This is Beirut

This is Beirut is designed to give voice to the millions of Lebanese who are suffering while the world sits silently. We are not interested in propagating hatred. We want the world to witness through the eyes of Lebanese citizens the destruction and the suffering that has been brought on in the name of defense. If you have a story, poem or letter to share, please email We will work together to end this violence.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Towards a lasting peace?

I had a heated discussion with a friend of mine right after the war in Lebanon began. We immediately had opposing views on the subject and thusly, both searching for the information that supported our respective views, couldn’t have a very sophisticated argument without it turning into a shouting match. And I believe the breakdown in our conversation speaks more directly to the fundamental differences in our beliefs about the world, rather than receiving different information from differing sources.

My objection to this war is based more on humanitarian principles. I don’t believe in using violence as a means of resolving conflict. I see poverty as the root cause of conflict and I believe there is a precedent to suggest that poverty begets violence and violence is never a viable solution to resolving conflict.

Secondly, I have always endorsed Israel’s right to exist and to that end, protect its civilians from potential harm. I would stand with those who condemn attacks on Israeli soil. However, I feel that Israel’s policy of occupation and preemptive warfare in lieu of diplomacy is creating instability and discouraging peace in the region.

Israel and its defenders have stated that the actions in Gaza and Lebanon are to insure the safety and security of its own people. They have chosen to respond to violence with more violence, often reaching the ten-fold proportion. If Israel is attacked, the government hits back ten times as hard. Even though these tactics have yet to yield the desired result, they continue, in the name of defense, to try and achieve these goals through occupation and military force. This has the effect of strengthening support for the opposition and swaying public opinion in the surrounding lands against Israel. In this way, the stated aims of security and safety become unobtainable, as these goals will never be realized through the use of brutal force and illegal occupation.

I am not trying to blame Israel exclusively for the current state of affairs. There are tenets of international law that have been dismissed and disregarded by all players in this scenario. But in the case of the most recent attack on Lebanon, I think it is important to distinguish between state actors (i.e. Israel, Lebanon) and those of fringe organizations working within a state (i.e. Hizbollah.)

Lebanon did not attack Israel. Hizbollah, a fringe organization operating within Lebanon’s borders, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and this is an important distinction because, while it was certainly an act of aggression towards Israel, it did not have the impact of a state actor declaring war which necessitates an immediate defensive counter attack.

As Stephen Shalom explains eloquently in the following paragraph:

“…even when a country's own prior acts aren't contributory causes of an attack, international law places various limitations on the right of self-defense to that attack. One limitation is that the right of self-defense is meant to give nations the right to take measures to repel an armed attack until the UN Security Council can act to stop the aggression. If an enemy's tanks are hurtling toward your capital city, any delay in responding would mean further losses and further harm. In the case of the Hezbollah raid across the Israeli border on July 12, 2006, the act of aggression took place and was over; it was not an ongoing aggression to which any delay in responding would have meant additional harm to Israel.

Before the air strike against Lebanon began, a deal was on the table to negotiate the release of the two soldiers in exchange for some of the thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. And abruptly, Israel walked away from the table and began its offensive. Later, it was revealed that months before the kidnapping, the Israeli government had strategically planned an offensive attack on Lebanon and was waiting for an opportunity to launch their offensive. Hizbollah provided them with such an opportunity. If the true objective of the offensive was to prevent Hizbollah from further attacks, a retaliatory strike against Hizbollah’s military bases or training camps would have made much more sense.

It is worth acknowledging the disproportion of Israel’s response. Israel has killed approximately 1,000 Lebanese civilians, the vast majority women and children. To argue that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself, and thus, by any means necessary is allowed to indiscriminately take human life, is to minimize the value of the lives of innocent civilians in Lebanon. Do these deaths of innocent Lebanese not constitute a larger crime than that of the provocation by Hizbollah?

I don’t believe that Hizbollah knew in advance the degree to which Israel would retaliate. In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether they knew or not. They couldn’t have planned it any better because the extent to which Israel chose to retaliate deflected blame away from Hizbollah as the instigator of the conflict and drew the Lebanese people’s attention toward the military behemoth that is Israel. One Lebanese friend of mine summed it up nicely. Imagine your kid brother does something really stupid, like starts a fire under the neighbor’s house. You want to punish him but before you can, the neighbor retaliates by killing several members of your family. Now, your anger turns toward the neighbor. Suddenly all you are thinking about is protecting your family.

To defend itself against accusations of unjust aggression, Israel and the U.S have painted a portrait of Hizbollah as a controlling force in Lebanon, suggesting there was a mandate from within Lebanon for Hizbollah’s actions. I want to dispel the myth that Hizbollah is supported en masse in Lebanon. My experience in Lebanon and with Lebanese people has taught me that most Lebanese are fed up with extremism and fundamentalism, having lived with the consequences of it for years.

Hizbollah was created to expel the Israeli army during the first military occupation of Lebanon by Israel, but ultimately took on charitable functions normally provided by the state; building hospitals, schools, giving alms to the poor and in the process recruiting and militarizing the youth. They were democratically elected to fourteen seats within the parliament, which indicates a certain measure of popular support. But that is largely due to the poorer Shiite population in the South. The people that support Hizbollah are economically oppressed, without education, living in a condition where they have nothing to lose, nothing to do but embrace their oppressor. Hizbollah is playing on the fears and desperation of these people and furthering the instability in the region when necessary to advance their own agenda. The Sunnis, the Druze and the Christians of Lebanon remain against Hizbollah.

Secondly, every country has within its borders fringe organizations that commit acts that the majority of the population would not approve of. They even occasionally are democratically elected to positions of power within the government. Should we then assume that their views and actions are acceptable by all the people living in the country? Should all Americans be held responsible for the actions of the fundamentalist Christians, right-wing militias or the KKK? I am not suggesting the Hizbollah is analogous to these organizations, (although you could draw some interesting parallels between Hizbollah and fundamentalist Christians in America, particularly in regards to women’s rights.) I am saying that the U.S. government is not capable of controlling radical factions within its borders, why should the Lebanese government be anymore capable?

The war* in Lebanon (1975-1991) seriously damaged Lebanon's economic infrastructure. Economic output was reduced by half and Beirut, once a popular destination for tourists of all nationalities, was no longer viewed as the jewel of the Middle East. In subsequent years, Lebanon has tried to rebuild as much of its physical and financial infrastructure as possible, mainly by borrowing money from domestic banks. The national debt has grown exponentially during this time and the government has tried to combat this by limiting government expenditures and privatizing state enterprises. In 2002, the government reached out to international donors to seek help in restructuring the massive amount of debt which constitutes 170% of the GDP.

The Lebanese GDP per capita is $5,900, less than half that of Saudi Arabia and about one quarter of Kuwait and UAE. About 30% of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line. There is a tremendous need for development outside the city centers. The infrastructure is not conducive to economic development. Roads, for example, are in a terrible state of disrepair. Job prospects are scarce, forcing the young population to leave the country in search of better opportunities abroad.

And the current state of affairs will do nothing to reverse this trend. Tourism will turn downward again. Not to mention the cost of dealing with the worst environmental disaster to date, a spill of 15,000 tons of oil as a result of Israeli raids on a Lebanese power plant. The new Prime Minister has pledged to push ahead with economic reform, including privatization and more efficient government. But at the same time, help must come from outside sources.

Currently, the amount of damage caused by the 34-day war is estimated at 4 billion dollars. I’ve also seen estimates as high as 8 billion. The amount pledged thus far by outside sources is shy of 1 billion. That leaves a sizable enough gap to be thoroughly debilitating to the country’s future. Furthermore, guess who is stepping up to compensate Lebanese citizens in the south who have lost their homes? Hizbollah. The probable outcome of this war is that more than ever people are sympathizing with Hizbollah and see them as a necessary and integral part of Lebanese society. Theoretically, this is exactly what Israel was fighting against.

I am sure this will sound idealistic but what if, instead of spending billions of dollars on defense and weaponry and building a wall to protect its citizens, Israel choose to reach out to the disenfranchised populations in the south of Lebanon (as Hizbollah has done) and help the Lebanese government foster economic growth in underdeveloped regions of the country by contributing to the infrastructure, sharing technology and wealth. Wouldn’t this initiative undermine Hizbollah entirely and at the same time, help create the conditions that would insure a lasting peace in the region? A major contribution to the development in these regions would be a public relations coup; would show the world that Israel was ready to extend an olive branch to its neighbors and provide the basis for peaceful coexistence.

While some people may argue that Israel’s intervention would threaten Lebanese sovereignty, there is a larger question of agency that precedes the most recent bombing and speaks to the economic disparity between the two parties. For enumerable reasons, the Lebanese government is incapable at this moment of providing the infrastructure needed for economic development. The money has to come from somewhere. The question is, who is going to fill the void? Israel’s constant intervention, i.e. the occupation of Southern Lebanon from 1982-2000, undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Lebanese government. That is an intervention of abuse. I am talking about an intervention of prosperity.

The Machiavellian axiom of its better to be feared than loved has never proven effective. And for the most, international relations theory is based on the idea that in a global age, war is damaging to all societies because it inhibits free trade and exchange and creates instability. For the sake of its own security, what does Israel really stand to lose from this initiative? We have seen the result of years of aggression and defensive strikes. We know that Hizbollah has capitalized on the poverty and instability of the region. Isn’t time we started thinking out of the box towards a solution that may result in a lasting peace.

*I have been asked by a Lebanese friend not to refer to it as the Civil war because what has become clear in the aftermath is that there were many forces outside of the country profiting and propelling the conflict. Because I am writing for an international audience, I am afraid that if I just say, the war, people outside of Lebanon will not know what I am writing about.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Angry Beirut protests greet Blair

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair visits Lebanon and sparks angry protests against his visit. Click through for full story, including video footage of the protest. Aggrieved at what they see as the UK's pro-Israel bias, several protesters disrupted a news conference, shouting, "Shame on you" A British woman registered her disapproval at Mr Blair's foreign policy, sporting a T-shirt with the slogan "ashamed to be British" during a press conference. Seriously, break out the rotton tomatoes.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hizbollah's reconstruction of Lebanon is winning the loyalty of disaffected Shia

By Robert Fisk

First printed in the Independent, August 24th, 2006

Hizbollah has trumped both the UN army and the Lebanese government by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars - most of it almost certainly from Iran - into the wreckage of southern Lebanon and Beirut's destroyed southern suburbs. Its massive new reconstruction effort - free of charge to all those Lebanese whose homes were destroyed or damaged in Israel's ferocious five-week assault on the country - has won the loyalty of even the most disaffected members of the Shia community in Lebanon.

Hizbollah has made it clear that it has no intention of disarming under the UN Security Council's 1701 ceasefire resolution and yesterday afternoon, Major-General Alain Pellegrini, the commander of the UN Interim Force in southern Lebanon - which the Americans and British are relying upon to seize the guerrilla army's weapons - personally confirmed to me at his headquarters in Naqoura that "the Israelis can't ask us to disarm Hizbollah". Describing the ceasefire as "very fragile" and "very dangerous", he stated that disarming Hizbollah "is not written in the mandate".

But for now - and in the total absence of the 8,000-strong foreign military force that is intended to join Unifil with a supposedly "robust" mandate - Hizbollah has already won the war for "hearts and minds". Most householders in the south have received - or are receiving - a minimum initial compensation payment of $12,000 (£6,300), either for new furniture or to cover their family's rent while Hizbollah construction gangs rebuild their homes. The money is being paid in cash - almost all in crisp new $100 bills - to up to 15,000 families across Lebanon whose property was blitzed by the Israelis, a bill of $180m which is going to rise far higher when reconstruction and other compensation is paid.

In the 20sqkm of Beirut's southern suburbs which have been destroyed or badly damaged in 35 days of Israeli bombing, 500,000 residents - most of them Shia - lost their homes. But money is being poured in. For example, one Shia owning four floors of an apartment block, Hussein Selim, has already received $42,000 in cash for his possessions and lost furniture. And Hizbollah has pledged to rebuild the entire municipal area from its own - or perhaps Iran's - funds.

A frightening side to this long-term promise for believers in the UN ceasefire is that Hizbollah has encouraged its Shia population to rent homes in Khalde, south of Beirut, since it intends to delay its entire city construction project for a year - because of its conviction that the ceasefire will break down and that another Israeli-Hizbollah war will only wreck newly built homes.

Across the devastation of southern Lebanon, Hizbollah has now visited hundreds of thousands of Shia families for details of their losses. In some cases, Lebanese government officials - largely distrusted by the local population - have also made notes of compensation costs but all the authorities have done so far is to start the repair of water pipes and power lines. I found bulldozers working for Hizbollah's "Jihad al-Bena" company, clearing rubble from streets and tearing down half-destroyed houses. "We are doing this for nothing at the moment, but we know we will get paid because we trust Sheikh Hassan," a construction team leader told me. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, has promised to indemnify all survivors.

Driving more than 100 miles across the south of the country yesterday, the sheer enormity of Hizbollah's task - and of the Lebanese government's failure - becomes evident. Looking across thegreen countryside of southern Lebanon, the villages appear undamaged as they bask in thesun. But the closer you get, the more you notice vast grey fields of rubble that were once homes. Some villages - Bint Jbeil, for example, and Zibqin - have been half-destroyed.

In Zibqin itself, I found one especially poignant ruin: the bombed remains of a mosque well over 1,000 years old which the Lebanese believe contains the body of Zein Ali Yaqin, son of the Prophet Yacoub - Jacob in the Jewish faith - and grandson of the Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham. Two of Abraham's sons - Yacoub and Ismail (Ishmael) - define the split between Islam and Judaism, the former believing God told Abraham to sacrifice Ismail and the latter contending it was Yacoub/Jacob who was to be sacrificed. Zein Ali Yaqin is thus of precious Jewish lineage - yet the casket containing his mortal remains actually moved on the floor of the shrine as Israeli bombs fell outside.

The explosives have blasted down an old façade and tumbled hundreds of rocks from the original outside wall of the green-domed mosque on the slope below, cracking open the interior walls and cascading wreckage on to the floor beside the cloth-covered tomb. "The Israelis did all this to their own man," Hussein Barakat said as he hobbled down the road below. "Everyone here knows the origin of our little shrine, but look at it now." Mr Barakat is 69 and was the only villager to remain in Zibqin when the rest of the villagers fled the Israeli bombardment. He has a wound on one finger and has been left half deaf from the sound of explosions.

Bodies of civilians and Hizbollah fighters were still being unearthed from the wreckage of southern Lebanon this week; four brothers, all members of Hizbollah it turned out, died together under Israeli fire in the eastern town of Khiam. Some civilian families searched in vain through the rubble for relatives. In Siddiqin, just east of Qana, I found one shopkeeper who had spent hours trying to discover the ruins of his two shops which had been turned to dust by aerial bombs. But he, too, believed that "Sheikh Hassan" would rebuild his home. A few miles away, I found a 65-year-old woman clambering like a cat over the pancaked roof of her home, looking for her family gold in clefts between the packed concrete.

It is Hizbollah's army of workers which has been told to rebuild these villages. The guerrilla army's political and economic organisation will hire the tens of thousands of men to reconstruct a virtual city within Beirut and turn south Lebanon's wasteland back into the farming and tobacco-growing villages that existed two months ago.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The cost of war

Video from Reuters on the economic cost of rebuilding the Lebanese infrastructure, now estimated at 4 billion USD. Lebanon's prime minister says 15 years of progress was wiped away in 5 weeks. This is, of course, aside from the emotional toll the 34 day war has taken on the Lebanese population.