Together we stand
Amid the unfolding catastrophe, Serene Assir sees tensions and opportunities
"I can hear a plane, it's coming closer," said a young woman, an avowed critic of Hizbullah, on the telephone to Cairo, her voice filled with anxiety and unmistakable sadness. "A bomb. Now. It's fallen just a few streets away, in the southern suburbs. The suburbs, they are totally destroyed. It is such a shame."
Faced with multiplying civilian casualties, mass destruction of key infrastructure and the renewal of tragedy in a country wherein most people had after long years settled back into stability, Lebanon's factions appear to be at odds with each other, yet again. As soon as news of the capture by Hizbullah of two Israeli soldiers broke, the government, elected three months after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri and almost immediately after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in May last year, announced it had no previous knowledge of Hizbullah's intentions.
Questions over the legitimacy of Hizbullah's border operation have weighed heavily through recent days over the nation's soul as Israel launched a campaign overtly designed to punish and, indeed, break not only the state it holds responsible by proxy but the morale of all the Lebanese too. On the ground, for many, the capture was justified, with Israel's aggressive retaliation inevitable. For others, including the parliamentary majority in a country whose political diversity is unparalleled in the region, the sheer level of destruction means that there is reason to argue otherwise.
Today, the political line-up that preceded the attack remains more or less extant, and calls for the disarmament of Hizbullah continue to be heard, in some ways louder than ever and to a chorus of approval from the international community. "Hizbullah's operation was unfounded," prominent MP and member of the 14 March Movement Samir Franjiyye told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that during the course of the failed Lebanese National Dialogue, "we had worked to prevent this situation by trying to come to an agreement that Hizbullah had to disarm."
Given continued postponements and a total lack of commitment by participants to openness, the dialogue quickly became a non-starter. Now, however, some say that Hizbullah's decision to go it alone has crushed the legitimacy of Lebanon's government. "Hizbullah has essentially denied the state the entirety of its legitimacy by this single act," Franjiyye added. "Only the Lebanese elected government, which represents the will of the people, has the legitimacy to act on issues determining war and peace, and Hizbullah has unjustly claimed it for itself."
The complexity surrounding the current situation in Lebanon is further inflamed by unanswered questions regarding what exactly led Hizbullah to act now. Even more accusatory than Franjiyye was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, also a member of parliament, who declared Hizbullah is fighting Iran's proxy war with Israel on Lebanese soil. "The war is no longer Lebanon's -- it is an Iranian war," he said, adding to the din of voices that appear more than eager to escalate conflict in the Middle East even beyond their means, including that of United States President George W Bush on open mic at the recent G8 summit.
Days into the mass killing of Lebanese by Israel, the route back for the camp that became termed "anti- Syrian" following Al-Hariri's assassination is to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for Hizbullah's disarmament, and to recover whatever remains of the Lebanese state. According to Franjiyye, "most of the Lebanese would agree that Hizbullah had no right to tear itself away from the political process we had been engaging in, and by a single act reshape the country's fate." In order to rectify the situation, "all political actors must support the state's efforts to end the situation," he added.
For Hizbullah, it appears that it acted out of conviction that it was vindicating the rights of all the Lebanese, not just its supporters. Its leadership continues to assert that it is not working in alliance with other states. "We may have our differences with other Lebanese factions," Ali Al-Fayyad, a senior Hizbullah researcher, told the Weekly, "but that does not mean that we acted in the interests of other states. There is agreement in Lebanon of the priority of dealing with the Israeli enemy."
But as the violence wears on, the likelihood of the situation ever going back to how it was just a few days ago grows thinner and thinner. The sheer scale of the Israeli offensive has acted as a catalyst for more disagreement than ever among the Lebanese on the issue of Hizbullah's arms. On the other hand, it has engendered more anger than ever with Israel, given the sheer disproportion of its aggression. Historically, although it may not be the case entirely across the board, on the ground there has been little room -- except perhaps in the very far right -- for any serious consideration of Israel as anything but an agent of destruction in Lebanon. Should there have been any room for doubt, today's bombings surely bolster that impression.
"No doubt there is an Israeli plan to split the people," said Egyptian academic Hassan Eissa, "by bombing across Lebanon and making everyone pay for Hizbullah's action. But so far, its actions seem to be having the opposite effect." He concludes: "I doubt that today's violence will ultimately lead Lebanon into civil war." Franjiyye agrees, saying that in spite of fundamental disagreements and the tragic collapse of a long process towards rebuilding Lebanon, "we are witnessing extraordinary acts of solidarity."
Franjiyye also highlighted that Lebanon, once perceived by itself as the darling of the West and of the Arab world, had essentially been abandoned -- a painful realisation following decades of post-colonial dreaming. "We cannot have a civil war, especially with the international community and the Arab world having turned their backs on us," Franjiyye said. In counterpoint to his own accusations against Syria -- that it continues to call the shots in Lebanon -- Franjiyye's remarks on the West and the Arab region are indicative of a sincere disillusionment with the current situation.
With its back against the wall, Lebanon is being urged to split even from the sky. Printed on leaflets that Israeli planes are dropping on Lebanese towns and cities under impending attack is a statement on behalf of the undersigned, the state of Israel, to push for Hizbullah's disarmament. But the longer the shelling and destruction continue, the less feasible that demand will be.
The Lebanese have only themselves and each other to turn to now, and that is a difficult yet crucial challenge that they must rise to meet. From a distance it seems ironic, yet poetic, that the Lebanese might just be able to assert their sovereignty in unity, using their country's darkest days in recent memory to rise from ashes sown intermittently across decades, finally as one.