Echoes of past in Lebanon’s present

original BBC article

Published: 2006/07/18 12:57:51 GMT

Echoes of past in Lebanon’s presentBy Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

Once again, foreigners are turning their backs on Lebanon.
Britain started what could become a big exodus, flying out the most urgent cases first.

Ships from the Royal Navy are steaming this way across the Mediterranean to take the rest.

Now Beirut is left behind, its sun struggling through a shroud of smoke from the fires started by Israeli strikes. Less than a week ago Lebanon was basking in its summer, proud that foreigners wanted to come here again.

Hezbollah’s triumphalist videos pump out from their TV station, promoting their fighters as national heroes.

That might have been true in 2000, when they forced Israel out of south Lebanon. But outside their heartland in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the Shia Muslim south, many Lebanese don’t feel that way any more.

Although Hezbollah claims that a small section of border land is still occupied by Israel, the United Nations has declared the Israeli occupation over.

So it is harder for many Lebanese to accept the costs of Hezbollah’s actions.

Heartbroken

In the southern suburbs, rubble covers the streets. Bridges and flyovers are broken-backed and crumpled and Hezbollah’s headquarters are flattened.

Often, after air strikes, heavily armed black-shirted fighters from Hezbollah turn up, in four-wheel-drive vehicles with blacked out windows, to inspect the damage.

 

Others patrol the streets, stopping and searching strangers. They are the only power that matters in Beirut’s southern suburbs and in the bottom third of the country that is closest to Israel.

Since it all started, there has been a lot of damage, and death. The Lebanese who thought that their country was, at last, building a better future for itself are heartbroken about what is happening.

Nayla Mouawad, Lebanese minister for social affairs, is disgusted by what she called the brutal, disproportionate and murderous activities of the Israelis – but she is also appalled that Hezbollah’s decision to capture Israeli soldiers has pushed Lebanon into a war for which its people never asked.

“We were not aware of this operation,” she says.

“We did not approve and we did not adopt this operation.”

‘Capitulation’

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has been meeting representatives of the European Union and the United Nations. At least some sort of diplomatic process has started.

But there is great disappointment here that the world’s leading industrial nations at the G8 summit failed to call for a ceasefire. Many see it as a capitulation to the agenda of Israel and the United States.

Since Syria was forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon last year after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the self-made multi-billionaire who had masterminded the reconstruction of Lebanon after 15 years of civil war, the government has been trying to absorb Hezbollah into the political process.

It has also been mandated under the terms of UN resolution 1559 to extend its control of the country to Hezbollah’s heartland in the south.

It decided early on that it was inconceivable to risk an armed confrontation with Hezbollah. To begin with, its army would probably have broken up on confessional lines if it had tried.

Israel says it is acting against Hezbollah’s Shia fighters because the Lebanese army wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

“The army is a reflection of our society,” says former Lebanese army General Elias Hanna.

“In this army you have Muslims and among those Muslims about 60% to 70% are Shia. How can a Shia soldier go and disarm another Shia who he believes has the right to resist Israel?”

Bystanders

Now that Israel is on the attack, the government’s army is under orders to be neutral.

I saw a unit of armoured personnel carriers close to the southern suburbs start its engines, rumble out of its base and disperse to the surrounding streets no more than a minute after a big Israeli air strike close by, wallflowers at Hezbollah and Israel’s dance of death. They seemed concerned that they might be Israel’s next target.

Hezbollah has taken some heavy blows this week. Its headquarters was demolished.

But with support from Iran and Syria, criticism in Lebanon isn’t much of a problem. Plenty of Lebanese think this is not their war and that their country is being used, once again, as somebody else’s battlefield.

Hezbollah just seems to accept that. It’s a strong, well-disciplined organisation which is why it has inflicted so much pain on Israel in the past.

And Hezbollah still seems confident that, whatever Israel throws at it, it can answer in kind.