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Uri Avnery on Lebanon--11/25/06

Comment: It takes a wise Israeli to explain Lebanon better than
anyone else. Read on.

Uri Avnery
25.11.06

           An Evening in Jounieh

DURING THE first Lebanon war, I visited Jounieh, a town some 20 km north
of Beirut. At the time, it served as a port for the Christian forces. It
was an exciting evening.

In spite of the war raging in nearby Beirut, Jounieh was full of life.
The Christian elite spent the day in the sun-drenched marina, the women
lounging in bikinis, the men slugging whisky. The three of us (myself
and two young women from my editorial staff - a correspondent and a
photographer) were the only Israelis in town, and so we were feted.
Everybody invited us onto their yachts, and one rich couple insisted
that we come to their home as guests of a family celebration.

It was indeed something special. The dozens of family members belonged
to the cream of the elite - rich merchants, a well-known painter,
several university professors. The drinks flowed like water, the
conversation flowed in several languages.

Around midnight, everybody was slightly drunk. The men got me into a
"political" conversation. They knew that I was an Israeli, but had no
idea about my views.

"Why don't you go into West Beirut?" one portly gentleman asked me. West
Beirut was held by Arafat's PLO forces, who were defending hundreds of
thousands of Sunni inhabitants.

"Why? What for?" I queried.

"What do you mean? To kill them! To kill everybody!"

"Everybody? Women and children, too?"

"Of course! All of them!"

For a moment, I thought that he was joking. But the faces of the men
around him told me that he was deadly serious and that everybody agreed
with him.

At that moment I grasped that this beautiful country, rich in history,
blessed with all the pleasure of life, is sick. Very, very sick.

The next day I indeed went into West Beirut, but for another purpose
altogether. I crossed the lines to meet with Yasser Arafat.

(By the way, at the end of the party in Jounieh my hosts gave me a
parting present: a big packet of hashish. On the morrow, on my way back
to Israel, after Arafat had made our meeting public, I heard over the
radio that four ministers were demanding that I should be put on trial
for treason. I remembered the hashish and it went sailing out of the car
window.)


I AM reminded of that conversation in Jounieh every time something
happens in Lebanon. This week, for example.

Much nonsense is being spoken and written about that country, as if it
were a country like any other. George W. Bush talks about "Lebanese
democracy" as if there were such a thing, others speak about the
"parliamentary majority" and "minority factions"' about the need for
"national unity" to uphold "national independence", as if they were
talking about the Netherlands or Finland. All these have no connection
with Lebanese reality.

Geographically, Lebanon is a torn country, and there lies a part of the
secret of its beauty. Snow-covered mountain chains, green valleys,
picturesque villages, beautiful sea-shore. But Lebanon is also torn
socially. The two schisms are inter-connected: in the course of history,
persecuted minorities from all over the region sought refuge between its
mountains, where they could defend themselves.

The result: a large number of big and small communities, ready to spring
to arms at any moment. At best, Lebanon is a loose federation of
mutually suspicious communities, at worst a battlefield of feuding
groups which hate each other's guts. The annals of Lebanon are full of
civil wars and horrible massacres. Many times, this or that community
called in foreign enemies to assist it against its neighbors.

Between the communities, there are no permanent alliances. One day,
communities A and B get together to fight community C. The next day, B
and C fight against A. Moreover, there are sub-communities, which more
than once have been known to make an alliance with an opposing community
against their own.

Altogether, a fascinating mosaic, but also a very dangerous one - the
more so since every community keeps a private army, equipped with the
best of weapons. The official Lebanese army, composed of men from all
communities, is unable to carry out any meaningful mission.

What is a Lebanese "community"? On the face of it, it's all about
religion. But not only religion. The community is also an ethnic tribe,
with some national attributes. A Jew will easily understand this, since
the Jews are also such a community, even if spread around the world. But
for an ordinary European or American, it is difficult to understand this
structure. It is easier to think about a "Lebanese nation" - a nation
that exists only in the imagination or as a vision of the future.

The loyalty to the community comes before any other loyalty - and
certainly before any loyalty to Lebanon. When the rights of a community
or sub-community are menaced, its members rise up as one in order to
destroy those who are threatening them.


THE MAIN communities are the Christian, the Sunni-Muslim, the
Shiite-Muslim and the Druze (who, as far as religion goes, are a kind of
extreme Shiites.) The Christians are divided into several
sub-communities, the most important of which are the Maronites (named
after a saint who lived some 1600 years ago.) The Sunnis were brought to
Lebanon by the (Sunni) Ottoman rulers to strengthen their hold, and were
mainly settled in the large port cities. The Druze came to find refuge
in the mountains. The Shiites, whose importance has risen over the last
few decades, were for many centuries a poor and down-trodden community,
a doormat for all the others.

As in almost all Arab societies, the Hamula (extended family) plays a
vital role in all communities. Loyalty to the Hamula precedes even
loyalty to the community, according to the ancient Arab saying: "With my
cousin against the foreigner, with my brother against my cousin."
Almost all Lebanese leaders are chiefs of the great families.


TO GIVE some idea of the Lebanese tangle, a few recent examples: in the
civil war that broke out in 1975, Pierre Gemayel, the chief of a
Maronite family, called upon the Syrians to invade Lebanon in order to
help him against his Sunni neighbors, who were about to attack his
territory. His grandson by the same name, who was murdered this week,
was a member of a coalition whose aim is to liquidate Syrian influence
in Lebanon. The Sunnis, who were fighting against the Syrians and the
Christians, are now the allies of the Christians against the Syrians.

The Gemayel family was the main ally of Ariel Sharon, when he invaded
Lebanon in 1982. The common aim was to drive out the (mainly Sunni)
Palestinians. For that purpose, Gemayel's men carried out the horrendous
massacre of Sabra and Shatila, after the assassination of Bashir
Gemayel, the uncle of the man who was murdered this week. The massacre
was overseen by Elie Hobeika from the roof of the headquarters of the
Israeli general Amos Yaron. Afterwards, Hobeika became a minister under
Syrian auspices. Another person responsible for the slaughter was Samir
Geagea, the only one who was put on trial in a Lebanese court. He was
condemned to several life prison terms and later pardoned. This week he
was one of the main speakers at the funeral of Pierre Gemayel the grandson.

In 1982, the Shiites welcomed the invading Israeli army with flowers,
rice and candy. A few months later they started a guerilla war against
them, which lasted for 18 years, in the course of which Hizbullah became
a major force in Lebanon.

One of the leading Maronites in the fight against the Syrians was
General Michel Aoun, who was elected president by the Maronites and
later driven out. Now he is an ally of Hizbullah, the main supporter of
Syria.

All this resembles Italy at the time of the Renaissance or Germany
during the 30-Years War. But in Lebanon this is the present and the
foreseeable future.

In such a reality, using the term "democracy" is, of course, a joke. By
agreement, the government of the country is divided between the
communities. The president is always a Maronite, the prime minister a
Sunni, the speaker of the parliament a Shiite. The same applies to all
positions in the country, at all levels: a member of a community cannot
aspire to a position suited to his talents if it "belongs" to another
community. Almost all citizens vote according to family affiliation. A
Druze voter, for example, has no chance of overthrowing Walid Jumblat,
whose family has ruled the Druze community for 500 years at least (and
whose father was murdered by the Syrians.) He doles out all the jobs
"belonging" to his community.

The Lebanese parliament is a senate of community chiefs, who divide the
spoils between them. The "democratic coalition" which was put in power
by the Americans after the murder of the Sunni Prime Minister Rafik
Hariri, is a temporary alliance of the Maronite, Sunni and Druze chiefs.
The "opposition", which enjoys Syrian patronage, is composed of the
Shiites and one Maronite faction. The wheel can turn at a moment's
notice, when other alliances are formed.

Hizbullah, which appears to Israelis as an extension of Iran and Syria,
is first of all a Shiite movement that strives to obtain for its
community a larger part of the Lebanese pie, as indeed is its due in
accordance with its size. Hassan Nasrallah - who is also the scion of an
important family - has his eyes on the government in Beirut, not on the
mosques in Jerusalem.


WHAT DOES all this say about the present situation?

For decades now, Israel has been stirring the Lebanese pot. In the past,
it supported the Gemayel family but was bitterly disappointed: the
family's "Phalanges" (the name was taken from Fascist Spain, which was
greatly admired by grandfather Pierre), were revealed in the 1982 war as
a gang of thugs without military value. But the Israeli involvement in
Lebanon continues to this day. The aim is to eliminate Hizbullah, remove
the Syrians and threaten nearby Damascus. All these tasks are hopeless.

Some history: in the 30s, when the Maronites were the leading force in
Lebanon, the Maronite Patriarch expressed open sympathy for the Zionist
enterprise. At that time, many young people from Tel-Aviv and Haifa
studied at the American University of Beirut, and rich Jewish people
from Palestine spent their holidays at Lebanese resorts. Once, before
the founding of Israel, I crossed the Lebanese border by mistake and a
Lebanese Gendarme politely showed me the way back.

During the first years of Israel, the Lebanese border was our only
peaceful one. Those days there was a saying: "Lebanon will be the second
Arab country to make peace with Israel. It will not dare to be the
first". Only in 1970, when King Hussein drove the PLO from Jordan into
Lebanon, with the active help of Israel, did this border heat up. Now
even Fuad Siniora, the prime minister appointed by the Americans, feels
compelled to declare that "Lebanon will be the last Arab state to make
peace with Israel!"

All efforts to remove Syrian influence from Lebanon are bound to fail.
In order to understand this, it is enough to look at the map.
Historically, Lebanon is a part of the land of Syria ("Sham" in Arabic).
The Syrians have never resigned themselves to the fact that the French
colonial regime tore Lebanon from their land.

The conclusions: First, let's not get stuck in the Lebanese mess again.
As experience has shown, we shall always come out the losers. Second, in
order to have peace on our northern border, all the potential enemies,
and first of all Syria, must be involved.

Meaning: we must give back the Golan Heights.

The Bush administration forbids our government to talk with the Syrians.
They want to talk with them themselves, when the time comes. Quite
possibly, they will then sell them the Golan in return for Syrian help
in Iraq. If so, should we not hurry and "sell" them the Golan (which
belongs to them anyhow) for a better price for ourselves?

Lately, voices have been heard, even of senior army people, that hint at
this possibility. It should be said loudly and clearly: Because of a few
thousands of settlers and the politicians who do not dare to confront
them, we are liable to be dragged into more superfluous wars and to
endanger the population of Israel.

This is the third conclusion: There is only one way to win a war in
Lebanon - and that is to avoid it.
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