Shafiq Morton: Lebanon – One Year On

By Shafiq Morton
Special to

It’s exactly a year since I landed in Beirut , our cargo plane – aptly named “Guts Airline” – staying on the ground just long enough to unload before taking off again. The airport runway had been bombed by the Israelis, and we were one of the first aid missions allowed to fly in.

TV crews buzzed around us, asking questions and filming the scene. It was surreal. The blue Mediterranean sparkled in the distance, and Beirut ’s high-rise hillsides shimmered in the mid-summer heat.

Not even two weeks previously, Beirut had been basking in one of its most successful tourist seasons since the civil war. Hotels had been full, beaches packed and the corniche shoulder-to-shoulder with holidaymakers.

Our journey from the airport to the hotel had been even more surreal. The streets were completely deserted, the freeway empty. Beirut was a ghost city, and we drove to our hotel with a speed underlined by adrenaline.

This was because the airport was close to the working-class suburbs of Beirut , the alleged urban axis of Hizballah. The Israelis had been bombing there on a daily basis, and we could see wisps of smoke emanating from the concrete jungle that was the Dahiye.

My most profound experience of the 2006 Lebanese conflict was the measure of destruction wreaked by Israel ’s US-supplied weaponry. A so-called “precision bomb” piercing a 10-storey block of flats, and then sucking the air out of the surrounding atmosphere, can render up 40 families homeless, and destroy their lives in the blink of an eye.

I have often wondered how those playing computer games in Tel Aviv would have felt had they themselves waded through the dusty, stinking, smoking mess created by their “enter” keys like we had to. 

How would they have felt seeing the scorched landscape, and answering the grief-stricken questions of broken, innocent people: Allah, why us?

And sadly, a year later, the dust has not settled. Post conflict is as traumatic as conflict, and the consequences have been dire for an already fragile country. Of the two million displaced internally by the war many do not have homes 12 months later, parts of Beirut are rubble and the hills of southern Lebanon are pockmarked with hundreds of thousands of unexploded cluster bombs.

And whilst nearly 20, 000 troops keep peace on the border, Hizballah still presents a nagging threat to an Israel . This is a country traditionally given to retribution, but thankfully sidelined with its own set of political problems arising from the war, as well as Ehud Olmert’s unpopularity.

The truth is that Hizballah’s “victory” was “Pyrrhic”, a battle in which the bully got a bloody nose, but the victim a broken body. Hizballah’s triumph, and it was definitely one for the Arab street, unfortunately came at a terrible expense –the country.

Israel is hurting, yes, but Lebanon’s infrastructure and economy have been set back decades – the problems further compounded by a fragile political landscape giving no cheer to ordinary Lebanese, next to the Palestinians the most punch-drunk and resistant people of the Middle East.

Recently, these woes have been compounded by the murky existence of an armed group called “Fatah al-Islami”. Called the “Victory of Islam” in English, this group took up positions in the Nahr ul-Barid Palestinian refugee camp outside Tripoli , and catalysed disaster for over 30, 000 camp residents by provoking combat with Lebanese troops.

Disallowed from entering Palestinian camps by law – and put off anyway by the narrow alleyways where footsoldiers would be easy prey – the Lebanese army has flattened the camp with artillery fire in order to get at Fatah al-Islami, who themselves have killed a number of Lebanese regulars.

As a result, Lebanon must be one of the only countries in the world where refugees have to be sheltered by refugees, many of those from Nahr ul-Barid taking up shelter in the nearby overcrowded Biddaoui camp.

Disowned by Hamas, condemned by Fatah and slated by Lebanese civil society, Fatah al-Islami is a complete puzzle, its political agenda unclear and its leadership a mystery. Professor Basil Salloukh of the American University , is just one of the many trying to work out who Fatah al-Islami really is.

His comment to me on my radio show, Drivetime, that it was an “Islamist group criss-crossed by various intelligence agencies”, seems to be the closest one can get to the heart of the matter.

Human Rights activist Rania al-Masri, who is involved in Lebanese Palestinian relief work, told me that she’d learnt western intelligence agencies had indeed bankrolled Fatah al-Islami. Their aim?  To further destabilise Lebanon and to blame the Syrians, a key player held by the Israelis to be responsible for Hizballah’s arms build up.

But how could the west, the Quartet nations, benefit from all of this – if their intelligence agencies are involved as alleged?

Amal Saad Ghoraib of the Carnegie Endowment Institute for International Peace was reported on al-Jazeerah as saying that Hizballah had succeeded in one important goal. It had thwarted Washington ’s plans for the region. With Hizballah remaining a critical player in Lebanese politics, the US could not push its “new Middle East” agenda from within Lebanon as it wished.

But, at the end of the proverbial day, whether the conspiracy theory bears truth or not, the calamity of the modern Lebanese nation-state endures: already a fragmented realm in the 18th century, a progeny of French colonisers in the 19th and the victim of Zionist endgames in the 20th, one just has to ask whether the 21st can get any worse.

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