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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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