answer by – successfully – stipulating an unconstitutional prolongation of the Lebanese president's term in office. And they murder Rafik Hariri, who had attempted to resist them.

The calculation proves extremely dangerous. Suddenly Lebanon overcomes its fear and rises up against the Syrian occupation. An entire young generation unfamiliar with the civil war goes onto the street, calling for democracy, independence and sovereignty. The world, led by France and the USA, supports the movement. This leads to a Security Council resolution calling for an end to the Syrian occupation and the disarming of Hizbullah. Now on the defensive and forced to order the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon, Syria answers the boldness of the Lebanese with a series of murders. But slowly, supported by Iran which has become arrogant by the American deadlock in Iraq, the Syrian regime once more gains the upper hand.

In this context, the attack of Hizbulla that leads to the current crisis conforms to no inner Lebanese logic. Rather, it complies with Iran's strategy to begin a military conflict with Israel, and Syria's strategy of winning back its lost influence. Stripped of its hope, Lebanon discovers that 15 years after the peace agreement, it is still a battlefield for wars bigger than it is itself.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on August 7, 2006.

The Lebanese writer Selim Nassib was born in Beirut in 1946 and has lived since 1969 in Paris. He is author of "I Loved You for Your Voice.".

Translation: Toby Axelrod, jab. - let's talk european