Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Making Lebanon whole again

David HirstAs the defeated Israelis absconded, leaving their SLA allies to an apparently dismal fate, Hizbullah, the victors, acted with dignity. For the first time in decades, writes David Hirst in Beirut, Lebanon could become whole again, and not just in a physical sense
Israel's military involvement in Lebanon has lasted, in various forms, for a full twenty five years. Past withdrawals from this disastrous entanglement have had terrible consequences, and there were fears that this final one might be no exception. In the so-called "war of the Shouf" that erupted in the wake of Israel's gradual retreat from its 1982 invasion of Beirut, the Druze took revenge for atrocities perpetrated by Christian Maronite militiamen behind the shield of Israeli conquest. They put wire round the necks of captured militiamen and dragged them through the streets.

But the only "body" which Hizbullah or its allies dragged through the "liberated" south was a stone one. This was the statue of the late Major Saad Haddad, the first commander of the South Lebanese Army (SLA). With such restraint, Hizbullah disproved all forecasts that "the Israeli agents" would be "slaughtered in their beds." Even the goalers at the notorious Khiam prison were permitted to escape to Israel. There have been no reports of revenge killings, or brutality of any kind. One of the their staunchest ideological adversaries, Dory Chamoun, who once jointly led one of the more extreme Christian militias, conceded that they behaved well.

In fact, in Christian eyes, it was the Israelis who disgraced themselves, with their desertion of the predominantly Christian-officered SLA allies. "I think," said a Sunni Muslim, "that in this combination -- Hizbullah's good conduct and a further revelation of the true nature of Israel's involvement in Lebanon, selfish and opportunistic to the end -- the education of our Christian compatriots is complete. We Lebanese are, and must be, closer to each other than we are to any outsider."

Israeli solider
Christian Lebanese girl
(top) Hizbullah's flag, flying from the top of a minaret, dominates the view from south Lebanon across the border to Israel; an Israeli soldier patrols the border with Lebanon as crowds of jubilant Lebanese look on; a Christian Lebanese girl celebrates the liberation

(photos: Reuters, AP, AFP)
For it has been a besetting sin of this country of myriad faiths and sects for one or more of them to seek dominance over, or redress against, others by turning to outside sponsors. In the 1970s, the militant Christians turned to Israel in their struggle against the Palestinian guerrillas, then implanted in Lebanon, and their Muslim-leftist Lebanese allies.

The interminable Lebanese ordeal -- composed of both war and civil war -- had its roots in the south, and in the reprisals which Palestinian guerrilla incursions into northern Israel brought down on the heads of the local population. Is it now, at long last, about to end there? Lebanon is now whole again physically. That is unquestionably Hizbullah's doing.

Ironically, it was because Lebanon was the weakest of all Arab states that they managed it. "Our country," said a secular nationalist, "is like a supermarket. You can find anything in it. Some say we are just a bordello, and we are, but in our chaotic freedom we are also capable of throwing up the very antithesis of that -- a self-sacrificing body of men like Hizbullah. No other Arab state, with its oppressive dictatorships, could have done it." From small beginnings, Hizbullah grew into what, in its way, was the most formidable fighting force Israel has ever faced. Its triumph is already having a psychological impact on Arabs everywhere, not least, of course, in Palestine, where it is arousing the "street" and making Yasser Arafat's "realistic" school of diplomacy look more futile and subservient than ever.

The question is to what extent Lebanon is now not merely physically, but psychologically whole. Hizbullah, with its exemplary behaviour, has struck a powerful blow in favour of that too. What could have led to a renewal of civil war has provoked the opposite: a greater sense of common pride and belonging, transcending all the sects, than anyone can remember. But will Hizbullah's behaviour remain exemplary? Will it be modest? For "victors" in the civil war always had a habit of growing arrogant with their "victory" -- and this is the greatest victory of all.

What the overwhelming majority of the Lebanese want is an end to the southern war, along with all its pernicious consequences, economic and political, domestic and external -- and they want it all the more badly because they know all too well the truly disastrous consequences of failing to end it now. The Israelis have made it repeatedly clear that from now on "the rules" of Lebanese warfare will change; their response to any cross-frontier raids will become more "painful" than ever, and take in Syrian as well as Lebanese targets.

For most Lebanese the way to end the war is for "the Islamic resistance," its job now done, to put aside arms and reap the well-earned reward of its military prowess in the domestic political arena. As it is, with several deputies in parliament, it is already well entrenched there. The Lebanese state must become strong again -- and show its strength, first of all, by restoring its authority over the newly recovered south. The desire for that is felt most strongly by the Christians, particularly the Maronites, who have always relied on the state as the guarantor of a pluralist confessional system that guarantees their distinctive Christian identity in an overwhelmingly Muslim environment.

But all other religious communities share that sentiment. And that includes the Shi'ites, Hizbullah's natural constituency, and especially the Shi'ites of the south. It is hard to imagine, after all the scenes of joyous southerners returning to homes some have not seen for a quarter century, that they would look upon any Hizbullah decision to continue the "armed struggle" with anything but dismay.

The main obstacles to the restoration of state authority comes from two, inter-related quarters. One is Hizbullah's own militant Islamic ideology. As Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah put it recently, Israel is an "imposed, usurping, illegitimate state," and it is the right and duty of Muslims to combat it. However, he judiciously added, "whether we fight beyond Lebanese borders we shall decide after liberation." So, ideologically, decision time is now.

The other is that congenital tendency of the Lebanese to serve outside powers at their own expense. At the moment that means Syria above all. For Syria, south Lebanon, and the pain which Hizbullah has inflicted on Israel there, has been a key instrument in its diplomatic efforts to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. It is a clearly a Syrian interest that Hizbullah should have a pretext to continue inflicting that pain, even after withdrawal. And that is why, the Lebanese believe, their government suddenly began to insist that Israel should withdraw from the so-called Shebaa Farms, a patch territory in which it had hitherto taken no discernible interest, and why Hizbullah hints that it will continue the armed struggle until it does. It is decision time here too.

It is not yet clear which way Hizbullah will move. But, if, at the end of the day, it responds to what most of the people want -- and, privately, the government wants too -- it will have crossed a critical dividing line: from its devotion to radical Islamist ideology and the service of foreign powers on the one hand to an essentially Lebanese identity and national purpose on the other. In the speech he delivered in the liberated south yesterday, Nasrallah clearly pointed in that direction when he said that Hizbullah would indeed be "modest" in victory. Nothing would do more to make Lebanon truly whole again -- and, if and when Syria withdraws from Lebanon, which it will now come under increasing pressure to do, independent too.

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