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The Beirut Branch of the Mossad

BEIRUT — Hezbollah has killed more Americans than any terrorist organization in the world after Al Qaeda. In 1983 a suicide-bomber drove a truck into a U.S. Marine barracks south of Beirut and killed 241 Americans with a single gigantic blast.

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President Ronald Reagan then withdrew American forces from Lebanon which had been sent as a peacekeeping force during the civil war. The U.S. won’t likely ever return. Hezbollah has calmed down, somewhat, and no longer poses a serious threat — military, terrorist, or otherwise — to the United States.

More Lebanese than you probably think want Americans to return, even so. Not the majority, to be sure, but a sizeable minority, perhaps no smaller than the those who wish to be ruled once more by the Syrians, or by the Iranians. You will meet these people if you go to Beirut, and you will meet lots of them.

One prominent Lebanese who wants to see the U.S. come back is Toni Nissi. He heads up the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, an NGO which advises and lobbies the Lebanese government and the international community for the disarmament of illegal militias in Lebanon as required by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. Hezbollah, of course, is at the top of that list.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has ramped up his criticism of Toni and his NGO lately by bullying journalists into putting him on a blacklist and by denouncing him on television as “the Beirut branch of the Mossad.” Pay Nasrallah’s slander no mind. He also, hysterically, says Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is a “Zionist hand” for slowly, with baby steps, moving toward Hezbollah’s disarmament.

If there were an appetite in the United States for more military action in the Middle East, Iran and Syria would be far more likely candidates than little Lebanon. The worst of Lebanon’s problems would largely disappear with the Syrian and Iranian regimes anyway if it comes down to that. An adventure in Lebanon would require effort more productively spent somewhere else.

Lebanon’s pro-American interventionists are worth listening to, even so. They have their reasons for wanting the superpower back in. Seeking foreign patronage is an old habit in that country. Many say it’s Lebanon curse, and they’re probably right. Either way it is, for good or for ill, typically Lebanese. Every major religious group in Lebanon — Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims — are a minority. All have, or recently had, foreign sponsors. Those who don’t play along suffer relative to the others.

I met Toni Nissi in his office in Beirut. No Israeli flag hung on the walls, nor did portraits of Ariel Sharon or even George W. Bush. My American colleague Noah Pollak from Azure magazine joined us.

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Toni Nissi

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) deployed to South Lebanon after a cease-fire was hammered out at the end of last summer’s war. But the deployment, much to Toni’s consternation, was under Chapter 6 instead of Chapter 7.

“What, exactly, is the difference between Chapter 6 and Chapter 7?” I said.

“The difference,” Toni said, “is that under Chapter 6 everything is related to the Lebanese government. So if the international community wants to act they have to have the permission of the Lebanese government. They have to wait for the Lebanese government to order them. Under Chapter 7 they act alone like what happened in Kosovo. They see what’s better for the country and they act alone. It is just referred to the United Nations, not to the Lebanese government. We know very well the Lebanese government is unable to implement any resolution, 1559, 1680, 1701. They are unable to do it for two reasons. First because of the internal conflict. Second of all, they don’t want it to be implemented.”

“Well, some of them do and some of them don’t,” I said.

“Most of them don’t,” Toni said. “If you transfer all these resolutions under Chapter 7 this means clearly that the international community will come to Lebanon and will not leave until Lebanon is transformed into a democracy. Saudi Arabia will fear it because you will never be able to ask King Abdullah to bring democracy to Saudi Arabia. Syria doesn’t want it to be implemented because we have the same border and they don’t want democracy inside Syria.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Iran because they have other plans,” he said. “They want an Islamic revolution under the umbrella of Iran. Also you have people here like Saad Hariri.” Saad Hariri is the head of the Future Movement and son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the most popular recent leader of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon who was assassinated two years ago with a Syrian car bomb. “He has millions of dollars, or maybe billions of dollars. He doesn’t want the United Nations to tell him how to transform Lebanon into a democracy. He wants to lead it himself. Plus, the influence from the other Arabs. Whenever Lebanon is democratic, whenever Lebanon has no army other than the Lebanese army, the Christians will ask again Are we Arabs? No, we are not. We want some kind of federation. We want to live in peace with our own identity and we don’t want to be Arabs anymore.”

Christians make up around 35-40 percent of Lebanon’s population, and they are divided into two major sects: Orthodox and Maronite Catholics, with the Maronites as the larger of the two. Most Orthodox self-identify as Arabs while most Maronites do not.

When I first met Maronites who insisted they aren’t Arabs I thought I had bumped into Lebanon’s right-wing reactionaries. I urge you to resist this interpretation yourself. They were branded this way during Lebanon’s civil war by leftist sympathizers of Yasser Arafat’s terrorist state-within-a-state in West Beirut. The crude stigma has been slow to die. For one thing the Maronites are probably the most liberal group as a whole in the entire country — many look to France for their ideas. All people, in any case, have the right of political and cultural self-identification.

The Lebanese writer Louis-Noel Harfouche (notice the French name) explained it this way on this blog Ecce Libano: “I don’t believe that being born in the Middle East makes one ipso facto an Arab. In fact, just as the English language is NOT the province of Britons alone, so is Arabic NOT the province of Arabs alone. Just like English, the Arabic language spread through conquest and colonialism. And so, today, to call an Iraqi Kurd, or a Chaldaean, or an Assyrian an Arab, or to call an Egyptian Copt an Arab, or to call a Lebanese Maronite or Druze or Melkite or Jew an Arab (all on account of their wielding of the Arabic language in one form or another), would be tantamount to cultural suppression and historical erasure. It would be as if I were to refer to Native Americans using labels that would have resonance only with European settlers and their modern American descendants (namely Spaniards, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and British). This sort of inaccuracy is akin to me referring to Irishmen or Scotsmen as “Englishmen” (on account of their use of their conqueror’s language).”

Lebanese have never resolved whether their country is Arab or not. They settled on a compromise at the founding of the republic in 1943 that described Lebanon as a sovereign country with “an Arab face,” whatever that means.

“Hezbollah is now attacking you personally, by name,” I said to Toni.

“Yeah,” he said. “This started a long time ago. Now he’s attacking me personally even on TV.”

“So he feels threatened by you,” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “Well, not by me as a person. If they felt threatened by me as a person they could kill me. It’s easy. It’s very easy, you know. They are afraid of who I represent in Lebanon — the international lobby, the guys in the States, people everywhere in Lebanon — they are afraid of what we are doing. But they think by pushing me to leave or maybe killing me, I don’t know the plans but, by eliminating a person having the power of the Diaspora Lebanese who is also very well connected with the international community and who can go on TV…I’ve been fives times on TV here and no one is able to put me on the screen anymore.” He laughed darkly. “Because of the influence of Hezbollah.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean Hezbollah is pressuring TV channels here to not talk to you?”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Of course.”

“And they are complying?” I said.

“They call any reporter and tell him if you make an interview with Toni we’re going to kill you,” he said.

That’s real smashing of dissent. Imagine George W. Bush threatening to kill Wolf Blitzer if he put Ralph Nader on CNN.

“Why do you think,” Noah said, “an international force under the auspices of a UN resolution are going to deal with Hezbollah any more firmly?”

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Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

“I’m going to tell you why,” Toni said. “Hezbollah is very good in the media, but it’s not a real militia inside Lebanon. Hezbollah has big missiles, maybe 20,000 to 30,000. They have maybe 5,000 fighters…not soldiers because the training of Hezbollah…it’s not training to make a civil war. It’s training just to go blow himself with the Israelis or maybe go make some missions inside Israel. So Hezbollah is not a real army. I believe Hezbollah is not strong as much as we think or as much as the international population thinks.”

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A billboard near the Israeli border memorializes a Hezbollah suicide bomber

“Why?” Toni continued. “Because we lived the war. We saw the militias inside Lebanon. The strongest militia in Lebanon was the [Christian] Lebanese Forces. And even the Lebanese Forces during the war they weren’t able to resist any international force. The Syrians, they came. They bombed East Beirut. They bombed it for half and hour,” he said and laughed, “and all the resistance collapsed. Hezbollah is not as powerful as they think. And let me tell you one thing. In one day in 1986, one night, the Syrians, Hezbollah, and all their allies in Lebanon fired 60,000 missiles at East Beirut. In one night. So Hezbollah with their 20,000 missiles now, that is nothing.”

“Their military power in Lebanon, though,” Noah said, “is through their Kalashnikov rifles.”

“Exactly,” I said. “I mean, really, their missiles didn’t do very much damage in Israel. And if they did the same amount of damage to Lebanon, well, you would be sort-of okay.”

“Yeah,” Toni said and laughed.

“It’s the guys in the streets with the Kalashnikovs that you need to worry about,” I said.

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A Hezbollah military parade

“Of course,” Toni said. “The problem is the system in Lebanon. Whenever the Lebanese government will not go to the international community and say this is a militia, this is terror, we want to get rid of this terror, we will not get rid of it. Even the Lebanese army hasn’t been trained or given any weapons since 1990. You know? We don’t have any army inside Lebanon to get rid of Hezbollah. We need an international force to come and…it’s easy to do it.”

“But the Israelis have a hard time doing it,” I said. “And they’re good at what they do.”

“Israel had their mission just to destroy Hezbollah in the South, and that’s it,” Toni said. “Israel was here in 1982. And they had their allies among the Lebanese Christians. And they couldn’t transform even this alliance into a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel. How can they pay the bill for destroying Hezbollah when they don’t have any supporters inside Lebanon? They will not do it. They can never do it. If the government were able to sign a peace agreement with Israel maybe the Israelis could come and destroy the Hezbollah. Israel has done very well for their country with only 152 dead people. So what Olmert did is very good for Israel, but it’s not good for Lebanese.”

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Destruction in Hezbollah’s suburb south of Beirut

“Whenever people talk about international forces,” Noah said, “I always think about the history of international forces in different regions. You had even here in Lebanon in 1983 — Hezbollah wanted to get the French and the US Marines out. They just did a couple of suicide bombings and everyone packed up and left.”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“And you had from 2000 to 2006,” Noah said, “in the interim period after Israel withdrew there was a small international force inside Lebanon and this force did nothing. And in fact at one point even collaborated with Hezbollah.”

“Yeah,” Toni said. “I know it.”

“So it seems to me,” Noah said, “that it’s all well and good to talk about bringing in an international force, but I think what people who want this really have to prove is that this international force is somehow going to be different from previous efforts. Hezbollah is not going to give up the weapons without a fight. So this international force is going to have to aggressively engage them.”

“It will be war,” I said.

“They’re going to have a start a war in South Lebanon,” Noah said.

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Destruction in downtown Bint Jbail, Hezbollah’s capital in South Lebanon

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“And which countries are going to give troops to this cause?” Noah said. “I mean, are the French going to do this?”

“We are an international lobby,” Toni said. “So we discuss everything with these governments all the time. And I know very well that the Americans are not here now because 1701 wasn’t under Chapter 7. The Americans were saying okay, if this is not going to be under Chapter 7 we will veto it, but the pressure from the Arabs, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, made it under Chapter six and a half.”

Toni stopped and thought for a minute.

“Do you know what happened to the Americans in Iraq?” he said. “The lies of the people who were leading the Americans to come to Iraq, like [Achmed] Chalabi, they told the Americans the community was ready. Whenever you come here the federation is going to happen in one second. But what happened is the Iraqi people are still before the French Revolution. They are uncivilized and they are not ready to have a country. It is different in Lebanon. The leaders are stupid, the leaders are not ready, but the people in Lebanon, they are ready. That’s the difference between here and Iraq.”

“The Lebanese people and the Iraqi people have one big thing in common,” Noah said, “which is that Iran is able and willing to do everything it can to prevent any sort of sovereign nation from developing. If an American force were to come to Lebanon under Chapter 7 to disarm Hezbollah, the Iranians could at that point turn Iraq into an even bigger mess than it already is. Because the Iranians can control violence in Iraq.”

“There’s another problem, too,” I said, “with having the Americans come here. There are a lot of people in Lebanon who are not with Hezbollah and who also don’t trust the United States. They think that the reason America wants Syria out of Lebanon is so that America can come into Lebanon. That Syria is in the way. And so if American soldiers come here it’s going to confirm what they believe, that America is taking over Lebanon.”

“They don’t trust the Americans, yes,” Toni said. “But they don’t believe that the American soldiers are coming here. Most Lebanese believe and know that in 1990 the United States handed the Syrians Lebanon on a plate of silver.”

Toni is referring here to Secretary of State James Baker who traded a green-light for Syrian domination of Lebanon in exchange for Syrian “help” in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Most Americans have no idea this even happened, but Lebanese have never forgotten it. Hezbollah’s Christian allies in Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement in particular bang on this point again and again.

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Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun

“They don’t trust the Americans because of what America did at that time,” Toni continued. “So they don’t believe that the Americans will come to Lebanon and die for Lebanese. They believe that the Americans got the Syrians out for the benefit of Israel. But it’s our duty as the people who know how things have changed from 1990 up until now to tell them the truth.”

Some Lebanese distrust the United States for what they see as too much involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs. What gets lost in all the yelling about it is that Lebanon’s more moderate anti-Americans don’t think the U.S. intervenes often or deeply enough, that every crisis could be solved if the superpower wished it and made the effort, that the lack of effort means Lebanon’s instability must therefore be in the American interest. No Hezbollah supporter thinks this way, but many Christians and Sunnis do.

“If you go to most Lebanese Christians in Lebanon,” Toni said, “and ask him if he wants the Americans to come here and protect him he will say yes. And you know? There are Lebanese who want the Americans or the French to come and to rule Lebanon for 40 years.” He laughed. “You know why? Because we believe that kicking the asses of the French people in 1943 was wrong. They believe we need to be governed again from an outsider. I believe the American problem in Lebanon is that they don’t have a Christian partnership.”

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Lebanese Christians mark territory in East Beirut

“In order to make an American intervention in Lebanon work,” I said, “we need to have Christian partners and Muslim partners.”

“No,” Toni said. “You need to have a partner.”

“Look,” I said. “Lebanon has this history — and you know what I’m talking about — of different sects having different foreign patrons coming into Lebanon and working for them.”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“So if the United States comes in and helps only Christians…” I said.

“No,” Toni said, “they would not be coming to help only Christians…”

“Then all the Muslims,” I said, “Shia and Sunni, will oppose it.”

“I know that,” Toni said.

“It’s just like with the Shia now,” I said. “They have their foreign patrons, Syria and Iran.”

“Only a part of the Shia,” Toni said.

“Right,” I said. “Not even all the Shia.”

“And they have Michel Aoun,” he said and laughed.

“If the US ever intervenes here they have to do it for Lebanon as a whole,” I said.

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Churches and mosques are sometimes built right next to each other in the Beirut city center

“Of course,” Toni said.

“Or at least for the majority,” I said. “And I don’t think that’s going to happen today.”

“Possibly not,” Toni said. “But let me explain to you a little bit. Of course the Americans will not come here just to protect the Christians. But if the Americans or the international community comes to Lebanon and said we want to transform you into a democracy — like what happened in Kosovo and what happened in East Timor — this means that you are helping everybody. And the Christians are the only partner that is not supported by anybody. So the Americans would come here to protect the Lebanese government. We want the Americans to come for that.”

Toni is right that the Christians of Lebanon don’t have a real foreign patron right now. The U.S. and France provide diplomatic support to the Lebanese government, but that is mostly going to and through Fouad Seniora, the Sunni Prime Minister. None of the Christian parties have serious connections to the American government. Lebanon’s Christian president Emile Lahoud is a remnant of the Syrian occupation. He was chosen by, and is still loyal to, the Assad regime in Damascus. The Christian “street,” his supposed constituency, almost unanimously thinks he is a traitor.

“They said the Lebanese government is an ally,” Toni said, “and they sent millions of dollars to the Lebanese government because the Lebanese government would know what to do with it. Do you know what they do with it? They steal it! And if they don’t steal it, if they want to do anything with the South they have to pass it through Nabih Berri.”

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Nabih Berri is the Speaker of Parliament and the boss of Amal, a secular Shia party precariously aligned with Hezbollah. He is arguably the most financially corrupt politician in Lebanon.

“Who could the money be delivered to where it wouldn’t get stolen?” Noah said.

“You can deliver money to NGOs,” Toni said. “There are 6,000 NGOs inside Lebanon who work for Lebanon. Do you know that USAID in Lebanon has never delivered any money to any NGO other than those in the South?”

“Probably because the Shia are more poor,” Noah said.

“No,” Toni said. “Because they want to integrate the Shia community. The Americans think that if they integrate the Shia they can teach them that democracy is good, that if they make them financially supported…”

“Why do you think hundreds of millions of dollars flow to the Palestinians?” Noah said. “Same reason.”

“It all gets stolen,” I said.

“They think that by spending hundreds of millions of dollars that they’re going to liberalize the Palestinians,” Toni said.

“There is something to this, though,” I said. “What they’re trying to do is compete with Hamas. Foreigners think they can go in and do the good things Hamas does and undercut the support for Hamas. That’s the idea.”

“Yeah, but it’s a stupid idea,” Toni said.

“Is it?” I said. “Hezbollah does the same thing here. Right? They build all these hospitals and they help people with building houses. Many people like Hezbollah because of that.”

“It’s patronage,” Noah said. “It’s buying people nice things to get their loyalty. But the problem is the Palestinians are never going to be loyal to the United Nations. You’re handing them a hospital or a school and asking for nothing in return, and no one is going to respect you for that.”

“Certainly that is the case in Palestine,” I said. “But what are you going to do when you have a terrorist army that builds hospitals and gets support for building hospitals? You have to find a way to peel these people off.”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“And that’s why they do it,” I said.

“What has [Palestinian Fatah leader Mahmoud] Abbas delivered for that?” Toni said.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Yeah, so,” Toni said and laughed. “Whenever you pay money you have to get something in return. What Abbas wants to do is to bring back all of the Palestinians from 1948 — which means infiltrating inside Israel 8 million Palestinians — and destroy Israel from inside. And you are giving money to him? The international community deals with Eastern issues very stupidly. Why? Because they don’t know the Eastern mind. Do you know why Israel is winning? Because they know the Eastern mind and they know the Western mind.”

“They know both,” I said. “They are both.”

“Yeah,” Toni said. “I have been a refugee outside Lebanon. This is why I know a little bit about the international community’s mind. The international community is stupid in dealing with us. You know? They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them. So whenever you want to deliver money to somebody you have to ask him: how many of those Shia has gotten money from USAID and went on any TV and said I am liberal. I don’t want the house of Hezbollah?”

“I know Shia,” I said, “who grew up in South Lebanon who don’t like Hezbollah.”

“All of them hate Hezbollah,” Toni said.

“No, they don’t,” I said. “Not all of them. If you talk to these people they say Yeah, I love Hezbollah.”

“Because if they don’t say it,” Toni said, “the person who is next to them is going to tell Hezbollah.”

“Noah and I went downtown and talked to some of these people,” I said. “They don’t have to be there.”

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“Of course they have to,” Toni said. “If you only get 300 dollars a month of course you have to be there. They are buying you.”

Toni is overstating the case. Plenty of Hezbollah supporters have drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak, and are genuine supporters. But there is something to what he is saying.

Last month Lebanese Shia Nisrin Yaghi wrote a piece in Beirut’s Daily Star where she made a similar point about her own community. “I believe that most Shiites have fallen victims to the Stockholm Syndrome. The population is not being held at gunpoint, but rather a financial and educational blackmail that has taken place for the past 15 years. The people have grown accustomed to being fully dependent on their party for economic survival…”

“Let me explain to you Hezbollah,” Toni said. “Hezbollah gets around 400 million dollars a year from Iran. They pay every house in the dahiyeh. And every house in the South. Whenever I give you money I have the power to lead you. Once Nabih Berri and Rafik Hariri tried to make a huge project to rebuild the dahiyeh. They wanted to transform the dahiyeh into a new downtown for the Shia. You know who forbid the Shia, who destroyed the project?”

“Hezbollah,” I said.

“Hezbollah,” Toni said. “Then if you want to give money to the Shia you have to transform them into liberal people who will support the Lebanese government when something like this happens. The Americans are giving money to the Shia to get them into the Lebanese community and they are asking nothing in return. This is stupid. There are people who can get them to return, it is us, but you are not supporting us. We can bring them here.”

“How?” I said.

“You cannot bring them here,” he said. “We can.”

“How?” I said. “What would you do?”

“I know their language,” he said. “It’s easy.”

“So, okay, you pretend I’m one of those people,” I said. “What are you going to say to me?”

“Believe me, “ Toni said. “They don’t like Hezbollah. But they don’t believe in Lebanon. You know what Nasrallah says all the time on the TV? They want to make us the dust boys again.”

I believe Toni means “shoe shine boys,” a common phrase in Hassan Nasrallah’s polemical speeches. There are some rich and middle class Lebanese Shia, of course. But many, if not most, are poor. They shine shoes, clean houses, and wash the cars of rich Christians and Sunnis. Hezbollah does not make them rich, but Hezbollah does give them pride.

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Hezbollah is the only political party in Lebanon with a gun on their flag

“And they forbid the Lebanese government from doing anything for them,” Toni said. “The problem must first be solved by disarming Hezbollah. Second, whenever you disarm Hezbollah then the Lebanese government and the NGOs of Lebanon are the only people who are able to integrate the Shia into the Lebanese community. But as long as somebody has guns and forbids me and you and everybody from doing anything for those people, it’s not a wise idea to give them money. You have to give money to the other camp, to disarm Hezbollah, and then these people can be integrated.”

He may be right. Aid to Shia Lebanon would certainly be better spent if Hezbollah were first cleared out of the way. But that would mean war would come to Lebanon first, a war that hardly anyone wants.

“Most of the Shia do not love Hezbollah,” Toni continued. “But whenever they go out of their borders they say For you, Nasrallah. Why? Fear. And money. That’s it. Take the fear away, and take the money of Hezbollah, and everybody can be integrated into the Lebanese community. Hundreds of millions of dollars you’ve been spending here, for what?”

I didn’t know what to tell him.

“You know what the prime minister told me one day?” he said.

“Fouad Seniora?” I said.

“Yeah,” Toni said. “After this war we want to bring Nabih Berri away from the camp of Hezbollah. So give him money. 40 million dollars. This is stupid. You can never bring Nabih Berri, you will never been able to bring anyone from that camp. You know why? Because there is blood on their necks. If you look at the Lebanese map, the geopolitical map, you see that everybody who is in control used to be a militia man or militia leader.”

“Hariri wasn’t,” I said. “But yeah, most were.”

“He was the guy who was delivering goods to militias,” Toni said and laughed. “How can they build a country? The Cedar Revolution has to destroy all of these.”

“A lot of them know it, too,” I said. “But do you really want to get rid of all of them? Walid Jumblatt is a good guy now.”

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Walid Jumblatt, Druze chief, Member of Parliament, and head of the Progressive Socialist Party

“He may be the only one,” Toni said. “I have met him several times, tens of times, and I believe that, yes, I know he is saying the truth. Yesterday I saw Nasrallah. I used to think this guy’s the wise one. I used to think that, during the Lebanese civil war and after. I said he’s the leader of their community. But he’s using those guys like in a chess game. I heard him yesterday. I heard his speech. Wow. What a loser! You know? He lies and he believes his lies. Believe me, Nasrallah doesn’t know what to do tomorrow.”

“I do believe you,” I said.

“I thought that he has a plan,” Toni said. “He has nothing. What’s he going to do just so he can tell his people I did something?”

“He’s in a tough spot,” Noah said. “He really is.”

“He can’t go any further without provoking a serious backlash,” I said. “And he knows it. If he tries to seize the airport something will happen.”

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Violence did break out all over Lebanon on the day Hezbollah blockaded the road to the airport

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“I’m pretty sure,” I said. “You think so?”

“Yeah,” Toni said.

“Something ugly,” I said.

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. I have to eat and pay bills, and your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy

When I arrived in Northern Israel during last summer’s war with Hezbollah I met famed military historian Michael Oren on the border under fire where he acted as a spokesman for the IDF Northern Command.

He told me about his forthcoming book Power, Faith, and Fantasy which is now finally available.

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It is the first and only book ever written about America’s involvement in the Middle East from the founding of the republic in 1776 to the present.

I haven’t read it yet and can’t vouch for it per se. But if it’s anywhere near as good as his masterful Six Days of War, about the 1967 war where Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territories, it should make its way onto your list of required reading.

Oren is unabashedly pro-Israel, but amazingly even one of my Hezbollah readers recommended Six Days of War as a worthwhile read in my comments section a few months ago.

When Oren isn’t meeting with reporters under fire he works at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem with Natan Sharansky, Yossi Klein Halevi, and my intrepid travel buddy Noah Pollak.

I’ll be back with more original reporting from Lebanon on Monday.

The Autumn of the Arabs

Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star

In March 2005, Samir Kassir wrote a column titled, “Beirut, the springtime of the Arabs.” Martyrs Square was then awash with people protesting Rafik Hariri’s murder, and Samir felt confident enough to affirm: “Today, Beirut declares that death is not the only path open to the Arabs.” Of the grim outfit ruling in Damascus, he noted, “Beirut’s renaissance is by far more important than maintaining a regime that leaves only desolation in its wake.”

Yet in the space of only two months, since early December last, the Lebanese capital has been transformed into a new Arab autumn. Sunnis and Shiites are increasingly wary of living in the same neighborhoods, while Christians are beginning to look to crossing points between the eastern and western halves of Beirut as barriers against instability from “the other side.” Beirut’s renaissance remains desirable, the impact of sectarian conflict on our city would have calamitous regional consequences, multiplied by its occurring in the Arab world’s laboratory of modernity (another Kassir formulation); but no one has been able to alter the behavior of those purveyors of desolation of whom Kassir wrote, and who, in the end, liquidated him and vandalized his optimism.

There are countless ways to explain the ongoing Lebanese crisis, but the most essential one, it seems to me, is that it is a battle over the destiny of Beirut. Will the city ever return to being that shambling, ill-disciplined showcase of modernity that it has always said it was, a laboratory of bastardized Arab liberalism (but liberalism nonetheless)? Or will it fall back into the lap of a decaying Baath regime in Damascus, in league with an ambitious Iran, whose local allies deploy a language of death and the austere habits of those movements created by a security apparat?

[...]

After the rioting last week, several disturbing messages were sent to the Shiites: that access to Beirut from Shiite population centers in South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley could be easily cut off; that Shiites inside Beirut might be trapped between Sunni and Christian quarters; and that in the event of war, Beirut’s southern suburbs would find themselves under the guns of their foes. That is what the city is disintegrating into: a conversation on comparative military positioning.

[...]

There are many in the Middle East who would prefer to see Beirut destroyed rather than emancipated. They should be careful. Beirut may be dumb prey, but like any city that also doubles as a powerful idea, it tends to take down those conceited enough to imagine that they can kill it.

Read the whole thing.

Hysteria

First there is this:

Results of tests conducted by United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon showed that balloons which drifted from Israel into southern Lebanon over the weekend did not contain dangerous gases, a Lebanese security official has said.

The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Sunday that helium balloons from a promotional event by Ha’ir, a chain of local newspapers, had floated north over the border into Lebanon.

The balloons sparked panic among villagers over the weekend amid rumors they were filled with poison gas.

Still, their appearance spread alarm among Lebanese — a sign of the tensions and suspicion that remain in the border region after last summer’s war between Israel and Hizbullah that devastated much of the south.

And then there is this:

BOSTON – Several illuminated electronic devices planted at bridges and other spots in Boston threw a scare into the city Wednesday in what turned out to be a publicity campaign for a late-night cable cartoon. Most of the devices depict a character giving the finger.

[...]

Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down and bomb squads were sent in before authorities declared the devices were harmless.

Turner Broadcasting, a division of Time Warner Inc. and parent of Cartoon Network, said the devices were part of a promotion for the TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball.

Intermission

I’m working on a brief side project and will be back shortly. If it takes more than another day I’ll at least be back with some links.

In the meantime, discuss amongst yourself in the comments. Feel free to post links to anything interesting you might have read. And be nice. Don’t make me pull over the car.

Busted

Lebanese bloggers Rampurple and Jeha, who both show up at times in my comments section, busted Hezbollah and Michel Aoun for peddling a blatantly doctored photograph on Hezbollah’s An Manar TV channel.

Here is a screen shot of Aoun holding up the photo on TV.

Aoun Propaganda Screen Shot.jpg

Below is the photo. It supposedly shows a (Christian) Lebanese Forces “militia man” in the lower-left corner pointing a weapon at Lebanese soldiers. Notice the cross on his sleeve. The man and the cross were photoshopped in.

AntiLF Propaganda Photo.jpg

Here is the real picture.

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And here is the picture that was used as bad photoshop fodder. It was taken during last summer’s war and was itself criticized as propaganda for its inaccurate caption. Notice the cross on the sleeve isn’t there. That’s because this man is Hezbollah, not a member of the Christian Lebanese Forces.

Fake Photo Fodder.jpg

Hats off to Lebanese bloggers for exposing this one. Busting propagandists for fauxtography isn’t just for Americans any more.

UPDATE and CORRECTION: Lebanese blogger Nancy says Aoun and Hezbollah were busted on television by Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. So this isn’t just a blogosphere thing. And N10452 posted this at Rampurple’s site, not Rampurple herself. Credit where it’s due.

UPDATE: Beirut’s Daily Star picked up the story.

UPDATE: Apologies to EU Referendum. I should have said “Westerners,” not “Americans.”

UPDATE: A reader created and emailed a nice animated gif file.

AntiLF-Propaganda-Photo.gif

“They Had Machine Guns Welded in Windows”

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I went to South Lebanon looking for Lebanese civilians who witnessed the July War between Israel and Hezbollah and who could, perhaps, clarify some controversial claims. Did Israel bomb indiscriminately? Did Hezbollah use human shields?

Some civilians did testify that Hezbollah used people in their village as human shields. And I found evidence that Israel at least sometimes struck with precision, if not at all times.

Lebanese civilians, though, weren’t the only witnesses to the war. Hezbollah was there, too — although I’m officially blacklisted with the organization and am denied access to interviews.

The Israeli Defense Forces also were there. I found a soldier who spent the entire war in and out of South Lebanon. He was willing to talk to me by phone even though our interview was illegal — he’s still in the army and is not supposed to talk to anyone in the media about what he did and what he saw. He did anyway, though, and he did not say what I thought he would say. The number of people killed in South Lebanon may be more heavily tilted toward Hezbollah fighters than most of us realized.

To preserve his anonymity I can only identify him as “an Israeli soldier in a long-range patrol unit.” So I’ll just call him Eli, which isn’t his name. Our conversation by phone was recorded. Here is the transcript.

MJT: There is a controversy about whether or not Hezbollah was using the civilian population and infrastructure as shields, whether were hiding behind people and apartment buildings and the like.

Eli: Did they use populated areas to fire? It was clear that they did. Except Israel also dispersed flyers ordering all the civilian population of South Lebanon to leave. So it was in those villages after the, I don’t remember the date, except anyone who was in those villages was probably helping Hezbollah fighters.

MJT: Where in Lebanon was your unit?

Eli: We went all around the West. Opposite Metulla there’s all these villages called Hula, Abbasieh, Markaba, Jwayya. It was 15 kilometers in. So we would go in 15 kilometers, mark targets.

MJT: So you were marking targets yourself? What kind of targets were you marking? I was on the border at the end of the war, and I watched a lot of Israeli artillery being fired, but it was impossible to tell what you guys were shooting at.

Eli: I can’t explain exactly what we use, but we use very advanced scopes and thermal scopes and stuff like that so you can see exactly what’s going on in villages at night or during the day or whenever. We could see armed personnel walking around there, carrying big bags. So as long as they’re armed they are targets for us to mark, for Air Force and artillery.

MJT: The reason I ask what kind of targets you were marking is because the majority of people inside Lebanon think the Israelis were firing at civilians deliberately.

Eli: If you ask me what should have been done in the villages in Lebanon during this war, I think Israel wasn’t harsh enough. Now, I’m not right-wing, I’m not…I just think that if we are in a war…it’s like, if you play with fire, people get burned. There’s nothing you can do about it. These whole villages, they were empty, just filled with Hezbollah terrorists. They should have been totally wiped off the map. Except Israel left them standing. Many of our soldiers were killed because of that, so Israel wouldn’t be blamed after the war for war crimes and destroying civilian houses.

When they say that Israeli artillery was aimed at civilian targets, I can tell you a bit about how the artillery works. If I find a target in the middle of a village, like one house that I see that there are armed people going in, and I will aim artillery, heavy artillery, on it. Not Air Force, not like pin-pointed targets. Artillery will dispense rounds 100 meters from that target also. It’s not accurate. Anyway, even if a target is next to it, these houses were empty. No civilians were walking around South Lebanon. I know. I was in their villages. In their houses. Anyone who was there was definitely working for the Hezbollah or working as a Hezbollah fighter.

MJT: So you didn’t see any women? It was mostly men and no children?

Eli: I never saw one woman or any children in Lebanon. I was going in and out for the whole time since the day when the soldiers were kidnapped. We flew from my unit straight to the north in helicopters, and since then we were there until a week after the cease-fire.

MJT: An article was recently published in the Washington Times, and it wasn’t sourced very well, that said…Hezbollah is known for doing charity work in South Lebanon. One of the things that they had supposedly done, according to the article, was build houses for poor people with Katyusha rocket launchers embedded inside the center of the house, walled off on four sides in sealed rooms so the residents didn’t even know they were there. And supposedly when the war started Hezbollah peeled off the roofs and fired rockets from inside the houses. Did you see anything like this?

Eli: I didn’t see any Katyusha rockets being installed inside houses. But I’ve seen stuff…like we went toward this house, we were fired upon from inside the house. We went into the house. We cleared the house. Anyone who was in the house was neutralized. We went down to the basement. And also in the basement everything was neutralized. And we saw a periscope in the basement that was looking up toward the main road.

MJT: A periscope like something they use in a submarine?

Eli: Yeah, a periscope. You know, you can be underground and see above. It was a pipe that had mirrors that were reflecting up. And a small kind of detonator. Our team checked it out. There were 500 kilos of explosives under the road waiting for Israeli tanks. There were really ready. They built these houses for that purpose because they knew this was going to happen some day. They were just waiting for the tanks to roll in.

MJT: Do you have any idea when you found houses that were being used militarily if they were Hezbollah houses per se, or had they taken over other people’s civilian houses?

Eli: I don’t know.

MJT: You couldn’t tell.

Eli: No. But they could take any house they wanted because the whole place was empty. Everyone left. When we were fighting we were fighting from house to house. They would just skip houses, they would go a different house. We would detonate one house, they would fire a few from another house, and skip to yet another house. They would go wherever they want, it was their area in South Lebanon. It’s not like they thought about them as civilian houses.

MJT: What do you know about that went on in South Lebanon that has been under-reported in the media?

Eli: Not so much in South Lebanon, but in Israel. The way the Israeli army and the prime minister and the chief of staff, the chief of military staff, used the war and controlled the war, if you ask me, was wrong.

MJT: In what ways?

Eli: The chief of the military in Israel did not come from the army. He came from the Air Force. He used to be an Air Force Commander. He was not an army grunt. And the first three weeks of the war he tried to really win this war with air strikes, in the South and in the area in Beirut, what do you call it?

MJT: The dahiyeh.

Eli: Yeah, the dahiyeh. The dahiyeh area. He did not use the ground troops as well as he should have. He would send ground troops one kilometer in, they would stay for a few days, and walk out. Only during the last week of the war did the army take up the war. And every time we went in and went out, people got killed.

MJT: Do you think the air war was effective at all? Or should the war have been fought on the ground only?

Eli: Of course it should always be together, air and ground. You can’t win one without the other. You have to place your air strikes exactly where you need them. Just dropping thousands of tons of bombs on that area in Beirut was useless if you ask me.

Because they couldn’t get Nasrallah. He’s planned this out for how many years? I mean, he knew where he was going to go and how to avoid Israeli intelligence in Lebanon. The bottom line is that they should have aimed more air strikes in the area of South Lebanon.

For the first few weeks they called it a mission. They didn’t call it a war. The enemy was firing rockets from inside Lebanon. And Israel went out to stop that enemy. Which is…kind of like a war. It is war. In any war civilian houses get damaged and there’s nothing you can to do stop it. When you play with fire, people get burned.

Israeli troops went into standing villages where they just were ambushed. Our unit was ambushed also once. And I know lots of other units who were ambushed. Standing villages were there. There could have been nothing, we could have rolled into rubble.

MJT: Hezbollah claims they tried to keep their fighters away from civilian areas, that they keep their fighters away from the towns and the villages and more out in the countryside. So, when you say that you were ambushed, were you inside one of the towns when this happened?

Eli: Yes. We were also ambushed in more open areas. They have these small bunkers, they built bunkers and caves and stuff in open areas. They were ready. They had machine guns welded in windows. They were welded in already. They were ready. They were ready for urban warfare. That’s where they killed the most Israeli soldiers, in urban warfare.

In open warfare? They didn’t have much of a chance. It’s in urban warfare where they can skip house to house and leave very large amounts of explosives under asphalt where you can’t even see it.

MJT: So you’re saying that a lot of the damage done in South Lebanon towns was done by Hezbollah themselves, not all of it was by the Israeli Defense Forces?

Eli: I can tell you about the places I’ve been. Some of the places you’ve heard about, like Bint Jbail, I haven’t been there. My unit didn’t go there.

We got to one village one time and the information was that there weren’t going to be very many armed Hezbollah. It was just going to be like a few helpers or spotters. So the whole village was going to be left standing and there was not going to be any problem.

As soon as we got around 500 meters from the village they started firing everything they had at us. From inside the village. So of course Israel retaliated with a few rounds of artillery, some war planes came down on the place. It wasn’t really…a round of artillery won’t bring a house down. It will make a big hole in it. And the airplane, unless it’s a big bomb, it won’t bring a house down. You know, maybe it will make it an unsafe house to live in. So you’ll see big holes in walls, and some tank shells blew holes in walls. Except the only reason why those holes are there is because they were shooting from these villages. They were shooting from within mosques. They were firing Katyushas from behind mosques and stuff.

MJT: Were they also firing from churches?

Eli: I didn’t see any churches. I wasn’t in any Christian villages. Most of the Christian villages, the Israelis detoured around them because they thought they were probably anti-Hezbollah, that Hezbollah would not be in there. Except the Hezbollah, they often dressed up as Israeli soldiers.

MJT: Did you actually see this yourself? Hezbollah wearing Israeli uniforms?

Eli: Yes.

MJT: Really. How many Hezbollah soldiers did you see wearing Israeli uniforms?

Eli: Once they hit us with a few anti-tank missiles. And I saw straight away like six of them.

MJT: Was it just the one time that you saw this?

Eli: I’m not the only one who has seen this happen in Lebanon. There are lots of other people from lots of other units who have seen this. It’s, it’s guerilla warfare.

MJT: Where do you suppose they get the uniforms? Do they make them themselves? Or are they stealing them?

Eli: Well, all of them are probably stolen. When Israel left Lebanon in 2000 they left a ton of army supply stuff.

MJT: They claim that they have their own uniforms.

Eli: Yeah, they have like a kind of a dark khaki colored, like dark American colors. They have camouflage and stuff like that. But they’re also wearing, they’re people walking around towns, with weapons, who aren’t wearing uniforms. They look like civilians. I mean, in every civilian house in Lebanon there is a shotgun. And that’s not because they’re against the IDF or because they’re against Israel, it’s that most people in the small villages, they’re hunters. They hunt for food. But we also saw people walking around with AK-47s and hand guns and stuff. There are definitely Hezbollah people in, in civilian clothes.

MJT: So, okay, what’s the most common appearance for a Hezbollah fighter in South Lebanon during a war? Do most wear civilian clothes? Hezbollah uniforms? Israeli uniforms?

Eli: It changes all the time.

MJT: Hezbollah claims they had some missiles from Iran, specifically the Zelzal missiles, and that they chose not to fire them. I wonder, do you know if they’re lying about that, if the Israelis perhaps took the Zelzal missiles out at the beginning of the war and that they were unable to fire them?

Eli: The greatest bulk of the long-range missiles that they had were destroyed. By the Air Force. This is what I heard, but I don’t really know, it’s not what I do in the army.

MJT: Have you fought in the West Bank or Gaza?

Eli: Yes.

MJT: How much more skilled are Hezbollah than Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

Eli: Much more skilled. Much more skilled. You can’t compare with fighting against Hezbollah and fighting against Palestinians. Hezbollah has had such a long time to get prepared for these attacks. And they were dug in. Everything was planned, and the weapons, the ammunition, everything was accurate, everything. And the mortar rounds they were all fixed, everything, all the mortars were already fixed on targets where they knew the Israelis were going to come through.

With the Palestinians, it’s very amateur with the Palestinian freedom fighters or whatever they call themselves.

MJT: Alright. From where I was during the war, which was the Israeli side, it looked like the Israelis won every engagement with Hezbollah.

Eli: In the end, Israel won every engagement, this is true. Except the problem is winning an engagement against people who are fighting guerilla warfare. You will win, but you will sustain losses, heavy losses. With guerilla warfare you have one or two guys on a mountain hidden in small holes holding an anti-tank missile. And really at the end of the day he’ll shoot the missile at a few soldiers. He’ll maybe kill one or two, I don’t know. Except you won’t be able to find him afterwards. Unless you were looking in exactly the same direction when it was fired, you won’t. That’s the problem with guerilla warfare.

If there was a full-out war, you know, tanks against tanks, combat units against combat units, and everything done out in the open, Israel would definitely, totally defeat and win. Except the problem is guerilla warfare is extremely hard, it’s, I don’t know how to explain it except that it’s stressful because it’s not a real army, it’s not an army, it’s like cells. Fighting against cells that are operated by bigger cells, you don’t know where they could be, it’s not a big army.

MJT: Do you think it would be possible for Israel to defeat Hezbollah completely in a future war? If you killed every Hezbollah fighter they could always recruit more, but that aside, do you think you could eliminate all or most of them? Or would it just take too long because of the nature of the fighting?

Eli: The problem is, if you kill their combat units…which was possible, during the war the Israelis killed 700 to 800 Hezbollah fighters, which is a third of their whole combat fighters. Which is quite a lot of people.

MJT: It is, yeah.

Eli: Except killing them all…I’ve read MEMRI where there are Arab newspapers translated into English. It’s on the Internet. You can read it. Hezbollah said they were bringing in 3,000 to 4,000 Somali fighters.

MJT: I remember reading that. Did you see anybody who looked Somali, like they were from Africa?

Eli: No.

MJT: A lot of Lebanese people think this is just Hezbollah propaganda, that it’s not true. And I suspect they’re right. Like you said, Hezbollah is a professional guerilla army, whereas Somali fighters are pretty amateurish, like Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Eli: Hmm. You can’t compare the Hezbollah fighter to the Israeli soldier. The Israeli soldier is much better trained. He’s much more fit. Better weapons. And they’re trained for much longer. Except fighting guerilla warfare is just much harder than fighting a regular war.

MJT: Right.

Eli: That’s just it, at the end. And you asked me about getting rid of Hezbollah. Surely getting rid of all the Hezbollah fighters is not the solution. You have to get it from the root. And the root of the Hezbollah is, in the end, it’s the road toward Syria, and from Syria toward Iran. They are the big funders and the people who give Hezbollah the ok. In the end.

MJT: It looks like it’s an unresolvable problem without dealing with Syria and Iran in some way, somehow.

Eli: It’s a matter of time. Because the way I see it, the way I look at the situation now in Lebanon, at the parliament there, that within a few months or a year, I don’t know, the Hezbollah are getting stronger again. And they might push out the Lebanese government. They’ll take over the government there. And they’ll ask the UN peacekeepers to leave. And they will have to leave. And then we’ll have it all over again.

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. I have to eat and pay bills, and your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

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Many thanks in advance.

Slouching Toward War — Continuously Updated

While I’m finishing up my next article, read Michael Young’s latest in Beirut’s Daily Star:

For the third time in almost a year Lebanon has averted a civil war, but we’re nearing the end of the rope. If the Danish Embassy demonstrations and Hizbullah’s mobilization in early December were, ultimately, manageable when it came to Christian-Sunni or Sunni-Shiite antagonism, what happened on Tuesday was, in its permutations, pretty much war. And if anything induced Hizbullah to suspend the protests, it was an awareness that if these continued for even a day, war was inevitable.

…Hizbullah had cut off most roads between the eastern and western sectors of Beirut, as well as the airport road. The irresponsibility of those steps was staggering. Not only did the party take Lebanon back to the symbolism of the war years, but Beirut’s Sunnis saw the move as trapping them in their half of the capital. The word “blockade” started being used, prompting the mufti to heatedly muster his community. Wael Abu Faour of the March 14 coalition warned that if the army did not reopen the roads, supporters of the majority would. Hizbullah backed down, aware, let’s not forget, that a Sunni-Shiite confrontation is a red line for Iran.

However, that reality only reaffirmed how Hizbullah has been juggling contradictory agendas. The Iranians may not want sectarian discord, but what happened this week was fulfillment of the Syrian side of Hizbullah’s agenda. The main obstacle remains the Hariri tribunal and Syria’s refusal to permit its creation. How Tehran and Damascus will work out their clashing priorities is anybody’s guess. You have to assume that with the Lebanese so close to doing battle, and given the dire implications of what this would mean for Hizbullah and its already dilapidated reputation in the Sunni Arab world, Iran will remind Nasrallah of who pays the checks. On the other hand, the Iranians realize that the tribunal might be fatal to the Syrian regime, depriving the Islamic Republic of a key asset in the Levant.

At a more parochial level, the opposition’s actions were self-defeating for being built on a lie. If the benchmark of success was Hizbullah’s ability to close roads, then Tuesday was indeed successful. However, that weapon has now been used up, and the government remains in place. The next time the opposition threatens to do something similar, we might as well load the guns or head for the shelters. On the other hand, what kind of confidence can anyone have in a party, and its Christian appendages in the Aounist movement and the Marada, that promises to be peaceful, only to practice intimidation? There is such a thing as Lebanese civil society, one hardened by the 1975-1990 war, and it will unite against such abuse.

Read the rest in the Daily Star.

UPDATE: There were more violent clashes in Beirut even after Nasrallah called off his siege. The clashes, of course, are between Sunnis and Shia. Hezbollah used M-16s, and Hariri supporters used pistols. Beirut is now under curfew.

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UPDATE: According to the Ouwet Front, Hariri supporters burned the office of the (fascist) Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Tareek Jdeede.

UPDATE: From Naharnet:

Police sappers also defused a rocket that was directed at the Moustaqbal newspaper in Beirut, shortly before it was set to launch.

“Luckily they discovered it. It would have resulted in a massacre. The newspaper is packed by journalists at this time of the evening,” Editor Nassir al-Assad told Naharnet by telephone.

Moustaqbal is the newspaper for Hariri’s Future Movement, by the far the most popular Sunni party in Lebanon.

Naharnet also reports that Hezbollah is attacking buildings in the downtown banking sector.

UPDATE: Thugs from the Hezbollah dahiyeh attacked the Lebanese army.

Tough Times Ahead for Nasrallah

When Hugh Hewitt interviewed me three weeks ago we discussed the possibility of Hezbollah seizing the road to the airport, a threat that appeared, at the time, to be empty. Here is what he and I said then:

HH: Okay, put on your seeing, your swami hat, your Kreskin hat, what’s going to happen in Lebanon?

MT: Oh, God. Literally, Hugh, anything could happen at this point, although I do think that the threat of civil war is lower than it was a month ago.

HH: Why?

MT: Here’s why. Because after two days, when these protests and sit-ins started, if you would have asked me what the odds of a civil war in Lebanon, I would have said probably 60%. And the reason is because Hezbollah tried to take the prime minister’s office.

HH: Right.

MT: Tried to physically seize it on the day of their rally. And they backed off, because the prime minister said, and I mentioned this in the article I wrote that you linked to, the prime minister said that if you take my office, I cannot control my street, which means basically that the Sunnis of Lebanon were going to go out in the streets, and forcibly take the prime minister’s office back. And it would be war, and it would be very ugly, because there’s really only so far Hezbollah can take this, because like I explained before, every group in the country is a minority, and no minority group is allowed to rule over the others. And the prime minister’s office is Sunni. And if the Shia tried to physically take it, it’s over. There’s going to be definitely more fighting in Lebanon. And so, Nasrallah backed off, because he knew that that was taking things too far. But then he kept threatening to escalate the situation, and he was saying well, okay, we’re not going to be able to take the prime minister’s office, but we’ll take the airport and shut the whole country down. And for a week, he was threatening to take the airport. And I thought well, God, if he takes the airport again, there’s going to be blood in the streets. And then, somebody who advises Nasrallah, must have taken him aside and talked him out of it, because that would be a bridge too far. And there was no way the rest of the country was going to put up with actually seizing the country like this. And so then Nasrallah, instead of threatening to take the airport, he threatened to escalate, but he was vague about how he was going to escalate.

HH: Well, you’re describing a tinderbox, though.

MT: Basically, yeah.

HH: Any day, something could go wrong, Sarajevo, 1914, sort of thing.

MT: Yup. And then when Nasrallah finally did escalate, all he did was have another rally, because he knew he’d taken the country to the absolute limit, and that if he went any further, it was going to be war.

But Hezbollah went further, after all. Blockading the country for one day triggered three days (so far) of violence. Hezbollah can’t keep this up without provoking a serious murderous backlash. But Hassan Nasrallah still says he will escalate even now. If he does, my prediction for another round of war in Lebanon is well above 50 percent. It could be a short one (we’re not talking fifteen more years of hell here) but it would be war all the same.

These things change, though, like volatile weather. A compromise is still possible. And Nasrallah may yet back down. Hezbollah can likely win a defensive war if Lebanese try to disarm them. But they can’t conquer the country. No one is strong enough to do that. If Nasrallah starts that kind of war he’ll lose everything.

The Sunni Arab “street” outside Lebanon rallied behind him as a hero in July and August for his “resistance” against the Israelis. If Nasrallah becomes, instead, the butcher of Sunnis, he will become one of the most detested Arab figures alive.

The Syrian regime wants civil war in Lebanon. Bashar Assad’s late father Hafez helped foment the last one and kept it boiling for fifteen years until Lebanon all but surrendered to Syrian domination. The younger Assad has been trying to re-ignite it ever since March 14 two years ago. He hoped to demonstrate that only Syria can keep order in Lebanon, that Syrian withdrawal means mayhem and blood in the streets.

But Nasrallah and the Iranians (not to mention most Lebanese) don’t want more civil war. It works to Iran’s advantage if their proxy guerilla is a hero in the Arab world. But if the mullahs are seen as the sponsor of Shia killers of Sunnis in Lebanon they’ll be even more staunchly opposed in the Arab world than they already are.

Interesting, and difficult, times lie ahead for Hassan Nasrallah.

UPDATE: Charles Malik at the Lebanese Political Journal notes that Hassan Nasrallah has lost control of his followers. Indeed, he has, which makes things even worse for him and for Lebanon. Hezbollah, and Hezbollah’s fans, do not know when to stop. Their delusions of supremacy, strength, and popularity may be their undoing. They made that mistake with the Israelis and learned nothing at all from the experience.

UPDATE: Two snipers, one Syrian and the other Palestinian, have been arrested by the army. Not only has Nasrallah lost control of his fans, he never had control of his masters who have plans of their own. He is riding three tigers at once.

The Two Faces of Lebanon

Before I analyze what’s going on in Lebanon now, I will first publish some photographs without comment that show the two faces of Lebanon.

Which ones appeal to you more and why?

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Hezbollah Riots in Lebanon (Continuously Updated)

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While I was in Lebanon gathering the material I’ve been publishing, Hezbollah kept threatening to strangle the country by seizing major roads, including the one that leads to the airport. I was worried I might get stuck there, but I didn’t. Today, though, they finally make good on their threat. Palestinian guerillas are reportedly helping.

Future TV and LBC say there are clashes between rioters and commuters. Cars, as well as tires, are burning.

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Photos via Blacksmiths of Lebanon. Click for more.

UPDATE: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Seniora accuses Hezbollah of intimidation and terrorism. He may be over-reacting a bit with the t-word in this context, but it’s telling because he used to call them a “resistance” movement instead of terrorists. Those days are gone.

UPDATE: More pictures at The Ouwet Front. One commenter says “It looks like Gaza.” Yes, it does.

UPDATE: Here is a BBC photo gallery. Below is a sample.

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Lovely.

UPDATE: Violence is spreading. Three people have been shot. Sunni and Shia Muslims fought each other with sticks, rocks, and automatic weapons in Southern Beirut. Violent clashes, often involving gunfire, are erupting elsewhere in the country as well.

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Michel Aoun threatens to escalate.

UPDATE: Beirut is covered in smoke.

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UPDATE: Just a side note here…Up until today Hezbollah has modeled its “resistance” to the elected government after the March 14 demonstations to oust the occupying Syrian army. The March 14 movement, though, never did anything remotely like this. That’s because they are, for the most part, liberal and democratic while Hezbollah is a Syrian-Iranian terrorist army. Today should be a moment of clarity for the willfully obtuse.

Notice, also, that the violent clashes in the streets are mostly between Sunnis and Shia, not between Christians and Shia. This is, and was, entirely predictable. Those who think Hezbollah is a popular movement with the support of Lebanon’s Muslims as a whole should think again.

UPDATE: This post is getting a lot of attention from other blogs. This is mostly a link round-up, though. In case you missed some of my recent original reporting from Lebanon, here is an interview with a liberal Shia cleric, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad, no less, who is an outspoken enemy of Hezbollah. And here is a photo gallery of Hezbollah’s “capital” south of Beirut that was devastated by the Israeli Air Force during the summer. It looks like World War II blew through there.

UPDATE: Hezbollah called off the so-called “strike.” Nasrallah seems to be aware that his latest stunt was seen by Lebanese an act of war in direct violation of Lebanon’s power-sharing arrangment.

Members of Parliament today described Hezbollah as “terrorists” and Beirut as “occupied.” Nasrallah is learning the limits of what he can do. He can squat downtown, but he can’t seize it or burn it without starting a war.

Jumblatt Challenges Hezbollah

Lebanese Druze leader and Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt has had enough of Hezbollah’s ongoing “carnival,” as he puts it, and threatens them with massive counter-demonstrations that may take place in the same physical space.

Jumblat, addressing Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said “I advise you to accelerate your party’s approval of the international tribunal because in three weeks we have a major event. The third anniversary of the Hariri assassination.”

“We wish it would be a binding occasion for all the Lebanese. We don’t want it to be an occasion for discord when the masses head to downtown Beirut to declare their opposition to (Syrian) hegemony,” Jumblat added.

Also worth noting is this:

In outlining his opposition to Hizbullah’s Islamist agenda which, like that of Iran, calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, Jumblat said: “We do not support the elimination of Israel. We support the two state solution” by which a viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital can live in peace near Israel.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, Hassan Nasrallah accuses the March 14 government of being an Israeli Mossad tool that wishes to expel the Shia from Lebanon. If I were a Lebanese Shia I’d hate the elected government, too, if I believed that hysterical nonsense.

This is the sort of phantasmagorical political environment “the opposition” lives in, and has been raised on.

The Blitzing of Haret Hreik

HARET HREIK, LEBANON — I have been to Haret Hreik, Hezbollah’s dahiyeh and de-facto “capital” south of Beirut, many times. But I didn’t expect to see it on my most recent trip. Every Lebanese person I know warned me to stay out of there. The destruction from the summer war is severe and Hezbollah’s fear and loathing of visitors, especially Americans, is even more so. The most paranoid party in Lebanon is more paranoid than ever before. Best to steer clear of their base.

Welcome to Haret Hreik.jpg

That was before I met the resident moderate Shia cleric Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, an outspoken enemy of Hezbollah from within the community. I interviewed him in his modest apartment, and afterward he showed me around the bombed out parts of his neighborhood.

“You can take pictures,” he said. “Don’t worry. No one will do anything or say anything to you if you are with me.”

This was important. Hezbollah’s media relations office explicitly warned me never to take pictures in the dahiyeh. Even local people aren’t allowed to take pictures. You never know who might be working for the CIA or the Mossad. Lebanon has more Israel supporters and “collaborators” than any other Arab country by far.

Husseini is a Sayyed, which means he is supposedly a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. He can take pictures if he damn well pleases, and so can anyone who is his guest. He is as close to untouchable as a person can be in an assassination-plagued country like Lebanon.

So we went downstairs and hopped in his sporty SUV outfitted with tinted black windows.

Sayyed Husseini in SUV.jpg

Our first stop was only a few streets from his house. Whole blocks of towers were missing.

Dahiyeh Damage 1.JPG

“Did you stay here during the war?” I said and shuddered at the thought of hunkering down while whole towers exploded just down the street.

“No,” he said like I was crazy for asking. “No one could stay here. Everyone had to leave.”

Dahiyeh Damage 2.jpg

The Israeli Air Force dropped leaflets over the neighborhood warning residents to get out of the way of the incoming air strikes. Many times more people would have been killed if they hadn’t done this.

Decapitated Dahiyeh Tower.JPG

Haret Hreik is vertically packed with civilians, including the liberal cleric who was my guide and who is completely innocent of this war. Tens of thousands of people live in the area. Some of their homes were destroyed. Those whose homes weren’t destroyed now fear theirs could be next.

Haret Hreik also is packed with the infrastructure of a warmongering militia that unilaterally instigated the conflict on purpose. That’s why it was hit harder than any other urbanized section of Lebanon.

Dahiyeh Rubble 1.JPG

Some Lebanese Shia support Hezbollah because they actually want war with Israelis.

Others (wrongly) believe that Israel will continue to invade and attack even if Lebanon and Hezbollah sign a peace treaty. Hezbollah, in their view, is their only defense. These people have not, apparently, noticed that Israel has had no military trouble with Egypt or Jordan since peace treaties were signed. The price they paid for this misunderstanding was a grave one, indeed. The last war will more likely prolong that misunderstanding than counter it. The cause-and-effect relationship between Hezbollah’s casus belli on the border and the Israeli reaction has been lost in Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s bombastic pronouncements.

I have been to Israel four times in the last nine months and I know very well that Israelis, left-wing and right-wing alike, overwhelmingly prefer peace to war. But when your only exposure to Israelis is through racist and phantasmagoric Hezbollah propaganda, and when that propaganda is underscored by air raids with blockbuster bombs, it can be a bit hard to believe that Israelis would rather leave you alone.

Dahiyeh Crater 1.JPG

The Israeli government hoped the destruction in Hezbollah strongholds would deter any plans for future attacks. Perhaps Hezbollah has quietly decided not to provoke Israel from now on. Anything is possible, but there is little or no evidence that this is the case. Hezbollah has restocked its weapons supply from Iran via Syria. Hassan Nasrallah insists the “resistance” will continue. His supporters applaud him for that even though huge numbers are homeless or live next to piles of rubble.

Dahiyeh Rubble 2.JPG

I was in Northern Israel in August while Hezbollah bombarded the area with Katyusha rockets. I returned to the city of Kiryat Shmona the day after the war ended so I could survey the damage slowly, carefully, and in safety.

Katyushas are World War II era rockets that only do serious damage when they strike a single location in a barrage. Hezbollah packed these rockets with shrapnel (the better to kill you with, my dear) and fired them randomly at civilian population centers.

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Katyusha shrapnel, Kiryat Shmona, Northern Israel

Kiryat Shmona was sprayed with hundreds of rockets and tens of thousands of shrapnel holes, as though machine gun battles had erupted everywhere in the streets. It’s right on the border, too, so there was no time to get to a bomb shelter when incoming rockets were picked up on radar. The air raid sirens came on and the rockets exploded at the same instant.

The city was a ghost town during the summer, almost completely emptied of people. I didn’t dare spend much time there. It was a perilous place for human beings. Katyusha shrapnel will tear you apart. But the physical damage was limited. It would take years for Hezbollah to physically destroy that city with the arsenal they currently have. And Katyushas are useless against armies. They can’t slow the Israeli Defense Forces for even a second. In the modern era they only work well as terrorist weapons.

Meanwhile, the Israelis dropped tower-busting bombs on Haret Hreik.

Dahiyeh Crater 2.jpg

They could have flattened all of Haret Hreik in a day if that’s what they wanted to do. There is nothing Hezbollah can do to stop that kind of assault.

Hezbollah’s supposed “victory” is a Pyrrhic one, if even that. And it should serve as a warning. Military historian Michael Oren explained it to me this way at the end of the war: “If [Nasrallah] has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

Broken Dahiyeh Tower and Bulldozer.JPG

If Hezbollah ever acquires the ability to do to Israel what the Israelis did to Haret Hreik, Hezbollah and the strongholds they control could very well cease to exist. Hezbollah can’t win a total war. They can only “win” if the Israelis don’t feel like they have to fight to the finish. I would not want to be anywhere near South Lebanon or Beirut’s southern suburbs if Hezbollah decides to launch skyscraper-shattering missiles at Tel Aviv instead of long-range souped-up hand grenades at Kiryat Shmona.

This is what scares the Israelis, after all — that missile war may be replacing terrorist war. Their ability and willingness to launch an overwhelmingly disproportionate response means Hezbollah had better not dare ramp it up.

Dahiyeh Crater from Car.JPG

None of this means Israelis won the last round. Hardly any of their war objectives were met. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may end up the most internally despised leader in Israel’s history. But they only actually lost if different standards of winning and losing are applied to each side.

Hassan Nasrallah says Hezbollah won because they survived. Well, Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces survived. By that standard of winning, Israel won.

Shattered Dahiyeh Tower 1.JPG

No one, though, seems foolish enough to believe that both Israel and Hezbollah won. Destructive and inconclusive wars are never win-win. They are always lose-lose.

My guide Sayyed Husseini’s gas was running low, so we pulled into a station to fill up the tank. We stepped out of the SUV as the attendent inserted the pump. A group of children ran up to Husseini and excitedly yelled “Sayyed! Sayyed!” as though he were some kind of black-robed Santa Claus figure. The attendent smiled as though he felt lucky to be in the presence of a great man. If anyone who recognized him detested him for his stance against Hezbollah, it didn’t show.

Shattered Dahiyeh Tower 2.JPG

The gate that lead to what was Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV station headquarters still stands. Attached to it is a poster thanking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his support.

Chavez Dahiyeh.jpg

Chavez could, like most of the rest of the world, support Lebanon’s elected government instead of the illegal militia that unilaterally — and at the height of tourist season, no less — strapped a suicide-bomb belt around the waist of the country. But that would mean siding with the United States, the country he most loves to hate. So there he is, hanging up in the dahiyeh along with the Baathist Assad and the theocratic Khomeini.

Khomeini Poster Dahiyeh.JPG

Facing the Al Manar gate is the remains of Hezbollah’s “Security Square.” The hole in the ground pictured below is where their media relations office once stood.

Destroyed Security Square.jpg

I wish I could show you a “before” shot as well as the “after” photograph. But there was no way I could take pictures of the Security Square the first time I went there. I had no protection, and that place had more surveillance than the Panopticon.

Here, though, are satellite photographs showing the center of Haret Hreik before and after July. I pulled the first off Google Earth. The second is from Amnesty International.

Haret Hreik Before Google Earth.JPG

Haret Hreik After Amnesty International.JPG

My old nemesis Hussein Naboulsi worked there, in that Security Square office that now is a crater, before Hezbollah fired him after the war. At least I heard from my fixer that he was fired after the war. For all I really know he was killed in the air strike.

He was Hezbollah’s media relations liaison, the guy who set up interviews for journalists, who creepily kept photocopies of our passports on file, who monitored everything we published and wrote, who threatened me with violence for cracking a joke about “the party” on my blog, and who infamously led CNN’s Nic Robertson around by the nose in the dahiyeh during the Israeli bombardment.

Naboulsi.JPG

Hussein Naboulsi, former terrorist spokesman, minder, and issuer of threats against journalists

I can’t help but wonder: What do you do after being downsized by a terrorist organization? Do you work at the local CD store? Al Jazeera? Perhaps the Syrians will have something for him, though the pay grade may be a bit lower.

Even before the war broke out in July I marveled at Lebanon’s ability to hold itself together when no common values unite the people who live there. Lebanon belongs to the Arab world, and also to the Mediterranean world. It is Eastern and, in some ways, it is Western, as well. French- and English-educated Christians look to the US, France, and the West. Most Sunnis take their cues from the wider Arab world, though they also are a part of the broader Mediterranean culture with its open and tolerant ways. Many, if not most, Shia look to Persian Iran.

Enormous forces pull this tiny country (only half the size of tiny Israel) in violently opposing directions at the same time. Lebanon cannot be in the Western and moderate Arab orbit and be absorbed into the Syrian/Iranian axis. Civil war, as well as war with their southern neighbor, will hang like the Sword of Damocles over the country until this is resolved.

Since the war in July the Shia experience in Lebanon is even farther removed than it was from that of the Sunnis, Christians, and Druze.

Haret Hreik, like much of the South, has been devastated. Rubble abounds. The economy, which wasn’t much to begin with, is as broken as the harsh urban landscape.

Meanwhile, downtown Beirut looked better than it did last time I saw it in April of 2006.

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Saifi Village, downtown Beirut. The construction in the lower-left corner is now finished.

Saifi Village 2.jpg

Saifi Village 2 is under construction

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New hotel under construction

Lebanon’s capital is in the midst of a boom, even if it’s dampened now because of the war and the ongoing instability. But the “capital” of Hezbollah looks like World War II just blew through there.

Rubble Pile in Dahiyeh from Car.JPG

The two Lebanons are moving, at great velocity, in opposite directions physically and economically as well as culturally and politically now. “National unity” is a castle in the air, more so than at any time since the civil war ended 16 years ago.

The Shia have always been the poorest and most marginal of Lebanon’s sects — and not just in Lebanon, but elsewhere as well. Fouad Ajami aptly describes them (and he is one of them, too) as the stepchildren of the Arab world. They need and deserve better than this, as all human beings do. Hassan Nasrallah has promised to lead them out of the darkness. Instead he brought ruin and a violent catastrophe down on their heads.

The Shia of Lebanon must find another way, if not with Sayyed Husseini then with someone who is very much like him, someone who can help them lead lives of dignity and prosperity and of normal relations with others. Instead of bringing Haret Hreik to Beirut they need Beirut in Haret Hreik. As Abu Kais, himself a Shia who grew up in the South, said during the summer war on his blog: Iran’s Shia farm must be shut down, and its residents set free.

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. These trips are expensive, and I have to eat and pay bills. Your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

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Postcards from the North

While I’m working on my next article, about the devastated suburbs south of Beirut, here are some postcards from Nothern Lebanon where things are a little more peaceful.

Lebanon isn’t all-war-all-the-time. If it were, I would not want to spend so much of my time there.

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Cedars of Lebanon

Mount Lebanon Village.jpg

Bcherre, Mount Lebanon, birthplace of Khalil Gibran

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Winter sun rays over Mount Lebanon

Top of Qadisha.jpg

Top of the Qadisha Valley

Woman Cedar Tree.jpg

Woman carved into the side of a cedar tree

Jesus Cedar Tree.jpg

Jesus carved into the side of a cedar tree

Qadisha Valley at Twilight.jpg

The Qadisha Valley at twilight

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The coastline from Byblos looking south toward Beirut

Previous Lebanon photo galleries here and here.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Followup on the Siege of Ain Ebel

I’ll have another article posted shortly, hopefully later tonight.

Meanwhile, Lebanese blogger Rampurple emailed and sent me some links about Ain Ebel — the Christian town in the South that was besieged by Hezbollah — that she posted on her blog during the war.

What she wrote (here, here, and here) matches in part what I wrote about here, as does this article she sent me from the New York Times.

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