As the Syrian Civil War disrupts Lebanon’s perpetually precarious military and political balance, we are urged to listen carefully to the rumours and prophecies of a Lebanese population that have so often been tragically implicated in regional conflicts. Here, we look back to June 1982 in trepidation of the “Past as Prologue”.
Lebanon is not a force in its own right. Notwithstanding the endowments redounding to it from its location in the Eastern Mediterranean and its vast and influential Diaspora; since Sykes-Picot it has been a cobbler’s nightmare. The country’s significance for many of us who have lived and worked there over the past few decades, has been as the weather vane for the complex waxing and waning of Middle Eastern dynamics.
Memories of the Lebanese Civil War
Nowhere else do people argue as much about local, national and international politics as do the thousands of elderly men who frequent the cafes in downtown Beirut. Here they take their espressos and peruse their stacks of newspapers, lifting their eyes from the print to welcome newcomers to the table or to acknowledge the departure of another. They are impassioned with their politics and all its vicissitudes the way Italians engage their football and suggest more informed policy permutations based on an infinite number of variables on any given Sunday morning than Washington does in a year.
As veterans of a horrific and unpredictable internal war during their youth, they are much more cautious about asserting definitive outcomes. For these men, it is a chess game, albeit violent, which never ends.
Representatives from the surrounding Arab nations and the West ignore at their own peril the “Weather in Lebanon” as it is endlessly and variously expressed, predicted and acted upon inside and outside these cafes. And this year the “Weather”, while always variable, seems especially ominous: where does the current situation lead Hasan Nasrallah other than toward the provocation of their southern neighbour; how does Sa’ad Hariri manage the growth of Sunni extremism inside Lebanon; how will the refugee flows from Syria into Lebanon burst the seams of an already precarious Taif accord?
And not unlike the days preceding the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, one can sense this time, from the pitch and tone of the savants in Hamra, Beirut that a denouement may be imminent. That a carelessness might ricochet around the region and transform it no less than the infamous drive, like the shooting of four Christians on the morning of April 13, 1975, that led to 15 years of ensuing civil war and an estimated 120,000 dead.
“An Army Charging Upon the Land”
As one of the cafe habitués recently told me, evoking James Joyce, he now hears “an army charging upon the land.”
The stuff of these cafe debates — the Lebanese and regional dynamics — can shift on a regular basis. Here there are no givens, no assurances for enduring unions such as NATO or ANZUS. Today, President Michel Sleiman is distancing himself from the March 8th coalition and now Walid Jumblatt is discussing accommodation with Hariri.
No stranger to these debates is Ryan Crocker, a former Ambassador to Lebanon and one of America’s most distinguished diplomats, who in a recent interview sought to give some salient advice to the policymakersin Washington DC as he prepared for his own retirement. Recalling past US interventions in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era, he asserted, “It’s not just that we don’t know enough about a particular country in which we propose intervention, it’s just that we can’t know enough.” To that I say, “Amen”.
Looking back upon my own career as a humanitarian worker in Lebanon from 1981 until today, I offer my own experiences as pulled from a diary I kept at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982; important as a reflection of the ever changing “weather” in Lebanon as it reacted to regional forces and can serve as yet another cautionary tale of why the current circumspection of Barack Obama towards Syria is more sound than some of his liberal supporters might allow. It was, quite unexpectedly, the event described below which ended the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) occupation of Lebanon and began the ascent of Hezbollah, the radical Shi’a group to eclipse the Amal Movement.
June 1982: Crossing into Lebanon from Israel
So, for a couple of days I had a series of meetings in Jerusalem with Israeli officials. Inconclusive, I might add, because unlike the West Bank no one really laid claim to Lebanon as divine right. It was rather a security issue – no more or less – and what their current occupation meant concerning humanitarian assistance was still confusing, at best. Most times, I could not even get a hearing.
After forty-eight hours, the only ones who had any opinion were the Israeli military who, upon receipt of my suggestions for humanitarian assistance, simply sought to hi-jack the effort. They basically said, “You give us the US government monies and we will buy assistance for any Lebanese who may have gotten in the way. Sure, of course, you are welcome to see the distribution. Whenever you want.”
‘Wonderful,’ I thought. Catholic Relief Services sets up an office inside an Israeli command post in Tyre and is available to witness Israeli troops pass out food to the Lebanese. The fear I had was that this concept seemed so logical to the military types I spoke to, that now I felt impelled to break-off the interviews fast before this concept became unconditional.
Hanging over all this was the code word, ‘Lebanese’, by which the Israelis meant ‘not a gram for Palestinians.’ Which could only be considered an absurdity since to a large extent the Lebanese population in the south had been spared. More than that, they had welcomed the invasion. It was, rather, the non-Lebanese who were in need – the Palestinian women and children and elderly who had had their camps demolished and who, for the most part, would die before they would accept help from someone sitting under the Star of David.
So I did what would often serve me well over the years to come in this business. I just forgot about permissions and took a cab to the border amidst all the dust and hollering of Israeli military vehicles moving back and forth. And amidst the long lines of civilians waiting for various permissions, I just paid off the driver, threw my back-pack over my shoulder and walked past it all, just head up, whistling a happy tune and giving a ‘good morning’ to all and sundry alike.
On the other side, there was business to be done. And for greenbacks or pounds there were cabs for hire and so I was soon on my way into Tyre. And while I should not have been shocked – since my colleague had warned me – I was nevertheless surprised by the welcome the invasion had received. From most homes and stores all along the route in, as well as throughout the city, small replicas of the Star of David waved. I imagined how heart-broken those ardent American relief workers in Jerusalem would have been, how they would not have believed their eyes.
Oh yes, I was not so naive as not to attribute a good part of it to self preservation – to avoid their own home being reduced to rubble or, even for a shopkeeper as a means to make a buck off a visiting army. But even so, a larger part of it, I suspected, was attributable to life in that lull when the PLO hand was off their throat and the Israeli one had yet to be felt.
More surprises. The Amal (the Shi’a militia) was everywhere and still armed; even in a couple of instances on the drive in, sharing check-points with Israeli soldiers. And the Lebanese Forces (the Maronites),well, they were also parading around.
What a strange mix I drove into – Maronite, Shi’a and the IDF – all, for the moment, dancing on the Palestinian grave. And Tyre, well, I had been expecting worse from what had reached my ears. The town was largely spared. The PLO had indeed left in advance of the Israeli columns.
Foreigners in an Arab World
So I made a deal with the cab driver and he agreed to be mine for a week. We drove out to the Palestinian camps and here we now saw where the violence had unfolded. Here off to the side of the festivities and business, the uprooting had been done. It was now just a wasteland – acres of rubble – those few homes still left, being dynamited as I watched. It was effectively an erasure – a harbinger of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila to come. Some cats and an old mad woman were the only living remnants.
“Where are they?” I asked an Israeli. “Gone,” he replied. “I can see they are gone, but where to?” He dismissed me. “Gone,” he repeated. Though only a teenager, he already had the arrogance of a conquering army.
You know, I was thinking, scholars and politicians can go on until the cows come home about the theological basis for Zionism or the duplicity of the Arab argument. But what was undeniable for me that day was that these Israeli troops, with little exception, were me or my friends – freckle-faced like my colleagues’ girl or haystacked like him or with blue eyes like me. They were us, in feature and expression. They were not the strange Jew on the East side of New York, with a glass in his eye peering into a watch. These were rather swimmers or soccer players or disco dancers. And they certainly weren’t from the same tribe as the beautiful Lebanese creatures my wife and I had watched partying from our balcony outside Tripoli. No! These were not attractive creatures. Much more like the American mongrel, but with perhaps even less attention to style.
What I mean to say, these were, simply put, foreigners in an Arab world. As much of an intrusion as the Yanks in the Philippines.
And if you are prone to stacking up the good against the bad – as I am often no longer able – then Christendom unequivocally is the devil in all this. The ruthless white Christian who either sanctioned or turned away from the extermination of the Jew and then in a post-war pang of shame, gave them a cherished place on an Arab Peninsula.
So, this joining of Maronite, Shi’a and Israeli for the dance on the Palestinian grave, I figured, would surely not last beyond the summer. It would start with a landmine over which an unsuspecting Israeli jeep would roll and end with full-scale guerrilla war. I might not be available to see this. But I had seen similar in Vietnam and now, as I have remarked above, you really need only see that teenager at the check-point with his practiced arrogance, feet up, reading a Playboy and listening to a ballgame to know how much he is an affront to Islam.
Meanwhile I had work to do. My fellow workers were waiting for me to call them forward and the US government cash was already on deposit at CRS/HQ. So far my passport had done the job; that together with some little laminated CRS ID and a presumptive self-importance, I affected at each potential barrier, like I had just been sent by no less than the Secretary of State himself.
There were now, in the first instance, visits to be made. I needed local staff; I needed an independent office; I needed suppliers, and I needed distribution and transport. I also needed, as fast as possible, to set up protection against being used by any party to the process. This latter being the principal challenge. I knew enough greenbacks probably could take care of the rest, but only smarts could assure our independence.
I missed my boss in Beirut. He had always been my mentor at times like this. I mean I knew that they were out there – thousands of displaced people in groves, on beaches, in warehouses.
Fatah had not taken the women and children with them as they had sped to South Beirut and once the tanks had arrived at the entrance to the camp nearby – well, my guess is they had fled in terror before the first shell ripped through the houses.
But I was also sure that there were enough good hearts in town to staff our effort to help these refugees, these refugees twice over. For the rest – office, supplies, transport – I needed Greek Bishop Haddad and the sister of the Musa al-Sadr (the Shi’a martyr) and now the nominal head of Amal. But I wondered, what would be the trade off? Both would need something for their people – and then how much is left for the Palestinian refugees? Tread carefully, I warned myself.
As I had been told by his adherents, Bishop Haddad had risen to the occasion. Many said he had saved the city with his stand on that first day when he had negotiated a delay from the tank commander so that Fatah could flee.
Now, I was hearing the details of that first night when the faithful had come and gathered in the Greek Church and prayed to be spared from the onslaught. From inside, huddled in their church, they heard the crank, the whir of the mechanized units, the sporadic gunfire within the city – a detonation here and there. And they must have heard the leveling of the camps.
There was no reason for this small community of Bishop Haddad to be attacked. They posed no threat. On the contrary they were an intermediary with whom the Israelis could talk. But things go wrong all the time in war.
All that was needed here was for some Palestinians to have forced themselves upon this Greek community and to have one of them behave irrationally. The Israelis by inclination and training, do not hesitate in such instances. The PLO has always – as a strategy and a tactic – hidden behind civilian populations and the Israelis have usually pulled the trigger, regardless.
The Bishop was overjoyed when I showed up on his doorstep…..
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