January 19, 2007

The Blitzing of Haret Hreik

HARET HREIK, LEBANON – I have been to Haret Hreik, Hezbollah’s dahiyeh and de-facto “capital” south of Beirut, many times. But I didn’t expect to see it on my most recent trip. Every Lebanese person I know warned me to stay out of there. The destruction from the summer war is severe and Hezbollah’s fear and loathing of visitors, especially Americans, is even more so. The most paranoid party in Lebanon is more paranoid than ever before. Best to steer clear of their base.

Welcome to Haret Hreik.jpg

That was before I met the resident moderate Shia cleric Sayyed Mohammad Ali El Husseini, an outspoken enemy of Hezbollah from within the community. I interviewed him in his modest apartment, and afterward he showed me around the bombed out parts of his neighborhood.

“You can take pictures,” he said. “Don’t worry. No one will do anything or say anything to you if you are with me.”

This was important. Hezbollah’s media relations office explicitly warned me never to take pictures in the dahiyeh. Even local people aren’t allowed to take pictures. You never know who might be working for the CIA or the Mossad. Lebanon has more Israel supporters and “collaborators” than any other Arab country by far.

Husseini is a Sayyed, which means he is supposedly a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad. He can take pictures if he damn well pleases, and so can anyone who is his guest. He is as close to untouchable as a person can be in an assassination-plagued country like Lebanon.

So we went downstairs and hopped in his sporty SUV outfitted with tinted black windows.

Sayyed Husseini in SUV.jpg

Our first stop was only a few streets from his house. Whole blocks of towers were missing.

Dahiyeh Damage 1.JPG

“Did you stay here during the war?” I said and shuddered at the thought of hunkering down while whole towers exploded just down the street.

“No,” he said like I was crazy for asking. “No one could stay here. Everyone had to leave.”

Dahiyeh Damage 2.jpg

The Israeli Air Force dropped leaflets over the neighborhood warning residents to get out of the way of the incoming air strikes. Many times more people would have been killed if they hadn’t done this.

Decapitated Dahiyeh Tower.JPG

Haret Hreik is vertically packed with civilians, including the liberal cleric who was my guide and who is completely innocent of this war. Tens of thousands of people live in the area. Some of their homes were destroyed. Those whose homes weren’t destroyed now fear theirs could be next.

Haret Hreik also is packed with the infrastructure of a warmongering militia that unilaterally instigated the conflict on purpose. That’s why it was hit harder than any other urbanized section of Lebanon.

Dahiyeh Rubble 1.JPG

Some Lebanese Shia support Hezbollah because they actually want war with Israelis.

Others (wrongly) believe that Israel will continue to invade and attack even if Lebanon and Hezbollah sign a peace treaty. Hezbollah, in their view, is their only defense. These people have not, apparently, noticed that Israel has had no military trouble with Egypt or Jordan since peace treaties were signed. The price they paid for this misunderstanding was a grave one, indeed. The last war will more likely prolong that misunderstanding than counter it. The cause-and-effect relationship between Hezbollah’s casus belli on the border and the Israeli reaction has been lost in Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s bombastic pronouncements.

I have been to Israel four times in the last nine months and I know very well that Israelis, left-wing and right-wing alike, overwhelmingly prefer peace to war. But when your only exposure to Israelis is through racist and phantasmagoric Hezbollah propaganda, and when that propaganda is underscored by air raids with blockbuster bombs, it can be a bit hard to believe that Israelis would rather leave you alone.

Dahiyeh Crater 1.JPG

The Israeli government hoped the destruction in Hezbollah strongholds would deter any plans for future attacks. Perhaps Hezbollah has quietly decided not to provoke Israel from now on. Anything is possible, but there is little or no evidence that this is the case. Hezbollah has restocked its weapons supply from Iran via Syria. Hassan Nasrallah insists the “resistance” will continue. His supporters applaud him for that even though huge numbers are homeless or live next to piles of rubble.

Dahiyeh Rubble 2.JPG

I was in Northern Israel in August while Hezbollah bombarded the area with Katyusha rockets. I returned to the city of Kiryat Shmona the day after the war ended so I could survey the damage slowly, carefully, and in safety.

Katyushas are World War II era rockets that only do serious damage when they strike a single location in a barrage. Hezbollah packed these rockets with shrapnel (the better to kill you with, my dear) and fired them randomly at civilian population centers.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona Apartment.jpg
Katyusha shrapnel, Kiryat Shmona, Northern Israel

Kiryat Shmona was sprayed with hundreds of rockets and tens of thousands of shrapnel holes, as though machine gun battles had erupted everywhere in the streets. It’s right on the border, too, so there was no time to get to a bomb shelter when incoming rockets were picked up on radar. The air raid sirens came on and the rockets exploded at the same instant.

The city was a ghost town during the summer, almost completely emptied of people. I didn’t dare spend much time there. It was a perilous place for human beings. Katyusha shrapnel will tear you apart. But the physical damage was limited. It would take years for Hezbollah to physically destroy that city with the arsenal they currently have. And Katyushas are useless against armies. They can’t slow the Israeli Defense Forces for even a second. In the modern era they only work well as terrorist weapons.

Meanwhile, the Israelis dropped tower-busting bombs on Haret Hreik.

Dahiyeh Crater 2.jpg

They could have flattened all of Haret Hreik in a day if that’s what they wanted to do. There is nothing Hezbollah can do to stop that kind of assault.

Hezbollah’s supposed “victory” is a Pyrrhic one, if even that. And it should serve as a warning. Military historian Michael Oren explained it to me this way at the end of the war: “If [Nasrallah] has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

Broken Dahiyeh Tower and Bulldozer.JPG

If Hezbollah ever acquires the ability to do to Israel what the Israelis did to Haret Hreik, Hezbollah and the strongholds they control could very well cease to exist. Hezbollah can’t win a total war. They can only “win” if the Israelis don’t feel like they have to fight to the finish. I would not want to be anywhere near South Lebanon or Beirut’s southern suburbs if Hezbollah decides to launch skyscraper-shattering missiles at Tel Aviv instead of long-range souped-up hand grenades at Kiryat Shmona.

This is what scares the Israelis, after all – that missile war may be replacing terrorist war. Their ability and willingness to launch an overwhelmingly disproportionate response means Hezbollah had better not dare ramp it up.

Dahiyeh Crater from Car.JPG

None of this means Israelis won the last round. Hardly any of their war objectives were met. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may end up the most internally despised leader in Israel’s history. But they only actually lost if different standards of winning and losing are applied to each side.

Hassan Nasrallah says Hezbollah won because they survived. Well, Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces survived. By that standard of winning, Israel won.

Shattered Dahiyeh Tower 1.JPG

No one, though, seems foolish enough to believe that both Israel and Hezbollah won. Destructive and inconclusive wars are never win-win. They are always lose-lose.

My guide Sayyed Husseini’s gas was running low, so we pulled into a station to fill up the tank. We stepped out of the SUV as the attendent inserted the pump. A group of children ran up to Husseini and excitedly yelled “Sayyed! Sayyed!” as though he were some kind of black-robed Santa Claus figure. The attendent smiled as though he felt lucky to be in the presence of a great man. If anyone who recognized him detested him for his stance against Hezbollah, it didn’t show.

Shattered Dahiyeh Tower 2.JPG

The gate that lead to what was Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV station headquarters still stands. Attached to it is a poster thanking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his support.

Chavez Dahiyeh.jpg

Chavez could, like most of the rest of the world, support Lebanon’s elected government instead of the illegal militia that unilaterally – and at the height of tourist season, no less – strapped a suicide-bomb belt around the waist of the country. But that would mean siding with the United States, the country he most loves to hate. So there he is, hanging up in the dahiyeh along with the Baathist Assad and the theocratic Khomeini.

Khomeini Poster Dahiyeh.JPG

Facing the Al Manar gate is the remains of Hezbollah’s “Security Square.” The hole in the ground pictured below is where their media relations office once stood.

Destroyed Security Square.jpg

I wish I could show you a “before” shot as well as the “after” photograph. But there was no way I could take pictures of the Security Square the first time I went there. I had no protection, and that place had more surveillance than the Panopticon.

Here, though, are satellite photographs showing the center of Haret Hreik before and after July. I pulled the first off Google Earth. The second is from Amnesty International.

Haret Hreik Before Google Earth.JPG

Haret Hreik After Amnesty International.JPG

My old nemesis Hussein Naboulsi worked there, in that Security Square office that now is a crater, before Hezbollah fired him after the war. At least I heard from my fixer that he was fired after the war. For all I really know he was killed in the air strike.

He was Hezbollah’s media relations liaison, the guy who set up interviews for journalists, who creepily kept photocopies of our passports on file, who monitored everything we published and wrote, who threatened me with violence for cracking a joke about “the party” on my blog, and who infamously led CNN’s Nic Robertson around by the nose in the dahiyeh during the Israeli bombardment.

Naboulsi.JPG
Hussein Naboulsi, former terrorist spokesman, minder, and issuer of threats against journalists

I can’t help but wonder: What do you do after being downsized by a terrorist organization? Do you work at the local CD store? Al Jazeera? Perhaps the Syrians will have something for him, though the pay grade may be a bit lower.

Even before the war broke out in July I marveled at Lebanon’s ability to hold itself together when no common values unite the people who live there. Lebanon belongs to the Arab world, and also to the Mediterranean world. It is Eastern and, in some ways, it is Western, as well. French- and English-educated Christians look to the US, France, and the West. Most Sunnis take their cues from the wider Arab world, though they also are a part of the broader Mediterranean culture with its open and tolerant ways. Many, if not most, Shia look to Persian Iran.

Enormous forces pull this tiny country (only half the size of tiny Israel) in violently opposing directions at the same time. Lebanon cannot be in the Western and moderate Arab orbit and be absorbed into the Syrian/Iranian axis. Civil war, as well as war with their southern neighbor, will hang like the Sword of Damocles over the country until this is resolved.

Since the war in July the Shia experience in Lebanon is even farther removed than it was from that of the Sunnis, Christians, and Druze.

Haret Hreik, like much of the South, has been devastated. Rubble abounds. The economy, which wasn’t much to begin with, is as broken as the harsh urban landscape.

Meanwhile, downtown Beirut looked better than it did last time I saw it in April of 2006.

Saifi Village from Air.jpg
Saifi Village, downtown Beirut. The construction in the lower-left corner is now finished.

Saifi Village 2.jpg
Saifi Village 2 is under construction

Glass Tower Beirut.jpg
New hotel under construction

Lebanon’s capital is in the midst of a boom, even if it’s dampened now because of the war and the ongoing instability. But the “capital” of Hezbollah looks like World War II just blew through there.

Rubble Pile in Dahiyeh from Car.JPG

The two Lebanons are moving, at great velocity, in opposite directions physically and economically as well as culturally and politically now. “National unity” is a castle in the air, more so than at any time since the civil war ended 16 years ago.

The Shia have always been the poorest and most marginal of Lebanon’s sects – and not just in Lebanon, but elsewhere as well. Fouad Ajami aptly describes them (and he is one of them, too) as the stepchildren of the Arab world. They need and deserve better than this, as all human beings do. Hassan Nasrallah has promised to lead them out of the darkness. Instead he brought ruin and a violent catastrophe down on their heads.

The Shia of Lebanon must find another way, if not with Sayyed Husseini then with someone who is very much like him, someone who can help them lead lives of dignity and prosperity and of normal relations with others. Instead of bringing Haret Hreik to Beirut they need Beirut in Haret Hreik. As Abu Kais, himself a Shia who grew up in the South, said during the summer war on his blog: Iran’s Shia farm must be shut down, and its residents set free.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 19, 2007 2:45 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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