23 June 2007
Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. Its elegant restaurants, vibrant nightlife, popular beaches, cosmopolitan feel, and 6,000 years of history made it a huge attraction for visitors. That was before the dark days of Lebanon's long civil war from 1975.
Like all places it is the people themselves that matter, and no where is this truer than Lebanon. Even today, an anonymous poem posted on the Internet I Love Beirut perfectly captures the indomitable spirit of the Lebanese people, a people who have seen their city destroyed seven times and seven times they have rebuilt it.
The poem celebrates a city where East meets West. On the streets you see women in mini skirt or 'Tchador'. Christians call their Muslim friends on Ramadan and Muslims call Christian friends at Easter. There are Sunni, Shia and Druze and Christian in fact Lebanon recognises around 17 religious communities.
The vibrancy and colour of this mix is Lebanon's appeal, but it also makes Lebanon a playground for the broadly competing outside interests of Israel / America / Saudi on the one hand and Syria / Iran on the other. Events in the Middle East are almost inevitably played out in this beautiful city and its southern supported Hizbollah suburbs and Palestinian refugee camps.
The country has been shattered by two key events: first, the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, in February 2005 and, second, last summer's assault by Israel recklessly supported by the US. More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed and the country was devastated in a war that created a surge in popular support for the resistance army, Hizbollah, whose members have since become even more powerful political players.
The Hariri family and supporters blame Syria for his murder, but the US backed government has been powerless to act. The UN Security Council has stepped in to create a special international court to try the suspects.
Now the US, wanting a finger in all pies, lacks coherent policy in Lebanon. Its serious miscalculations in Iraq mean that the US may need the help of Syria and Iran to negotiate an exit strategy from that unwinnable and unpopular war. So how far will the US support the UN process in bringing Hariri's assassins to justice when its relationship to Syria is now so sensitive? After all, Iraq is the real political crisis for America.
The US relationship with Lebanon is complicated further by the fact that it has a far greater loyalty to Lebanon’s enemy and neighbour, Israel, than to Lebanon itself.
Around 12 refugee camps in Lebanon hold up to 300,000 Palestinians and here Syria remains influential because of its support for the Palestinian cause. Until recently, the Lebanese army was forbidden from entering the camps and the Palestinians provided their own policing. Recently, the camps saw a shoot out between a group calling itself Fateh Al–Islam and the Lebanese army. Such fighting in the camps marks a new hard line from the Lebanese government and led to the deaths of 100 people, and trapped women and children for more than three weeks.
The army was supported with US military hardware and here again the US is treading a delicate path. It allows the Lebanese army hardware to defeat the 'terrorists' within, but is keen not to provide equipment sophisticated enough to pose a threat to Lebanon's enemies, but America’s friends, the Israelis.
While the Hariri camp accuses Syria of undermining the UN justice process and of backing Fateh Al-Islam to destabilize the investigation, Hizbollah adds its weight to the opposition by accusing the UN of meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. However, it is clear that in Lebanon the militants do not enjoy the support of the mainstream Palestinian factions who had been trying to mediate a settlement.
The Lebanese government's desire to take a firm line against this new 'terrorist threat' is in danger of starting to bear the hallmarks of Lebanon's neighbour, the Israeli Defence Force. The Israelis have always said that those seen to be harbouring terrorists must bear the consequences. The effect of this approach in Gaza has been increasing violence, trauma and now civil war.
Can the Lebanese people retain the optimism and spirit to rebuild their beautiful country, once again? Or will the weakened Lebanese government, in fighting America's 'war on terrorism' in its Palestinian refugee camps, fuel its own demise and leave Lebanon and its people vulnerable to dangerous forces at play from within and without.
In the words of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), Lebanese poet and philosopher "Had Lebanon not been my country, I would have chosen it to be."
I am grateful for Juliette Harkin providing background information for this column.