Today, a year ago, I was witness to what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would come to call “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”
I was in Jerusalem, covering the abduction of the Israeli solider, Gilad Shalit, by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip for Time Magazine. Word soon came filtering down from the north on July 12, 2006. Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite group, had captured two soldiers and killed three others. Three other reporters and I rushed up to Israel’s Northern Command. On the first day, Israel had launched a fierce series of airstrikes against Hezbollah positions and infrastructure, bombing three to five bridges “and more,” said Col. Boaz Cohen, chief of operations for Israel’s Northern Command. I remember asking Cohen if the list of targets would grow, to include targets in Beirut.
“Wait and see,” he said.
The next morning, I woke up to Katuysha rocket strikes just a few hundred meters from the bed and breakfast where we’d found rooms and the news that Beirut’s airport had been bombed.
My emotional reaction was complex. I had just moved to Lebanon from Iraq a few months before and had started dating a Lebanese woman. But I was in New York on 9/11, too. I heard the first plane snarl over my apartment before hitting the tower. Now, seeing the destruction at Beirut’s international airport on TV, my reaction was the same, instinctual: My home was being attacked – I had to get back.
The Lebanese will take this in stride, having endured worse at the hands of numerous enemies, but this is only the first day of what looks to be a prolonged attack. The shutting down of Hariri International Airport will hit hard on the economy. This is the high tourist season and many Gulf tourists with their Gulf money will either be unable to get in or flee through Damascus – although the road to Damascus has been bombed. The IDF has said a naval blockade is in effect and all ships entering and leaving Lebanon’s ports will be stopped. Israel is trying to box Lebanon – and Hezbollah – in.
This will have serious repercussions in Lebanese politics. It could start another civil war. The Shi’a overwhelmingly support Hezbollah and the other political parties of the March 14 alliance are in a bad spot. Who will reign in Hezbollah? Will Lebanon’s already fragile political arrangement collapse into a Shi’ites vs. everyone else arrangement, with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on one side and Christians, Druze and Sunnis on the other backed up by … Israel? And/or the United States and France? I’m just not sure how many Christians will turn on Hezbollah, even though they blame them for bringing the wrath of Israel down on the country.
On July 14, I raced back through Jordan and Syria via cheap taxi. Now, a year later, I see that my writings on the second day or the war were prescient. After 1,200 Lebanese and 158 Israeli deaths, 1 million displaced and 34-days of conflict, Lebanon emerged battered and bloody. Its infrastructure in the south totally was wrecked and heavily damaged in much of the rest of the country. Its economy was shot; the summer tourist season lost. It was a prelude of what was to come.
On the heels of its “divine victory,” Hezbollah began demanding more power in the cabinet, tossing aside election results of the previous year. Finally, in November, six pro-Syrian ministers walked out of the cabinet, plunging Lebanon into a political crisis that has dragged on ever since. Hezbollah and its allies claim that because they walked out of the government, it is no longer legitimate and they must form a “national unity government” that gives them veto power over decisions.
That hasn’t happened after eight months of standoffs and street demonstrations, and Lebanon today is split in two, divided between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the American-backed government coalition of Druze, Sunni and about half the Christians. Despite the destruction, the war in some ways cleared the air. Now you know what side various factions had chosen. West or East. Iran or America.
And today, also, Lebanon is once again the sandbox for all the conflicts in the Middle East. In the south, Hezbollah still growls menacingly at Israel, which snarls back like a baited bear. Jihadis traverse the Lebanese-Syrian border back and forth between Palestinian camps and Iraq. Iran and Syria, through Hezbollah, pushes back against an America that is trying to contain creeping Iranian influence. And in the north, just today, the Lebanese Army is engaged in what some say is the final push to destroy a group of al Qaeda-inspired militants. Hm. Did I miss anyone?
As I mentioned in a previous column, the Lebanese bear some responsibility for their plight: “Make no mistake: if there is a war here it will be because the Lebanese lack of trust in each other allows outside powers to manipulate them.” The Lebanese are famous for running to outside powers to settle problems between the continually bickering sects here. And Lebanon is a convenient arena for Great Powers to lock horns without bringing the conflict to their own territories. If the U.S. is willing to fight terrorism in Iraq so it doesn’t have it fight it at home, as Bush so often declares, then Iran is perfectly willing to combat American imperialism in Lebanon rather than in the suburbs of Tehran.
That’s not to say the news is all bad in the year since the war. Billions of dollars in reconstruction aid have poured into this tiny country. New asphalt mark the places where Israel bombs shredded the earth 12 months ago. More than half of the 96 bridges that were hit have been repaired or rebuilt. Electricity is close to pre-war levels and Beirut Airport is functioning well… if it’s a little on the quiet side. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is up to its full strength of 13,500 soldiers and appears to be doing a decent job keeping most of Hezbollah’s fighters back from poking the Israeli bear. (They have paid for it in blood, though. Six soldiers with the Spanish contingent died two weeks ago when their convoy was hit by a suicide bomber.)
Still, predictions of another war are rampant in the capital, but in a typically Lebanese debate, no one seems to know just who will fight it or when any attack might start. Rumors of a July 15 kickoff have raced through local media thanks a series of badly-timed U.N. reports on the nature of arms smuggling into Lebanon and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who “everybody knows” was killed by Syria. (The “everybody knows” argument is one that’s hard to counter. Once a meme gets rooted in here, it’s accepted as gospel.) Syria has reportedly told its citizens to leave Lebanon by July 15, although Syria has also denied this. Who knows?
People are scared. And they’re angry. Just today, en route to my gym, my taxi driver, from the southern town of Tibnine, in Hezbollahistan in the south, went into, well, a tirade about how he doesn’t like America because it sold the bombs to Israel. I got out of the cab before my stop. Another story: A family rented a villa up the coast and had some problems with their neighbor’s plumbing that was pooling water in the family’s back yard. The father went to the neighbor as a courtesy and said the management was going to fix the guy’s plumbing so it wasn’t causing a problem. No fault intended, just an FYI. The neighbor got his back up and accused the father of deliberately leaving an orange towel out to provoke the neighbor. What’s provocative? Orange is the color of Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which is allied with Hezbollah. The neighbor is Druze and connected to the Progressive Socialist Party, which is allied with the government. The father was gobsmacked that politics had entered even this minor dispute.
Perhaps most telling, there’s even disagreement here over the length of the war. Hezbollah supporters will often say it’s a 33-day war, while others — myself included — call it a 34-day war. It’s a significant distinction, indicating whether the war started on July 12, when Hezbollah captured the two Israeli soldiers, or on July 13, when Israel struck Beirut’s airport. One view holds Hezbollah responsible for starting it, another blames Israel. Who is right?
If the Lebanese can’t even agree on the same date for the start of the last war – if they can’t have a common history, in other words – how can they have a common country?