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 amyabdou@gmail.com 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.

3 Comments:

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At 8:17 AM, Blogger Julie said...

Great entry, great blog! I hope there is this kind of conversation going on within the young Lebanese generation right now. It is vital to keep some hope for change, a real and lasting change. Thanks for the site!

 
At 1:18 PM, Blogger Amy Abdou said...

Dear Julie - Feel free to link to this piece or just grab the text. We have to start thinking in terms of solutions! Thanks for the kind words. Amy

 

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