Archive for July 2010
Today, there’s no shortage of news in Lebanon. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Assad of Syria are in town today in an attempt to contain the potential “explosion” of tensions. As words heat up between Hezbollah and the March 14 alliance over the coming results of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, there promises to be no shortage of activity in Beirut in the coming days, weeks and months.
While these might certainly be things to get excited about, it’s not all that’s going on in country.
A little while back, infamous Lebanese politician and Druze leader Walid Junblatt introduced legislation to parliament that would increase the civil rights of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. As it stands today, Palestinians are barred from a number of professions in the country, not allowed to own land, lack most basic services and suffer from many other forms of de facto discrimination in Lebanon. While there is a dearth of studies on the situation of Palestinians in Lebanon, many say that it is worse than in other countries that host a large number of refugees such as Syria and Jordan.
The greatest fear among both Lebanese and Palestinians is tawtin – the naturalization of Palestinians in Lebanon. Giving rights, it is feared by some, will serve as a stepping stone to citizenship. With 400,000 or so Palestinian refugees in country (a number that is still growing) citizenship would disrupt Lebanon’s fragile sectarian and political balances.
The issue gets more complex. More fears surround the armed nature of many of the groups operating in the camps. Some would prefer the Palestinians not to get too comfortable in Lebanon.
The discussion and voting has been pushed back to August 17th. If passed, this should mark a new era for Palestinians in Lebanon who have, since their arrival in country over 60 years ago, not been taken care of by the Lebanese state at all and suffered immens.
During my time in Lebanon, I’ve spent a lot of time inside of the Palestinian camps. When I arrived, I made it a priority to get down to them as soon as possible. The camps – even in the outskirts of Beirut – are a stark contrast to the country that a lot of people see. Living conditions are horrible. The kids don’t go to school. Militias of every stripe and color operate openly. While I now get 24 hours of electricity in east Beirut flat, the Palestinians residing in some camps are lucky to get a couple of hours in the early evening .
While Lebanon has been much calmer in the last year than in many others, the Palestinian camps still see quite a bit of violence, often unreported unless bullets skipping out of Saida’s Ain el-Helweh camp force the closure of the coastal highway to Beirut or somebody gets assassinated.
As I’ve been told in multiple variations several times during my sojourns to Lebanon’s refugee camps, “the Palestinian dies slowly in Lebanon.”
In April, I had the opportunity to publish a long article on Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee community in Lebanon for Esquire Middle East out of Dubai. While I initially thought that the camps would be excellent material for writing, it quickly became apparent that many have become sick and tired of the topic – so it more refreshing than I can describe that Esquire gave me so much room in copy. Photos, as usual, are by the talented Sam Tarling, who traveled with me long and far across the country for the article.
Anyways, check out the PDF here.
In May and June I took a couple of trips down to Mlita – a former base of guerrilla operations for Hezbollah that the Islamist organization has now turned into an “educational park” – working on an article on tourism in southern Lebanon for Executive Magazine.
A lot of people in the West’s media were quick to slam the park as a “Jihadi theme park” – bringing to ming ghastly images. Rather though, what Mlita is, is an opportunity to see up close how Hezbollah’s armed wing acts as a guerrilla force. The thing that struck me the most was Mlita is in a lot of ways (one of the very few) museums dedicated to war that is not over, meaning that the depth the visitor gains from a visit is a little heavier than a trip to the mock bomb shelters at the Imperial War Museum in London.
The weaponry on display is impressive and it’s assumed that what is shown is all weapons that the organization doesn’t necessarily need. They even have an American-made TOW missile system, which my guides declined to comment on. The bunkers and firing positions on the hilltop at Mlita are striking in that they still exist, despite Mlita being one of the most bombed bases in the “Tofah” region behind Nabitiyeh where Hezbollah mounted raids and attacks on the Israeli-occupied areas of southern Lebanon up until Israel’s 2000 withdrawal.
There are healthy doses of propaganda though, especially from the appointed guides (one of mine also happened to be a Celtics fan!) and inside of a building that boasts tins of captured Israeli tuna fish and a map detailing strategic points of interest within Israel.
The thing is though, Mlita is put together well, in a way that few museums or sites in this region are. Besides the propaganda (which was slightly more thoughtful than say, what you get at the military museum in downtown Damascus or at Port Said’s museum paying tribute to Egyptian troops) Mlita clearly stands apart. This wasn’t put together hastily.
The “educational park” is just the beginning though. What do we have in store? Well, I was told that a hotel, telefrique cable car (just like in Jounieh!) and a paintball facility among other things are in the works. These projects underline Hezbollah again working to provide for the citizens of southern Lebanon what they do not have. While most of this work goes into hospitals and schools, now it’s being turned to entertainment, saving residents a long and costly trip up north to Beirut or further.
So far, Mlita has seemingly been quite popular and looks to continue to be so.
While the officials there told me that they want to get more Westerners to visit, there are going to have to be some changes to get Mlita listed in Lonely Planet. On my first trip down there with freelancer Theo May (who is, by the way, walking the route of Alexander the Great’s conquests, including the rough spots. He’s currently in Gaza and Baghdad bound in a few months) we decided to take the scenic route cutting south from Jezzine. Wrong decision. Someplace in the vicinity of Sojud (where Hassan Nasrallah’s son Hadi was killed by an Israeli mortar round in 1997) we stopped our little rental Picante and asked directions from a local man who turned out to be Amal. As we were detained for quite a while while they sifted through our cameras and Theo’s laptop and demanded to know what we were doing there, a minivan pulled up and asked the same question, but alas as they weren’t obviously foreign were shown right along. You can read an account of all this up at Theo’s blog here.
The southern route taking the major highways to Nabitiyeh is clearly marked and most likely less problematic. Just don’t make a wrong turn if you’re not local.
I’ve got some more pictures of Mlita and will upload when Lebanon’s awesome internet speeds allow.
Last night Now Lebanon ran a piece looking into the taboos surrounding Jews who are in Lebanon, taking a look primarily at foreigners of Jewish heritage who find themselves in country. It’s timely: during the summer months a lot more Westerners than usual flood into Lebanon, looking to study Arabic and get a taste of the country. Inevitably, some will be Jewish and forced to deal with the ways that many in the country perceive them.
Despite being one of Lebanon’s recognized religious sects and being a relatively thriving community in the country not all that long ago, today Jews – either foreign or local – are rare in Lebanon. Perceptions of Jews held can sometimes be quite hostile and it is hard for me to imagine how people of that heritage could put up with some situations that they might find themselves in here in Lebanon.
It got me thinking a bit. Here are a couple of quick anecdotes:
Last November I was at Beirut’s airport catching a flight to Dubai. The customs officer I had was a young woman – maybe mid 20s at most – and judging by how she was repeatedly carving her name into her keyboard with her pen, didn’t seem to take her job all that seriously. Yet when I came up and presented my passport to her, she got a look of shock on her face. She took my passport off to a side office where there were several officers and left me standing there. After ten minutes or so she called me in. As I walked into the office, she simply motioned to me and said “al yahood” (or “the Jew” for non-Arabic speakers). I was caught aback – I do not believe my name sounds Jewish nor do I think I have “stereotypic” Jewish features. The officers quickly flipped through my passport as I searched my mind for a rebuttal – but before I had one they saw that I was born in Saudi Arabia, muttered something about how I must be Sunni (I’m nominally Catholic, for the record) and let me go.
My first reaction during the airport incident was to reach for my St. Christopher medallion which I carried with me – I wasn’t too sure how otherwise to prove religion or lack thereof as unlike Lebanese IDs, none of mine carry a faith. But, there was no St. Christopher to be shown. A week earlier, a gunman (posing as a servees passenger) wielding one of those ubiquitous Soviet bloc 9mms relieved me of it while I was in a taxi coming back to Ashrafieh from Hamra. Long story. At the Bir Hassan police station where I ended up though, the police weren’t too interested in the details of the mugging though. Before I could even start talking the officer in charge looked at me and said “you are Jew” – no, not a question, a direct statement. After this went on for about an hour in mixed Arabic and English, it was ominously threatening and their behavior was offensive. I gave a brief statement on the crime and then it went back to the pseudo interrogation about my heritage and my politics.
I couldn’t imagine having to deal with episodes like this if I were in fact Jewish. What is the appropriate response when the person asking the question (or rather in these cases, making the assumption) holds some position of authority and is acting in a threatening manner? What happens if you confirm that you are Jewish in one of these situations?
The Lebanese are perpetually afraid of spies and rightfully so. Just in the past month we’ve seen a wave of arrests of alleged spies in Lebanon. However, the Lebanese doesn’t have to be afraid of foreigners. If there’s one country in the world where Israel does not need to send too many actual Mossad operatives, it’s probably Lebanon. Israel’s 22-year-long occupation of southern Lebanon gave them a long time to build up informants and spies. Besides being able to co-opt informants from even the most unlikely places (including the son of a Hamas leader) the Israelis had allies in Lebanon throughout their occupation and during the civil war. Local operatives probably would move a lot better around sensitive areas in the country, given how much of a hard time foreigners get poking around down south these days.
The examples that I gave were not the only instances that I’ve run into or heard of, nor do they imply that all Lebanese people are unable to distinguish things such as the divide between Jews and Zionists or that they are xenophobic. However, the frequency of such happenings is disturbing.
I’m in the process of uploading some older stories that I’ve done that haven’t appeared online yet.
In February’s Esquire Middle East I had a story about Touffar, a rap group from Baalbek. It’s an interesting blend of drugs, Hezbollah, clan warfare and poverty. Read it here.
Photos are by the talented Sam Tarling.
Last night Abu Dhabi’s The National ran a story by their Beirut correspondent Mitchell Prothero in which he said that Hezbollah military commanders spoke of the organization’s role in the recent attacks on UNIFIL patrols as a response organized to counter what they saw as “spying”.
Here’s an excerpt:
We consider these villages to be closed military zones that Unifil is only welcome to enter with the assistance of the Lebanese army,” the commander said. “We discovered unescorted French Unifil members taking photographs in alleys and of houses used by the resistance, so we now demand they be confined to their bases unless they are escorted by the army.”
It’s strange that Hezbollah would confirm something like this to the media. Attacking the UN is a little frowned upon – not something anybody really wants to be associated with.
If true, this plays right into Israel’s hands – the “terrorist” organization attacking UN peacekeepers so that it can maintain its weapon stashes in civilian areas and blatantly violating UNSC resolution 1701. Israel’s latest release of previously classified intel is already been seen as a part of Israel’s preparations for “the next war” as JPost put it here.
The latest release is just one of the latest steps in Israel’s new PR war. They’re showing Hezbollah as the (really) bad guys and already explaining collateral damage in any future conflict with the Party of God. Fadlallah’s death gave pro-Israel organizations the chance to vehemently attack “terror sympathizers” such as Octavia Nasr (fired from CNN this week over a tweet where she wrote that she respected Fadlallah) and the UK’s ambassador to Lebanon Francis Guy (who wrote a blog post that didn’t paint the cleric as a bloodthirsty terrorist). This is seemingly diverting attention away from incidents that have damaged Israel’s image lately, such as the killings of activists aboard the Mavi Marmara. Israel is trying to make itself look like a victim once again and return to how much of the international community has mostly viewed the state.
UNIFIL spokesman Neeraj Singh said earlier today that an Israeli withdrawal from Ghajar would help reduce tensions – while that could be true, negotiations for Ghajar is a whole other story.
The fire got to Frances Guy too, she has now been removed from her post as the UK’s ambassador to Lebanon. See here
It hasn’t been the easiest couple of weeks for southern Lebanon. In late June, UNIFIL patrols began coming under attack when passing through villages in the South, apparently by disgruntled villagers. Some in Lebanon have blamed Hezbollah for having a hand in this. Despite talks between UNIFIL, the various political parties, communities in the South and the Lebanese Armed Forces, it looks like little has been resolved.
In an educational DVD about UNIFIL given to me by the peacekeeping brass down in Naqoura, aging Lebanese actor Rafic Ali Ahmad tackles some points of friction that the local population might have. In one scene, he sits down for tea with a local man who complains about the noise that the APCs make while on patrol – Ahmad assures the man the UNIFIL is here to maintain the peace in Lebanon and benefit the Lebanese population and the man quickly understands. As events like this show us, it’s probably not quite that clear cut.
The relationship is complex, to say the least. In last month’s issue of Executive Magazine, I looked into the financial benefits that UNIFIL brings to southern Lebanon and the people in the area who are cashing in off of the “interim” forces presence. These people are most likely not the ones blocking off roads and throwing rocks at UNIFIL convoys. Check out the article here
While there has been lots of debate about how effective UNIFIL is and what the group’s mission should be, the peacekeepers are seemingly good at keeping weapons directly off the border. Along the UN-demarcated Blue Line of Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, the only guns I’ve seen are in the hands of the Lebanese Armed Forces or more likely, the many UNIFIL patrols passing through day and night. With a huge boost in UNIFIL’s numbers since Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, it looks like it is now possible to more effectively patrol the precarious border areas. It’s a stark contrast to the situation before 2006 when Hezbollah fighters had bunkers directly on the Blue Line and crossed into Israeli territory regularly with relatively little hassle.
However, Israel this week reported intelligence that this has just pushed Hezbollah’s arms into more urban spaces south of the Litani – ie the villages that UNIFIL’s patrols have come under attack in.
From Beirut, it’s hard to see exactly what’s going on down there. I had planned a little trip down to the Blue Line, but apparently the already elusive permission for foreigners to get down there (which has, in the past, been denied to me on several occasions by the moody mukhabarat officer in Saida) has been impossible to get in light of recent events. Until then, will keep monitoring events and waiting for a window.