June 5, 2006

"Face to Face with My Occupier"

There are more closeted Israel-supporters in Lebanon than you think. (And by “supporter” I don't mean Zionist partisans, but those who want the cold Lebanese/Israeli war to end and a normalization of relations.) I met quite a few in Beirut, two of whom were - counterintuitively - Shia, the most vehemently anti-Israel sect in Lebanon. There might be even more on (Maronite Christian) Mount Lebanon, but I didn't look for them there so I don't actually know.

That said, Israel is emphatically not the average Lebanese citizen's favorite country. I find the prevailing attitude about Israel in Lebanon painfully reactionary. It's treason to wave hello to an Israeli civilian on the border, for instance, and you cross a “red line” by even having this conversation in public.

Still, having said that, Lebanese do not think of Israel and Israelis the way people in other Arabic-speaking countries do. There is relatively little of the Jew-hating poison typical of Egypt in Lebanon. I did not hear a single Lebanese say they wish to destroy Israel utterly, although I know some do think that. (I never heard anyone say they wish to destroy Syria, either, and probably none of them want to.) Most Lebanese, at least most of those I talked to and argued with about this, ground their grievances in what Israel actually did and does rather than in anti-Semitic hallucinations. (“The Joooos sent us the AIDS virus” is a popular one in Egypt.)

The Lebanese do have a case. (Most Israelis are themselves well aware that the invasion and occupation of Lebanon was a disaster for everyone involved.) There isn't much sympathy for this point of view in the U.S., partly I think because Americans assume the Lebanese point of view is akin to that of Hamas and the Iranian mullahs. But it isn't, and I think their point of view (whether you can ultimately sympathize with it or not) should be understood for what it is rather than imagined as something else.

Perpetual Refugee is still writing about his clandestine visits to Israel as a Lebanese citizen. In his latest essay on this subject he writes about meeting a former Israeli soldier who was stationed in Lebanon.
Here I was. Staring at him. Face to face with my occupier. There he was. Staring at me. Face to face with his sniper.
Go read. And try to understand. Understand how raw and traumatized Lebanese people still are, not only from their rough encounters with Israeli soldiers but from their rough encounters with each other. Understand how contact with average Israelis can soothe that trauma, just as contact with former internal enemies in the post-war era soothed the trauma of their civil war. That's one reason among many the border needs to be open and the “treason” laws need to be scrapped. Everyone involved in that conflict, foreign as well as local, needs to make their peace with it so it doesn't start up again. That war ended 16 years ago. But it reverberates more powerfully in present-day Lebanon than the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, with which it should not be confused.

(I should point out that Perpetual Refugee's essays are getting a very favorable response from both Lebanese and Israelis. See the comments thread.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 5, 2006 5:14 PM
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