February 25, 2009

Christopher Hitchens and the Battle of Beirut

Last week Christopher Hitchens and I were attacked in Beirut. Less than 24 hours after we landed at the international airport, a half dozen members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party jumped us on Hamra Street when he defaced one of their signs.

He and I were traveling together because Lebanon's New Opinion Group invited us to meet Prime Minister Fouad Seniora, Future Movement party leader Saad Hariri, Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, and other leaders of the pro-independence “March 14” coalition.

February 14 rally, downtown Beirut

We had just attended a massive rally downtown commemorating the fourth anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Christopher needed a new pair of shoes. Our colleague Jonathan Foreman from Standpoint Magazine needed a shirt. I needed a coffee. So I led the way as the three of us strolled over to Hamra Street where we could buy just about anything. And I told my two companions a story about the neighborhood's past on the way.

“When Hezbollah violently seized West Beirut last May,” I said, “the Syrian Social Nationalist Party followed them in. They put up their spinning swastika flags all over the neighborhood, and no one dared touch them until the prime minister ordered them taken down several months later.”

SSNP flags on Hamra Street

It was a warning of sorts – or at least it would have been heeded as such by most people. I don’t go looking for trouble, Jonathan is as mild-mannered a writer as any I know, but Christopher is brave and combative, and he would have none of it.

“My attitude to posters with swastikas on them,” he later told Alice Fordham at NOW Lebanon, “has always been the same. They should be ripped down.”

When we rounded the corner onto Hamra Street, a Syrian Social Nationalist Party sign was the first thing we saw.

Hamra Street, West Beirut. The SSNP sign is in the lower-left corner.

“Well there’s that swastika now,” Christopher said.

The now-infamous SSNP sign defaced by Christopher Hitchens

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party flags had been taken down, but a commemorative marker was still there. It was made of metal and plastic and had the semi-permanence of an official “No Parking” sign. SSNP member Khaled Alwan shot two Israeli soldiers with a pistol in 1982 after they settled their bill at the now-defunct Wimpy café on that corner, and the sign marked the spot.

Some SSNP members claim the emblem on their flag isn’t a swastika, but a cyclone. Many say they cannot be National Socialists, as were the Nazis, because they identify instead as Social Nationalists, whatever that means.

Outside observers don't find this credible. The SSNP, according to the Atlantic in a civil war era analysis, “is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, 'Greetings to You, Syria,' to the strains of 'Deutschland, Deutschland über alles'; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.”

They wish to resurrect the ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic Syria and annex Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, and parts of Turkey and Egypt to Damascus. Jews would have no place in the resurrected Syrian empire.

The SSNP’s map of what they claim is their “Greater Syria”

SSNP militiamen, along with fighters from Amal and Hezbollah, used heavy weapons to seize West Beirut last May after the government shut down Hezbollah’s surveillance system at the airport, and they set aflame Hariri’s Future TV office and studio with molotov cocktails.

An SSNP fighter throws a molotov cocktail at Saad Hariri’s Future TV station during the fighting in May 2008. (Copyright Getty Images)

An SSNP militia man rifles through files at a Future Movement office during the fighting in May 2008. (Copyright Getty Images)

In 2006 some of their members were arrested by the Lebanese Army for storing “a large quantity of explosives, electrical detonators and timers in addition to a large cache of weapons.”

Confiscated SSNP bomb materials

Confiscated SSNP weapons

Many Lebanese believe they’re the hired guns of the Assad regime in Damascus and have carried out many, if not most, of the car bomb assassinations in Lebanon since 2005.

Christopher wanted to pull down their marker, but couldn’t. He stuck to his principles, though, and before I could stop him he scribbled “No, no, F*** the SSNP” in the bottom-right corner with a black felt-tipped pen.

I blinked several times. Was he really insulting the Syrian Social Nationalist Party while they might be watching? Neither Christopher nor Jonathan seemed to sense what was coming, but my own danger signals went haywire.

An angry young man shot across Hamra Street as though he’d been fired out of a cannon. “Hey!” he yelled as he pointed with one hand and speed-dialed for backup on his phone with the other.

“We need to get out of here now,” I said.

But the young man latched onto Christopher’s arm and wouldn’t let go. “Come with me!” he said and jabbed a finger toward Christopher's face. They were the only words I heard him say in English.

Christopher tried to shake off his assailant, but couldn’t.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” he said.

The young man said something sinister-sounding in Arabic.

“Do you speak English?” I said.

He didn't, and I'm not sure why I even bothered to ask. I hoped to calm him down, but Christopher, Jonathan, and I needed to leave. Standing around and trying to reason with him would serve his needs, but not ours. His job was to hold us in place until the muscle crew showed up in force.

“Let go of him!” I said, and shoved him without result. He clamped onto Christopher like a steel trap.

Christopher Hitchens at Beiteddine, Lebanon

I stepped into the street and flagged down a taxi.

“Get in the car!” I said.

Christopher, sensing rescue, managed to shake the man off and got into the back seat of the taxi. Jonathan and I piled in after him. But the angry young man ran round to the other side of the car and got in the front seat.

I shoved him with both hands, but I didn’t have the leverage to eject him with the back of the front seat between us. The driver could have tried to push the man out, but he didn’t. I sensed he was afraid.

So my companions and I got out of the car on the left side. The SSNP man bolted from the front seat on the right side. Then I jumped back in the car and locked the doors on that side.

“He’ll just unlock it,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan Foreman from Standpoint Magazine

He was right. I hadn’t noticed that the windows were rolled down on the passenger side. The young man reached in, laughed, and calmly unlocked the front passenger door.

I stepped back into the street, and the young man latched once again onto Christopher. No one could have stopped Jonathan and me had we fled, but we couldn’t leave Christopher to face an impending attack by himself. The lone SSNP man only needed to hold one of us still while waiting for his squad.

A police officer casually ambled toward us as though he had no idea what was happening.

“Help,” Christopher said to the cop. “I’m being attacked!”

Our assailant identified himself to the policeman, and the officer took three steps back as though he did not want any trouble. He could have unholstered his weapon and stopped the attack on the spot, but even Lebanon’s armed men of the law fear the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

A Lebanese man in his thirties ran up to me and offered to help.

“What’s happening?!” he said breathlessly as he trembled in shock and alarm.

I don’t remember what I told him, and it hardly matters. There wasn’t much he could do, and I did not see him again.

“Let go of him!” I said to the SSNP spotter and tried once more to throw him off Christopher.

“Hit him if you have to,” I said to Christopher. “We’re out of time and we have to get out of here.”

“Back to the hotel,” Christopher said.

“No!” I said. “We can’t let them know where we’re staying.”

Christopher wouldn’t strike his assailant, so I sized the man up from a distance of six or so feet. I could punch him hard in the face, and he couldn't stop me. I could break his knee with a solid kick to his leg, and he couldn't stop me. He needed all his strength just to hold onto Christopher while I had total freedom of movement and was hopped up on adrenaline. We hadn't seen a weapon yet, and I was pretty sure he didn't have one. I was a far greater threat to him at that moment than he was to me by himself.

Christopher, Jonathan, and I easily could have joined forces and left him bleeding and harmless in the street. I imagine, looking back now, that he was afraid. But I knew the backup he’d called would arrive any second. And his backup might be armed. We were about to face the wrath of a militia whose members can do whatever they want in the streets with impunity. Escalating seemed like the worst possible thing I could do. The time to attack the young man was right at the start, and that moment had passed. This was Beirut, where the law of the jungle can rule with the flip of a switch, and we needed to move.

I saw another taxi parked on the corner waiting for passengers, and I flung open the door.

“Get in, get in,” I said, “and lock all the doors!”

Traffic was light. If the driver would step on the gas with us inside, we could get out of there. Christopher managed to fling the man off him again. It looked hopeful there for a second. But you know where this story is going.

We knew it, too, because six or seven furious men showed up all at once and faced us in the street. They stepped in front of the taxi and cut off our escape.

None wore masks, which was a good sign. And I didn't see any weapons. But they were well-built and their body language signaled imminent violence. We were in serious trouble, and I ran into the Costa Coffee chain across the street and yelled at the waiter to call the police.

“Go away!” he said and lightly pushed me in the shoulder to make his point. “You need to leave now!”

This was no way to treat a visitor, especially not in the Arab world where guests are accorded protection. But getting in the way of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party can get a man killed, or at least beaten severely. Just a few months ago the SSNP attacked a Sunni journalist on that very street and sent him bleeding and broken to the hospital in front of impotent witnesses. A Lebanese colleague told me he was brutally assaulted merely for filming the crew taking down the SSNP flags as the prime minister ordered. “He didn't do anything to them,” she said. “He just filmed their flag.”

Journalist Omar Harqous was beaten by the SSNP for filming their flags

Christopher was encircled by four or five of them. They were geared up to smash him, and I reached for his hand to pull him away. One of the toughs clawed at my arm and left me with a bleeding scratch and a bruise. I expected a punch in the face, but I wasn’t the target.

Christopher was the target. He was the one who had defaced their sign. One of the guys smacked him hard in the face. Another delivered a roundhouse kick to his legs. A third punched him and knocked him into the street between two parked cars. Then they gathered around and kicked him while he was down. They kicked him hard in the head, in the ribs, and in the legs.

Jonathan and I had about two and a half seconds to figure out what we should do when one of the SSNP members punched him in the side of the head and then kicked him.

I stoically accepted that I was about to get beaten myself. The fear drained out of me as I was reasonably sure they weren't going to kill us. They didn’t have weapons or masks. They just wanted to beat us. There were too many for us to fend off. We lost the fight before it even began. I could have called for backup myself, but I didn’t think of it – a mistake I will not make again. I have my own muscle crew on speed dial now for protection.

Then the universe all of a sudden righted itself.

Christopher managed to pull himself up as a taxi approached in the street. I stepped in front of the car and forced the driver to stop. “Get in!” I yelled. Christopher got in the car. Jonathan got in the car. I got in the car. We slammed down the locks on the doors with our fists. The street was empty of traffic. The way in front of the taxi was clear. The scene for our escape was set.

“Go!” I said to the driver.

“Where?” the driver said.

“Just drive!” I said.

One of the SSNP guys landed a final blow on the side of Christopher's face through the window, but the driver sped away and we were free.

I don’t remember what we said in the car. I was barely scathed in the punch up, and Jonathan seemed to be fine. Christopher was still in one piece, though he was clearly in pain. All of us were relieved. Our afternoon had gone sideways, but it could have been a great deal worse than it was.

“Let’s not go back to our hotel yet,” I said. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed my eyes with my palms. “In case we're being followed.”

Some of our colleagues were back at the hotel. If the SSNP found out where we were staying, every single one of us would have to move to the other side of Beirut.

“Where do you want to go?” our driver said.

“Let’s just drive for a while,” Jonathan said.

So our driver took us down to the Corniche that follows the curve of the Mediterranean. He never did ask what happened. Or, if he did, I don't remember him asking. I kept turning around and checking behind us to make sure we weren’t being followed.

Beirut’s Corniche

“Maybe we should go to the Phoenicia,” I said.

The Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel is one of the priciest in the city. Management installed a serious security regime at the door. This is the place where diplomats and senators stay when they are in town. I doubted the guards would allow thugs from any organization into their lobby.

“He deserves a huge tip,” Jonathan said as our driver dropped us off.

“Yes,” I said. “He certainly does.”

The three of us relaxed near the Phoenicia's front door for a few minutes. We would need to change cars, but first had to ensure we hadn’t been followed.

“You're bleeding,” Jonathan said and lightly touched Christopher's elbow.

Christopher seemed unfazed by the sight of blood on his shirt.

“We need to get you cleaned up,” Jonathan said.

“I'm fine, I think,” Christopher said.

He seemed to be in pretty good spirits, all things considered.

“The SSNP,” I said, “is the last party you want to mess with in Lebanon. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you properly. This is partly my fault.”

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”


Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus still wields some of its occupation instruments inside Lebanon. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party is one of those instruments, and it counts the regime as its friend and ally. The volksy geographic “nationalism” of the SSNP differs from the racialist Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Baath Party, but it conveniently meshes with Assad’s imperial foreign policy in the Middle East. It follows, then, that the SSNP is also allied with Hezbollah.

I shudder to think what might have happened to Christopher, Jonathan, and me if we were Lebanese instead of British and American.

“If you were Lebanese,” said a long-time Beiruti friend, “you might have disappeared.”

“If you were Lebanese,” said another, “none of this would even have happened.”

Two days after the punch up, various factually inaccurate versions of the story made their way into the blogosphere. Everyone seemed to think we had been drinking or were in a bar fight. I was annoyed. Christopher was amused.

Graphic courtesy of the Blacksmiths of Lebanon blog

“You have no idea what it’s like being me,” he said. “Everything I do is news.”

I later sat down with him over coffee and asked him to reflect on the recent unpleasantness.

“When I told you that I should have warned you,” I said, “that I take partial responsibility, you said...”

“It wouldn't have made any difference,” he said. “Thank you, though, for giving me a protective arm. I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don't really have the right to leave one alone. I haven't seen that particular symbol since I saw the Syrianization of Lebanon in the 1970s. And actually the first time I saw it, I didn't quite believe it.”

“You saw it when you were here before?” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said. “But it was more toward the Green Line. I did not expect to see it so flagrantly on Hamra.”

Hamra Street, West Beirut

Christopher has seen Beirut at its worst. He visited Lebanon during the war and immediately after. In 1991, he told me, the city looked like Rotterdam after World War II had gone to work on it.

“Anyway,” he said, “call me old fashioned if you will, but my line is that swastika posters are to be defaced or torn down. I mean, what other choice do you have? I'd like to think I'd have done that if I had known it was being guarded by people who are swastika fanciers. I have done that in my time. I have had fights with people who think that way. But I was surprised first by how violent and immediate their response was, and second by how passive and supine was the response of the police.”

The police are not utterly supine. Some SSNP members have been arrested. Weapons and explosives have been confiscated. Clearly, however, the state is more supine than it should be. A police officer who wandered upon the scene of our assault didn’t do anything. Not even the army stopped the SSNP when its black masked fighters conquered the western half of the capital with Hezbollah and Amal in 2008.

A Hezbollah militiaman smokes a nargileh in Hamra

The men of the SSNP must use force to maintain a hold in West Beirut. Most of its members are Orthodox Christians while most West Beirutis are Sunnis. The Hamra district is a liberal and cosmopolitan “March 14” stronghold, and the SSNP is aligned with the Syrians and the Shia Hezbollah militia. They could be hardly be any less welcome in Tel Aviv. If its enforcers didn't jump Christopher in the street, their commemorative sign might not have lasted.

“But I was impressed,” Christopher said, “with the response of the cafe girls.”

“What was their response?” I said. “I missed that.”

“Well,” he said, “when I was thrown to the ground and bleeding from my fingers and elbow, they came over and asked what on earth was going on. How can this be happening to a guest, to a stranger? I don't remember if I was speaking English or French at that time. I said something like merde fasciste, which I hope they didn't misinterpret.”

I did not see the cafe girls. Or, if I did, I don’t remember them. Once the actual violence on Hamra began, it was over and done with in just a few seconds. The whole thing was a blur. Most of what I remember is what happened to me. Christopher, Jonathan, and I naturally recall different details. Jonathan later told me that one of the SSNP guys called off the assault after Christopher had been kicked a few times. I hadn't seen that, and I have to wonder what other details I missed.

“By then,” Christopher said, “I had become convinced that you were right, that we should get the fuck out of there and not, as I had first thought, get the hotel security between them and us. I thought no, no, let's not do that. We don't want them to know where we are. The harassment might not stop. There was a very gaunt look in the eye of the young man, the first one. And there was a very mad, sadistic, deranged look in the eyes of his auxiliaries. I wish I'd had a screwdriver.”

“You know these guys are widely suspected for setting off most or all of the car bombs,” I said.

“They weren't ready for that then,” he said.

“They weren't,” I said, “but they’re dangerous.”

“Once you credit them like that,” he said, “you do all their work for them. They should have been worried about us. Let them worry. Let them wonder if we're carrying a tool or if we have a crew. I'd like to go back, do it properly, deface the thing with red paint so there's no swastika visible. You can't have the main street, a shopping and commercial street, in a civilized city patrolled by intimidators who work for a Nazi organization. It is not humanly possible to live like that. One must not do that. There may be more important problems in Lebanon, but if people on Hamra don't dare criticize the SSNP, well fuck. That's occupation.”

“It is,” I said, “in a way. They have a state behind them. They aren't just a street gang, they're a street gang with a state.”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “They’re the worst. And also a Greek Orthodox repressed homosexual wankers organization, I think.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party spokesman denies the attack ever took place. He is lying.

Post-script: Adventures like this one aren’t exactly part of my job, but I’d rather not get roughed up in Beirut for free. If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make independent writing economically viable. And stay tuned for much more from Beirut and Baghdad.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:38 PM | Comments (83)

February 23, 2009

Back from Beirut

Sometimes I’m a bit cagey about my travel plans, not because I’m paranoid but because I think it’s a good habit to cultivate even when I don’t think it’s necessary. Even so, it seems like half the known universe found out I was in Beirut, Lebanon, last week when my colleague Christopher Hitchens was roughed up on Hamra Street after defacing a commemorative sign guarded by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. I was with him when it happened, as was Jonathan Foreman from Standpoint Magazine. I must have received fifty emails from concerned friends and readers asking if I was okay when the rumor spread from the blogosphere to the media.

Yes, I am fine. I got one scratch and one bruise when I tried to extract Christopher from the mob. I wouldn’t have even been scratched had I simply stepped aside and let the angry young men go to work on him without interference.

Almost every narrative yet published of this minor battle in Beirut is wrong in at least one detail. Now that I’m home and have time to write, I’ll knock out the real story and publish it here. Stay tuned. This won’t take long.

In the meantime, here is an excellent interview with Christopher in NOW Lebanon that was conducted over dinner in Saad Hariri’s house a few nights ago. Read it all.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:31 PM | Comments (2)

February 19, 2009

A Third Lebanon War?

The Lebanese-Israeli border has been calmer during the last two and a half years than it has been in decades. Hezbollah replenished its arsenal of rockets after the 2006 war, but has chosen to lay low in the meantime. Not one Israeli soldier has been kidnapped since the war’s end, and not a single Hezbollah rocket has landed in Israel. Nothing stays the same in the Middle East for long, though, and Israel and Lebanon may be headed for confrontation again.

One year to the day after Hezbollah military commander Imad Mugniyeh was assassinated by a car bomb in downtown Damascus, Alice Fordham published a piece at NOW Lebanon that makes for sobering reading. She quotes a number of analysts in both Lebanon and Israel who fear another round of violence is coming. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah blames Israel for killing Mugniyeh, and he vows vengeance. His threat appears to be credible. Terrorist attacks against Israeli interests by Hezbollah cells have been foiled on three continents -- in Europe, Egypt, and Azerbaijan.

I wrote recently that Nasrallah appears to have been deterred by Israel’s devastating air and ground assault in July and August of 2006. “We did not believe,” he said on Lebanon’s New TV station, “even by one percent, that the captive operation would result in such a wide-scale war, as such a war did not take place in the history of wars. Had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war we would not have carried it out at all.” Not even during the recent war in Gaza, while the Israelis were busy and distracted fighting Hamas, did Nasrallah think it wise to risk a repeat of 2006. Unless every reported terrorist attempt since Mugniyeh’s assassination is fictitious, though, Nasrallah still seems to think it’s okay to attack Israel outside Israel.

Israel vows to retaliate inside Lebanon if Hezbollah inflicts any serious damage. “The Lebanese government bears overall responsibility, and any attempt to attack Israel will be met with a response,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. Even a relatively restrained response inside Lebanon by Israelis could escalate into a big war, as it did last time.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:36 PM | Comments (1)

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Many of you -- an almost shocking number of you -- have sent me worried emails after reading rumors on the Internet and even in newspapers about a violent attack against me and two of my colleagues in a country that is known for its occasional violence. I am fine, as are the others. I sincerely appreciate the concern for my safety, but there is no need to worry.

I haven't yet read an account that gets all the details right, and the most compelling details are naturally missing from every second- and eleventh-hand report that's bouncing around. I'll be home in a few days and will publish the real story. Only three people in the world can tell you the real story, and until then I suggest you refrain from taking the global gossip mill at its word.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:29 PM | Comments (1)

February 18, 2009

On the Road, Briefly

I told myself I wasn’t going to travel again for a while unless I had a really good reason because I have so much material to write up from Iraq and Lebanon. But I was invited on a short last-minute trip that I could not possibly turn down, and I have some terrific material already. My location needs to remain undisclosed for the next couple of days, but I’ll be home soon and will tell you all about it. Stand by.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:29 AM | Comments (16)

February 8, 2009

A Dispatch from the Border with Gaza

Gaza City from Sderot.jpg

Not since the Second Intifada, when more than a thousand Israelis were murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers, have Israeli civilians suffered in a way that makes for compelling news copy or TV reports.

The southern Israeli city of Sderot sits right next to the border with Gaza, and it is the target of choice for Hamas and Islamic Jihad's Qassam rocket barrages. The first time I visited the city under fire was immediately after the Second Lebanon War in August of 2006. Israeli civilians were still on their way back to Haifa, Kiryat Shmona, and other urban areas that had been emptied of people when Hezbollah turned the northern sixth of the country into a free fire zone. Lebanese villages were still smoldering, and their dead were still being cleared from underneath rubble. Sderot, by contrast, seemed downright sedate even though rockets packed tight with metal fragments and ball bearings still fell from the sky every day.

The city had been under fire for years before I got there, but the barrages were tolerable, albeit barely. Sderot had never been abandoned. Its residents were never made into refugees. Only a handful of people had been killed by the time I first visited, and not even a dozen more have been killed in the meantime. It's easy to callously ask “what's the big deal?” I wasn’t remotely nervous when I showed up myself, and even many Israelis thought the attacks weren't worth going to war over. That’s the main reason Hamas got away with it for so long.

Sderot from Hill January.jpg
Sderot, Israel

Something changed in December of 2008, however. Suddenly Hamas found itself in possession of Grad rockets that can be aimed with much greater precision than the home-made Qassam rockets that make up the bulk of their arsenal. And Hamas fighters found that they could shoot those rockets much farther into Israel and strike the cities of Beersheva and Ashdod, as well as Ashkelon and Sderot.

“The shorter rockets, the improvised rockets, have a short range,” Major Chezy Deutsch told me. “So a smaller percentage of the population are under that threat. But when they can pull out new rockets and hit a new city, a city that up until now hasn't been hit, the terror affect is much larger. People who, up until then, thought they were fine and didn't have anything to worry about are suddenly within range of the threat. So it has a much larger effect than hitting Sderot again.”

I visited Sderot and the Gaza border region again with some of my colleagues on a trip organized by the American Jewish Committee. IDF Colonel Miri Eisen accompanied us and gave us the Israeli perspective on what was happening.

Our first stop was a hill outside Sderot overlooking the fence separating Gaza from Israel. The date we had scheduled for our visit turned out, by chance, to be the first day after the war more or less ended. Twenty four hours earlier, the area still was a war zone. Even so, I heard the low thump of artillery shells fired somewhere off in the distance.

“I'm hearing artillery shells,” Colonel Eisen said, “which means that it's not totally quiet today.”

It was almost totally quiet, however, and it was hard to imagine what it looked like the day before when the sky was filled with rocket trails and IAF jet fighters.

Gaza City from Sderot 2.jpg
Gaza City from Sderot

Gaza was right there in front of us. A fifteen minute walk would have placed us inside if it weren't for the fence.

“The hill that we're standing on, guys, is the tail end of the mortar range,” Colonel Eisen said. “And I have to tell you that as a military person, I have a great respect for mortars. They are very lethal and they're much more exact. Now, when we're talking about mortars, we're not talking home-made. They have a shorter range, but are much more lethal and much more exact. And for a long time I didn't take people to this hill or any hill that was farther west. Because the mortars and their trajectory and the way they fly, we had very little early warning. We didn't know there was going to be a ceasefire, and I would have brought you here anyway. But before we had to come up here with flak jackets, and we've had to tumble down the hill to avoid incoming fire.”

Gaza Border Fence and Wall.jpg
The border between Gaza and Israel

War correspondence is one of the strangest jobs in the world. War is shit, and only a sadist takes pleasure in watching people get shot at and bombed from the sky. I also don't particularly care for being shot at myself. If I were a war junkie, I'd visit Sri Lanka or the Congo or some other place that's orders of magnitude more violent than Israel.

On the other hand, I was slightly disappointed that our group was a day late for the war. I didn't want the fighting to start again so I could watch, but at least I could have written about it as a witness instead of a researcher had we gotten there just a bit earlier.

“But I say happily that Sderot didn't get the brunt of the mortars,” Colonel Eisen said. “The mortars were mostly on kibbutzim that are within the three kilometer range. In those places no one could be outside at all. They didn't even have a ten second warning. Most of our casualties were from mortars, both civilians and soldiers.”

Asher Afriat Holding Map Near Gaza.jpg
Asher Afriat holds up a map showing Hamas' rocket range out of Gaza

Behind us was the small city of Sderot which had been hit far more times with rockets out of Gaza than any other place in the country.

“Sderot has had four days without the sounding of rocket alarms in the last eight years,” she said. “Four days. Why Sderot of all places? 20,000 people live here. Who cares? When they initially started to construct what we call the home-made Qassam rockets, they were very crude. They were very inaccurate. I mean they were inaccurate by a kilometer or two. And their range at the beginning was only five or six kilometers. They have since grown. But when they fire from the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip and they want to make sure Israelis feel it, the largest target they have is Sderot. They get a target which is clear, which is obvious. And that's why Sderot will continue to be the one that gets hit. It's within the range of the lethal inaccurate rockets, and it's the largest target on the horizon.”

Gaza Sderot Ashkelon Map.JPG

Just to the north of Gaza along the shore of the Mediterranean is the city of Ashkelon, which was also routinely hit by Hamas rocket fire. The power plant is in the southern part of the city and therefore the easiest target there for Hamas to hit.

Ashkelon Power Plant from Sderot Jan 2009.jpg
The Ashkelon power plant from Sderot

“The power plant is around seven kilometers away as the crow flies,” Colonel Eisen said, “or as the rocket flies. The city of Ashkelon itself – because the power plant is at the southern edge of it – is nine or ten kilometers from the northern edge of the Gaza Strip.” Much of Gaza’s electricity is generated by that plant, and yet Hamas takes great pleasure in shooting at it.

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Colonel Miri Eisen pointing at Gaza from Sderot

“You see those sand dunes over there,” she said, “and a couple of buildings next to the dunes? That's the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. That's not in Israel, that's in Gaza. And that's the main launching area for Qassam rockets with a range up to Ashkelon. That was one of the IDF ground operation's initial areas. We went into that area in the north of the city of Gaza to stop the launchings there. If you go into those areas, the farthest north that you can reach is the city of Ashdod. The new rockets have a range of 42 kilometers, and if Hamas wants Ashdod to be in it, they need to go as far to the north as they can inside Gaza.”

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The skyline of the city of Ashdod

Ashdod is just south of Tel Aviv. Some Israelis describe it as a suburb of Tel Aviv because it’s within easy commuting distance, but it's 20 miles south and is physically separated by a bit of countryside.

The city of Kiryat Gat has also been hit by Hamas rockets recently, and many Israelis find that disturbing.

“Kiryat Gat means something to us,” she said. “It has the only factory for Intel chips outside the United States. The make the chips there for your computer in the city of Kiryat Gat. Kiryat Gat was hit, as were many of the other cities within the radius.”

Above the border with Gaza are surveillance zeppelins that look exactly like those I've seen used by Americans in Iraq.

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A surveillance zeppelin above the border with Gaza

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A surveillance zeppelin above the border with Gaza

“The zeppelins are part of the early warning intelligence system,” she said. “They're all tethered and are only affected by wind. And it's flat here, so that gives us the height we need.”

“They're up there all the time?” I said.

“They're up there all the time,” she said, “except in very high winds. They are much larger than you can imagine. They're a good kilometer and a half up in the sky. They can go up to two and a half kilometers into the sky.”

Israelis weren't only startled out of their complacency because Beersheva and Ashdod were all of a sudden within Hamas' range. The implications of Hamas' upgrade worried them even more. One more upgrade might put Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion International Airport, and the Dimona nuclear power plant within range of the rockets.

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Outside the walls of Jerusalem

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Inside the walls of Jerusalem

Any rocket or missile that could fly all the way to those targets would inevitably carry a much larger warhead that would deliver one hell of a punch. Hamas, if left undeterred and allowed to strengthen its arsenal, could snap Israel's economy like that and kill potentially thousands of people in a very short time frame. No one would want to be in Gaza if large Iranian-made missiles were exploding into the sides of Tel Aviv skyscrapers every day.

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Tel Aviv, Israel

Two and a half years ago I spoke to an Israeli intelligence officer who said that missile war was about to replace terrorist war, and he was right.

Colonel Eisen held up a map that showed which cities in Israel would be under attack if the same kinds of rockets flying out of Gaza today were being launched from inside the West Bank.

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Colonel Miri Eisen shows which cities would be at risk if Hamas fired rockets from both the West Bank and Gaza

Every major population center in the country would be under attack except Haifa. Yet Haifa is within Hezbollah's rocket range out of Lebanon in the north. When Hezbollah fired its medium-size Katyusha rockets at Haifa in 2006, Haifa was on fire and emptied of people and cars. It was like a city at the end of the world. It's possible, though very intolerable, to live under Qassam rocket attack. It isn't possible to live long at all under Katyusha rocket attack.

If this nightmare scenario ever unfolds, Israel will be in a fight for its life. And Palestinians and Lebanese will be killed in horrifying numbers in order to make it all stop.


Fewer than twenty Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since Hamas and Islamic Jihad adopted the tactic. A few single suicide bombers inflicted more casualties all by themselves. Hezbollah killed around ten times as many Israelis in one month in 2006 than Hamas has managed with crude rockets for years. It's no wonder, really, that critics slammed Israel for its “disproportionate” military response in the Gaza Strip.

It’s not just about casualties, though. Leave aside the fact that Hamas was escalating its attacks with bigger and longer range rockets and that a far deadlier scenario was on the horizon. Living under Qassam and Grad rocket attack doesn't sound like much fun, but it's worse than the low body count makes it seem.

Thousands of rockets have fallen on Sderot. And every rocket launched at the city triggers an air raid alert. Everyone within ear shot has fifteen seconds to run into a shelter.

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A rocket shelter in Sderot

Imagine sprinting for cover 5,000 times.

Do you know what it's like raising children in that kind of environment? It distorts their perception of the entire world.

Michael Yon visited the border with Gaza just after I did. “According to a pamphlet from the Sderot Information Center,” he wrote, “a kindergarten teacher asked her pupils, 'Why does the snail have a shell?' The children answered in chorus, 'So it can be protected from the Kassam rockets.'”

Major Chezy Deutsch joined us.

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Major Chezy Deutsch

“The small number of physical casualties is not because their weapons aren't working,” he said. “The small number is because the population understands the protection guidelines. They know that they have fifteen seconds to find shelter.”

Fifteen seconds is plenty of time to reach a bomb shelter if you're already next to one. But what if you're outside? In a car? What if you're asleep or taking a shower?

“You have to remember,” Major Deutsch said, “that the damage isn't the number of physical casualties, it's the number of people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The kids in first grade in Sderot were born when rockets were being fired at Sderot. They have lived their entire lives having to think that when they leave the house, when they're walking down the street, when they're playing ball, that they have fifteen seconds to hide from an incoming rocket. And it's not only the kids, it's the parents. I have a friend who won't drive with two kids in the car. If the alert goes off he doesn't want to have to ask himself which of his kids he is going to save. He and his wife don't go out to weddings, bar mitzvahs, or things like that at night because they don't want to leave their kids with a babysitter.”

IDF officials say that in the years prior to last month’s war in Gaza, Hamas fired far more rockets at some times of the day than at other times. “Those times were between seven and eight in the morning,” Major Deutsch said, “and between six and seven at night. Between seven and eight in the morning is when everyone is leaving their home. They're on their way to work, and their kids are on their way to school. They are farthest away from protected spaces and most vulnerable. And in the evening Hamas wanted to be the opening item on the evening news. The school is a choke point. You have kids leaving from all the different places around the city, but they have to congregate around the gate to enter the school. And you'll see that they target areas near schools.”

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Inside a rocket shelter in Sderot

“How are they able to target the schools?” said my colleague Max Boot from the Council on Foreign Relations.

“When I was little I built Estes [model] rockets in my house,” Major Deutsch said. “We bought them in a kit. We had a slide rule where we figured out at 45 degrees how far it could fly from the amount of time the engine works. It's very basic geometry. Hamas checks and tests their weapons. They know how long a rocket burns, and they know how long it flies.”

“It's not just a question of targeting the schools,” Colonel Eisen said. “It's also about the hour. When kids are out and about all over the city, when parents are taking them to school. If we educate the population on how to live within this kind of environment, we can radically reduce the number of casualties. For the people of Sderot it's the most obvious. They're not the ones who stand outside and look at the rockets. They hear the alert, and they run into the shelter. They have ten to fifteen seconds, and they know that. They've kept themselves alive here. Sderot doesn't really have casualties now.”

“The explosion on impact is lethal,” she continued, “and the explosion goes up, so all the instructions in Israel are for you to lay down flat and put your hands over your head. But if it lands right next to you, it doesn't leave you a lot of room. A woman protected her son in Beersheva a few days ago. They got out of the car, they lay down, she was laying over him, and he got a fragment in his head. He's been in critical condition ever since.”

She showed us a house across the street from a school. A rocket exploded in the front yard the day before. The family was watching TV in the living room and ran for shelter as soon as they heard the “incoming” alarm. They would have been killed if they hadn’t because shrapnel from the explosion tore apart their living space. Their outdoor furniture at ground level caught on fire and the exterior walls were pocked with shrapnel holes that looked almost like bullet holes. The windows were, of course, broken. The house looked as though somebody had parked in front and assaulted their home with automatic weapons fire and a grenade launcher.

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Shrapnel from Qassem rocket attack

Life can and does go on under the circumstances, but would it be possible for an entire country to endure these kinds of attacks? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. What country in the world would tolerate these kinds of attacks? Almost certainly none. They are only tolerable if a small percentage of a country’s population is exposed, and they're only barely just tolerable for a while.

The Sderot police station has an enormous collection of rockets out back that the officers like to show visitors.

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Rockets at the Sderot police station

“This is only a sample,” Major Deutsch said. “These are only some of the rockets that have landed in Sderot most recently.”

I visited Sderot two years before and saw an entirely different collection of rockets that recently had been fired at the city. The rockets are rotated in and out.

The first Qassam rockets were home made. Now they’re built in factories as well as in houses.

Building them isn’t difficult. Minimal knowledge of chemistry is all that it takes to make home-made explosives. And materials for rocket shafts aren’t hard to find, either. Poles that hold up stop signs and parking meters can be used, for example, as can pipes used for plumbing. Some of the simplest materials in the world have dual-use. Sanctioning and blockading Gaza to keep out the rocket parts therefore is difficult.

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And Hamas has been upgrading lately.

“During the last three and a half years since we left the Gaza Strip,” Colonel Eisen said, “Hamas has smuggled in professional grade explosives. When we talk about smuggling tunnels, you have to understand that there are hundreds. They're not big. They can be small. You can smuggle in Grad rockets, but you can't necessarily smuggle in the launcher. So the launchers are improvised, and that’s affected the distance, the radius, that they can fire them. They have also smuggled lots of anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles. The missiles themselves, which are Chinese and Iranian, can be smuggled in in parts. You can see that they come apart. They can't have the long regular grade missiles fit through the smuggling tunnels, so they take them apart and put them back together.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like in the city if Hamas fired all of its rockets in a single day.

Michael Yon added up the number of pounds of explosives they’ve packed into their Qassams – 140,000 – and ran the numbers. “There are many types of fragmentation hand grenades that are designed to kill people,” he wrote. “One of the most widely used, the deadly American M67, contains a little more than 1/3lb of explosives per grenade. (The entire M67 grenade including fuse and casing weighs 1lb.) This means that 140,000lbs of explosives would be roughly equal the ‘net explosives weight’ of about 350,000 grenades launched randomly against civilians.”

“We have to remember not to underestimate Hamas,” Major Deutsch said. “Okay? They're not stupid. They know what they're doing. Even if it's a primitive weapon, it's effective.”

“Do you have automatic counterbatteries for the rocket and mortar attacks?” said Mario Loyola from National Review magazine.

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Mario Loyola, from National Review magazine, at the Gaza border

“No, no,” Major Deutsch said. “Because if they fire a mortar from inside a school, we don't want to automatically shoot back.”

It may appear as though Israelis can’t be bothered about the well-being of civilians in Gaza, especially after they bombed that already tormented society for several weeks in a row. But I found that isn’t true.

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A temporary field hospital was set up by the State of Israel at the Erez Crossing at the northern end of Gaza.

Palestinian civilians who needed medical attention were invited to come to Erez for treatment by Israeli doctors.

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An Israeli doctor at the Erez field hospital

Humanitarian goods facilitated by the IDF also went through Erez into Gaza throughout the conflict, and the crossing was open to Palestinians with dual nationality who wanted out.

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An Israeli doctor at the Erez field hospital

“We were asked by the government and the Ministry of Health to operate this regional medical clinic,” an Israeli doctor told me. “We've put everything here we can provide in a first-line clinic. It's not a hospital. We won't be able to operate here. But we need a humanitarian clinic to treat patients who need medical assistance.”

The Erez crossing has been one of the most dangerous places near Gaza for a while now. It has been targeted by suicide bombers several times.

It was not what I expected to see. Erez looks like it was built as a border control point for a normal country like Jordan. It doesn't look anything like an entrance into the crowded, impoverished, and war-torn dystopia beyond.

The Qalandia checkpoint into the relatively peaceful and prosperous West Bank from Jerusalem looks like a gateway to a prison camp, but the Palestinian city of Ramallah beyond it is clean, pleasant, and tranquil – at least it is these days.

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Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank

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Inside Erez Crossing

“Think about what this kind of structure means and what it meant for Israel,” Colonel Eisen said. “I look at this as a vision of what we want. When you think about the fact that we just fought a very bloody three-week campaign, it's very tragic. But think about what this kind of structure means. We want to go forward where we use this kind of terminal in a very different way.”

“This isn't at all what I thought it would look like,” I said to my colleague Rick Francona, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force who works now as a military analyst for NBC News. “Such a contrast to what's on the other side.”

“It's like the border between North and South Korea,” he said.

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Lieutenent Colonel Rick Francona, US Air Force, looks into Gaza from the Erez Crossing

“This is so us,” Colonel Eisen said and put her hand on her heart. “This is what Israel is all about, and it always has been. It makes me proud. Lots of foreign reporters come here.”

I could see that. The waiting area was packed with reporters from all over the world.

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Journalists at the Erez field hospital

“But they almost never write about this,” she continued. “We try to get the word out, but most of them just are not interested.”

I tried to imagine how different this conflict would be if Hamas set up medical facilities for Israeli civilians wounded by Qassam rocket attacks. The very idea, of course, is absurd.

“I wonder what Hamas thinks of all this,” I said to Rick Francona. “Do they even understand it?”

“They probably think it's a trick,” he said.

Perhaps Hamas understands very well what it means that Israelis opened a clinic for wounded Palestinians. Perhaps they feel like it’s a different kind of threat altogether.

The Israelis had to close the place down. Only a handful of patients ever came through, which didn’t surprise me. I didn’t see any Palestinian patients there when I visited. Hamas didn’t allow their wounded to be treated by Jews.

Post-script: If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make independent writing economically viable. If I were independently wealthy I would do this for free, but I'm not, so I can't.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:41 PM | Comments (26)

February 5, 2009

It's a Nice Place, Actually

Beirut, Lebanon, is still the poster child for urban disaster areas in some parts of the world.

A comparison of the Weston Road and Dimbles Lane area in which Mr Eccles lived and died to 'Beirut' was described as 'the last thing the area needs' by Mr Bayliss…

"The area has got some problems, it does need help but the last thing it needs is being described as Beirut," Mr Bayliss told the Mercury.

"We have got enough negativity – it isn't bloody Beirut, there's hundreds of good people here.

"I am livid about it."

Beirut was named the best travel destination in the world in 2009 by the New York Times. Here is one of my photo galleries.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:47 PM | Comments (4)

February 4, 2009

The New Backbone of the Sunni Resistance

When Israel retaliated against Hezbollah in July of 2006, something strange and new and unexpected took place. Arab governments blamed Hezbollah for sparking the conflict and didn’t complain about Israeli behavior until later. During the more recent war in Gaza we saw something similar; only this time the de-facto alignment of Israeli and Sunni Arab state-interests was even more obvious. Most Arab governments blamed Hamas for starting the latest round, and Egypt worked openly with the Israelis to achieve a new ceasefire arrangement that left their mutual enemy in the Gaza Strip weakened. “Saudi Arabia is no longer the backbone of the Arab alliance against Iran,” Asher Susser from Tel Aviv University said to me as the ceasefire went into effect. “Israel is.”

It’s bizarre, to be sure, to think of Israel as the backbone of a Sunni Arab alliance against Iran and its proxies, but Israelis aren’t the only ones who see things that way. Disgruntled Arabs from Cairo to Beirut and Damascus have noticed the same thing, and they aren’t happy about it.

Egyptians Seethe Over Gaza, and Their Leaders Feel Heat, read a headline in the New York Times a few weeks ago. “It is understood that Egypt gave the green light for the attack,” Rannie Amiri wrote in the Palestine Chronicle. “There is true and full collaboration between certain Arab regimes,” said Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, “especially those who have already signed peace deals with Israel, to crush any form of resistance.”

I heard similar complaints myself after the Second Lebanon War. “Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!” one Lebanese Shia man said to me in a hysterical tone of voice at a Hezbollah rally in Beirut December of 2006.

Some of these accusations are madness on stilts. Gulf Arabs will never give Israel weapons, for instance. But even the more hysterical residents of Arabic countries see clearly that the geopolitical tectonic plates in the region are shifting. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen came out strongly against Hamas and in favor of their Fatah rivals at a meeting in Abu Dhabi this week.

“Egypt is cooperating to a great extent with Israel,” Susser continued, “as are Abu Mazen and the Jordanians. There were more anti-Israel demonstrations in Dublin than there were in Ramallah.”

Most Arab governments, aside from Syria’s and possibly Qatar’s, are far more worried about Iranian regional dominance than they are about anything coming out of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. They know perfectly well that the State of Israel is not going to undermine or overthrow them, while radical Iranian-sponsored Islamists just might.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:47 PM | Comments (29)

February 1, 2009

A Minority Report from the West Bank and Gaza (Deleted)

I had published the transcript of a talk and follow-up interview with a prominent and respectable Palestinian, and it caused a bit of trouble that neither he nor I anticpated or wanted. The transcript has been removed at his request.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:07 PM | Comments (0)