BINT JBAIL, SOUTH LEBANON — I drove to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon to survey the devastation from the war in July, to check in on the United Nations peacekeeping force, and to talk to civilians who were used as human shields in the battle with Israel. My American journalist friend Noah Pollak from Azure Magazine in Jerusalem went with me. We went under the escort of two professional enemies of Hezbollah who work for the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, an NGO which closely advises the Lebanese government and the international community on the disarmament of illegal militias in Lebanon.
The two men picked us up at our hotel first thing in the morning.
Said (pronounced Sah-EED) rode up to the front door on his motorcycle. Henry arrived in his car.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Said said as he shook our hands. “Shall we go in your car?”
“If you prefer,” I said.
It was probably better that way. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hysterically accuses Toni Nissi, the man Henry and Said work for, of heading up “the Beirut branch of the Israeli Mossad.” Best, I thought, to show up in Hezbollah’s bombed-out southern “capital” of Bint Jbail in a rental car rather than one that might be recognized.
It’s not worth taking Hezbollah’s “Mossad” accusation seriously. Nasrallah also says Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is a “Zionist hand” because he is pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament.
“Let me drive,” Said said. “It is better. We know the best roads to take.”
Toni insisted these guys were the best. Not only do they know their way around the back roads of South Lebanon, they are battle-hardened infantry veterans of Lebanon’s civil war. I seriously doubted we would need their services as trained killers, but it was nice to have that skill set in our back pockets while venturing into the heartland of an illegal warmongering militia. Every Lebanese person I know insists Hezbollah won’t actually harm American journalists, and I believe them. It has been a while since Hezbollah has violently terrorized Western civilians in Lebanon. But the very same people strongly insisted Noah and I not go to the South by ourselves.
Normally you can drive from Beirut to the fence on the Israeli border in just over two hours. Lebanon, though, isn’t normal right now, especially not in the South. The Israeli Air Force bombed most, if not all, the bridges on the coastal highway. Reconstruction moved along quickly enough, but snarled traffic had to be re-routed around the construction sites, at times onto side roads that were too narrow and small to handle the overflow.
A bridge destroyed by the Israeli Air Force under reconstruction
“What do you think about Israel’s invasion in July?” I asked Said and Henry.
“Of course what Israel did wasn’t good,” Said said. “They only care about themselves. Hezbollah doesn’t pay taxes, so the rest of us have to pay for all the infrastructure the Israelis destroyed.”
“What do you think about Israel in general?” I said. “Aside from the war in July?”
“I have nothing against Israel,” Henry said. “They are good people and they do good for themselves. We need to make peace with everyone. They are open-minded people, but we have no way to communicate with them since the Syrians came.”
“I would love to visit the Holy Land,” Said said. “My mother went there when the border was open before 2000. It is a good place. If you want to make peace with people, you can make peace, especially with the Israelis. They just want to live in their country, so it is no problem.”
“Is UNIFIL doing much in the South?” Noah asked from the back seat.
Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is widely assumed to be doing little aside from impotently standing around while Hezbollah reconstitutes its weapon stocks for the next round of war.
“The multinational forces don’t have the authority to stop Hezbollah unless they are smuggling weapons out in the open,” Said said. “The Lebanese army is not taking sides because of the volatile political situation and the violent clashes taking place in Beirut.”
The Lebanese army has actually confiscated a small amount of Hezbollah’s weapons smuggled in from across the Syrian border. One of Hassan Nasrallah’s recent demands is the return of those weapons from the army, even though Hezbollah’s existence as an autonomous militia is against Lebanese and international law.
Said is right, though, that the army does not have the authority to disarm Hezbollah. Hezbollah is better-armed, better-trained, and overall more powerful than the army, which suffered 15 years of deliberate neglect and degradation under Syrian overlordship. Some of the army’s top officers were also installed by the Syrians, and they are still loyal to the regime in Damascus. Most important, though, are fears that the army would break apart along sectarian lines if orders to militarily disarm Hezbollah were given. The army split during the civil war, after all, and would likely do so again. More than a third of the soldiers are Shia conscripts. Many are more loyal to Hezbollah than they are to the legal authorities.
“The Lebanese army is partly controlled by Syria, not like before 1975,” Henry said. “Before 1975 the Lebanese army was pro-Western and neutral toward Israel.”
As we left the city and the suburbs behind, apartment towers were replaced on the side of the road with soft beaches and the floppy leaves of banana trees. The weather was still warm and sunny even late in the year. Lebanon, as always, looked greener than I remember it when I am away.
“How badly was the South hit in July and August?” I asked.
Said laughed and shook his head. “You will see, my friend. You will see.”
We passed through the conservative Sunni coastal city of Saida, where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was born, and continued down along the Mediterranean toward the southern city of Tyre.
“What exactly, for the record, do you guys do in your organization?” I said.
“We advise the international community on how to implement UN Resolution 1559,” Said said. “And we try to convince Lebanon to be less conservative, more open and liberal and democratic. We try to convince the international community that most of us are not fanatics, to make Lebanon a good example for everyone. We want to live our lives as free people like you do in the US and Europe. We have a right.”
“The Hezbollah camp downtown is ugly,” Henry said. “This is not us. But it shows the world our differences. Most people think we live in a desert and ride camels and are all Muslims.”
“Hezbollah is trying to distract the world from Iran’s nuclear bomb,” Said said, “by making trouble in Lebanon, killings, dissolving the government, and so on. Can you imagine what Iran would do if they got the nuclear bomb? My God. Even right now they do what they want and don’t listen to anyone.”
A young man stood in the middle of an intersection and waved glossy pamphlets at cars. Said pulled alongside him and said something in Arabic.
“What is he handing out?” Noah said and rolled down his window.
“Hezbollah propaganda,” Henry said.
Said stepped on the accelerator.
Noah tried to grab one of the pamphlets.
“I want one of those,” he said. But the Hezbollah man kept the pamphlets tightly clutched in his fingers.
“He is selling them,” Said said, “not giving them away.”
“Oops,” Noah said. “I wasn’t trying to steal one.”
“He doesn’t care about money or propaganda,” Said said. “He is watching. This is the beginning of their territory. He reports on who is coming and what they are doing.”
Hassan Nasrallah (left) and Nabih Berri (right) announce to motorists that they are entering Hezbollah and Amal territory.
“Whenever you see something blown up from here,” Henry said, “it is because it was owned by Hezbollah people or because Hezbollah had something to do with it.”
If you’re familiar with Lebanese politics it’s obvious whose territory you’re in just by looking at roadside political adverts and posters. The Shia regions are divided between the Hezbollah and Amal parties. Amal, also known as the Movement of the Disinherited, is Hezbollah’s sometime rival and sometime ally. It’s a secular party that was founded by the Iranian cleric Moussa Sadr to advance the interests of the long-neglected and voiceless Shia, the poorest and most marginalized Lebanese sect. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri is the chief of Amal today, and he has forged an uneasy alliance with Hezbollah and with the Syrians. Berri’s face is plastered up everywhere in Amal strongholds, and Nasrallah’s face is even more ubiquitous in Hezbollah territory. Occasionally you’ll see both Berri and Nasrallah together.
What you rarely see in either Hezbollah or Amal areas are Lebanese flags. The Sunni, Druze, and Christian parts of Lebanon are blanketed with the national cedar tree flag, as well as those of various political parties and movements. Only the Shia towns and villages are bereft of noticeable signs of patriotism.
Another striking difference between the Shia regions of Lebanon and the rest is which kind of “martyrs” are famous. Hezbollah and Amal strongholds venerate “resistance” fighters killed in battles with Israel.
You never see anything like this in the Sunni, Christian, or Druze parts of the country. Instead you’ll see portraits of more liberal and moderate Lebanese who were car-bombed by the Syrians.
A poster of Samir Kassir, journalist and activist with the Movement of the Democratic Left, murdered last year by a Syrian car bomb.
Hezbollah glorifies violence and mayhem and murder.
The severed head of an Israeli is shown held up by its hair on one of Hezbollah’s billboards
In the rest of the country you see appeals to peace and life instead.
“No War” stickers left over from the conflict in July are common in Beirut.
The “I Love Life” campaign is intended to counter Hezbollah’s warmongering and “martyrdom” culture.
A “Wage Peace” billboard in the northern suburbs of Beirut
Last year a series of billboards all over Beirut said Say No to Anger, Say No to War, and Say No to Terrorism. Hezbollah would never allow anything of the sort to be erected in their parts of Lebanon, even though I know lots of Shia who agree with those sentiments.
The majority of the people in the South are Shia, but there are some Christian, Sunni, and Druze villages, too.
“The Christians down here are cornered,” Henry said. He could have mentioned that the Sunni and Druze are, as well. “They have no freedom of movement. They only have freedom of speech inside their own villages. Outside their villages they can’t speak or talk to the press unless they leave the South.”
“They have been a long time under Hezbollah control,” Said said. “It’s the same scenario as 1975, only with different players.”
The situation is eerily much like it was in 1975 when Lebanon descended into 15 years of hell and chaos and war. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization used South Lebanon as a launching pad for terrorist raids into Israel. The Shia who lived there were fiercely opposed to having their land used in this way for a foreigner’s war. Lebanon’s Christians also stridently opposed the use of their country as a battleground by Palestinians. But Lebanon’s Sunni community allowed and even encouraged Yasser Arafat to build himself a state-within-a-state in West Beirut. Street clashes between Christians and Palestinians sparked what eventually became a war of all-against-all that shattered the government and drew in the Syrians, the Iranians, the Americans, and the Israelis.
“Israel was surprised by the war this summer because they neglected Hezbollah after 2000,” Said said. Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew the Israeli occupation forces from the “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000, and wrongly assumed the Lebanese army would take control of the area. Hezbollah moved in instead and immediately dug in for more war. “Nasrallah will go all the way now unless Seniora and Hariri surrender. Only if they surrender will Nasrallah spare them from the final solution.”
This struck me as a bit on the paranoid side. Hezbollah can almost certainly win a defensive war against fellow Lebanese, but no one is strong enough to conquer and rule the whole country.
Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini lives on as a poster boy in South Lebanon
As we drove through a small village an imam screamed slogans in angry Arabic from the muezzin’s speaker atop a mosque minaret. It was a sharp contrast to what I’m used to hearing from the mosques in Beirut. There the muezzin’s call to prayer is hauntingly beautiful and genuinely spiritual, as though the muezzin himself is no longer tethered to this world. I miss the unearthly singing when I’m in Christian Beirut and when I’m at home.
“What is he saying?” I asked.
“It is about Palestine,” Said said. He listened. “He is saying If we win this fight against the Seniora conspiracy we will only have Palestine to liberate. We won’t have Israel as an obstacle.”
Shrapnel tore holes through a Hezbollah billboard
“They won’t have Israel as an obstacle?” Noah said in a bemused tone of voice.
“Ha, ha, ha, I like this guy,” Henry said.
A convoy of Lebanese army trucks headed north.
“One thing we are worried about,” Said said, “is the weakening of the South because the army has to go north. This is part of the plan.”
We ventured deeper into the South, into the steep rolling hills that make up the region known as the Upper Galilee.
“It’s beautiful here,” Noah said, and kept saying. He had never been there before. “This would be a great place for an artist’s retreat if it weren’t so dangerous.”
“Beautiful country, fanatic people,” Said said.
Most of the villages and towns were more or less intact.
We did, however, drive past the occasional damaged house or places where buildings recently stood and that now were fields of cleared rubble.
Dour-looking men stood on street corners and in the middle of intersections and carefully watched all the cars and people who entered the area.
“You see the watchers?” Said said.
“Yep,” I said. “They couldn’t be any more obvious. Can we get out and talk to people around here?”
“I do not recommend it,” Said said. “They cannot talk freely. These watchers will come up to us if we get out of the car, and they will make sure anyone who talks to us only tells us what they are supposed to say.”
Soon we reached Bint Jbail, Hezbollah’s de-facto “capital” in South Lebanon. The outskirts were mostly undamaged, but the city looks now like a donut. Downtown was almost completely demolished by air strikes and artillery.
“So this is our victory,” Said said. “This is how Hezbollah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs.”
Said parked in the center of what used to be the central market area. The four of us got out of the car. Noah and I walked around, dizzied by the extent of the 360-degree devastation.
Three severe-looking men walked up to Said and Henry.
“Who are they, who are you, and what are you doing?” said the man in charge.
“They are international reporters,” Henry said. Notice that he did not say we were American reporters. “They are here to document Israel’s destruction of our country.”
The men seemed satisfied with that answer and left us alone. Presumably they would continue to leave us alone as long as we didn’t try to interview any civilians. I was glad Henry and Said were there with us. They were the ones asked to do the explaining rather than Noah and me.
I kept snapping pictures.
“Oh man,” Noah said. “Some real pain got dropped on this place.”
The photos don’t do “justice” to the extent of the damage. The destruction was panoramic and near-absolute in the city center.
Apparently the outskirts of town were not seen as threatening by the Israelis. Most of Bint Jbail beyond downtown was unscathed.
We got back in the car. Said looked for the road to Maroun al-Ras, the next hollowed-out southern town on our itinerary. The streets, though, were confusing now that many landmarks no longer existed. Only after a few laps around town could Said re-orient himself.
“Three times on the same road, not good,” Henry said.
It looked — and felt — totalitarian in Bint Jbail. Everyone watched us. If Said was right that the locals weren’t allowed to speak freely (assuming they dissented from Nasrallah’s party line) it must feel totalitarian to people who live there as well.
I asked one of my Shia friends who grew up in Hezbollah’s dahiyeh south of Beirut what would happen if he said “I hate Hezbollah” outside his house on the street.
“I’d get my ass kicked,” he said. “No one would do that.”
We reached Maroun al-Ras only a few minutes after leaving Bint Jbail. This was the first Lebanese village seized by the Israeli Defense Forces during the war. The scene was familiar — much of the center of town had been reduced to rubble.
One site stood out, though. At the top of a hill overlooking the Israeli border stood a mostly intact mosque surrounded by panoramic destruction.
Israel may have over-reacted in July and selected targets (the milk factory, bridges in the north, etc.) that should not have been hit. But the stark scene on the hill of Maroun al-Ras demonstrated that the Israeli military did not bomb indiscriminately as many have claimed. Unlike Hezbollah, the Israelis are able to hit what they want and they don’t shoot at everything. That mosque wouldn’t be standing if they dropped bombs and artillery randomly in the villages.
“My mother is from Deir Mimas,” Said said. “In July Hezbollah brought their weapons out of the caves and valleys and into the village. My family has a small house there that was burned during the war.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Eh,” Said said. “It’s okay. It is fixed now. Anyway, at first Hezbollah fired their missiles from groves of olive trees. Then they got hit by the Israelis. So they moved into Deir Mimas because the other nearby option was Kfar Kila. Hezbollah didn’t want the Shia villages hit, so they moved into Christian villages instead.”
That sounded right. I recently saw Kfar Kila from the Israeli side. The town is literally right on the border, only twenty feet or so from the fence next to the Israeli town of Metulla. I saw no damage whatsoever in Kfar Kila — and this was one day before the end of the war — but I did hear machine gun fire in the streets ominously close to where I was standing.
The four of us arrived in the Christian village of Ein Ebel just outside Bint Jbail. A man was there waiting for us who would tell us about Hezbollah’s brutal siege of his town in July.
First we stopped for lunch, though, and ordered some pizza and sandwiches. As Said parked the car he turned the dial on the car stereo.
“Do you hear them?” he said. “Do you hear the Israelis?”
Sure enough, scratchy voices in Hebrew came through the crackling static.
“Yep,” I said. “Those are Israelis.”
“We are right next to the border,” Henry said.
We went into the restaurant. Henry and I sat at a table while we waited for food. Said hovered over us, as did Noah with his camera.
“We have been screaming about this conflict for 30 years now,” Henry said as he dealt himself a hand of Solitaire from a deck of cards in his pocket. “But no one ever listened to us. Not until September 11. Now you know how we feel all the time. You have to keep up the pressure. You can never let go, not for one day, one hour, not for one second. The minute you let go, Michael, they will fight back and get stronger. This is the problem with your foreign policy.”
“Since 1975 we have been fighting for the free world,” Said said. “We are on the front lines. Why doesn’t the West understand this? America can withdraw from Iraq, you can go back to Oregon, but we are stuck here. We have to stay and live with what happens.”
To be continued…
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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak