January 18, 2007

Followup on the Siege of Ain Ebel

I'll have another article posted shortly, hopefully later tonight.

Meanwhile, Lebanese blogger Rampurple emailed and sent me some links about Ain Ebel -- the Christian town in the South that was besieged by Hezbollah -- that she posted on her blog during the war.

What she wrote (here, here, and here) matches in part what I wrote about here, as does this article she sent me from the New York Times.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:36 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

Postcards from the North

While I’m working on my next article, about the devastated suburbs south of Beirut, here are some postcards from Nothern Lebanon where things are a little more peaceful.

Lebanon isn’t all-war-all-the-time. If it were, I would not want to spend so much of my time there.

Cedars of Lebanon.jpg

Cedars of Lebanon

Mount Lebanon Village.jpg

Bcherre, Mount Lebanon, birthplace of Khalil Gibran

Sun Rays Mount Lebanon.jpg

Winter sun rays over Mount Lebanon

Top of Qadisha.jpg

Top of the Qadisha Valley

Woman Cedar Tree.jpg

Woman carved into the side of a cedar tree

Jesus Cedar Tree.jpg

Jesus carved into the side of a cedar tree

Qadisha Valley at Twilight.jpg

The Qadisha Valley at twilight

Coastline at Night from Byblos.jpg

The coastline from Byblos looking south toward Beirut

Previous Lebanon photo galleries here and here.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:39 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 17, 2007

All Hezbollah Supporters Are Banned in Advance

I’ve been writing a lot about Hezbollah lately, so I thought I’d be a good sport and let Hezbollah supporters sound off in the comments. But it hasn’t worked out. One by one they have all been banned, sometimes for being hostile and rude to me personally, other times for abusing other commenters, and finally (big surprise, I know) for posting racist and bigoted comments about Jews and people of other religions.

None of this is acceptable.

I have better things to do than spend an hour every day moderating my comments and trying to decide if a Hezbollah supporter in question has crossed the line yet. So from here on out, if you leave comments supporting Hezbollah you will be summarily banned without warning and your comments will be deleted.

This is not a “free speech” issue. I will not get in your way if you choose to create I(Heart)Hezbollah.blogspot.com. If you want to ban me from commenting there, go right ahead. Free speech does not mean you, I, or anyone else gets unfiltered access to every medium in the universe.

If anyone thinks this makes me a bigot (or whatever) against the Shia, forget it. Today I banned a person for being overtly bigoted against Shia. That isn’t acceptable either.

I have met (some) Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon who are perfectly capable of holding down a civil and interesting conversation. Whatever cultural inhibitions they have regarding rudeness to strangers seems to break down on the Internet, though. This isn’t surprising. Many Westerners have the same problem.

I’m sorry if anyone thinks I’m being too draconian about kicking people out of the discussion, but it takes effort to cultivate a decent and respectable comments section and this is just something I have to do.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:47 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

New Email for Sayyed Husseini

I just receieved an email (in Arabic) from the Bani Hashem Foundation, where Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini whom I interviewed earlier works. Someone hacked into his email account and has been sending bogus messages from it. So his email address has changed. Anyone who wants to communicate with him should write to alsayedalhusseini at hotmail dot com.

I'll be back with more from Lebanon shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:32 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 15, 2007

The Liberal Cleric of the Dahiyeh

HARET HREIK, LEBANON – In the dahiyeh, the suburb, of Haret Hreik south of Beirut, where Hezbollah built its command and control center and the “capital” of its illegal state-within-a-state, lives Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, a moderate Shia cleric with a doctorate in religion from Qom in Iran, who steadfastly and publicly opposes Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s doctrine of war and jihad. He uses the Koran and the Islamic religion as the basis for an alternative vision of peace, independence, and democracy for the people of Lebanon.

My translator Henry informed me that Lebanese journalists are no longer allowed to publish or interview Sayyed Husseini. Dissent from the likes of this man is intolerable and has to be smashed. Hezbollah issued its threats. After the two-year spree of car-bombs against journalists, threats from Nasrallah pack weight.

Foreign journalists, though, are allowed to meet with Husseini. Foreign journalists can’t be managed and bullied the same way local journalists can. Foreigners like me are, so far anyway, outside the bounds of car-bombs and murders.

I met with Husseini in his modest apartment in the dahiyeh, within walking distance of the rubble that recently was Hezbollah’s “Security Square.”

Dahiyeh Undamaged.jpg

Most of the buildings in Haret Hreik, at least those that weren’t damaged or destroyed during last summer’s war, look like this one

Henry drove me down there. When we passed under a bombed out bridge that marked the entrance to the area I sneaked a quick photo.

Destroyed Bridge Dahiyeh.jpg

“Don’t take pictures!” he said. “Mr. Mohammad will take us on a tour after the interview. You can take pictures when you are with him. He promised me that we will do this.”

I asked him what would happen if the Lebanese army tried to enter Hezbollah’s de-facto sovereign territory.

“Hezbollah would not let them,” he said. “I don’t think they would fight, but Hezbollah would not let them. Some say the army would separate, that the Shia would leave the army. This may be right. It depends on the mission. Are they going there to fight the Shia? Or for peace?”

Traffic streamed north toward more Hezbollah-led demonstrations downtown. The army was deployed everywhere in Beirut outside of the dahiyeh. Lebanon had, and still has, the outward appearance of a garrison state.

“Mr. Mohammad is a doctor,” Henry said in the car. “In the religion they call him al alama.”

“Which means what, exactly?” I said.

“You heard about the imam Moussa Sadr?” Henry said.

“Of course,” I said. The Shia cleric Moussa Sadr founded the secular Amal movement in the 1970s before he vanished forever in Libya.

“He is also alama,” Henry said. “Mr. Fadlallah is also alama. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is not alama.”

“Nasrallah ranks lower, then,” I said.

“Yes,” Henry said. “You will like Mr. Mohammad. He is a good man.” He laughed when he told me Husseini looks like Hassan Nasrallah.

Husseini warmly welcomed us into his house. He did, indeed, look a lot like Hassan Nasrallah.

Sayyed Mohammad Ali al Husseiny.jpg

I sat on the couch and took out my voice recorder. Husseini sat next to me in his chair. Arabic coffee, cookies, and bananas were served. Henry translated as Husseini introduced himself.

“I am the author of 47 books,” he said. “You can get them in the market.”

“Are those books for sale here in the dahiyeh?” I said, wondering how far Hezbollah’s smashing of dissent is taken these days.

“Yes,” he said. “We have also some English books. The last book published is about violence and non-violence. This is a gift for you.”

He handed me a copy of his book, one whose timing couldn’t better.

Violence and Non Violence.jpg

He then handed me four more paperbacks wrapped in a large brown envelope.

“Thank you so much,” I said and promised myself I would read them.

I turned on my voice recorder and started the interview.

“So,” I said. “Why are you opposed to Hezbollah?”

“First of all,” he said, “I am a peace defender. I have faith in peace. I am against the wars and the violence because of my faith. Any violence, any terrorism.”

“There are a lot of people in the West who believe Islam is a religion of war,” I said. “I don’t necessarily believe that, but many do.”

“Yes, I know. I published this,” he said as he held up his book, “to explain the difference between the religion and those who are pretending to follow the religion. The proof of my words is that Mr. Bush said we must differentiate between the kinds of Muslims. I have faith in peace. That is why I am sitting with you. That I am Muslim and you are Christian doesn’t matter because I believe in peace.”

I’m not religious, but I’m “Christian” in the Middle East either way. Religion acts as a sort of ethnicity there, something you’re born with and can never escape. Most Middle Eastern countries note religion on identity cards. “None” is not an option.

“I believe that plenty of the Western people believe that there are two kinds of people,” Husseini said. “Some who believe in peace and God and some that believe in violence and the devil. While I was in Germany, I met a student. He told me that I am a Muslim, that I am a terrorist. I told him that he is the German, that he burned people. I said Why are you talking to me? I didn’t burn anybody. I told him also that I didn’t terrorize anybody, and that I was the first person to condemn what Osama bin Laden did to America on 9/11. I told him that we, the Shia people, in Iraq we were the first victims. Saddam killed civilian people, he cut off our heads, he blew up our houses. I told him that Hitler burned the Jews. Nobody in the world has done what he did. Then I told him we are the same. You are German, and you are not Hitler. I am a Muslim, but I am not Osama bin Laden.”

It’s extraordinary how the violent extremists of the Middle East have managed to portray themselves as mainstream in front of Westerners. In some countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, perhaps at least the passive supporters of Islamists really are mainstream. In most places, though, they are not. Religiously moderate Muslims are easy to find in the Middle East, especially in modern countries like Turkey and Lebanon. But they get precious little attention in the media. Those with the rocket launchers and the self-detonation belts are more newsworthy and get much more press.

“I hope that my voice will be heard in the world,” Husseini said, “to separate between the two lines, the devil line, the killing line, the bad thoughts, terrorism, and the peaceful line, peace and love, living in dignity, all of that. I also hope that the State Department, and other people who can arrange this, if they would invite me and some of my friends to discuss the situation here in Lebanon. They think the Shia people here in Lebanon are all on Nasrallah’s side. That is not right.”

Husseinys Library.jpg

Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini’s home office and library

“Many Westerners believe that Islam and democracy are two separate things,” I said.

“I wrote that question here,” he said and lifted up his book, “along with the answer. What’s the difference between Islam and democracy? The word “Islam” means Peace. It’s all in here.”

“I will read it,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” Husseini said, “it’s for you. Plenty of answers to your questions you will find in my books.”

I read his book, and he didn’t actually address this directly. But it’s obvious after reading his work that he doesn’t think Islam and democracy are incompatible. He clearly favors democracy, and he assumes it self-evident that it’s the best form of government. Dictatorship, he explicitly says, is just another form of violence and terrorism.

“Islam, in my definition, is the religion of peace,” he continued. “It wishes and invites peace and brotherhood and is against violence. There are chapters in the Koran calling for Islam peacefully. The Islamic religion does not attempt to go forcefully, but attempts to go peacefully. We must differentiate between the Islamic religion and those who say they are Islamic. There are plenty of people among the Christians and the Muslims, Michael, who defend Christianity and Islam without knowing what Christianity and Islam are. Terrorism is not Islamic. Islam prohibits it. Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood – Islam is innocent of them. Everyone calling for damage, killing, and blood is not from the religion. It is not from God. This is from the devil.”

“So why is Hezbollah popular in Lebanon?” I said.

I did not, and do not, mean to imply that Hezbollah represents the majority of the people of Lebanon. They do not. Hezbollah is, however, supported to one extent or another, and for a wide variety of reasons,. by perhaps 70 percent of Lebanon’s Shia. Hardly any of Lebanon’s Christians, Sunnis, or Druze support Hezbollah. Even Hezbollah’s Christian “allies” in Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement insist Hezbollah needs to disarm and give up the jihad against the Israelis. What this means is that around 80 percent of Lebanon is against them to one extent or another.

“The terrorists and bloody movements get support,” Husseini said. “Because my movement is peaceful and non-violent we don’t have anybody supporting us.”

He is referring here to support from outside Lebanon. Syria and Iran have never supported peaceful movements in Lebanon, and Westerners are mostly oblivious to fact that peaceful Muslim movements there (both Sunni and Shia) even exist.

“Hopefully you can help,” he said. “We need support. What did Hezbollah do to become popular up until now? They had four hospitals in the dahiyeh. They had 30 madrassas, or schools. They had 30 foundations for supporting work for the people. Also they bring engineers, doctors, and they have plenty of money. They have a TV channel, radio, newspapers, soldiers. They are a country inside a country, a government inside a government. They have all the money. They have the force to do this. They pushed so hard to help the people that all the poor Shia and some of the rich support them. Also, in the South the same situation. They built hospitals there, and also in Baalbeck. All the Shia places where there are many people they spend money, money, money, money, money. Hezbollah pays for the people to build and repair their houses. So the two reasons are money and services. They use those to gather the people around them.”

How can the likes of Sayyed Husseini possibly compete with Hezbollah’s power and wealth? Most Lebanese Shia are unaware that Husseini’s path is even an option. Hezbollah’s very real smashing of dissent ensures that it stays that way.

“What is the solution to this problem?” I said.

“The problem here in Lebanon,” Husseini said, “is that if we want to change we need an alternative. If you want to remove me from my position, you need to have a replacement, another person. The people who lived in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, they lived on Saddam’s money and Saddam’s services. When the United State army came to Iraq, they didn’t give them the money. Here in Lebanon the Iranian money, for example, is paying for portable water tanks with Iranian flags on them. It is from Iran. If you want to take Iran out of Lebanon you must bring another one with a Lebanese flag on it.”

Hezbollah supporters will tell you that the state has never provided the basic necesities in the Shia regions on Lebanon. There is some truth to this. The problem now, though, is that Hezbollah often prevents the Lebanese government from delivering all of these things. They understand very well that what Husseini says is correct, that Hezbollah buys its power by providing services on their own. They have no chance of monopolizing Shia opinion if they cannot also monopolize community services. They can only build a state-within-a-state if they have their own parallel institutions. Hospitals and schools buy power and loyalty. Hezbollah would be endangered if the government were allowed to step in and do its job.

“All of those people,” Husseini said, “most of them, who go to the protest downtown have no work to do. They earn 30 dollars per day.”

“Being downtown they get paid 30 dollars a day?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “If they had work to do, they will not go down there. This is Iranian money, the green money. Nasrallah talked about it. We must exchange it with government money.”

“But how do you do that,” I said, “if Hezbollah blocks the government from coming here?”

“If we use peaceful means,” he said, “without contact with Hezbollah it will be the best way. Many people come here and ask for my help. If people like me instead of Hezbollah could help them, they would have none of these problems. I am working to create a peace culture instead of a jihad culture. I am asking to go to the States to discuss these matters.”

“How many Lebanese Shia think like you do?” I said. The number is only around 30 percent, but I was curious if he thought it might be higher, or what it might potentially be in the future.

“Every reasonable person thinks like me,” he said. “The problem is they need support in the media to gather a big enough number of people. You have a responsibility to get us noticed in the media. The war began with words. Maybe peace can begin with words. I need your help, and I need contacts with human rights organizations in the West.”

“What do you think of US policy in Iraq?” I said.

“The problem is not with American policy,” he said, “but with the countries around Iraq. America did a good job for the Iraqi people. The problem is not only with Syria and Iran, but a clash between the old dictatorship and the Arab democracy. The countries around Iraq have radical dictatorships and they are against democracy. If democracy succeeds in Iraq it will be a good view for the other countries. That is why they are fighting.”

“What do you think about Israel?” I said.

“From the human side,” he said, “all of us are children of Adam and Eve. We wish to live peacefully all around the world. All people have the right to live in peace.”

“Should there be a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel now?” I said.

Most Lebanese want eventual peace with Israel, but at the same time they want the outstanding issues (and Israel’s existence isn’t one of them for most) resolved first.

“I push all people to go in peace,” he said. “This is what Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad teach.”

“So,” I said, “should there be a peace treaty before or after the Shebba Farms, Lebanese prisoners in Israel, and Palestinian refugees have been resolved?”

“I want peace all over the world,” he said. “So what I wish for the world I also wish for Lebanon. We have seen so much fighting, killing, and blood. More than our share.”

It is worth pointing out once again that when Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to evict the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the border, most of the Shia hailed the Israelis as liberators from Palestinian perfidy. This was their natural default position. The fact that they are Arabs and Muslims did not, as the conventional wisdom would have it, mean they opposed Israel’s existence or wanted to fight the Israelis. Iranian agents infiltrated the region at the same time, relentlessly propagandized against the Israelis, and created Hezbollah from scratch. That is what opened this front in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Are you with March 14, or are you independent?” I said. “March 14” refers to the anti-Syrian and pro-Western majority in the government, named after the enormous rally on March 14, 2005, that led to the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian army.

“I am Lebanese,” he said. “I am with Lebanon. My loyalty is to Lebanon. The Shia sect must serve Lebanon. We were born in this country, we live here, we grow here, we must serve and defend its independence and territories. I love Lebanon, and I am ready to serve my country. A man who does not help his country is not good for anything.”

“What does Hassan Nasrallah think about you?” I said.

“I don’t care what he thinks,” he said. “I care about what God and Lebanon think. I am living God’s teachings of peace and love. I am working to help people. Jesus teaches I don’t care you who are. I care about your suffering and illness. That is why I help you. I believe God is satisfied with my work because I am helping others. Lebanese people appreciate my work because I am working to gather the Lebanese and stop clashes between them. This is the right work for religious men. Religious men who ask for war and blood and terrorism are serving the devil.”

“What do you think of George W. Bush?” I said.

“I thank Mr. Bush for helping the people of Lebanon by getting the Syrians out,” he said.

Lebanese deserve most of the credit for ejecting the Syrians. If they hadn’t demanded the withdrawal of the Baath regime from their country, Bashar Assad would still be ruler of Lebanon. Nevertheless, the US government put enormous pressure on Assad to withdraw, and some Lebanese have told me it was this pressure that gave them the courage to demand withdrawal in the first place.

“How does Hezbollah prevent you from getting media coverage?” I said.

“I studied in Qom [in Iran] because Saddam was still in Najaf [in Iraq],” he said. “Iraqi Shia all had to go there and get their degrees. I wrote two articles in the newspaper talking about the real brotherhood between Lebanon and the USA and asking Lebanese Shia to open relations with the USA. Hezbollah worked to stop my ability to continue publishing in the newspaper. So I rely on foreign journalists to tell the world what I and my friends think.”

“Has anyone ever threatened you?” I said.

“Yes, plenty of people,” he said.

“Lebanese or Syrian?” I said.

“Lebanese and Iranian,” he said, which slightly surprised me. Iranian threats inside Lebanon get perhaps no attention in the media whatsoever. This was actually the first time I had heard of it happening.

He took my hand and asked me if I would please put him in contact with institutions and human rights organizations in the West. He feels, and is, extremely isolated thanks to Iran and Hezbollah.

Here, then, are copies of his business card in English and Arabic if anyone wants to talk to him. He understands some English, but only Arabic speakers will be able to communicate with him over the phone.

Sayyed Husseiny Business Card English.jpg

Sayyed Husseiny Business Card Arabic.jpg

“I want to say one more thing about Lebanon,” he said. “Because of my religion and the Lebanese situation at this difficult time I call for a reasonable Lebanese politics. Nasrallah said he would not have started the war if he knew what would happen. He must know, he must know, he must know that we heading toward war. Everyone will be responsible. I call on everybody to go back from being politically drunk to the reasonable way. Lebanese should not clash with other Lebanese and take the country to Hell. Those who run around the rim of Hell will fall in it.”

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. These trips are expensive, and I have to eat and pay bills. Your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:53 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 11, 2007

The Siege of Ain Ebel

AIN EBEL, SOUTH LEBANON – Amid the steep rolling hills of South Lebanon, a mere handful of kilometers from the fence on the border with Israel, sits the besieged Christian community of Ain Ebel. It is often said that Lebanon is a victim of geography; few Lebanese are as unlucky as those who live in Ain Ebel. For decades the people in this village have been caught between the anvils of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hezbollah on one side, and the hammer of the Israeli Defense Forces on the other.

Ain Ebel.jpg

I visited this small town with my American friend and colleague Noah Pollak from Azure Magazine in Jerusalem. Two men, Said and Henry, from the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559 – an NGO which advises the Lebanese government and the international community on the disarmament of Hezbollah – safely escorted us down there from Beirut.

Alan Barakat from the Ain Ebel Development Association waited for us outside a small grocery store owned by his uncle. He agreed to tell us about what happened to his community during the war in July, when Hezbollah seized civilian homes and used residents as human shields.

Alan in Ain Ebel.jpg

Alan Barakat from the Ain Ebel Development Association

Ain Ebel is small, and we walked the streets on foot. I didn’t see nearly as much destruction as I saw in the Hezbollah strongholds of Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras which I visited earlier the same day. Downtown seemed intact. This was not a surprise. The residents are implacably hostile to Hezbollah and always have been. This was not a place where the Party of God could dig in, build bunkers, and store weapons. Ain Ebel was, as they say, a “target poor” environment. That did not, however, stop Hezbollah from using it as a battleground.

“There is a valley just below Ain Ebel,” Alan said. “I will take you there later. Until the army came after the war Hezbollah closed it. It was a restricted military area. They built bunkers there, and stored Katyusha rockets and launchers. When the war started they moved the launchers out of the valley and into our village. When the Israelis shot back they hit some of our houses.”

Ain Ebel Damage 1.jpg

In Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras whole city blocks were pulverized from the air. Some houses and buildings were merely damaged, but many were demolished to their foundations. Nothing remains of whole swaths of these towns but fields of mostly-cleared rubble. Hezbollah controlled Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras both during and before the war. Houses were used to stockpile weaponry and were often otherwise turned into military targets.

Ain Ebel, however, was used only as a place to hide and as a place from which Hezbollah could launch rockets at the Israelis. Katyusha launchers weren’t placed inside houses. They were, for the most part, placed next to people’s houses. Most of the property damage, then, was caused by shrapnel rather than by direct air strikes. Israeli targeting in South Lebanon wasn’t random or indiscriminate. It varied considerably from place to place, depending on what Hezbollah was doing in each place.

Ain Ebel Damage 3.jpg

“No one is helping us,” Alan said. “We are paying for all the reconstruction with our own money.”

“You aren’t getting any of the reconstruction money from Iran?” I said.

“Of course not,” Alan said. “Of course Iran is not helping us rebuild our houses.”

The Iranian government is sending money, via Hezbollah, to at least some Lebanese people whose homes were damaged or destroyed during the war. If Alan is telling the truth, though, that money is not exactly evenly spread.

Reconstruction had progressed more in Ain Ebel than elsewhere, even so. In Bint Jbail the only noticeable improvement was that most of the rubble had been cleared out of the way. Ain Ebel was less damaged, so there was less work to be done.

Ain Ebel Damage 2.jpg

“Were people still living in Ain Ebel during the war?” I said.

“Yes, of course,” Alan said. “Most of us stayed in the village for the first 18 days.”

“Were people were still living in the houses that Hezbollah seized?” I said.

“No,” Alan said. “Hezbollah only took over houses that had no one in them.”

We came across a crater in the middle of a residential street on the edge of town left by an Israeli artillery shell.

Noah Artillery Crater Ain Ebel.jpg

“Did anyone here try to stop Hezbollah?” I said.

“How?” Alan said. “We have no weapons. Some people told Hezbollah to leave, but they pointed guns in our faces. Shut up, go back in your house, we were told.”

At the southern edge of town is an open field with a direct view to the south toward Israel.

Field of Grass Ain Ebel.jpg

“Hezbollah could have set up their rocket launchers here instead of in town,” Noah said. “It’s a straight shot into Israel.”

“The houses and trees gave them better cover,” Alan said. “The valley below, though, gave them even better cover than the village. If that’s all they cared about they would have stayed there.”

We walked back downtown. I wanted to find at least one more witness who stayed in Ain Ebel during the war.

Noah and I went toward the grocery store owned by Alan’s uncle. A poster on the wall outside warned children about minefields left behind by the Israelis.

Beware Land Mines Ain Ebel.jpg

A convoy of French soldiers from UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, rolled down the street.

UNIFIL Convoy Ain Ebel.JPG

Some French soldiers stopped at the same grocery store. Noah badly wanted to ask them what, exactly, they were doing. But they weren’t allowed to speak to us since we didn’t have a permit from the United Nations authorizing an interview.

French Soldiers Ain Ebel.jpg

A grim-faced soldier placed five bottles of red Lebanese wine – Chateau Kefraya, to be exact, which is really good stuff – on the counter. Noah couldn’t resist making fun.

Wine Bottles Ain Ebel.jpg

“Are those for Hezbollah?” Noah said.

“No,” said the soldier without showing even a trace of a sense of humor.

“Are you going to buy some chocolates, too, while you’re here?” Noah said.

The French soldier ignored him.

I could not help but laugh at the sorry state of French-American relations, even in a place like South Lebanon where we’re more or less on the same side. I quietly suggested to Noah that if he really wanted to tease them he should ask if they were shopping for cheese to go with their wine.

“The French like to spend time in Ain Ebel,” Alan said. “They are welcome here, they feel comfortable. They help our economy. In Bint Jbail some of the residents make slashing motions across their throats with their fingers when they see UN soldiers.”

I felt bad for laughing when I heard that. South Lebanon is a hard place. UNIFIL isn’t allowed to disarm Hezbollah and prevent the next round of war. That would require their authorization as a combat force. But they do what they can within their sharply proscribed limits, and they spend most of their time in a shattered and hostile environment.

Alan’s uncle behind the cash register stuck up for the French.

“I feel safer now with them here than I’ve felt for more than 30 years,” he said.

It was easy to find another civilian who stayed in the village during the war. He said he would happy to talk to me as long as I promised not to publish his name. He didn’t even tell me his name, so he has nothing to worry about. I’ll just call him “Jad.”

I turned on my voice recorder. Alan translated.

“So you stayed in Ain Ebel through the whole war?” I said.

“Yes,” Jad said.

“At what point did Hezbollah come to the village and fire their missiles?” I said.

“During the war they took some uninhabited houses at the edge of our village and stayed there.”

“Uninhabited?” I said.

“Yes, uninhabited. Nobody was there, so they took them. They were eating in there, sleeping in there, and maybe doing some reconnaissance.”

“Did they ever go into houses where people were still living?” I said.

“No,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

I wondered if Hezbollah deserved credit for not encroaching on people’s personal space, but Jad answered that question before I could ask it.

“They chose specific houses because nobody was living there and nobody would know.”

“Did they choose to come to this town for strategic or tactical reasons?” Noah said. “Or was it because it’s a Christian town?”

“Strategically, of course,” Jad said. “It’s a high peak. It is very good strategically. But they could have chosen these parts, these lands...” He gestured with his arm toward the valley below, the place Alan promised to take us next. “It would have been more protection for them than this village. So why did they come here? I think it’s because it’s a Christian village. They do this.”

“Did anybody who lives here try to get Hezbollah to leave the village?” I said.

“We don’t have any arms,” Jad said. “Hezbollah has arms. But there was this incident that happened. Next to a guy’s place they were firing Katyushas – you know, missiles. They were firing from the house. This guy went out and said Please, do not fire from our home, from in front of our house. My father is very ill and there are some children in the house. They came to him and said Shut up, go in your house, this is none of your business.”

Home Reconstruction Ain Ebel.jpg

What Jad said closely matched what Alan had told me.

Then he told me something off-the-record. He made me turn off my voice recorder before he would say it. I cannot and will not relay what he told me. But he wanted me to know that the people of Ain Ebel did use clever non-violent counter-measures against Hezbollah, and that Hezbollah has no idea what they did. I know what they did, but he wants it to remain a secret so they can do it again in the future. He did not, by the way, tell me they passed information to the Israelis.

I turned my voice recorder back on, but I didn’t realize until later that it got stuck on “pause.” So I’ll have to paraphrase what he said next.

He told me that 18 days after the start of the war a large group of civilians decided it was time to leave Ain Ebel and flee to the north. They were no longer willing to stay while Israel fired back at Hezbollah’s rocket launchers. It was too dangerous, and Hezbollah insisted on staying and endangering those who lived there.

So they fled the area in a convoy of civilian vehicles. It was safer, they figured, to travel in a group than alone.

On their way out of the village, Hezbollah fighters stood on the side of the road and opened fire with machine guns on the fleeing civilians.

I was shocked, and I asked Alan to confirm this. Was it really true? Hezbollah opened fire on Lebanese civilians with machine guns? Alan confirmed this was true.

"Why?" I had an idea, but I wanted a local person to say it.

Because, Alan said, Hezbollah wanted to use the civilians of Ain Ebel as “human shields.” I did not use the phrase “human shields.” These were Alan’s own words.

Fortunately, Hezbollah didn’t kill anybody when they opened fire. One person was shot in the hand, and another was shot in the shoulder. This was enough, though, to do the job. The civilians turned around and went back to the village under Israeli bombardment.

Alan then took me, Noah, and Said down into the valley below the village, the previously restricted military zone where Hezbollah built bunkers, dug fox holes, and stashed weapons before they moved their operations into civilian areas.

A young man named Victor came along for the ride. He thought it would be cool to check out the area now that someone would show him.

Victor Ain Ebel.jpg

Alan told us to stay on the road because Israeli landmines might still be around. There are, perhaps, more landmines in South Lebanon than there are people.

Hezbollah Valley 1.jpg

“Did Hezbollah build this road?” I asked.

“No,” Alan said. “It is agricultural.”

Victor spotted some camouflage netting in one of the bushes. He and Noah pulled it out.

Noah and Victor Hezbollah Netting.jpg

“Radar scattering,” Noah said as he read the tag. “This is American.”

Radar Scattering.jpg

He tried to cut the tag so he could keep it as a souvenir, but it wouldn’t come off.

The valley did seem like it would have provided better cover for Hezbollah than the village. The sky above was open enough that Katyusha rockets easily could be fired directly at Israel. Camouflaged fox holes and bunkers among the bushes and trees provide much better protection than houses that can be easily spotted by the Israeli Air Force and that show up prominently on satellite and aerial surveillance photographs. No Israeli infantry would want to go into that valley without first softening up the area with air strikes and artillery. It was the perfect environment for ambushes and sniper attacks.

The sun dropped quickly below the horizon. South Lebanon is in the region known as the Upper Galilee. It is not as high as the Mount Lebanon range in the north, but it was high enough that the cool Levantine air of early winter turned frigid as the light went out of the sky.

The funny thing about Middle Eastern war zones is how serene the natural environment often is. Wars in the popular imagination usually occur in ugly places. But the front lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict often look like somewhere that might be popular among hikers and backpackers if they weren’t so dangerous.

“There is a destroyed bunker up ahead,” Alan said as he stepped off the road. “Come on.”

“Is it safe?” I said. “What about landmines?”

“I have been here before,” Alan said. “Hezbollah was here. It should be safe.”

So we stepped off the road and walked toward one of Hezbollah’s demolished fortifications. I walked gingerly and tried to step in the footprints of others.

Trees Hezbollah Valley.jpg

There was no sound in the valley but our own footsteps and breath. Alan was probably right that there were no landmines in the immediate area. Otherwise Hezbollah would have dug in somewhere else.

But what about unexploded ordnance from Israeli cluster bombs? Those were still lying around. You might as well have stepped on a landmine if you end up kicking a bomblet on accident.

Dark Trail Hezbollah Valley.jpg

The faint cold light of dusk illuminated the sky like a back-lit screen, but all was dark in the valley on the trail beneath the trees. I tried to imagine what it must have been like if Israeli soldiers walked the same path only a few months before. Did they feel like American soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam? Some Hezbollah fighters wore the uniforms of the Israeli Defense Forces. They used night-vision goggles. They hunkered down in fox holes and waited.

Hezbollah Fox Hole.jpg

A Hezbollah fox hole

The valley must have been reasonably safe or Alan wouldn’t have taken us down there. But the enveloping darkness and the all-too recent violence made me wonder, although not very seriously, if Hezbollah had really been flushed out and kept out.

The bombed-out bunker was just up ahead under some trees. It was, indeed, very well hidden.

Destroyed Hezbollah Bunker in Valley.JPG

“If I were going to build a bunker, this is where I’d put it,” Noah said.

Nevertheless, it was hit. And it was hit badly. Anyone who was inside during an air strike would surely have been killed. But I didn’t see any blood or other evidence that it was occupied at the time.

We dug through the rubble.

“There was a sink,” Alan said and pointed to the right of the entrance.

Sink Hezbollah Bunker.jpg

“And here is some cable for faxes and phones.”

“Look,” Victor said. “A lid from a weapons crate.”

Weapons Crate Lid.jpg

“Dude,” Noah said. “Check out the shower head.”

Sure enough, there was a shower head at my feet.

Shower Rod Hezbollah Bunker.jpg

It was impossible to tell when the bunker was hit, whether it was at the beginning, during the middle, or at the end of the war. Since there was no evidence that anyone was inside when the strike came, I assumed it was hit in the middle or at the end after Hezbollah had already moved into the village.

I’m not a military forensics expert, if there even is such a thing. But everything Alan told me about Hezbollah relocating to Ain Ebel during the war seemed to add up and match the physical evidence I could see. The valley obviously was used as a military area, and so was the village.

We walked back to the car in absolute darkness and drove for a minute or so. Alan parked alongside an open ditch next to the road.

“The Israelis were here,” he said. “They left some of their food.”

At my feet was an empty can of tinned fish. Some of the words on the can were written in Hebrew.

Israeli Food South Lebanon.jpg

Alan was right. The Israelis were there, recently enough that no one had bothered to pick up their trash yet. I tossed the can of fish back into the ditch, thinking with a grim almost-certainty that they would be back.

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. These trips are expensive, and I have to eat and pay bills. Your donations are the only thing that makes my work possible. I would do this for free if I could, but we don’t live in a Star Trek money-free universe yet.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:23 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

The Foreigner’s Gift

I’m still writing The Siege of Ain Ebel. And Iraq is back in the news.

I don’t have anything brilliant, original, or even interesting to say about the Bush’s Administration’s controversial “surge” in and around Baghdad. I am, however, reading a brilliant, original, and interesting book.

Fouad Ajami made himself slightly famous when he published The Dream Palace of the Arabs. (His older book Beirut: City of Regrets is also quite excellent.)

His newest book, The Foreigner's Gift, was released last summer by the Free Press. It is about, as he puts it, the Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq.

Ajami is a Shia from South Lebanon, and he is a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is of and from the Arab world. He is also an American. Lebanon acts as a sort of bridge between the Eastern world and the West. So does Fouad Ajami. He writes as both an insider and an outsider, so to speak. Or, perhaps I should say, he writes from inside America and from inside the Arab world simultaneously. He sees things in Iraq that most Americans do not and cannot, and he dedicates an entire chapter to what he calls “The Liberator’s Bewilderment.”

I have only read the first third or so of this book. So rather than vouch for it per se, I will publish an excerpt from the beginning. You can decide if you would like to read the rest.

Those nineteen young Arabs who assaulted America on the morning of 9/11 had come into their own after the disappointments of modern Arab history. They were not exactly traditional men: they were the issue, the children, of disappointment and of the tearing asunder of modern Arab history. They were city people, newly urbanized, half educated. They had filled the faith with their anxieties and a belligerent piety. They hated the West but were drawn to its magnetic force and felt the power of its attraction; they sharpened their "tradition," but it could no longer contain their lives or truly answer their needs. I had set out to write a long narrative of these pitiless young men -- and the culture that had given rise to them. But the Iraq war, "embedded" in this cruel history, was to overtake the writing I was doing.

A war fated and "written," maktoob, as the Arabs would say, this Iraq war turned out to be. For the full length of a decade, in the 1990s, the anti-American subversion -- and the incitement feeding it -- knew no respite. Appeasement had not worked. The "moderns," with Bill Clinton as their standard-bearer, had been sure we would be delivered by the marketplace and the spread of the World Wide Web. History had mocked them, and us all. In Kabul, and then in Baghdad, America had taken up sword against these troubles.

"The justice of a cause is not a promise of its success," Leon Wieseltier wrote in the pages of The New Republic, in a reassessment of the Iraq war. For growing numbers of Americans, the prospects for "success" in Iraq look uncertain at best. Before success, though, some words about the justice of this war. Let me be forthright about the view that runs through these pages. For me this was a legitimate and, at the beginning, a popular war that issued out of a deep American frustration with the "road rage" of the Arab world and with the culture of terrorism that had put down roots in Arab lands. It was not an isolated band of misguided young men who came America's way on 9/11. They emerged out of the Arab world's dominant culture and malignancies. There were the financiers who subsidized the terrorism. There were the intellectuals who winked at the terrorism and justified it. There were the preachers -- from Arabia to Amsterdam and Finsbury Park -- who gave it religious sanction and cover. And there were the Arab rulers whose authoritarian orders produced the terrorism and who looked away from it so long as it targeted foreign shores.

Afghanistan was the setting for the first battle against Arab radicalism. That desperate, impoverished land had been hijacked, rented if you will, by the Arab jihadists and their masters and financiers. Iraq followed: America wanted to get closer to the source of the troubles in the Arab world. It wasn't democracy that was at stake in Iraq. It was something more limited but important and achievable in its own way: a state less lethal to its own people and to the lands and peoples around it. Iraq's political culture had been poisoned by a crude theory of race and a racialist Arabism that had wrecked and unsettled Arab and Muslim life in the 1980s and 1990s. The Tikriti rulers had ignited a Sunni-Shia war within and over Islam. They had given Arabs a cruel view of history -- iron and fire and bigotry. They had, for all practical purposes, cut off the Arab world from the possibility of a decent, modern life.

It is easy to say that the expedition in Iraq is the product of American innocence. And it is easy to see that the American regent, L. Paul Bremer, didn't find his way to the deep recesses of Iraqi culture. Sure enough, it has proven virtually impossible to convince the people of Fallujah to take to more peaceful ways. It is painfully obvious that at the Abu Ghraib prison some of America's soldiers and military police and reservists broke the codes of war and of military justice. But there can be no doubting the nobility of the effort, for Abu Ghraib isn't the U.S. war. With support for the war hanging in the balance, Abu Ghraib has been an unmitigated disaster. But for all the terribleness of Abu Ghraib and its stain, this war has not been some "rogue operation" willed by the White House and by the Department of Defense. It isn't Paul Wolfowitz's war. It has been a war waged with congressional authorization and fought in the shadow of a terrible calamity visited upon America on 9/11. Sure enough, the United States didn't have the support of Kofi Annan or of Jacques Chirac. But Americans can be forgiven a touch of raw pride: the American rescue of Bosnia, in 1995, didn't have the approval of Boutros Boutros-Ghali (or of the head of his peacekeeping operations at the time, the same Kofi Annan) or of François Mitterrand either.

My sense of Iraq, and of the U.S. expedition, is indelibly marked by the images and thoughts that came to me on six trips that I made to that country in the aftermath of the destruction of the regime of Saddam Hussein. A sense of America's power alternated with thoughts of its solitude and isolation in an alien world. The armies and machines -- and earnestness -- of a great foreign power against the background of a big, impenetrable region: America could awe the people of the Arab-Muslim world, and that region could outwit and outwait American power. The foreign power could repair the infrastructure of Iraq, and the insurgents could wreck it. America could "stand up" and train civil defense and police units, and they could disappear just when needed. In its desire to redeem its work, America could entertain for Iraqis hopes of a decent political culture, and the enemies of this project could fall back on a bigotry sharpened for combat and intolerance. Beyond the prison of the old despotism, the Iraqis have found the hazards and uncertainties -- and promise -- of freedom. An old order of dominion and primacy was shattered in Iraq. The rage against this American war, in Iraq itself and in the wider Arab world, was the anger of a culture that America had given power to the Shia stepchildren of the Arab world -- and to the Kurds. This proud sense of violation stretched from the embittered towns of the Sunni Triangle in western Iraq to the chat rooms of Arabia and to jihadists as far away from Iraq as North Africa and the Muslim enclaves of Western Europe.

In the way of people familiar with modern canons of expression -- of things that can and cannot be said -- the Arab elites were not about to own up in public to the real source of their animus toward this American project. The great Arab silence that greeted the terrors inflicted on Iraq by the brigades of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi gave away the wider Arab unease with the rise of the Shia in Iraq. For nearly three years, that Jordanian-born terrorist brought death and ruin to Iraq. There was barely concealed admiration for him in his native land and in Arab countries beyond. Jordan, in particular, showed remarkable sympathy for deeds of terror masquerading as Islamic acts. In one Pew survey, in the summer of 2005, 57 percent of Jordanians expressed support for suicide bombings and attacks on civilians. It was only when the chickens came home to roost and Zarqawi's pitiless warriors struck three hotels in Amman on November 9, 2005, killing sixty people, that Jordanians drew back in horror. In one survey, conducted a week after these attacks by a public opinion firm, Ipsos Jordan, 94 percent of the people surveyed now said that Al Qaeda's activities were detrimental to the interests of Arabs and Muslims; nearly three out of four Jordanians said that they had not expected "at all" such terrorist attacks in Jordan. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's own tribe now disowned him and broke ties with him. He had "shamed" them at home and placed in jeopardy their access to the state and its patronage. But even as they mourned their loss, the old habits persisted. "Zionist terror in Palestine = American terror in Iraq = Terror in Amman," read a banner held aloft by the leaders of the Engineers' Syndicate of Jordan who had come together to protest the hotel bombings. A country with this kind of political culture is in need of repair; the bureaucratic-military elite who run this realm have their work cut out for them. The Iraqi Shia were staking a claim to their country in the face of a stubborn Arab refusal to admit the sectarian bias at the heart of modern Arab life.

It would have been heady and right had Iraqis brought about their own liberty, had they demolished the prisons and the statues on their own. And it would have been easier and more comforting had America not redeemed their liberty with such heartbreaking American losses. There might have been greater American support for the war had the Iraqis not been too proud to admit that they needed the stranger's gift and had the United States come to a decent relationship with them. But the harvest of the war has been what it has been. In Kurdistan, Anglo-American power has provided protection to a people who have made good use of this new order. There is no excessive or contrived religious zeal in Kurdistan, and the nationalism that blows there seems free of chauvinism and delirium. There's a fight for the city of Kirkuk, where the Kurds will have to show greater restraint in the face of competing claims by the Turkomans, and by the Arabs who were pushed into Kirkuk by the old regime. But on balance Kurdistan shows that terrible histories can be remade. In the rest of the country, America rolled history's dice. There is a view that sees Shia theocracy stalking this new Iraq, but this view, as these pages will make clear, is not mine. Iraq may not provide the Pax Americana with a base of power in the Persian Gulf that some architects and proponents of the war hoped for. America can live without that strategic gain. It is the Iraqis who will need the saving graces of moderate politics.

Read the whole thing.

I'll be back with more from South Lebanon shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:24 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 9, 2007

“So This Is Our Victory”

Victory Photo.JPG

BINT JBAIL, SOUTH LEBANON – I drove to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon to survey the devastation from the war in July, to check in on the United Nations peacekeeping force, and to talk to civilians who were used as human shields in the battle with Israel. My American journalist friend Noah Pollak from Azure Magazine in Jerusalem went with me. We went under the escort of two professional enemies of Hezbollah who work for the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, an NGO which closely advises the Lebanese government and the international community on the disarmament of illegal militias in Lebanon.

The two men picked us up at our hotel first thing in the morning.

Said (pronounced Sah-EED) rode up to the front door on his motorcycle. Henry arrived in his car.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Said said as he shook our hands. “Shall we go in your car?”

“If you prefer,” I said.

It was probably better that way. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah hysterically accuses Toni Nissi, the man Henry and Said work for, of heading up “the Beirut branch of the Israeli Mossad.” Best, I thought, to show up in Hezbollah’s bombed-out southern “capital” of Bint Jbail in a rental car rather than one that might be recognized.

It’s not worth taking Hezbollah’s “Mossad” accusation seriously. Nasrallah also says Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is a “Zionist hand” because he is pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

“Let me drive,” Said said. “It is better. We know the best roads to take.”

Toni insisted these guys were the best. Not only do they know their way around the back roads of South Lebanon, they are battle-hardened infantry veterans of Lebanon’s civil war. I seriously doubted we would need their services as trained killers, but it was nice to have that skill set in our back pockets while venturing into the heartland of an illegal warmongering militia. Every Lebanese person I know insists Hezbollah won’t actually harm American journalists, and I believe them. It has been a while since Hezbollah has violently terrorized Western civilians in Lebanon. But the very same people strongly insisted Noah and I not go to the South by ourselves.

Normally you can drive from Beirut to the fence on the Israeli border in just over two hours. Lebanon, though, isn’t normal right now, especially not in the South. The Israeli Air Force bombed most, if not all, the bridges on the coastal highway. Reconstruction moved along quickly enough, but snarled traffic had to be re-routed around the construction sites, at times onto side roads that were too narrow and small to handle the overflow.

Destroyed Lebanon Bridge 1.jpg

A bridge destroyed by the Israeli Air Force under reconstruction

“What do you think about Israel’s invasion in July?” I asked Said and Henry.

“Of course what Israel did wasn’t good,” Said said. “They only care about themselves. Hezbollah doesn’t pay taxes, so the rest of us have to pay for all the infrastructure the Israelis destroyed.”

“What do you think about Israel in general?” I said. “Aside from the war in July?”

“I have nothing against Israel,” Henry said. “They are good people and they do good for themselves. We need to make peace with everyone. They are open-minded people, but we have no way to communicate with them since the Syrians came.”

“I would love to visit the Holy Land,” Said said. “My mother went there when the border was open before 2000. It is a good place. If you want to make peace with people, you can make peace, especially with the Israelis. They just want to live in their country, so it is no problem.”

“Is UNIFIL doing much in the South?” Noah asked from the back seat.

Noah in Back Seat.jpg

Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon is widely assumed to be doing little aside from impotently standing around while Hezbollah reconstitutes its weapon stocks for the next round of war.

“The multinational forces don’t have the authority to stop Hezbollah unless they are smuggling weapons out in the open,” Said said. “The Lebanese army is not taking sides because of the volatile political situation and the violent clashes taking place in Beirut.”

The Lebanese army has actually confiscated a small amount of Hezbollah’s weapons smuggled in from across the Syrian border. One of Hassan Nasrallah’s recent demands is the return of those weapons from the army, even though Hezbollah’s existence as an autonomous militia is against Lebanese and international law.

Said is right, though, that the army does not have the authority to disarm Hezbollah. Hezbollah is better-armed, better-trained, and overall more powerful than the army, which suffered 15 years of deliberate neglect and degradation under Syrian overlordship. Some of the army’s top officers were also installed by the Syrians, and they are still loyal to the regime in Damascus. Most important, though, are fears that the army would break apart along sectarian lines if orders to militarily disarm Hezbollah were given. The army split during the civil war, after all, and would likely do so again. More than a third of the soldiers are Shia conscripts. Many are more loyal to Hezbollah than they are to the legal authorities.

“The Lebanese army is partly controlled by Syria, not like before 1975,” Henry said. “Before 1975 the Lebanese army was pro-Western and neutral toward Israel.”

As we left the city and the suburbs behind, apartment towers were replaced on the side of the road with soft beaches and the floppy leaves of banana trees. The weather was still warm and sunny even late in the year. Lebanon, as always, looked greener than I remember it when I am away.

“How badly was the South hit in July and August?” I asked.

Said laughed and shook his head. “You will see, my friend. You will see.”

We passed through the conservative Sunni coastal city of Saida, where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was born, and continued down along the Mediterranean toward the southern city of Tyre.

“What exactly, for the record, do you guys do in your organization?” I said.

“We advise the international community on how to implement UN Resolution 1559,” Said said. “And we try to convince Lebanon to be less conservative, more open and liberal and democratic. We try to convince the international community that most of us are not fanatics, to make Lebanon a good example for everyone. We want to live our lives as free people like you do in the US and Europe. We have a right.”

“The Hezbollah camp downtown is ugly,” Henry said. “This is not us. But it shows the world our differences. Most people think we live in a desert and ride camels and are all Muslims.”

“Hezbollah is trying to distract the world from Iran’s nuclear bomb,” Said said, “by making trouble in Lebanon, killings, dissolving the government, and so on. Can you imagine what Iran would do if they got the nuclear bomb? My God. Even right now they do what they want and don’t listen to anyone.”

A young man stood in the middle of an intersection and waved glossy pamphlets at cars. Said pulled alongside him and said something in Arabic.

“What is he handing out?” Noah said and rolled down his window.

“Hezbollah propaganda,” Henry said.

Said stepped on the accelerator.

Noah tried to grab one of the pamphlets.

“I want one of those,” he said. But the Hezbollah man kept the pamphlets tightly clutched in his fingers.

“He is selling them,” Said said, “not giving them away.”

“Oops,” Noah said. “I wasn’t trying to steal one.”

“He doesn’t care about money or propaganda,” Said said. “He is watching. This is the beginning of their territory. He reports on who is coming and what they are doing.”

Nasrallah and Berri.jpg

Hassan Nasrallah (left) and Nabih Berri (right) announce to motorists that they are entering Hezbollah and Amal territory.

“Whenever you see something blown up from here,” Henry said, “it is because it was owned by Hezbollah people or because Hezbollah had something to do with it.”

If you’re familiar with Lebanese politics it’s obvious whose territory you’re in just by looking at roadside political adverts and posters. The Shia regions are divided between the Hezbollah and Amal parties. Amal, also known as the Movement of the Disinherited, is Hezbollah’s sometime rival and sometime ally. It’s a secular party that was founded by the Iranian cleric Moussa Sadr to advance the interests of the long-neglected and voiceless Shia, the poorest and most marginalized Lebanese sect. Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri is the chief of Amal today, and he has forged an uneasy alliance with Hezbollah and with the Syrians. Berri’s face is plastered up everywhere in Amal strongholds, and Nasrallah’s face is even more ubiquitous in Hezbollah territory. Occasionally you’ll see both Berri and Nasrallah together.

What you rarely see in either Hezbollah or Amal areas are Lebanese flags. The Sunni, Druze, and Christian parts of Lebanon are blanketed with the national cedar tree flag, as well as those of various political parties and movements. Only the Shia towns and villages are bereft of noticeable signs of patriotism.

Another striking difference between the Shia regions of Lebanon and the rest is which kind of “martyrs” are famous. Hezbollah and Amal strongholds venerate “resistance” fighters killed in battles with Israel.

Hezbollah Martyr Near Bint Jbail 1.jpg

Martyr on Telephone Pole.jpg

You never see anything like this in the Sunni, Christian, or Druze parts of the country. Instead you’ll see portraits of more liberal and moderate Lebanese who were car-bombed by the Syrians.

Samir Kassir Poster.jpg

A poster of Samir Kassir, journalist and activist with the Movement of the Democratic Left, murdered last year by a Syrian car bomb.

Hezbollah glorifies violence and mayhem and murder.

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The severed head of an Israeli is shown held up by its hair on one of Hezbollah’s billboards

In the rest of the country you see appeals to peace and life instead.

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“No War” stickers left over from the conflict in July are common in Beirut.

I Love Life Billboard.jpg

The “I Love Life” campaign is intended to counter Hezbollah’s warmongering and “martyrdom” culture.

Wage Peace Billboard.jpg

A “Wage Peace” billboard in the northern suburbs of Beirut

Last year a series of billboards all over Beirut said Say No to Anger, Say No to War, and Say No to Terrorism. Hezbollah would never allow anything of the sort to be erected in their parts of Lebanon, even though I know lots of Shia who agree with those sentiments.

The majority of the people in the South are Shia, but there are some Christian, Sunni, and Druze villages, too.

“The Christians down here are cornered,” Henry said. He could have mentioned that the Sunni and Druze are, as well. “They have no freedom of movement. They only have freedom of speech inside their own villages. Outside their villages they can’t speak or talk to the press unless they leave the South.”

“They have been a long time under Hezbollah control,” Said said. “It’s the same scenario as 1975, only with different players.”

The situation is eerily much like it was in 1975 when Lebanon descended into 15 years of hell and chaos and war. Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization used South Lebanon as a launching pad for terrorist raids into Israel. The Shia who lived there were fiercely opposed to having their land used in this way for a foreigner’s war. Lebanon’s Christians also stridently opposed the use of their country as a battleground by Palestinians. But Lebanon’s Sunni community allowed and even encouraged Yasser Arafat to build himself a state-within-a-state in West Beirut. Street clashes between Christians and Palestinians sparked what eventually became a war of all-against-all that shattered the government and drew in the Syrians, the Iranians, the Americans, and the Israelis.

Hezbollah Plinth.JPG

“Israel was surprised by the war this summer because they neglected Hezbollah after 2000,” Said said. Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew the Israeli occupation forces from the “security belt” in South Lebanon in 2000, and wrongly assumed the Lebanese army would take control of the area. Hezbollah moved in instead and immediately dug in for more war. “Nasrallah will go all the way now unless Seniora and Hariri surrender. Only if they surrender will Nasrallah spare them from the final solution.”

This struck me as a bit on the paranoid side. Hezbollah can almost certainly win a defensive war against fellow Lebanese, but no one is strong enough to conquer and rule the whole country.

Khomeini South Lebanon December.jpg

Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini lives on as a poster boy in South Lebanon

As we drove through a small village an imam screamed slogans in angry Arabic from the muezzin’s speaker atop a mosque minaret. It was a sharp contrast to what I’m used to hearing from the mosques in Beirut. There the muezzin’s call to prayer is hauntingly beautiful and genuinely spiritual, as though the muezzin himself is no longer tethered to this world. I miss the unearthly singing when I’m in Christian Beirut and when I’m at home.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“It is about Palestine,” Said said. He listened. “He is saying If we win this fight against the Seniora conspiracy we will only have Palestine to liberate. We won’t have Israel as an obstacle.”

Shrapnel Holes in Billboard.jpg

Shrapnel tore holes through a Hezbollah billboard

“They won’t have Israel as an obstacle?” Noah said in a bemused tone of voice.

“Ha, ha, ha, I like this guy,” Henry said.

A convoy of Lebanese army trucks headed north.

Lebanese Army Leaving the South.jpg

“One thing we are worried about,” Said said, “is the weakening of the South because the army has to go north. This is part of the plan.”

We ventured deeper into the South, into the steep rolling hills that make up the region known as the Upper Galilee.

South Lebanon Countryside 1.jpg

“It’s beautiful here,” Noah said, and kept saying. He had never been there before. “This would be a great place for an artist’s retreat if it weren’t so dangerous.”

“Beautiful country, fanatic people,” Said said.

Most of the villages and towns were more or less intact.

South Lebanon Town Intact.jpg

South Lebanon Town Intact 2.jpg

We did, however, drive past the occasional damaged house or places where buildings recently stood and that now were fields of cleared rubble.

Bombed House South Lebanon.JPG

Dour-looking men stood on street corners and in the middle of intersections and carefully watched all the cars and people who entered the area.

“You see the watchers?” Said said.

“Yep,” I said. “They couldn’t be any more obvious. Can we get out and talk to people around here?”

“I do not recommend it,” Said said. “They cannot talk freely. These watchers will come up to us if we get out of the car, and they will make sure anyone who talks to us only tells us what they are supposed to say.”

Soon we reached Bint Jbail, Hezbollah’s de-facto “capital” in South Lebanon. The outskirts were mostly undamaged, but the city looks now like a donut. Downtown was almost completely demolished by air strikes and artillery.

Victory Photo 2.JPG

“So this is our victory,” Said said. “This is how Hezbollah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs.”

Said parked in the center of what used to be the central market area. The four of us got out of the car. Noah and I walked around, dizzied by the extent of the 360-degree devastation.

Bint Jbail Rubble 7.JPG

Three severe-looking men walked up to Said and Henry.

“Who are they, who are you, and what are you doing?” said the man in charge.

“They are international reporters,” Henry said. Notice that he did not say we were American reporters. “They are here to document Israel’s destruction of our country.”

The men seemed satisfied with that answer and left us alone. Presumably they would continue to leave us alone as long as we didn’t try to interview any civilians. I was glad Henry and Said were there with us. They were the ones asked to do the explaining rather than Noah and me.

I kept snapping pictures.

Rubble House Bint Jbail.JPG

Noah in Bint Jbail 2.jpg

“Oh man,” Noah said. “Some real pain got dropped on this place.”

Bint Jbail Center 1.jpg

Shoe in Bint Jbail.jpg

The photos don’t do “justice” to the extent of the damage. The destruction was panoramic and near-absolute in the city center.

Bint Jbail Center 2.jpg

Bint Jbail Center 3.jpg

Apparently the outskirts of town were not seen as threatening by the Israelis. Most of Bint Jbail beyond downtown was unscathed.

Bint Jbail Center and Outskirts.jpg

We got back in the car. Said looked for the road to Maroun al-Ras, the next hollowed-out southern town on our itinerary. The streets, though, were confusing now that many landmarks no longer existed. Only after a few laps around town could Said re-orient himself.

“Three times on the same road, not good,” Henry said.

It looked – and felt – totalitarian in Bint Jbail. Everyone watched us. If Said was right that the locals weren’t allowed to speak freely (assuming they dissented from Nasrallah’s party line) it must feel totalitarian to people who live there as well.

I asked one of my Shia friends who grew up in Hezbollah’s dahiyeh south of Beirut what would happen if he said “I hate Hezbollah” outside his house on the street.

“I’d get my ass kicked,” he said. “No one would do that.”

We reached Maroun al-Ras only a few minutes after leaving Bint Jbail. This was the first Lebanese village seized by the Israeli Defense Forces during the war. The scene was familiar – much of the center of town had been reduced to rubble.

Destoyed Car Maroun al Ras.JPG

One site stood out, though. At the top of a hill overlooking the Israeli border stood a mostly intact mosque surrounded by panoramic destruction.

Maroun Al Ras Mosque.jpg

Israel may have over-reacted in July and selected targets (the milk factory, bridges in the north, etc.) that should not have been hit. But the stark scene on the hill of Maroun al-Ras demonstrated that the Israeli military did not bomb indiscriminately as many have claimed. Unlike Hezbollah, the Israelis are able to hit what they want and they don’t shoot at everything. That mosque wouldn’t be standing if they dropped bombs and artillery randomly in the villages.

“My mother is from Deir Mimas,” Said said. “In July Hezbollah brought their weapons out of the caves and valleys and into the village. My family has a small house there that was burned during the war.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Eh,” Said said. “It’s okay. It is fixed now. Anyway, at first Hezbollah fired their missiles from groves of olive trees. Then they got hit by the Israelis. So they moved into Deir Mimas because the other nearby option was Kfar Kila. Hezbollah didn’t want the Shia villages hit, so they moved into Christian villages instead.”

That sounded right. I recently saw Kfar Kila from the Israeli side. The town is literally right on the border, only twenty feet or so from the fence next to the Israeli town of Metulla. I saw no damage whatsoever in Kfar Kila – and this was one day before the end of the war – but I did hear machine gun fire in the streets ominously close to where I was standing.

The four of us arrived in the Christian village of Ein Ebel just outside Bint Jbail. A man was there waiting for us who would tell us about Hezbollah’s brutal siege of his town in July.

First we stopped for lunch, though, and ordered some pizza and sandwiches. As Said parked the car he turned the dial on the car stereo.

“Do you hear them?” he said. “Do you hear the Israelis?”

Sure enough, scratchy voices in Hebrew came through the crackling static.

“Yep,” I said. “Those are Israelis.”

“We are right next to the border,” Henry said.

We went into the restaurant. Henry and I sat at a table while we waited for food. Said hovered over us, as did Noah with his camera.

Me Henry and Said in Ein Ebel.jpg

“We have been screaming about this conflict for 30 years now,” Henry said as he dealt himself a hand of Solitaire from a deck of cards in his pocket. “But no one ever listened to us. Not until September 11. Now you know how we feel all the time. You have to keep up the pressure. You can never let go, not for one day, one hour, not for one second. The minute you let go, Michael, they will fight back and get stronger. This is the problem with your foreign policy.”

“Since 1975 we have been fighting for the free world,” Said said. “We are on the front lines. Why doesn’t the West understand this? America can withdraw from Iraq, you can go back to Oregon, but we are stuck here. We have to stay and live with what happens.”

To be continued…

Post-script: Please help support independent journalism. I have no corporate backing, and I cannot visit foreign countries and file these dispatches without your assistance.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

January 8, 2007


I'm working on the first of a series of long essays documenting a road trip to Hezbollah's stronghold in South Lebanon. While I'm wrapping that up, here are some links.

ESCALATION COMING: Hezbollah says it will escalate its so-far non-violent push to topple the Seniora government.

THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET: Saad Hariri accuses Hezbollah of "political and intellectual terrorism."

DON'T BE A SUCKER: Tony Badran explains why even talking to Syria is dangerous.

THROWING HEZBOLLAH A BONE: Israel says Lebanese murderer Samir Kuntar will be released shortly from prison, which will (in theory) eliminate one of Hezbollah's flimsy excuses for war.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:10 PM | Permalink | Comments Off
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