‘WE WILL REALLY BECOME TERRORISTS NOW'

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 7 2006

‘WE WILL REALLY BECOME TERRORISTS NOW'

JONATHON GATEHOUSE August 7 2006

‘WE WILL REALLY BECOME TERRORISTS NOW'

AS THE FIGHTING DRAGS ON, THE WORRY IS THAT HEZBOLLAH MAY EMERGE STRONGER THAN EVER

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

The tour starts promptly at 11 a.m. A daily half-hour dash through the ruined streets of Dahiyah, the south Beirut stronghold of Hezbollah, to inspect the latest damage inflicted by Israeli bombs. Herded by shouting bearded militants, the sweating members of the international press slip and skid over piles of rubble, past blasted-out shops and cleaved buildings. At Harat Hreik, the crossroads that used to house Hezbollah’s media operations— now an expanse of jagged concrete latticed with downed hydro wires—two men are busy hanging a white banner from the ruins. “We will not bow down. We will not surrender. We will not give up,” says its Arabic writing. The streets are filled with the dusty remnants of nearby apartments and offices: a collection of

stuffed animals, an upholstered armchair, a binder of business cards, and a DVD of Disney’s 102 Dabnatians: Puppies to the Rescue. Hezbollah claims that it evacuated the area shortly after it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers July 12, and that none of its members have yet been killed in the bomb attacks that shake Beirut several times a day. But the stench that wafts through the neighbourhood testifies that something lies rotting under the debris.

The ringmaster for this unruly carnival, a former Montrealer named Hussein Nabulsi, keeps things moving. “We have the faith, we have the determination, we have the will to win,” he shouts as the cameras and microphones struggle to keep pace. It’s a tightly scripted affair. Local residents who have ventured into the danger zone to retrieve their possessions immediately have pictures of

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, thrust into their hands by the watching militants. A truck piled high with Peavey speakers rolls around the corner and blasts a soundtrack of radical Islamic fight songs. And when the group starts to lag, Nabulsi screams that Israeli jets are on their way and turns heel— exactly the same way he did before the cameras of an American network the day before. The tour ends with an invitation to return tomorrow—same hour, same place—and a plea. “Especially for CNN, please be on time. This is the third time you’ve come late.”

It’s an impressive show, and one that speaks volumes about Hezbollah’s organizational strength. As Israeli efforts to cleanse south Lebanon of Nasrallah’s radical Shia militia enter their third week, there’s little evidence that the air raids, shelling, and cross-border

incursions are having the desired effect. Katyusha rockets continue to rain down on the towns and cities of northern Israel where they have injured scores and killed close to 20. On the other side of the border, the civil ian death toll has topped 400, as hospitals throughout Lebanon fill with the wounded, nearly half of them children. The govern ment estimates that 750,000 people-some 20 per cent of the country's population-have fled their homes, and the United Nations has declared a humanitarian crisis. Yet Hezbol lah's casualties are reportedly light. And even if Israel is succeeding in inflicting heavy dam age on the battlefield, the group's command and control structure appears to be intact. Nasrallah surfaces almost daily for television interviews, refining his terms for a ceasefire, and serving notice to his domestic critics.

“We will hold some accountable and forgive others,” he told al-Jazeera.

As the fighting drags on, the emerging consensus within Lebanon is that, far from being weakened, Hezbollah may well come out of its latest skirmish with Israel stronger than ever. “If anybody thinks that the poor, frightened and displaced people of the south are going to start marching in the streets of Beirut against Nasrallah, they are kidding themselves,” says Timur Goksel, who spent 24 years as a senior adviser to UNIFIL, the world body’s “interim” peacekeeping force, established in 1978 and still in place along the Israeli-Lebanese border. The Hezbollah leader’s modest ways, personal charisma, and above all, defiance of Israel, have won him the loyalty of the vast majority of Lebanon’s 1.5 million Shias. Long disenfranchised in the country’s sectarian politics, they are unlikely to abandon the only effective voice they’ve got.

The prospects of lasting military success against Hezbollah is perhaps even dimmer, says Goksel. “I’ve been watching these guys since their first days in Lebanon and I have yet to pinpoint a single base,” he says. “Their weapons are kept at home and in caves. They don’t have a military formation—they come together for operations, and then they disperse.” Israel tried diligently to stamp them out over its two decades of occupation. Similar bombing campaigns in 1993 and 1996 also failed. When the dust settled after the latter, nicknamed “Operation Grapes of Wrath” by the Israelis, Goksel remembers watching Hezbollah members travel from house to house in southern villages, replacing shattered doors and windows, dressed in T-shirts bearing the slogan “Medina Construction Company.”

There is no question Hezbollah’s actions

have upended the delicate balance of Lebanon’s heavily sectarian politics. But as civilian casualties climb, public anger over the timing of the group’s brazen raid to kidnap the soldiers has been replaced by a general rage against Israel—and its allies. When UN emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, met with local non-governmental organizations in Beirut, the anti-Western sentiment was palpable. “I could speak to you in English

and tell you about our troubles,” said one aid worker. “But that’s the language of the Americans and the British—the people who are doing this to us—so today I will speak only in Arabic.” The room filled with applause.

Reports that the United States is rushing to fulfill an Israeli order for more 5,000-lb. “bunker buster” smart bombs have not been lost on the Lebanese public, and most especially the supporters of Hezbollah. In the Christian communities in the mountains west of Beirut, where hotels and apartments that usually cater to tourists are packed with refugees from the south, the resentment is even hotter. “The bombs that are killing us were made in America. We hope that the children of Bush all get what they deserve—death,” says Johana Goune, an evacuee from Bint Jubayl, near the Israeli border. Goune and her younger children came north, leaving her husband and two older sons behind to fight. “We are all Hezbollah, men, women and children.” She gestures at the dark-haired 9-month-old boy her neighbour is holding. “He will grow up and go back and fight the Israelis. We will really become terrorists now.”

Karim Makdisi, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, warns that the country is on the verge of the abyss. “In the matter of one week, Israel destroyed everything Lebanon has been trying to build up over the past 10 years.” Billions

‘ESPECIALLY FOR CNN, PLEASE BE ON TIME. THIS IS THE THIRD

TIME THAT YOU HAVE COME LATE.’

of dollars of damage has been done to the road network, airport, power grid and other infrastructure. The tourist trade, envisioned as the panacea for the country’s shaky economy, is now gone for the foreseeable future. Unemployment, already between 20 and 30 per cent, is sure to climb.

And Lebanon’s only functioning national institution, the army, has been boxed into a corner. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has vowed that defence forces will engage the Israelis if they carry through on their threat to invade and take control of a wide swath along the border—a fight the Lebanese will almost certainly lose. It’s not really a matter of choice; to do otherwise is to risk splintering the army, whose ranks are 40 per cent Shia. Meanwhile, the Israelis, who continue to demand that Lebanese forces take control of the south and disarm Hezbollah, are hammering away at the very people they are asking to help. Air strikes against Lebanese bases and outposts have already killed 12 soldiers, and last week the Israelis took out a bridge in Baabda, a hilltop neighbourhood outside the capital that is home to the military headquarters, several generals and the presidential palace. “It’s like the godfather putting the severed head of a horse in the bed,” says Makdisi. “It’s not a subtle message.”

The crumpled carcass of the Mercedes sits a good 50 m up the road. Nonetheless, when the bomb sliced through the overpass, twisting the thick steel reinforcing cables into a delicate spiderweb, the heat of the explosion was enough to sear the paint off the doors. There are traces of blood on the driver’s airbag, but it’s hard to get a straight answer as to whether this is the spot, just outside Sidon, where 17 people died, or whether it was farther up the highway, towards the still-burning power plant. No one has much time to keep track of such things these days. “The Israelis have hit all of the water tanks, some of the petrol stations, the bridges and all of the roads out of town except one,” says the mayor, Dr. Abdul Rahman Bizri. “We repaired the roads two or three times but they just kept bombing them, so we gave up.”

The drive from Beirut, 45 km to the north, used to take half an hour along the new coastal highway. Now it’s a three-hour trip over mountain roads clogged with refugees. There are often nine or more people packed into each dusty car. Some have extra passengers sitting in the trunk. Most of the battered vehicles have strips of white material tied to or fluttering from their windows, although the evidence suggests they function more as a placebo than a guarantee of safe passage.

The streets of the port city are lined with billboards advertising luxury boat tours to

Egypt, Rhodes or Cyprus aboard the Orient Queen (“Cruise Beyond Your Dreams”). The ship was last seen ferrying 1,000 Americans at a time out of Beirut’s much more secure harbour. (A clear object of envy for Canadian evacuees, who spent the better part of a week standing dockside in the hot sun waiting for a place on one of the 250-person ferries initially contracted by the federal government. Although Ottawa did later find larger vessels, the evacuation got off to a rocky start. In its first week, it moved 8,700 people, less than a quarter of the 39,000 Canadians registered with the embassy.)

It’s a measure of how bad things are far-

ther down Lebanon’s coast that some 40,000 refugees have stopped in Sidon, which, while spared the brunt of the fighting, is clearly not off the Israeli military’s list of targets. They fill the city’s schools, sleeping 50 or 60 to a classroom. Khali Boustani and his family are camped out in the parking lot of one primary school. Their ancient Volvo no longer has its windows, blown out by the force of a bomb blast on the road out of Tyre, another 30 km down the coast. That trip, off-roading around craters, fording rivers, now takes a nerve-racking five hours, as Israeli planes buzz high above all the while. “They were shooting at our house every day,” he says. “We didn’t have any choice but to leave.” Inside the school, children’s drawings are taped to the windows. Seven-year-old Miriam Balhas has drawn her house beforeunder a smiling sun with flowers out front— and after, being bombed by a jet with a Star of David insignia. Ola Najdi’s drawing shows a tank and a body lying on the road, covered

in orange flames. “It’s what he saw on the way out of his village,” explains a volunteer.

Dr. Ali Jaber, the region’s chief medical officer, says the hospitals in Tyre and Sidon are coping the best they can with the hundreds of wounded, but are running short of medication for people with chronic illnesses like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. His bigger problem these days is finding space to the store the corpses. The morgues are full and refrigerated trucks are in short supply. The hospital in Tyre already had one mass burial last week, laying more than 100 bodies “temporarily” to rest. “We’re having difficulty disposing of bodies because the

families can’t be contacted,” says Jaber.

Many fear the chaos in the south will spread throughout the country. The sectarian rifts that led to 15 years of civil war have only lately been papered over. The kind of effort to confront and disarm Hezbollah that Israel, the U.S. and other members of the world community, including Canada, are demanding as part of any ceasefire agreement will not be accomplished without grave risk of opening up all sorts of old wounds. There are already reports of long-dormant Christian militias setting up checkpoints in the mountains.

In the 17 months since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and the expulsion of the occupying Syrians in the so called "Cedar Revolution" (many locals pre fer the same term as the Palestinians-"up rising" or intifada), Hezbollah has manoeu vred skilfully, weaving itself deeply into the country's political fabric. The party now has 14 members in parliament, including two government ministers, and disavows any no-

iODFATHER PUTTING THE SEVERED HEAD

OF A HORSE IN THE BED. IT’S NOT SUBTLE.’

tion of moving Lebanon towards an Iran-like theocracy. Nasrallah has distanced himself from Damascus, without completely severing ties, and formed a strong alliance with Maronite Christian leader Gen. Michel Aoun, supporting his ambition to be the next president. (Under a 63-year-old informal agreement, Lebanon’s president is Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of the parliament a Shia.) Hezbollah helped re-elect long-time Druze power broker Walid Jumblatt, and even secured the re-election of Nabih Berri’s—an archrival— as speaker. Hezbollah’s price has been help in delaying efforts to take away its weapons in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1559, and shaping the debate about the future of a “national resistance” to Israel.

What started as an effort to retrieve two kidnapped soldiers has become a much higherstakes battle for Israel. Hezbollah’s seemingly bottomless arsenal of rockets has proven that the threat the group poses to the Jewish state has not been exaggerated. And it appears that the U.S. is prepared to give Israel at least another week to try and dig them out of the hills of south Lebanon, and establish a buffer zone. “Israel is determined to continue on in the fight against Hezbollah,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said after meeting

with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state. “We will stop them. We will not hesitate to take severe measures against those who are aiming thousands of rockets and missiles against innocent civilians for the one purpose of killing them.” The Bush administration continues to stress the need for an “enduring peace,” a solution that will change the balance of power in Lebanon, starting with the disarmament of Hezbollah. “It is time for a new Middle East,” said Rice. “It is time to say to those that don’t want a different kind of Middle East that we will prevail. They will not.”

A senior diplomat in Beirut, who asked not to be named, says that in its own quirky way the democratic process was working. The “national dialogue” which brought the 14 main factions, including Hezbollah, to the table was in itself significant progress. Other parties are angry at the wrench that Nasrallah has thrown into the works—they had sought and received repeated assurances that there would be no escalation—but it’s also clear that Hezbollah miscalculated the Israeli response. Feelers about a prisoner exchange

with Israeli via the Germans were being extended within hours of the kidnapping.

The diplomat fears that much of Lebanon’s elite—and most especially moderate Shias—will now flee, taking their money and the national will to compromise with them. There is confusion in the diplomatic community about the underlying goal of the hardline demands being advanced by the Bush administration and its allies. “It’s hard to believe that anyone who has any kind of knowledge of the history of this region actually thinks that Hezbollah can be eliminated,” says the diplomat. “And if Lebanon is scorched, who wins? For Israel to win, they have to eliminate Hezbollah. For Hezbollah to win, all they have to do is survive.” A victory that would only serve to advance the in-

terests of the Shia militia’s most ardent supporter, Iran. Tehran is determined to become a dominant power in the region, and is banking on Hezbollah’s continued presence in Lebanon to provide them with added leverage at the nuclear bargaining table. Sunni Arab leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia fear that the Iranian/Hezbollah model of “resistance” could give their own restive populations ideas, which is why they have remained so silent as the bombs fall.

The growing talk about a multinational force, perhaps under the auspices of NATO, to man a buffer zone along the border with Israel may provide a way out, but many in Lebanon are skeptical. Israel’s heavy response neatly illustrates a point that Hezbollah and its supporters have long been trying to make— the country needs to have more guns, not less. The American University’s Makdisi says there is no strategic advantage for Hezbollah, or the Lebanese government, to agree to disarm the group now. “They need to be around to help strengthen the Lebanese position in the ultimate peace negotiations,” he says. Why agree to neuter your most feared military force until all the issues—the border, the fate of Lebanese detainees who have been held in Israeli jails for more than two decades, and the fate of the Palestinians—are on the table?

Such large questions mean little to the people of southern Lebanon at the moment. They simply wonder why the world community seems so unwilling to even try to put a stop to such a lopsided fight. The wards of the shiny new Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut are rapidly filling with civilian casualties. Achmed Ali Saad, a 32-year-old fireman from Haris, lies in a bed hooked up to a cocktail of painkillers. He has a broken arm, shrapnel wounds and severe burns. He was trying to rescue people from a collapsed home when the Israelis dropped another bomb on the building. “I could hear children crying inside,” he says. “They want to hit Hezbollah, but they can’t find them, so they punish civilians.”

A few doors away, Mira Ali, a 16-year-old from Lida, near the border, is recovering from shrapnel wounds and a broken right leg. She’s well enough to leave the hospital, but has nowhere to go. All of her family are in the same hospital. Her father, Achmed, who is in a room a floor below, was the worst hurt, losing both his legs. Mira, who wears a hijab and learned her excellent English in high school, doesn’t want to talk about Hezbollah. “I hope that the war will end. That is my only wish,” she says. “I don’t care who is weak and who is strong. We are all people.” M

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