Letter from Beruit

In the past several weeks of reportage of the Israel-Hizbullah
conflict, the view of Lebanese society has been clearly forgotten. I am
depressed about how much their recovery from their own civil war has
been set back with the bombardment. Tamara Chalabi writes concisely and
sanguinely about the atmosphere, in his Letter from Beirut:

The mood in the garden of the central Beirut restaurant was
languorous on that Wednesday evening, a few hours after Hizbullah had
attacked some Israeli soldiers and triggered the current crisis. We
were a table of Christians and Muslims speaking the Lebanese way, in
sentences that start in French, switch to Arabic and end in English.

For people in Beirut and further north, violence in the south of the
country has usually felt remote during the last decade of recovery and
political accommodation. But when someone’s mobile rang bringing news
of the Israeli cabinet’s decision to sanction an attack on any Lebanese
infrastructure, we all fell silent. Attacks on Hizbullah targets were
expected, but the bombing of Christian areas such as Jamhour, East
Beirut, Jounieh and Batroun have left Lebanese angry but united.

The contrast to the 1982 outset of Lebanon’s civil war is striking.
Then it was Palestinian groups who were making raids and launching
bombs and missiles into Israel. When Israel responded against all of
Lebanon, Christian groups lost patience with their new guests and their
Muslim and leftist supporters. But now Beirut is full of refugees,
mainly Muslim, from the south of the country and they are welcome even
in churches. One large employer in the centre of Beirut, expecting
tensions within his workforce, says he has found nothing of the sort.
The (Christian) Maronite cardinal, Nasrallah Sfeir, and politicians
from all groups have presented a united front. Even the Lebanese prime
minister, Fouad Siniora, a Sunni Muslim, spoke of Hizbullah’s actions
as part of Al-Mukawamah (the resistance).

As it became clear that the Israeli assault would not be brief or
discriminate, Ibrahim, an educated Sunni, said to me, “I refuse to have
such an uncivilised neighbour. Israel may be shaken by Hizbullah’s
rockets, but look what they are doing to us. There is no comparison.
It’s unacceptable.”

Charles, a Maronite banker, typical of Lebanon’s mainly Christian urban
business elite, was cursing Hizbullah at the start of the Israeli
raids. “I hope that at least they get Nasrallah,” he said, referring to
the Hizbullah leader.

But after a massacre of fleeing civilians in Marwaheen, he started to
change his tune, “Israel is being disproportionate. They want to
destroy us. They hate us. They can’t stand the fact that we are a
cosmopolitan society with different communities, who are as
sophisticated as they are, and living together.” Hizbullah had broken a
seven-year old truce with the attack, but once the scale of Israel’s
response had become clear, it was Israel that became the focus of
blame, even among the elite who are normally hostile to Hizbullah.

In a country with 17 faiths, where memories of the civil war remain
fresh and where political, social and economic life continues to be
dominated by the faultlines between Shias (32 per cent of the
population), Maronite Christians (23 per cent), Sunnis (20 per cent,
plus most of the Palestinian refugees), Melkite Catholics (11 per cent)
and Druze (6 per cent), this coming together is a rare and positive
development. But in the economic troubles that will follow the
bombing—among other things, the Lebanese tourist industry is sunk—the
new unity may prove fleeting.

There are strict limits to the support Hizbullah will ever win outside
its southern Shia base. And even before the latest catastrophe, there
was frustration here at how Hizbullah has failed to contribute to
meaningful political reform. Its support for ridding the country of
Syrian troops last year was tepid and insincere. And there are few
Lebanese of any persuasion who do not recognise that the
movement-cum-militia receives its money, weapons, training
and—frequently—orders from Syria and Iran. The old fears of Hizbullah’s
motives and paymasters will doubtless return when yet another ceasefire
is achieved.

Will Hizbullah agree to disarmament in exchange for prisoners and the
occupied villages of Shebaa in the south? That was the rumour sweeping
through Beirut a few days after the bombings began, based on Israel’s
responses to similar Hizbullah acts in the past. For all the renowned
efficiency of the Israeli armed forces, Hizbullah is the only group
ever to have won a war against them, having driven the Israelis from
southern Lebanon in 2000. That war, which lasted over 20 years, is
widely considered “our Vietnam” in Israel. But Israel’s current
emphasis on arm’s-length bombing will not deliver the destruction of
Hizbullah.

Many of those who, like my Maronite banker friend, are sounding
surprisingly pro-Hizbullah are also still praying for a weakening of
its military capability. This would help put Lebanese politics on to a
more even keel. (The Lebanese army and the other militias are all
overshadowed by Hizbullah.) Hizbullah has won admiration from unlikely
quarters in this latest conflict—especially for its sinking of an
Israeli gunship. And a climbdown now would not represent a domestic
humiliation.

But already pressed in other ways, Syria and Iran won’t be willing to
give up the Hizbullah card. South Lebanon provides too tempting a front
for mischief-making for all parties to the conflict. So the question
becomes: is Hizbullah’s loyalty ultimately to a national, Lebanese
politics or to a sectarian outlook? Can Lebanon ever be more than just
one part of a brutal broader game? Beirut waits nervously for an answer.

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