On Both Sides of A Short Border…The Lebanese-Israeli Conflict
New Delhi-My article on the Lebanese-Israeli Conflict is out this week in Delhi’s Caravan magazine. Below is an unedited version of the article with the photos it will appear with.
all text and images copyright Justin Vela
On Both Sides of A Short Border
As much hope people across the world have in the new US president Barack Hussein Obama, there is just as much acknowledgment that the odds are stacked considerably against him. In his now famous Middle East speech made in Cairo last June, Obama promised a new start to relations with the Islamic world. Colonialism, cultural differences, and the spread of globalization are only part of why the Islamic world harbors anger towards the US government however. Their unfaltering if occasionally, at best, admonishing support of Israel constitutes a much stronger part.
While so much of Obama’s Middle East speech that had to due with Israel centered around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there was less reference to another great Middle Eastern conflict, that between Lebanon and Israel.
Some would argue that in many ways the Lebanese-Israeli conflict could be seen as an extension of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. It was Lebanon that the Palestinian Liberation Organization fled to after being expelled from Jordan in 1970. There they continued to launch attacks on Israel and caused Lebanon to be invaded in 1978 and 1982. Lebanon was also one of the five Arab countries that sent troops to try and stop the foundation of Israel in 1948 and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, cites solidarity with the Palestinians to justify many of their cross-border attacks.
The conflict has grown into a thing of its own however and though irrevocably tied to the situation of the Palestinians, the personal grievances and contention on both sides demand it be seen that way. The last time I was in Beirut, Talah said to me, “ You are an American? I will kill you then, alright?”
He was looking through my passport while sitting and smoking hookah on the terrace of his guesthouse in East Beirut. His mischievous grin let me know that he wasn’t quite serious: the playful dark humor of the Lebanese could sometimes be hard to distinguish from an actual threat. They had the tendency of saying something slightly rough and then to burst out laughing at the absurdity of the thought.
Talah handed back my passport and offered to let me rent my choice of his three cars. After I declined he talked about the July 2006 war, which began after Hezbollah’s now famous kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers which caused Israel to invade southern Lebanon and bomb Beirut. Most of the bombs fell on the city’s southern suburbs, where Hezbollah and its main supporters were concentrated. All the same, Talah said he heard every bomb that landed on his city.
“I know the US gave those bombs to Israel,” he said.
“Is that why you said you’ll kill me?” I asked.
“I was kidding,” he said. “Look, I do not support Hezbollah. But this is Lebanon.”
This is Lebanon.
While not all the Lebanese supported Hezbollah, the militia was part of the official political opposition, a position they maintained after June 2009 elections re-instated pro-western political parties. In the past few years however Hezbollah had proven itself to be the strongest military force in Lebanon and not long after his appointment the new Prime Minister Saad Hariri met Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nassrallah to attempt and find some mutual understanding. While the US State Department listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, inside of Lebanon Hezbollah was considered, essentially, to be an official Lebanese political party and saw themselves as the only force capable of protecting the country from the aggressions of Israel.
Undoubtedly, Hezbollah were the people to meet in Lebanon. Bussing to Beirut’s southern suburbs and walking around until detained would have been simple enough, but I wanted to interact with them outside the city and to meet with someone other than some tight lipped official. Such meetings were not easy to arrange. Luckily, I had found the right person to help.
“I painted this,” Mercedes said.
After a maid had showed me into her Hamra apartment Mercedes held up a painted porcelain cup and looked for a reaction.
On the cup was the face of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
“I want to give it to him as a present,” she said.
She was a wealthy Christian supporter of Hezbollah. Looking me directly in the eye, she said their fighters were the “most spiritual” people that she had ever met and claimed to support their every action.
No political movement could survive without people like Mercedes. Wealthy benefactors that provided money and representation to the rest of the world. Mercedes however was about the last person I pictured as a Hezbollah supporter. She was dressed in a red silk robe, a cigarette between her fingers and an i-phone on the table in front of her. Antiques and paintings spread throughout the room displayed her wealth. She was serious however and perched on the edge of the plush sofa, she explained her motivations.
“Things changed for me after Bush declared war on Iraq,” she said. “I felt that the American people were my enemies after that. I’ve always known where the bombs and bullets that kill Lebanese come from, but I never felt that the American people were directly responsible for that. But they were directly responsible for Bush.”
Her friend Ali was sitting next to her. “We’ve been to America,” he said. “Americans do not read newspapers. They flip through the headlines. They do not understand the world.”
“I think it is the education,” Mercedes said. “As children they are not educated about the rest of the world.”
They went back and forth like this for awhile. Trying to decide what it was with America that allowed it to so easily shed the blood of Arab people. It seemed to be a conversation they had often.
Mercedes nodded at Ali. “He lost his mother in the July 2006 war.”
“How?” I asked.
“I lived in the south,” Ali said. “The Israelis bombed my house. They completely destroyed it. My mother didn’t die in the explosion. She had a bad heart and the shock of the explosion affected her and she died a few days later.”
He was looking directly at me, speaking very calmly, but his eyes and the flat tone of his voiced displayed the anger that he carried.
“Can the Arab countries ever make peace with Israel?” I asked.
“How can you make peace with someone who stole your house, killed your parents and children and raped who knows what?” Mercedes said.
She paused for a moment to control her anger. Finally, she said, “So come back tomorrow. We’ll go to the south and I’ll show you the village I am rebuilding. And maybe I’ll introduce you to someone from Hezbollah.”
Going south from Beirut the next morning, dressed in camouflage pants and large sunglasses, Mercedes instructed her driver to turn off the highway and go through a small canyon. The surrounding rocks were grayish tan. The trees were short and dry. As we got out of the car at the entrance to a small village a young boy, maybe eleven or twelve stood up from where he was sitting and spoke into a walkie-talkie and stared at us. A group of old women further up the hill called out to Mercedes. While they talked I looked over the dry hills and square, stone houses.
The village laid deep in Hezbollah territory. The walls of some of the homes had murals depicting Hezbollah fighters guarding farmers as they worked in the fields. Yellow Hezbollah flags and pictures of Hassan Nassrallah and fighters killed while fighting Israel hung from poles.
Eventually, two men in their early forties walked up. Mercedes introduced them as members of the local municipality. They walked with us around the village until one of the men turned to Mercedes and in Arabic offered her something. She refused. He insisted and she tried to refuse again, but the man was adamant.
“Justin, are you hungry?” she said. “These men would like to take us to lunch.”
The men were ‘checking me out.’ Until they were sure that they had something to fear however they would remain pleasant, though they were not giving us the option of saying no to lunch.
At a small empty restaurant the table was quickly filled with crepes stuffed with tomatoes, oregano, and cheese. There was yogurt, fresh onions, cucumbers, olives, and scrambled eggs. The two men sat on either side of me and talked to Mercedes. Finally, she pointed to the man sitting to my left and said, “This man is from Hezbollah.”
“Oh,” I said. “Hello. I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“Finish eating first. We can talk afterwards,” he said.
This wasn’t the member of Hezbollah Mercedes planned to introduce me to. This Hezbollah man had seen me walking around the village and was making sure I wasn’t a spy. He scooped food onto my plate. No one else was eating. Sitting very close to me, he watched me chew as if judging me by how much I enjoyed the food. Every time I finished what was on my plate he served more until I had eaten everything on the table.
Finally, he poured me tea and assented to questions.
“Who is Hezbollah?” I asked.
“Hezbollah is all the people of my house,” he said. “They are defending their lands, the farmers, and the houses. They are not terrorists. They are the party that defends Lebanon when the government can’t anymore. The government is not qualified. The government can’t defend Lebanon. Hezbollah is everyone. It only exists for defense. If someone is attacking you, you attack back. If someone came and stole your land you would get it back.”
He paused, “Have you seen the photo of a woman holding onto a tree with Israeli military coming up behind her? That is what it is like in the Middle East.”
“Can you ever have peace with Israel?”
“We could have peace with the Jewish people,” he said. “Not with the Zionists. Zionism is something different. They’ve made themselves look Jewish, but they aren’t really Jewish.”
Even more than the US, the Lebanese and Arabs in general see Israel as the primary problem in the Middle East. Its very existence they feel is the root of multiple conflicts and the general destabilization of the region. When Israel was founded in May 1948 Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, with Saudi Arabian and Yemenite contingents, invaded with the intention of destroying the new state as quickly as possible. The Israelis responded by making conscription mandatory for every man and women in the country and equipping them with weapons received from the Soviet Union. There were on average 10,300 immigrants arriving in Israel each month, all of which were eager to do their part in defending the Jewish homeland. The Arab states saw Israel as a country unnaturally created by Western countries and were concerned about the destabilizing effects of massive amounts of Palestinian refugees, but were ultimately defeated. The newly formed Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were able to field more troops than the Arab countries, many of which had experience in combat from WWII. By July 1949 the war had resulted in an Israeli victory.
After such a beginning and the continued hostilities, hopes for Israel ever truly being accepting by Arab countries is at best slim. Theories hold that if is Syria was convinced to declare peace and Israel gave back the Shebaa farms, a nine kilometer stretch of land captured by Israel in 1967 that Hezbollah claims belongs to Lebanon, and stopped building settlements in the West Bank there might be some hope for peace, but Israel’s aggressiveness make those prospects difficult to conceive.
After leaving the Hezbollah man at the restaurant, we drove to Qana, a village ten kilometers from the Israeli border. One of the worst tragedies of the July 2006 war occurred in Qana. At one in the morning on 30 July 2006 two bombs were dropped by the Israeli air-force on a house where an extended family was living. Twenty-eight civilians were killed, half of them children.
Mercedes took me to meet one of the few survivors of the attack. She sat in the living room of her new home dressed in a black burkha with photos of the family members who had been killed across the walls. “I didn’t feel anything when the bombing happened. There was an incredible noise. My mouth was filled with dirt and rocks,” she said.
I asked if she supported Hezbollah even after the war and deaths of her family members.
“Of course,” she said. “If this happened to you, you would go with the devil himself to get back at them.”
Our final stop of the day was in Sidon, where the Hezbollah man Mercedes had arranged for me to meet sneered, “You can find these answers yourself, but don’t use Google. Read books. Google is one hundred percent biased Jewish.”
We were sitting in a small candy shop along the water in Sidon, a city just south of Beirut. Mercedes had assented to introducing me to a member of Hezbollah, but the man did not like my questions. I was asking the standard journalistic questions on motivations and goals, but history was what he wanted to talk about.
“They divided the country [Greater Syria] so that Israel could exist,” he said.
The Hezbollah man was speaking about what he saw as the root of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict. After the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in WWI the Middle East was divided by the Western powers. England held a mandate over Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq while France took Greater Syria, an entity that included Lebanon as a district called Mt. Lebanon.
No matter how the Hezbollah man saw it, that France looked to the creation of Israel, something that would not happen until 1948, as the reason for dividing Great Syria was unlikely. They added Tyre, Sidon, Tripoli, and Beirut to the Mt. Lebanon district and declared Lebanon a country in 1920 more out of a desire to divide and rule than any higher conspiracy oriented ambitions for a Jewish state.
“The worst thing possible for Lebanon is the existence of Israel at it’s border,” the Hezbollah man said. “The French gave Lebanon parts of the north and south for resources. Those parts were Syria. We are the same family.”
Israel was an odd devil. I arrived there eight weeks later after traveling through Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. Upon crossing the border from Aqaba suddenly women again wore tank tops. The roads were smooth and nearly devoid of trash. The houses were large, often two stories and surrounded by trees. Families in shorts and baseball caps walked the sidewalks. As Obama said in his Middle East speech, “…America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historic ties…” Upon entering Israel it was a return to the West. In many ways I actually had to remind myself that I was in the Middle East and not some American style suburb.
That was not too difficult. Dozens of young soldiers walked the streets with rifles. Some were patrolling or guarding buildings. Most however were either hanging around in groups or traveling home for weekend leave. Many carried the rifles slung low across their backs, in a way similar to how rock stars slung guitars around themselves. The security guards at malls and even some random people walking around were also armed.
All the guns added a slight “Wild West” feel to Israel that mixed strangely with the sense of modernity. Yet Israelis were an embattled people; the populations of the surrounding countries wanted to see them destroyed, disappeared from the region. Israelis were not willing to go however. The guns, which have come to be so ingrained in their culture, ensured their very survival.
Israel was specific about who they used their guns to protect however. In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon in order to drive out the PLO. After it’s leadership fled to Tunisia, Israeli soldiers remained in West Beirut and that September allowed Christian militias that they had armed and trained to enter the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugees camps and slaughter approximately 2,000 men, women, and children in a two day rampage that at times was only one hundred meters from Israeli lines.
Video footage and interviews conducted by journalists proved that the Israeli soldiers were aware of what was happening inside the camps and had refused to take action to stop it. Theories hold that the Israeli government had occupied Lebanon with the hope of destroying the PLO once and for all and installing a Christian led government which would sign a peace treaty and not allow Lebanon to be used as a launching pad to attack Israel.
This failed and Israel retreated from Beirut (they would remain in southern Lebanon until 2000) under severe international condemnation. If Sabra and Chatila proved anything, beyond human’s ability for brutality, it was that Israel would not blink from inflecting untold suffering on their enemies if they found it within their own interests, despite citing the horrors of the Holocaust as one of the main justifications for a Jewish state.
It was at about the same time as the Sabra and Chatila massacres that Hezbollah came into existence. Many of the initial members were young men in their twenties and early thirties. Iran and Syria sponsored the organization’s founding, with Iran taking the leading role as it continues to do today. The group’s 1985 manifesto declared a desire, along with forcing the Israeli army out of Lebanon, to bring the Lebanese Christian militias who carried out the massacre to justice. Though Hezbollah has now expanded itself from solely being a religious fighting force to operating schools, hospitals, and agricultural services, its primary commitment continues to be resisting Israel militarily.
In Shorashim, a village in northern Galilee not far from the Lebanese border, Steve Judah and his nephew Dov pulled branches from their backyard out onto the road. When I inquired about the yard maintenance Steve said, “We’re actually making a bomb shelter.”
By law every house in Israel must be equipped with a bomb shelter. Rockets are routinely fired at Israeli communities by Palestinians in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. And there were other fears as well. “My wife Sophie is convinced we are going to be targeted by a nuclear missile from Iran,” Steve said. “A bomb shelter won’t do much against a nuke of course, but its good to have anyway.”
During the July 2006 war, Hezbollah rained thousands of rockets into northern Israel from places such as Qana where I had been only a few weeks before. Many of the rockets fell around Shorashim, one landing a mere one hundred meters from the Judah’s home. Standing in the kitchen, Steve pointed. “You see that beam across the ceiling? That’s the strongest beam in the house. We get under that when the siren starts and put our backs against the wall and wait. About fifteen minutes later the rockets start hitting. When they hit they make big booms and everything shakes.”
Though their children were all born in Israel, Steve and his wife Sophie were originally from Chicago, USA. When I asked why they moved to Israel Steve laughed. “You mean what was I running from back in the States? The truth is that I dragged Sophie here. Out of the Americans that move back usually there is a dragger and draggee. She’s been angry at me ever since.”
Steve’s statement about moving “back” implied his belief in the Jewish people’s long standing presence in the land that today composes Israel. No one disputes this claim, but the Jews were not the only people present. Earlier in the day I had visited a small Arab-Israeli village down the road from Shorashim called Sha’ab. Speaking about Sha’ab, Steve said it actually had been a Jewish village until a Muslim invasion from Saudi Arabia in the 7th century. “Mohammed preached expansionism and forced conversion,” Steve said. “His initial followers were Beduin, very tough warlike people and Islam spread fast. They made it all the way into Europe, to Spain.”
Islam had arrived in the area with invasions from Saudi Arabia in the 7th century. What Steve did not discuss was that Arabs had been in the region before those invasions. Though Islam as a religion had not yet been founded, overpopulation in the Arabian Peninsula from the third millennium BC had caused migration west. DNA studies conducted in 2000 also found that Palestinians and Jews descended from populations who had lived in the region since prehistoric times. These people were largely Jewish and Christian at the time of the Muslim invasions and many were converted to the new religion and took on Arab culture.
As religion has nothing to do with the right to land, the Palestinians had just as much claim as the Jews to land in the region. What they lacked was the massive support that Israel has. Though sympathized with throughout the world, the Palestinians often suffered from being seen as the more “uncivilized” aggressors. They threw rocks and sent suicide bombers while Israel attacked them with uniformed soldiers and tanks. The militant Palestinian organization Hamas also stood alongside Hezbollah as one of Israel’s main, Iranian backed, opponents.
Living in northern Israel it was Hezbollah that the Judah family were most concerned with.
“Hassan Nassrallah,” Sophie said the name of Hezbollah’s leader slowly. “They’re just getting back into their bunkers stronger than ever.”
“Do you think there will be more conflict with Hezbollah?” I asked.
“Its like act one of a play,” Steve said. “You have the rifle on the mantel. You know its there and by the end of the play it will have to have been used. Hezbollah has their weapons and they are only getting more powerful. So its only a matter of time before something happens again.”
Steve said this all calmly. It was a fact of life in northern Israel. But he was staying. Hezbollah and their rockets and bunkers or any other threat, there was nothing that could convince him and his family to leave Israel. It was Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. Steve’s son Alex passed me a Yamuka with the Chicago Cubs logo stenciled across the top. The conversation ranged from politics to religion to types of cabbages and where to buy the best avocados. “We’re having Mexican food tonight,” Sophie said.
It was as if we were in a middle class household in the United States. Yet we were eating dinner not far from the Lebanese border in a home that got rocketed by militants bent on an entire country’s destruction. I had been on both sides of this short border and what I could see was that the positioning of Lebanon and Israel had created a death trap that would take more effort, diplomacy, and negotiations to change than had ever existed before in history. Not just a conflict centered around geopolitical power and resources, the Lebanese-Israeli conflict, as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was centered around people’s very homes and their ability to live in them safely.
Dov talked about the Israelis who immigrated abroad to escape the conflict. He was twenty-two, a soldier in the IDF, and said he would always stay in Israel.
“I’m with you,” his cousin Lyla said.
They touched knuckles.
This Israeli steadfastness is mirrored across the border in Lebanon. Had they taken power in the June election, the Hezbollah led opposition had promised to build a “culture of resistance” to both the US and Israeli within Lebanon. Though they were politically defeated it is unlikely they will stop these efforts. Indeed, they might even find some support from the new government. After his meeting with Nasrallah, Lebanese PM Hariri expressed an interest in building a relationship with Hezbollah, a crucial factor in stabilizing Lebanon.
One of the main questions asked after Hezbollah’s defeat is if Obama’s speech, which came only days before, had any influence on the election. This is unlikely. Hezbollah won the votes it had been expected to. It was largely the Christian segments of the opposition, led by General Michel Aoun, that failed to deliver votes. Further, the coalition headed by PM Hariri contains Phalange parties and is not just support by Western powers, but also by Saudi Arabia. These forces hardly embody the moderation and cooperation that Obama called for.
As with so much in the Middle East, and particularly in Lebanon, which has made chaos and upheaval its defining characteristics, the Lebanese election was largely about something else. In this case, the election was also a proxy contest for influence and control between the US and Iran, the two most powerful forces in the Middle East. Though the pro-West coalition won, it is foolish to expect that Iran will stop the flow of financial and military assistance it sends to Hezbollah.
Ahmadinejad’s continuation of power means that Iran will continue to support Hezbollah in much the same way as the US supports Israel, perpetuating a cycle of violence that has become so deadly in the Middle East. Iran, with its strong armed forces, large population, and hold on a tenth of the world’s oil is the most powerful country in the Middle East. Perhaps surprisingly, it has actually benefitted from the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan which removed hostile regimes from it’s doorstep. Their replacement with a heavy US presence has encouraged Iran to continue its cultivation of relationships with Syria and other Shiite allies throughout the region.
As Iran’s power grows, it is being seen with increasing wariness not just from Israel, but also from other Arab countries. Sunni Muslims such as those in power in Saudi Arabia see a threat in the possible conversion of their populations as an effect of the growing Shiite power. The schism between Sunnis and Shiites is insurmountable. It is a dispute over who is the rightful heir of Mohammed: Sunnis believe one of his lieutenant’s, Abu-Bakr, was chosen to succeed the prophet while Shiites believe it was his cousin and son in-law, Ali. The short lived civil war in Iraq, which could easily explode again, was a small taste of the conflict possible between Sunnis and Shiites. Perhaps ironically however, it is this internal dispute that may bring some movement to the entrenched Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As the threat of conflict grows there is the potential for Sunni Muslim countries to unite with Israel in alliance against Iran. This has the potential effect of neutralizing the Palestinians, who are Sunni, against Israel.
If it happens, such a conflict would be as massive and bloody as anything the Middle East has ever seen. If it actually happens, however, is for the future to decide.