January 30, 2007


I'm working on a brief side project and will be back shortly. If it takes more than another day I'll at least be back with some links.

In the meantime, discuss amongst yourself in the comments. Feel free to post links to anything interesting you might have read. And be nice. Don't make me pull over the car.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:23 PM | Comments (61)

January 29, 2007


Lebanese bloggers Rampurple and Jeha, who both show up at times in my comments section, busted Hezbollah and Michel Aoun for peddling a blatantly doctored photograph on Hezbollah's An Manar TV channel.

Here is a screen shot of Aoun holding up the photo on TV.

Aoun Propaganda Screen Shot.jpg

Below is the photo. It supposedly shows a (Christian) Lebanese Forces “militia man” in the lower-left corner pointing a weapon at Lebanese soldiers. Notice the cross on his sleeve. The man and the cross were photoshopped in.

AntiLF Propaganda Photo.jpg

Here is the real picture.

Real Picture Before Doctoring.jpg

And here is the picture that was used as bad photoshop fodder. It was taken during last summer’s war and was itself criticized as propaganda for its inaccurate caption. Notice the cross on the sleeve isn't there. That's because this man is Hezbollah, not a member of the Christian Lebanese Forces.

Fake Photo Fodder.jpg

Hats off to Lebanese bloggers for exposing this one. Busting propagandists for fauxtography isn’t just for Americans any more.

UPDATE and CORRECTION: Lebanese blogger Nancy says Aoun and Hezbollah were busted on television by Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. So this isn't just a blogosphere thing. And N10452 posted this at Rampurple's site, not Rampurple herself. Credit where it's due.

UPDATE: Beirut's Daily Star picked up the story.

UPDATE: Apologies to EU Referendum. I should have said "Westerners," not "Americans."

UPDATE: A reader created and emailed a nice animated gif file.


Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:17 AM | Comments (67)

January 26, 2007

“They Had Machine Guns Welded in Windows”

Blown Up House South Lebanon.jpg

I went to South Lebanon looking for Lebanese civilians who witnessed the July War between Israel and Hezbollah and who could, perhaps, clarify some controversial claims. Did Israel bomb indiscriminately? Did Hezbollah use human shields?

Some civilians did testify that Hezbollah used people in their village as human shields. And I found evidence that Israel at least sometimes struck with precision, if not at all times.

Lebanese civilians, though, weren’t the only witnesses to the war. Hezbollah was there, too – although I’m officially blacklisted with the organization and am denied access to interviews.

The Israeli Defense Forces also were there. I found a soldier who spent the entire war in and out of South Lebanon. He was willing to talk to me by phone even though our interview was illegal – he’s still in the army and is not supposed to talk to anyone in the media about what he did and what he saw. He did anyway, though, and he did not say what I thought he would say. The number of people killed in South Lebanon may be more heavily tilted toward Hezbollah fighters than most of us realized.

To preserve his anonymity I can only identify him as “an Israeli soldier in a long-range patrol unit.” So I’ll just call him Eli, which isn’t his name. Our conversation by phone was recorded. Here is the transcript.

MJT: There is a controversy about whether or not Hezbollah was using the civilian population and infrastructure as shields, whether were hiding behind people and apartment buildings and the like.

Eli: Did they use populated areas to fire? It was clear that they did. Except Israel also dispersed flyers ordering all the civilian population of South Lebanon to leave. So it was in those villages after the, I don’t remember the date, except anyone who was in those villages was probably helping Hezbollah fighters.

MJT: Where in Lebanon was your unit?

Eli: We went all around the West. Opposite Metulla there’s all these villages called Hula, Abbasieh, Markaba, Jwayya. It was 15 kilometers in. So we would go in 15 kilometers, mark targets.

MJT: So you were marking targets yourself? What kind of targets were you marking? I was on the border at the end of the war, and I watched a lot of Israeli artillery being fired, but it was impossible to tell what you guys were shooting at.

Eli: I can’t explain exactly what we use, but we use very advanced scopes and thermal scopes and stuff like that so you can see exactly what’s going on in villages at night or during the day or whenever. We could see armed personnel walking around there, carrying big bags. So as long as they’re armed they are targets for us to mark, for Air Force and artillery.

MJT: The reason I ask what kind of targets you were marking is because the majority of people inside Lebanon think the Israelis were firing at civilians deliberately.

Eli: If you ask me what should have been done in the villages in Lebanon during this war, I think Israel wasn’t harsh enough. Now, I’m not right-wing, I’m not…I just think that if we are in a war…it’s like, if you play with fire, people get burned. There’s nothing you can do about it. These whole villages, they were empty, just filled with Hezbollah terrorists. They should have been totally wiped off the map. Except Israel left them standing. Many of our soldiers were killed because of that, so Israel wouldn’t be blamed after the war for war crimes and destroying civilian houses.

When they say that Israeli artillery was aimed at civilian targets, I can tell you a bit about how the artillery works. If I find a target in the middle of a village, like one house that I see that there are armed people going in, and I will aim artillery, heavy artillery, on it. Not Air Force, not like pin-pointed targets. Artillery will dispense rounds 100 meters from that target also. It’s not accurate. Anyway, even if a target is next to it, these houses were empty. No civilians were walking around South Lebanon. I know. I was in their villages. In their houses. Anyone who was there was definitely working for the Hezbollah or working as a Hezbollah fighter.

MJT: So you didn’t see any women? It was mostly men and no children?

Eli: I never saw one woman or any children in Lebanon. I was going in and out for the whole time since the day when the soldiers were kidnapped. We flew from my unit straight to the north in helicopters, and since then we were there until a week after the cease-fire.

MJT: An article was recently published in the Washington Times, and it wasn’t sourced very well, that said…Hezbollah is known for doing charity work in South Lebanon. One of the things that they had supposedly done, according to the article, was build houses for poor people with Katyusha rocket launchers embedded inside the center of the house, walled off on four sides in sealed rooms so the residents didn’t even know they were there. And supposedly when the war started Hezbollah peeled off the roofs and fired rockets from inside the houses. Did you see anything like this?

Eli: I didn’t see any Katyusha rockets being installed inside houses. But I’ve seen stuff…like we went toward this house, we were fired upon from inside the house. We went into the house. We cleared the house. Anyone who was in the house was neutralized. We went down to the basement. And also in the basement everything was neutralized. And we saw a periscope in the basement that was looking up toward the main road.

MJT: A periscope like something they use in a submarine?

Eli: Yeah, a periscope. You know, you can be underground and see above. It was a pipe that had mirrors that were reflecting up. And a small kind of detonator. Our team checked it out. There were 500 kilos of explosives under the road waiting for Israeli tanks. There were really ready. They built these houses for that purpose because they knew this was going to happen some day. They were just waiting for the tanks to roll in.

MJT: Do you have any idea when you found houses that were being used militarily if they were Hezbollah houses per se, or had they taken over other people’s civilian houses?

Eli: I don’t know.

MJT: You couldn’t tell.

Eli: No. But they could take any house they wanted because the whole place was empty. Everyone left. When we were fighting we were fighting from house to house. They would just skip houses, they would go a different house. We would detonate one house, they would fire a few from another house, and skip to yet another house. They would go wherever they want, it was their area in South Lebanon. It’s not like they thought about them as civilian houses.

MJT: What do you know about that went on in South Lebanon that has been under-reported in the media?

Eli: Not so much in South Lebanon, but in Israel. The way the Israeli army and the prime minister and the chief of staff, the chief of military staff, used the war and controlled the war, if you ask me, was wrong.

MJT: In what ways?

Eli: The chief of the military in Israel did not come from the army. He came from the Air Force. He used to be an Air Force Commander. He was not an army grunt. And the first three weeks of the war he tried to really win this war with air strikes, in the South and in the area in Beirut, what do you call it?

MJT: The dahiyeh.

Eli: Yeah, the dahiyeh. The dahiyeh area. He did not use the ground troops as well as he should have. He would send ground troops one kilometer in, they would stay for a few days, and walk out. Only during the last week of the war did the army take up the war. And every time we went in and went out, people got killed.

MJT: Do you think the air war was effective at all? Or should the war have been fought on the ground only?

Eli: Of course it should always be together, air and ground. You can’t win one without the other. You have to place your air strikes exactly where you need them. Just dropping thousands of tons of bombs on that area in Beirut was useless if you ask me.

Because they couldn’t get Nasrallah. He’s planned this out for how many years? I mean, he knew where he was going to go and how to avoid Israeli intelligence in Lebanon. The bottom line is that they should have aimed more air strikes in the area of South Lebanon.

For the first few weeks they called it a mission. They didn’t call it a war. The enemy was firing rockets from inside Lebanon. And Israel went out to stop that enemy. Which is…kind of like a war. It is war. In any war civilian houses get damaged and there’s nothing you can to do stop it. When you play with fire, people get burned.

Israeli troops went into standing villages where they just were ambushed. Our unit was ambushed also once. And I know lots of other units who were ambushed. Standing villages were there. There could have been nothing, we could have rolled into rubble.

MJT: Hezbollah claims they tried to keep their fighters away from civilian areas, that they keep their fighters away from the towns and the villages and more out in the countryside. So, when you say that you were ambushed, were you inside one of the towns when this happened?

Eli: Yes. We were also ambushed in more open areas. They have these small bunkers, they built bunkers and caves and stuff in open areas. They were ready. They had machine guns welded in windows. They were welded in already. They were ready. They were ready for urban warfare. That’s where they killed the most Israeli soldiers, in urban warfare.

In open warfare? They didn’t have much of a chance. It’s in urban warfare where they can skip house to house and leave very large amounts of explosives under asphalt where you can’t even see it.

MJT: So you’re saying that a lot of the damage done in South Lebanon towns was done by Hezbollah themselves, not all of it was by the Israeli Defense Forces?

Eli: I can tell you about the places I’ve been. Some of the places you’ve heard about, like Bint Jbail, I haven’t been there. My unit didn’t go there.

We got to one village one time and the information was that there weren’t going to be very many armed Hezbollah. It was just going to be like a few helpers or spotters. So the whole village was going to be left standing and there was not going to be any problem.

As soon as we got around 500 meters from the village they started firing everything they had at us. From inside the village. So of course Israel retaliated with a few rounds of artillery, some war planes came down on the place. It wasn’t really…a round of artillery won’t bring a house down. It will make a big hole in it. And the airplane, unless it’s a big bomb, it won’t bring a house down. You know, maybe it will make it an unsafe house to live in. So you’ll see big holes in walls, and some tank shells blew holes in walls. Except the only reason why those holes are there is because they were shooting from these villages. They were shooting from within mosques. They were firing Katyushas from behind mosques and stuff.

MJT: Were they also firing from churches?

Eli: I didn’t see any churches. I wasn’t in any Christian villages. Most of the Christian villages, the Israelis detoured around them because they thought they were probably anti-Hezbollah, that Hezbollah would not be in there. Except the Hezbollah, they often dressed up as Israeli soldiers.

MJT: Did you actually see this yourself? Hezbollah wearing Israeli uniforms?

Eli: Yes.

MJT: Really. How many Hezbollah soldiers did you see wearing Israeli uniforms?

Eli: Once they hit us with a few anti-tank missiles. And I saw straight away like six of them.

MJT: Was it just the one time that you saw this?

Eli: I’m not the only one who has seen this happen in Lebanon. There are lots of other people from lots of other units who have seen this. It’s, it’s guerilla warfare.

MJT: Where do you suppose they get the uniforms? Do they make them themselves? Or are they stealing them?

Eli: Well, all of them are probably stolen. When Israel left Lebanon in 2000 they left a ton of army supply stuff.

MJT: They claim that they have their own uniforms.

Eli: Yeah, they have like a kind of a dark khaki colored, like dark American colors. They have camouflage and stuff like that. But they’re also wearing, they’re people walking around towns, with weapons, who aren’t wearing uniforms. They look like civilians. I mean, in every civilian house in Lebanon there is a shotgun. And that’s not because they’re against the IDF or because they’re against Israel, it’s that most people in the small villages, they’re hunters. They hunt for food. But we also saw people walking around with AK-47s and hand guns and stuff. There are definitely Hezbollah people in, in civilian clothes.

MJT: So, okay, what’s the most common appearance for a Hezbollah fighter in South Lebanon during a war? Do most wear civilian clothes? Hezbollah uniforms? Israeli uniforms?

Eli: It changes all the time.

MJT: Hezbollah claims they had some missiles from Iran, specifically the Zelzal missiles, and that they chose not to fire them. I wonder, do you know if they’re lying about that, if the Israelis perhaps took the Zelzal missiles out at the beginning of the war and that they were unable to fire them?

Eli: The greatest bulk of the long-range missiles that they had were destroyed. By the Air Force. This is what I heard, but I don’t really know, it’s not what I do in the army.

MJT: Have you fought in the West Bank or Gaza?

Eli: Yes.

MJT: How much more skilled are Hezbollah than Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

Eli: Much more skilled. Much more skilled. You can’t compare with fighting against Hezbollah and fighting against Palestinians. Hezbollah has had such a long time to get prepared for these attacks. And they were dug in. Everything was planned, and the weapons, the ammunition, everything was accurate, everything. And the mortar rounds they were all fixed, everything, all the mortars were already fixed on targets where they knew the Israelis were going to come through.

With the Palestinians, it’s very amateur with the Palestinian freedom fighters or whatever they call themselves.

MJT: Alright. From where I was during the war, which was the Israeli side, it looked like the Israelis won every engagement with Hezbollah.

Eli: In the end, Israel won every engagement, this is true. Except the problem is winning an engagement against people who are fighting guerilla warfare. You will win, but you will sustain losses, heavy losses. With guerilla warfare you have one or two guys on a mountain hidden in small holes holding an anti-tank missile. And really at the end of the day he’ll shoot the missile at a few soldiers. He’ll maybe kill one or two, I don’t know. Except you won’t be able to find him afterwards. Unless you were looking in exactly the same direction when it was fired, you won’t. That’s the problem with guerilla warfare.

If there was a full-out war, you know, tanks against tanks, combat units against combat units, and everything done out in the open, Israel would definitely, totally defeat and win. Except the problem is guerilla warfare is extremely hard, it’s, I don’t know how to explain it except that it’s stressful because it’s not a real army, it’s not an army, it’s like cells. Fighting against cells that are operated by bigger cells, you don’t know where they could be, it’s not a big army.

MJT: Do you think it would be possible for Israel to defeat Hezbollah completely in a future war? If you killed every Hezbollah fighter they could always recruit more, but that aside, do you think you could eliminate all or most of them? Or would it just take too long because of the nature of the fighting?

Eli: The problem is, if you kill their combat units…which was possible, during the war the Israelis killed 700 to 800 Hezbollah fighters, which is a third of their whole combat fighters. Which is quite a lot of people.

MJT: It is, yeah.

Eli: Except killing them all…I’ve read MEMRI where there are Arab newspapers translated into English. It’s on the Internet. You can read it. Hezbollah said they were bringing in 3,000 to 4,000 Somali fighters.

MJT: I remember reading that. Did you see anybody who looked Somali, like they were from Africa?

Eli: No.

MJT: A lot of Lebanese people think this is just Hezbollah propaganda, that it’s not true. And I suspect they’re right. Like you said, Hezbollah is a professional guerilla army, whereas Somali fighters are pretty amateurish, like Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Eli: Hmm. You can’t compare the Hezbollah fighter to the Israeli soldier. The Israeli soldier is much better trained. He’s much more fit. Better weapons. And they’re trained for much longer. Except fighting guerilla warfare is just much harder than fighting a regular war.

MJT: Right.

Eli: That’s just it, at the end. And you asked me about getting rid of Hezbollah. Surely getting rid of all the Hezbollah fighters is not the solution. You have to get it from the root. And the root of the Hezbollah is, in the end, it’s the road toward Syria, and from Syria toward Iran. They are the big funders and the people who give Hezbollah the ok. In the end.

MJT: It looks like it’s an unresolvable problem without dealing with Syria and Iran in some way, somehow.

Eli: It’s a matter of time. Because the way I see it, the way I look at the situation now in Lebanon, at the parliament there, that within a few months or a year, I don’t know, the Hezbollah are getting stronger again. And they might push out the Lebanese government. They’ll take over the government there. And they’ll ask the UN peacekeepers to leave. And they will have to leave. And then we’ll have it all over again.

Post-script: If you like what I write, please click the Pay Pal button and help make it happen. I have to eat and pay bills, and 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:

Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:39 PM | Comments (132)

January 25, 2007

Tough Times Ahead for Nasrallah

When Hugh Hewitt interviewed me three weeks ago we discussed the possibility of Hezbollah seizing the road to the airport, a threat that appeared, at the time, to be empty. Here is what he and I said then:

HH: Okay, put on your seeing, your swami hat, your Kreskin hat, what’s going to happen in Lebanon?

MT: Oh, God. Literally, Hugh, anything could happen at this point, although I do think that the threat of civil war is lower than it was a month ago.

HH: Why?

MT: Here’s why. Because after two days, when these protests and sit-ins started, if you would have asked me what the odds of a civil war in Lebanon, I would have said probably 60%. And the reason is because Hezbollah tried to take the prime minister’s office.

HH: Right.

MT: Tried to physically seize it on the day of their rally. And they backed off, because the prime minister said, and I mentioned this in the article I wrote that you linked to, the prime minister said that if you take my office, I cannot control my street, which means basically that the Sunnis of Lebanon were going to go out in the streets, and forcibly take the prime minister’s office back. And it would be war, and it would be very ugly, because there’s really only so far Hezbollah can take this, because like I explained before, every group in the country is a minority, and no minority group is allowed to rule over the others. And the prime minister’s office is Sunni. And if the Shia tried to physically take it, it’s over. There’s going to be definitely more fighting in Lebanon. And so, Nasrallah backed off, because he knew that that was taking things too far. But then he kept threatening to escalate the situation, and he was saying well, okay, we’re not going to be able to take the prime minister’s office, but we’ll take the airport and shut the whole country down. And for a week, he was threatening to take the airport. And I thought well, God, if he takes the airport again, there’s going to be blood in the streets. And then, somebody who advises Nasrallah, must have taken him aside and talked him out of it, because that would be a bridge too far. And there was no way the rest of the country was going to put up with actually seizing the country like this. And so then Nasrallah, instead of threatening to take the airport, he threatened to escalate, but he was vague about how he was going to escalate.

HH: Well, you’re describing a tinderbox, though.

MT: Basically, yeah.

HH: Any day, something could go wrong, Sarajevo, 1914, sort of thing.

MT: Yup. And then when Nasrallah finally did escalate, all he did was have another rally, because he knew he’d taken the country to the absolute limit, and that if he went any further, it was going to be war.
But Hezbollah went further, after all. Blockading the country for one day triggered three days (so far) of violence. Hezbollah can’t keep this up without provoking a serious murderous backlash. But Hassan Nasrallah still says he will escalate even now. If he does, my prediction for another round of war in Lebanon is well above 50 percent. It could be a short one (we're not talking fifteen more years of hell here) but it would be war all the same.

These things change, though, like volatile weather. A compromise is still possible. And Nasrallah may yet back down. Hezbollah can likely win a defensive war if Lebanese try to disarm them. But they can’t conquer the country. No one is strong enough to do that. If Nasrallah starts that kind of war he’ll lose everything.

The Sunni Arab “street” outside Lebanon rallied behind him as a hero in July and August for his “resistance” against the Israelis. If Nasrallah becomes, instead, the butcher of Sunnis, he will become one of the most detested Arab figures alive.

The Syrian regime wants civil war in Lebanon. Bashar Assad’s late father Hafez helped foment the last one and kept it boiling for fifteen years until Lebanon all but surrendered to Syrian domination. The younger Assad has been trying to re-ignite it ever since March 14 two years ago. He hoped to demonstrate that only Syria can keep order in Lebanon, that Syrian withdrawal means mayhem and blood in the streets.

But Nasrallah and the Iranians (not to mention most Lebanese) don’t want more civil war. It works to Iran’s advantage if their proxy guerilla is a hero in the Arab world. But if the mullahs are seen as the sponsor of Shia killers of Sunnis in Lebanon they’ll be even more staunchly opposed in the Arab world than they already are.

Interesting, and difficult, times lie ahead for Hassan Nasrallah.

UPDATE: Charles Malik at the Lebanese Political Journal notes that Hassan Nasrallah has lost control of his followers. Indeed, he has, which makes things even worse for him and for Lebanon. Hezbollah, and Hezbollah's fans, do not know when to stop. Their delusions of supremacy, strength, and popularity may be their undoing. They made that mistake with the Israelis and learned nothing at all from the experience.

UPDATE: Two snipers, one Syrian and the other Palestinian, have been arrested by the army. Not only has Nasrallah lost control of his fans, he never had control of his masters who have plans of their own. He is riding three tigers at once.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 05:42 PM | Comments (45)

Slouching Toward War -- Continuously Updated

While I'm finishing up my next article, read Michael Young's latest in Beirut's Daily Star:

For the third time in almost a year Lebanon has averted a civil war, but we're nearing the end of the rope. If the Danish Embassy demonstrations and Hizbullah's mobilization in early December were, ultimately, manageable when it came to Christian-Sunni or Sunni-Shiite antagonism, what happened on Tuesday was, in its permutations, pretty much war. And if anything induced Hizbullah to suspend the protests, it was an awareness that if these continued for even a day, war was inevitable.

...Hizbullah had cut off most roads between the eastern and western sectors of Beirut, as well as the airport road. The irresponsibility of those steps was staggering. Not only did the party take Lebanon back to the symbolism of the war years, but Beirut's Sunnis saw the move as trapping them in their half of the capital. The word "blockade" started being used, prompting the mufti to heatedly muster his community. Wael Abu Faour of the March 14 coalition warned that if the army did not reopen the roads, supporters of the majority would. Hizbullah backed down, aware, let's not forget, that a Sunni-Shiite confrontation is a red line for Iran.

However, that reality only reaffirmed how Hizbullah has been juggling contradictory agendas. The Iranians may not want sectarian discord, but what happened this week was fulfillment of the Syrian side of Hizbullah's agenda. The main obstacle remains the Hariri tribunal and Syria's refusal to permit its creation. How Tehran and Damascus will work out their clashing priorities is anybody's guess. You have to assume that with the Lebanese so close to doing battle, and given the dire implications of what this would mean for Hizbullah and its already dilapidated reputation in the Sunni Arab world, Iran will remind Nasrallah of who pays the checks. On the other hand, the Iranians realize that the tribunal might be fatal to the Syrian regime, depriving the Islamic Republic of a key asset in the Levant.

At a more parochial level, the opposition's actions were self-defeating for being built on a lie. If the benchmark of success was Hizbullah's ability to close roads, then Tuesday was indeed successful. However, that weapon has now been used up, and the government remains in place. The next time the opposition threatens to do something similar, we might as well load the guns or head for the shelters. On the other hand, what kind of confidence can anyone have in a party, and its Christian appendages in the Aounist movement and the Marada, that promises to be peaceful, only to practice intimidation? There is such a thing as Lebanese civil society, one hardened by the 1975-1990 war, and it will unite against such abuse.
Read the rest in the Daily Star.

UPDATE: There were more violent clashes in Beirut even after Nasrallah called off his siege. The clashes, of course, are between Sunnis and Shia. Hezbollah used M-16s, and Hariri supporters used pistols. Beirut is now under curfew.


UPDATE: According to the Ouwet Front, Hariri supporters burned the office of the (fascist) Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Tareek Jdeede.

UPDATE: From Naharnet:
Police sappers also defused a rocket that was directed at the Moustaqbal newspaper in Beirut, shortly before it was set to launch. "Luckily they discovered it. It would have resulted in a massacre. The newspaper is packed by journalists at this time of the evening," Editor Nassir al-Assad told Naharnet by telephone.
Moustaqbal is the newspaper for Hariri's Future Movement, by the far the most popular Sunni party in Lebanon.

Naharnet also reports that Hezbollah is attacking buildings in the downtown banking sector.

UPDATE: Thugs from the Hezbollah dahiyeh attacked the Lebanese army.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:48 AM | Comments (135)

January 24, 2007

The Two Faces of Lebanon

Before I analyze what’s going on in Lebanon now, I will first publish some photographs without comment that show the two faces of Lebanon.

Which ones appeal to you more and why?


No War Godot.JPG




I Love Life Billboard.jpg


Glass Tower Beirut.jpg


Wage Peace Billboard.jpg


Shove Your Civil War.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:10 PM | Comments (53)

January 22, 2007

Hezbollah Riots in Lebanon (Continuously Updated)

Beirut Tires Burning.jpg

While I was in Lebanon gathering the material I've been publishing, Hezbollah kept threatening to strangle the country by seizing major roads, including the one that leads to the airport. I was worried I might get stuck there, but I didn't. Today, though, they finally make good on their threat. Palestinian guerillas are reportedly helping.

Future TV and LBC say there are clashes between rioters and commuters. Cars, as well as tires, are burning.

Beirut Tires Burning Night.jpg

Photos via Blacksmiths of Lebanon. Click for more.

UPDATE: Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Seniora accuses Hezbollah of intimidation and terrorism. He may be over-reacting a bit with the t-word in this context, but it's telling because he used to call them a "resistance" movement instead of terrorists. Those days are gone.

UPDATE: More pictures at The Ouwet Front. One commenter says "It looks like Gaza." Yes, it does.

UPDATE: Here is a BBC photo gallery. Below is a sample.



UPDATE: Violence is spreading. Three people have been shot. Sunni and Shia Muslims fought each other with sticks, rocks, and automatic weapons in Southern Beirut. Violent clashes, often involving gunfire, are erupting elsewhere in the country as well.

Smashing Cars Beirut.jpg

Michel Aoun threatens to escalate.

UPDATE: Beirut is covered in smoke.

Smoke Over Beirut.jpg

UPDATE: Just a side note here...Up until today Hezbollah has modeled its "resistance" to the elected government after the March 14 demonstations to oust the occupying Syrian army. The March 14 movement, though, never did anything remotely like this. That's because they are, for the most part, liberal and democratic while Hezbollah is a Syrian-Iranian terrorist army. Today should be a moment of clarity for the willfully obtuse.

Notice, also, that the violent clashes in the streets are mostly between Sunnis and Shia, not between Christians and Shia. This is, and was, entirely predictable. Those who think Hezbollah is a popular movement with the support of Lebanon's Muslims as a whole should think again.

UPDATE: This post is getting a lot of attention from other blogs. This is mostly a link round-up, though. In case you missed some of my recent original reporting from Lebanon, here is an interview with a liberal Shia cleric, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad, no less, who is an outspoken enemy of Hezbollah. And here is a photo gallery of Hezbollah's "capital" south of Beirut that was devastated by the Israeli Air Force during the summer. It looks like World War II blew through there.

UPDATE: Hezbollah called off the so-called "strike." Nasrallah seems to be aware that his latest stunt was seen by Lebanese an act of war in direct violation of Lebanon's power-sharing arrangment.

Members of Parliament today described Hezbollah as "terrorists" and Beirut as "occupied." Nasrallah is learning the limits of what he can do. He can squat downtown, but he can't seize it or burn it without starting a war.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:57 PM | Comments (137)

Jumblatt Challenges Hezbollah

Lebanese Druze leader and Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt has had enough of Hezbollah's ongoing "carnival," as he puts it, and threatens them with massive counter-demonstrations that may take place in the same physical space.

Jumblat, addressing Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said "I advise you to accelerate your party's approval of the international tribunal because in three weeks we have a major event. The third anniversary of the Hariri assassination." "We wish it would be a binding occasion for all the Lebanese. We don't want it to be an occasion for discord when the masses head to downtown Beirut to declare their opposition to (Syrian) hegemony," Jumblat added.
Also worth noting is this:
In outlining his opposition to Hizbullah's Islamist agenda which, like that of Iran, calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, Jumblat said: "We do not support the elimination of Israel. We support the two state solution" by which a viable Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital can live in peace near Israel.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, Hassan Nasrallah accuses the March 14 government of being an Israeli Mossad tool that wishes to expel the Shia from Lebanon. If I were a Lebanese Shia I'd hate the elected government, too, if I believed that hysterical nonsense.

This is the sort of phantasmagorical political environment "the opposition" lives in, and has been raised on.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:00 PM | Comments (66)

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.

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.

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:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 02:45 AM | Comments (205)

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 05:36 PM | Comments (15)

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 01:39 PM | Comments (15)

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 06:47 PM | Comments (81)

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 04:32 PM | Comments (4)

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:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:53 PM | Comments (122)

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:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:23 PM | Comments (219)

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 | Comments (116)

January 09, 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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“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 | Comments (194)

January 08, 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 | Comments (57)

January 05, 2007

“It's Like a Phish Concert for Terrorists”

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BEIRUT – While Hezbollah occupied the Beirut city center in an attempt to bring down the government, I teamed up with my American friend Noah Pollak, who works as assistant editor at Azure Magazine in Jerusalem, and took a trip to Hezbollah’s stronghold in South Lebanon. We wanted to survey the devastation from the July War and see if we could find civilians who had been used as human shields by the Party of God.

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Azure Magazine Assistant Editor Noah Pollak

Before we went to the south, however, Noah wanted to meet Hezbollah members downtown. He had never been to Lebanon before, and I was happy to show him around and introduce him to the “party” that fired missiles in our direction when we covered the July War together from the Israeli side of the border.

He arrived in Beirut at 2:00 a.m. His taxi driver took him alongside the edge of Hezbollah’s downtown encampment. Even in the middle of the night demonstrators were out the streets screaming slogans.

“What are they saying?” Noah said to the driver.

The driver rolled down his window and told the demonstrators an American was in the car and wanted to know what they were saying. One of the men in the street came up to the taxi.

“We will cut Seniora,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s elected prime minister. “We will cut him!”

Noah laughed to himself and knew he had come to Lebanon at the right time.

The next day I took him downtown so we could sit and talk with the malcontents and the disgruntled. First, though, we had to stop by one of the Hezbollah propaganda stands so I could buy a “resistance” scarf and go incognito into the tent city. Don’t laugh. It actually worked. All the hostile paranoia I had to put up with from Hezbollah’s security agents vanished entirely as soon as I put a Hezbollah scarf around my neck. The goons with their sunglasses and ear-pieces stopped staring at me, stopped tracking my movement, and stopped getting twitchy when I took pictures. They are strikingly obtuse individuals if wearing a scarf is all it takes to blend in.

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So I picked up a scarf at the stand. Flags, t-shirts, and rear-view mirror ornaments were also for sale. Noah bought the biggest Hezbollah flag he could find.

A Lebanese woman walked by and smirked as she asked us where we were from.

“United States,” I said.

“And…” she said. “You like Hezbollah?” She tried hard not to laugh at us.

“Not really,” I said under my breath so the vendor couldn’t hear. “We just want souvenirs because we think it’s funny.”

She smiled and knowingly nodded.

I bought a Hezbollah t-shirt in Baalbeck last year – because it’s ironic and funny, not because I would ever actually wear it. A Lebanese army soldier watched me hand the vendor five dollars, and he shook his head sadly in grave disappointment. He was twenty years older than me, and I doubted he would understand the flip ironic GenX/Southpark sense of humor. Surely he thought I was a duped useful idiot.

Noah and I paid for our items. I put the scarf around my neck and felt as ridiculous as I must have looked.

Me with Hezbollah Scarf.jpg

Oh well. Hezbollah’s security brutes left me alone, so it was worth it. (Needless to say, I would not dare wear that scarf in any other part of Beirut.) Noah’s complexion allows him to pass as Lebanese (or as someone from anywhere else around the Mediterranean) so his appearance wasn’t a magnet for the paranoid and the suspicious.

He and I walked toward the tent-city and passed an angry-looking group of young women on their way out. One woman narrowed her eyes at me.

“Where are you from?” she said. She looked me in the eye, looked at my Hezbollah scarf, looked me in the eye again, looked back and my Hezbollah scarf. Then she yelled at me: “Are you from the States?!”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re from the States.”

For a second I thought she was yelling at me because she was anti-American. We were at the Hezbollah encampment, after all. But that wasn’t it. She yelled at me because she thought I was a stupid American who supported Hezbollah. (Not everyone who ventured downtown during the sit-in supports the “resistance.” Some were there as horrified onlookers.)

One of the young woman’s friends took her by the shoulders and turned her away from Noah and me. As they began walking away she nodded her head and flexed her hands as though she were trying to restrain herself and calm down.

Some Westerners really do show up in Lebanon and support Hezbollah, or at least get defensive on Hezbollah’s behalf. (Meanwhile they spend all their time in the liberal parts of Lebanon where Hezbollah is hated. So on some level they know who their friends are.) I wasn’t at all annoyed that this young woman yelled at me. She reminded me of a man I met last year while hitchhiking in the mountains.

"Tell me something," he said. “Lots of Americans come here and think we like Hezbollah. Why? We hate that. We hate Hezbollah!”

So Noah and I walked the grounds without getting any attitude or even attention from Hezbollah security. We did, however, get some unwanted attention from Hezbollah’s fans.

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The restaurant district of downtown Beirut was closed by the army to prevent vandalism

Next to the closed-off area of downtown where most of the restaurants are located is a small Roman ruin site. It was discovered for the first time in the 1990s when civil war-era rubble was cleared out of the way.

Noah and I leaned up against the railing next to two young Shia women wearing headscarves. Noah snapped a picture.

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“Look,” one of the women said and pointed down at the ground next to a pillar. “It’s a picture of Hassan Nasrallah.”

Sure enough, there is was.

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“Yeah,” Noah said. “It’s down there with the trash where it belongs.”

Noah,” I said under my breath. “No need to be rude.” I did agree with him, though, that Nasrallah belonged in the garbage.

We talked amongst ourselves, about what I don’t remember. I smiled at the two women so they wouldn’t feel bad.

Then an older man walked up to Noah and me. He said something in Arabic, something I did not understand. Then he plowed his shoulder into Noah’s and knocked Noah sideways. He hadn’t heard Noah’s insult directed at Hassan Nasrallah. Nor could he have possibly known our political views. He was just mad because he heard us speaking English. My Hezbollah scarf didn’t ward everyone off. It only seemed to work with the oblivious security agents.

“Hi,” Noah said to him as though nothing had happened. “What’s up?”

I braced myself for anything. Our rude new “friend” said something else unintelligible and stalked off.

“Merry Christmas!” Noah said to his back.

Beirut is a cosmopolitan city when Hezbollah doesn’t squat in the middle of it.

Aside from this guy and two other random hostile individuals, Hezbollah’s camp-out was more mellow than it was the first time I went down there. The passion had cooled. Fewer people screamed slogans. The energy level was lower. Most appeared to have succumbed to some kind or torpor. It isn’t easy to be hopped up on protest adrenaline for several days in a row. Eventually you have to sit down, eat a sandwich, and smoke a nargileh.

Hezbollah Nargileh.jpg

The environment downtown was very different from what most Westerners would likely expect from a civil disobedience movement mounted by a Syrian-Iranian proxy militia.

Mellow Downtown.JPG

Prominent figures gave public speeches to roaring applause, not to bullets shot into the sky.

College students made circles with chairs and held teach-ins.

Patriotic and Arabic pop music blared through speaker towers.

Snack stands were set up all over the place.

Hezbollah Snack Stand.jpg

“Dude,” Noah said. “It’s like a Phish concert down here. Only it’s a Phish concert for terrorists.”

We walked the maze of tents and snapped pictures, looking for someone who seemed approachable enough to be interviewed. Few people paid us any mind, and we sat on a curb to drink a soda and smoke a cigarette.

Three young men walked up to us.

“Hello,” said the first. He introduced himself as Jad. “Where are you from?”

“We’re from the U.S,” Noah said.

“Welcome to Lebanon,” he said. “What is your impression?” Lebanese often ask me this question.

“You mean, what do we think of the political situation?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Eh,” I said. “We’re Americans. We’re not the biggest fans of Hezbollah.” The contrast between what I said and what I was wearing (the Hezbollah scarf) did not seem to register.

“Where are you from?” Noah said.

“From Beirut,” said another of the young men.

“Do you mean the dahiyeh?” I said. Dahiyeh means “suburb” in Arabic. It specifically refers to Hezbollah’s “capital” of Haret Hreik just south of Beirut.

“Yes,” he said. “From the dahiyeh. Have you been there?”

“I have, he hasn’t,” I said and gestured to Noah.

“This is your first trip to Lebanon?” Jad said to Noah.

“Yep,” Noah said and sipped from his drink. “It’s great.”

The five of us discussed Lebanese and international politics. The conversation was perfectly civil and pleasant even though they supported Hezbollah and Noah and I (obviously) did not. I didn’t write everything down, so I can’t quote very much. The discussion was more social and less of an interview. But I did take some notes when Noah asked a very important question.

“So,” Noah said. “What do you guys think of Iran?”

Hezbollah Scarf Interview.jpg

“Syria and Iran are helping us,” Jad said. “We don’t want them to rule in Lebanon. I like drinking and chasing girls and having a good time. We don’t want to be like Iran. If Hezbollah tried to make us like Iran, that would be a big problem for us.”

They were secular Shia. And yet they supported Hezbollah, an Islamist militia that is controlled by an Islamist dictatorship. As a noteworthy counterpoint (and I’ll write much more about this in the near future), I met a Shia cleric in the dahiyeh with a PhD in religion from Qom in Iran who is a strident opponent of Hezbollah.

Counterintuitive as it may be, Islamists are sometimes supported by secular people while facing hostility from the religious. The Middle East is rarely as simple as it appears.

The Shia have long been politically and economically marginalized by the Sunnis and Christians of Lebanon. Hezbollah, you might say, is the revenge of the Shia. Their appeal is much more sectarian and political than it is religious.

Two men heard that we were speaking in English and, once again and for no other reason, felt compelled to come over and harass Noah and me.

“Where are you from!” the first man yelled.

“United States,” I said and looked away from him, uninterested.

He grit his teeth, leaned forward, and jutted his face up next to mine.

“Do you like Bush?” he demanded.

“No,” I said passively.

“Do you like Olmert?” he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister in a particularly nasty tone of voice.

“No,” I said. “No,” I repeated more forcefully. I was honest with him, too. Ehud Olmert is arguably the worst prime minister in Israel’s history. Huge numbers of Israelis agree with that assessment, and even many Lebanese I spoke to said they wished Ariel Sharon (who is seriously hated in Lebanon) were prime minister instead of Olmert.

This guy really looked like he was spoiling for a fight. If I were Olmert’s biggest cheerleader I would likely have kept my mouth shut at that moment. He was satisfied, though, when I said I didn’t like Olmert. So he and his buddy walked off.

An older fat man in a red shirt interjected himself into our conversation. He had the wide open eyes of an agitated extremist. He got into a mildly heated political argument with Noah, who remained calm and collected throughout. I was having my own conversation with the more civil and interesting young man named Jad. I did catch two telling points from the enraged man in red, however, and they bear repeating.

“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!”

This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Israel does not receive weapons from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or any other Arab country. Don’t write off what he said as just another Middle Eastern conspiracy theory, though. He is aware that an important geopolitical shift has occurred.

Sunni Arab regimes – most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia – took Israel’s side during the opening of the July War. And every Arab government in the world except for Syria’s supports Lebanon’s government against Hezbollah’s “resistance.”

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has a new talking point that seems to be filtering down. He’s accusing Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora of being a tool of the “Zionist Entity.” Seniora is continuing the July War on Israel’s behalf, according to Nasrallah, because he’s pushing for Hezbollah’s disarmament.

Seniora gets a lot of grief from commenters in the West for not moving quickly or decisively enough against Hezbollah. Look, though, at what he has to deal with.

It’s also worth pointing out that Al Qaeda accuses Hezbollah of being Zionist tools because Nasrallah won’t allow Sunni terrorists to come into Lebanon and use the south as a launch pad for strikes into Israel.

Six Arab governments – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia – say they will pursue nuclear weapons programs now because Iran’s atomic bombs need to be countered. None of these Arab countries sought nuclear weapons to offset those acquired by Israel. They fear and loathe the Shia of Lebanon and Iran (and most likely Iraq, as well) more than they worry about the Zionists regardless of what they may say.

The wider Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East, whose epicenter now is in Baghdad, may supplant the Arab-Israeli conflict some time in the future. For now, though, the Arab-Israeli conflict is used by both sides of the inter-Islamic divide to score propaganda points against the other.

“We have one enemy,” said the angry man in the red shirt. “The Israeli army. Us and the Yehudi people are friends.”

Hardly any Jews in the world are silly enough to believe Hezbollah are their friends. Israel does have friends in the Shia community, however, even though they are a minority.

This should not be too hard to believe. When Israel invaded South Lebanon in 1982 to evict terrorists in the (Sunni) Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Shia of Lebanon hailed the Israelis as liberators. This was the natural, instinctive, default position of Lebanon’s Shia as recently as the 1980s. It was only after Israel stayed too long and behaved obnoxiously during the occupation, and after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards infiltrated the area and whipped people up into a radical frenzy, that the current Hezbollah-Israeli conflict took shape.

Israel’s Lebanon proxy – the South Lebanese Army – later was formed in the south to combat the “resistance.” It started out as predominantly Christian, but most of its members were Shia at the end.

I was slightly embarrassed on Lebanon’s behalf after showing Noah downtown. He hadn’t met any liberal or moderate Lebanese people yet. Hezbollah would like you to believe that their warmongering and bigoted conspiracy theories are mainstream, but it isn’t so. Even their Christian “allies” in the Free Patriotic Movement part ways with them on this stuff. Only Amal, the other major Shia political party, defends Hezbollah as a militia and a state-within-a-state any more.

No matter, though. First thing in the morning Noah and I had plans to take a road trip to the South, to Bint Jbail and the surrounding region, with serious professional Lebanese enemies of Hezbollah. They were well-trained in combat and they knew the safest roads in the area. It was time to go looking for civilians who were used as human shields during the war. Our time together in Beirut was over.

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 10:35 AM | Comments (275)

January 04, 2007

Interviewed by Hugh Hewitt

I'll have another long article posted shortly. In the meantime, Hugh Hewitt interviewed me on his national radio show.

Here is an excerpt:
HH: All right. Explain to people what Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon is right now, and this is really chilling, by the way, I must tell you, Michael Totten. I’ve linked it at Hughhewitt.com. Your conversation with the young teenagers, your description of their security forces, your detailing of their ambitions, Hezbollah is a menace, and just tell people about it.

MT: Well, basically, like I said before, what they really want, more than anything else, is as much power in Lebanon as they can acquire. And although they are an Islamist party, their main goal at this point, I don’t believe, is to turn Lebanon into an Islamist state, because they know it’s impossible. For one reason, more than a third of the country are Christians, and they will fight them to the end if they try to create Lebanon as an Islamist state. But also, there is the fact that the Sunni don’t want it, either, and if they did, they would be arguing about which kind of Islamist state to have. But also, the truth is that the majority of the Shia also do not want an Islamist state in Lebanon, and they never have. And so, while Hezbollah used to say that they wanted to turn Lebanon into basically, you know, an Iranian style state, but there’s just no way that they can do this, and they’ve had internal arguments about this, and Hassan Nasrallah is actually more moderate than the previous leaders of Hezbollah, and the previous leaders were pushed aside, because they wanted to Islamicize the entire country. And Nasrallah was chosen because he was seen as more pragmatic and more moderate, I mean, moderate, really only compared to who was running the show previously. So what they really want is they want Shia power in Lebanon as much as possible. And the reason, the only way they can get it is to be the only political party in the country that has an army. And the only way that they can justify having an army is if they are in a constant state of war with the Israelis.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:53 PM | Comments (29)

January 02, 2007

Hanging With Hezbollah

“If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” – Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, October 23, 2002

Nasrallah with Gun.jpg

BEIRUT – After Hezbollah mounted a protest aimed at bringing down Lebanon’s elected government, several thousand demonstrators remained downtown and camped out in tents, effectively occupying the center of the city. They first tried to seize and occupy Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s office in the Ottoman-era Serail. But Seniora warned Hezbollah that if his office were taken he could not control his “street.” Translation: If you seize the state’s institutions, the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon are going to kill you. Hezbollah knew this was true, and so they backed off. It didn’t hurt that the government of Saudi Arabia backed up Seniora on this point. But Hezbollah’s occupation of the neutral parts of downtown continues even into 2007.

I ventured downtown myself the day after the made-for-TV protest was over, when Hezbollah and friends no longer wanted attention from foreign media. Their lack of interest, if I could call it that, was instantly obvious. Ubiquitous security agents with the tell-tale sunglasses and earpieces stared at me coldly and turned their heads as I walked past.

Hundreds of tents were set up in parks, parking lots, and squares downtown, most of them made of white canvass. I snapped a few pictures, and nobody stepped in to stop me.

Hezbollah Tent City 2.jpg

One group of tents in a parking lot across from the Hariri mosque were all made of black canvas. What’s up with the black tents, I wondered. So I walked over and lifted my camera to my face.

Five ear-pieced Hezbollah agents aggressively pounced on me at once. They surrounded me and screamed “No!” Then they physically pushed me away from the tents and got in my face so I could not see behind them.

I’ve been accused of spying many times while in Lebanon, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this is what the Hezbollah agents thought I was doing. Many Lebanese are paranoid – often with good reason – but no one is nearly as paranoid as Hezbollah. (As a side note, one Lebanese man who suspected I worked for the CIA literally begged me to get him a job.)

“Sahafi!” I yelled back at them. Journalist!

“No, no, no!” they yelled and pushed me away. I lowered my camera, threw up my hands, and turned to walk away. Then they left me alone.

It’s almost always like this or worse when I run into actual members of the Hezbollah militia.

The first time I met Hussein Naboulsi, Hezbollah’s media relations liaison, he was perfectly friendly. But he later threatened me with physical violence because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. On another occasion I was detained for two hours by Hezbollah because they suspected one of my photojournalist colleagues was a Jew. A reporter friend (and I’ll keep his name out of this) was harassed because of an entirely innocuous article he wrote about them for a mainstream left-wing American magazine. Chris Allbritton, who works on occasion for Time magazine, wrote the following on his blog during the July War: “Hizbullah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

This is how Hezbollah treats Western journalists. I’d say I’m surprised more journalists don’t mention this sort of thing in their articles. But most journalists don’t write first-person narratives. Industry rules generally don’t allow them to describe these kinds of incidents. Even though it has been years since Hezbollah has kidnapped or physically harmed Western journalists, some may be afraid to rile up an Iranian proxy militia that is listed by the United States government as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah informed me that I’m officially blacklisted (meaning they will no longer give me interviews or even quotes) for what I have written about them in the past.

Some journalists don’t want to burn bridges to their own access and make their jobs harder. I don’t personally care. Last year I interviewed a high-level Hezbollah official, Mohammad Afif, but it was a useless interview that wasn’t even worth publishing. My translator told me that what Afif said matched exactly word-for-word what Hezbollah says every day on their own Al Manar TV channel. Losing access to these guys isn’t that big a deal.

I walked across the street deliberately in full view of the agents who got in my face, sat down on the sidewalk in front of heavily armed Lebanese soldiers, and furiously began taking notes. I chucked inside as I did this because I knew they could see what I was doing.

Leb Army Hariri Mosque.jpg

I knew they wouldn’t do anything to me, and I wanted to let them know that their bullying behavior just earned them bad press. (Israelis who hassle and rudely interrogate journalists in Ben-Gurion airport ought to learn the same lesson one of these days.) I scribbled my furious notes, looked them in the eye, scribbled more furious notes, looked them in the eye again, and scribbled more furious notes.

Hezbollah is not half as media savvy as they like to fashion themselves. Harassing foreign journalists may keep some of them in line, so to speak, but it backfires with the rest of us. Bullying writers who are free of the old school media constraints of “objectivity” is a media war equivalent of dropping a hand grenade down your pants.

At least one of the security agents was smart enough to figure this out. He slowly walked up to me.

“What?” I said as I lifted my head.

He pointed at my camera, said something unintelligible, then pointed at the black tents.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I know, I know.” I went back to writing furious notes.

“No, no, no!” he said.

What?” I said, genuinely annoyed now.

A group of six teenagers between sixteen and eighteen years old saw the commotion and came over to see what was happening. One of them offered to translate.

“He said it is okay to take pictures,” he said.

“It is okay?” I said, and completely dropped my affected hostility.

“Yes, yes,” another kid said. “Come on.” He offered his hand and helped me up.

“Thanks, guys,” I said.

“Don’t worry about them,” a third teenager said. “They are handicaps.”

“Come on!” another said. “Come with us! We’ll show you around!”

They led me back across the street to the black tents. I lifted my camera and snapped a quick picture.

Black Hezbollah Tents.jpg

It’s not that interesting a picture. It has no real value. What a waste for Hezbollah to earn themselves bad press in order to keep this innocuous photo from being released into the world, especially since in the end I was able to publish it anyway.

But I almost didn’t get it. Another Hezbollah security agent saw me take the picture and ran up to me.

“No!” he screamed and waved his arms. He menacingly put his face four inches from mine. “How many pictures did you take!” he yelled.

“Just one,” I said.

“Delete it right now!” he screamed. “You were told not to take pictures!”

Who were these guys to tell me what to do anyway? Lebanon is a free country, Hezbollah isn’t the government, and I was taking pictures of a public parking lot.

“No,” I said, “I was just told that I could take pictures.” I looked at my new teenager friends, waiting for them to back me up.

“Yes, yes, it’s okay,” one of the kids told the agent.

“No!” the agent said. “You delete it right now!”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll delete it on one condition…if you tell me why I can’t take a picture. What are you doing here that you want to hide?”

The truth is I would have deleted it without any conditions. I didn’t care about having the picture, and the last thing I needed was to get in a fight with these people. I just wanted to know what he would say when I asked him why he was paranoid. Of course he would have no prepared answer.

“Never mind!” he said as he threw his hands in the air, turned around, and stormed back into the tents.

“What on earth is their problem?” I said to the kids who stuck up for me and offered to show me around.

“Don’t worry,” said the one who had taken my hand. “They are handicaps.”

They are, indeed, “handicaps,” at least mentally. If they actually thought I was a spy (but I don’t know, maybe they didn’t) their behavior would have told me all I needed to know. It’s obvious which part of the tent city houses the leadership and the elite. It’s the one place, the black tented section, where the agents completely freak out if you show up with a camera. If I were to call up the CIA or the Mossad and give them air strike coordinates (or whatever it was Hezbollah was afraid of) all I’d have to say is “aim for the black tents.”

The teenagers who had volunteered as my guides, translators, and advocates, led me to the much larger section of the camp where everyone lived and slept in white tents.

Hezbollah Tent City 1.jpg

“Which party are you with?” I asked them.

“Hezbollaaaaaaaah,” said the lead kid and grinned. “Here, here, take a picture of this car!” They talked and moved fast with the boundless energy of young people on an adventure.

I took a picture of the car.

Nasrallah Car.jpg

“That’s Hassan Nasrallah. Do you know Hassan Nasrallah? He is a big hero.”

“Why is he a hero?” I said.

“He resists the Israelis!”

“Are all of you guys with Hezbollah?” I said.

“Yes!” one of them said. “We are all with Hassan Nasrallah!” They said this in such a way that they expected me to share their views even though they knew I am American. At least they expected I wouldn’t mind that they support Hassan Nasrallah. I doubt they felt any hostility to me personally whatsoever.

“So, what is it you hope to accomplish downtown?” I said.

“We want Seniora to leave,” one of them said.

“We want to fuck Seniora,” said another.

“I know,” I said. “Why do you want to get rid of him, though? What do you want from the government that you can’t get with Seniora?”

“War!” said one of the kids.

“We want war!” said another.

A third kid slapped the second up the side of his head. The slapped kid laughed and pushed his hand in his friend’s face.

I couldn’t tell if this playful spat was because they didn’t agree about wanting more war, or because they weren’t supposed to admit it in front of a foreign reporter. I have met Hezbollah supporters whom I know don’t want more war with Israel. Some of them truly believe that Israel will attack no matter what and that Hezbollah is Lebanon’s only defense.

White Hezbollah Tents.jpg

“We want to unite Lebanon and have a democracy,” said the kid who seemed to be their leader. He was the most mature and collected, and the others deferred to him with their body language.

“You have a democracy, though,” I said. “You didn’t win as many seats in the parliament as you would like, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a democracy. You can’t always get what you want in a democracy.”

“The American government rules Seniora,” said another. “They interfere in my business.”

“In what ways?” I said.

“America helps Israel against Lebanon and sells them weapons.”

None of these kids wanted to give me their names. I took notes of our conversation, but I cannot tell you who exactly said what. These quotes will have to go unattributed.

“What about Syria?” I said. “America helps Lebanon against Syria.”

“Bush killed all those politicians because he doesn’t want peace in Lebanon.”

“Why wouldn’t Bush want peace in Lebanon?” I said.

“I don’t know!”

“Americans don’t want war in Lebanon," I said. "It would not serve our interests or yours. Do you think Americans want chaos in Lebanon just for the heck of it?”

“We don’t hate the American people, only the government.”

“Okay,” I said. “So why then does Hassan Nasrallah repeatedly say Death to America?” I asked these questions in the most friendly and casual tone of voice I could muster.

“He only means death to the American government.”

“Why doesn’t he make that clear then?” I said.

“He does!”

“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “He says Death to America. What would you think of George W. Bush if he gave speeches where he screamed Death to Lebanon? Come on, guys. Be honest with me. I want to know what you really think.”

“I want to go to America,” the leader kid said. “I love America and I want to live in America. America is rich and free. I want to be rich and free, too.”

I think the kid was sincere. His politics are a product of Hezbollah’s schools, his community, and his peer group. But politics in the Middle East isn’t as personal as it often is in the West, in part because Middle Easterners are accustomed to having their politics dictated to them by the powerful. Politicians are usually above accountability and beyond control of the people. They assume that’s how it is in the Western countries as well.

Street-level anti-Americanism is sometimes more moderate, complicated, and contradictory than it appears from far away. There is often a vast gulf separating those in the Arab world who incite anti-Americanism and those who more passively go along with it. The difference in temperament between Hezbollah’s bullying agents and the kids who showed me around are just one example.

“So,” I said. “Who do you think won the war in July? Israel or Hezbollah?”


“We beat Israel!”

“Does that mean you want to do it again?” I said.

“Yes!” half of them said.

“No!” the other half said simultaneously.

One of the kids who said “no” slapped one of the kids who said “yes.” Again, I couldn’t tell if that was because they didn’t agree with each other or because they weren’t supposed to sound like warmongers in front of a foreign reporter.

Most Lebanese will give you their honest opinions, no matter how off-the-wall or crazy their opinions might be. And they’ll do it without showing even a hint of embarrassment. Sometimes, though, I’m not convinced people are being straight with me. This was one of those times.

The gang took me around the tent city and introduced me to their friends. “Check this out! Here, meet these people!”

Hezbollah Tent Gathering.jpg

“Look at that crane. Take a picture of that!”

Hezbollah Crane.jpg

“There’s Nasrallah again. Quick. Take a picture!”

Hezbollah Car.jpg

Some of their friends were clearly a little bit wary. I could read it on their faces. Who’s this American, and why am I meeting him? Most, though, were perfectly friendly. They shook my hand, smiled, and said “Welcome.”

For some now-forgotten reason I thought one of the people I was introduced to was Druze, and I was surprised. Only a handful of Druze support Hezbollah. Very nearly all of them are with Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, who heads up the Progressive Socialist Party, and with the pro-Western “March 14” government. So I was happy to meet one of the tiny fraction of Druze who were outside the mainstream.

“You’re Druze?” I said to him.

He shook his head in confusion, clearly because he didn’t understand English.

“Inta Durzi?” I said. Are you Druze?

A look of horror and disgust washed over his face.

“La,” he said. No. “Ana Shia.” I am Shia.

I didn’t mean to insult him, but apparently I had. So much of what passes for politics in Lebanon is really just sectarian animosity, which is the primary reason most Christians, Sunnis, and Druze are against Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a well-armed Shia militia, the only militia of its kind in the country. The Christians don’t have their own army. The Sunni don’t have their army. And the Druze don’t have their own army. Hezbollah’s very existence is against Lebanese law, not to mention international law. Their existence as a foreign-backed army also violates Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing pact which dates back to the founding of the republic.

“Jumblatt is a handicap,” the leader of the kids said.

“Can I take a picture of you guys?” I said.

Most said no. Almost everyone in Lebanon is paranoid about somebody or other. Most Lebanese fear the Syrians. Hezbollah fears the Americans and the Israelis.

Two of them did let me take their picture, however.

Two Hezbollah Supporters.jpg

I said my goodbyes, genuinely thanked them for their time and hospitality, and walked toward the Beirut city center where most of the restaurants and shops can be found.

Every business was closed. The military blockaded every street leading to the center of town with checkpoints and coils of razor wire. Hezbollah and their friends (apparently) couldn’t be trusted not to vandalize the portion of Beirut that had been rebuilt and refurbished by the Hariri clan whom Hezbollah views as their Sunni enemies.

I approached a Lebanese army soldier standing watch.

“Is it okay if I take a picture?” I said.

He put his hand on his heart. “No, please, not today,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“No problem,” I said. “Thank you, though.”

He must have had no idea why I thanked him. The reason I did is because I appreciated that he spoke to me like a normal human being and like a typical Lebanese – friendly, welcoming, and polite. The contrast between average Lebanese (and I’m including Hezbollah’s casual supporters in that group when I say this) and Hezbollah’s official party members and elite is extraordinary. Most of the people of Lebanon are instinctively decent on a personal level no matter their political views or ideology. Hezbollah itself, though, is instinctively menacing and hostile and belligerent. Their ideology is an alien one, imported from the East, from the extremist regime in Tehran. If they ever end up as rulers of Lebanon – and it will surely mean war if they try – Lebanon will no longer be recognizable.

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.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 06:33 PM | Comments (189)

New Comments Policy

If I have never heard of you before and you show up in the comments for the first time and start hurling personal insults I will delete your comment and you will be banned from posting future comments. I will no longer issue warnings to newcomers. Babysitting isn't my job. Only people who have proven they have something to contribute deserve warnings. Introducing yourself with an eff-you attitude will get you summarily banned, and that's final.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 04:18 PM | Comments (30)