Josh Wood

A journalist's observations on Lebanon and elsewhere

Archive for the ‘Hezbollah’ Category

The Silence of Martyrs’ Square

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Since the March 8-imposed collapse of the Lebanese government last month and the ousting of Saad Hariri from his prime minister post, momentum has shifted in Lebanese politics to say the least.  As the March 14 coalition finds itself in the opposition, its strategy has not yet been made clear.  Supporters of the alliance have also remained quiet, shying away even from Martyrs’ Square on the anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s death – an anniversary that acted as a popular show of force for the party in previous years.  The question is does this show waning support for Hariri and March 14 or is this simply a change in tactics?

In today’s International Herald Tribune I look a little deeper into this topic.  Link is below the few introductory paragraphs I have included here.

The Balance Shifts in Lebanese Politics

BEIRUT — On the sixth anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut was largely empty, in striking contrast with past anniversaries.

In the early afternoon drizzle on Monday, the crowd reached only into the hundreds as the son of the slain leader — the outgoing Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri — paid his respects at his father’s tomb beside the blue-domed Mohammad al-Amin Mosque on the edge of the square.

On previous anniversaries, Martyrs’ Square has had tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of supporters of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the March 14 Alliance that he led, itself named after the date of mass anti-Syrian protests in the square a month after his father’s death on Feb. 14, 2005.

Continue reading the article here at nytimes.com

Written by woodenbeirut

February 17, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Southern Lebanon for Esquire

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Overlooking the environs of Bint Jbeil. Photo by Sam Tarling.

 

In this month’s Esquire Middle East I have a long piece about southern Lebanon – or as its been divided up in the magazine, five shorter stories about Khiam, Saida, Mlita, Maroun al-Ras, Bint Jbeil and Mays al-Jebel.   Southern Lebanon is the most interesting part of the country to me so I’m quite glad I was able to do a project of this length on it.

Check it out here:

https://woodenbeirut.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/esq14_p86-93-south-lebanon.pdf

Photos, as always, are by Sam Tarling.

Written by woodenbeirut

January 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Hot town, summer in the city

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An unidentified fighter takes aim with an RPG in Beirut's Burj Abi Haider neighborhood on August 24, 2010 - photo via AP/LAT

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

And thus begins The Lovin Spoonful’s 1966 hit song Summer in the City.  It sums up Beirut pretty well right now.

It’s hot.  Very hot.  Power cuts are more frequent than usual and I haven’t even had water in my apartment building for 24 hours now.  Now enter Ramadan to the mix, with lots of people fasting from food, drink and cigarettes for the entire day.  It is one very hot summer in the city in Beirut.

Tempers are flaring.  Residents of south Beirut have been burning tires protesting power cuts all month, leaving the airport road smelling of burned rubber in the mornings.  Even Fatah and Hamas had a rare duel in southern Lebanon the other day at iftar.  But of course, the real indication that people might be a little more touchy than usual was Tuesday night’s clashes between Hezbollah and the previously obscure Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, who seem to prefer to go by their catchier nickname al-Ahbash.

The worst fighting Beirut has seen since Hezbollah’s May 2008 takeover of West Beirut resulted in a few fatalities, including a Hezbollah military commander.  The fighting garnered some heavy attention at the time and spurred fears of renewed sectarian violence in the Lebanese capital as it was Shia fighting Sunnis.

But, now it’s starting to look like the clashes were the result of a fender bender outside an iftar event or an argument over a parking space.  Such seemingly benign events have the potential to explode in Lebanon.  The good news is that all of this looks reactionary.  An argument that got out of hand and resulted in Hezbollah moving in a ton of fighters to counter.  This means that this could well be a one-off event.  And luckily so – as the clashes edged east out of Bourj Abi Haider into Corniche Mazraa and eventually Barbir, they started to get into fault line neighborhoods – areas that have been powder kegs for sectarian strife in Lebanon in the past.  But, nobody else jumped into the fray and things are seemingly calm as of right now.

The Lebanese Armed Forces took their sweet time getting to the clashes – showing up hours late when most of the fighting had stopped.  As usual, they were less-than-enthused to stand in the middle of a gunbattle that Hezbollah was taking part in.  August has been a hot and touchy month in country.  Will have to see if the dropping mercury in the coming months will cool tempers.

On a side note, I’m heading to Egypt tomorrow on a reporting trip for two weeks.  Should be a nice reprieve from a Levantine summer without electricity and now water.

Written by woodenbeirut

August 26, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Posted in Beirut, Hezbollah

As promised, photos of Hezbollah’s park in Mlita

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Lebanese and Hezbollah flags fly side by side at the Islamist organization's "educational park" at Mlita. Photo by Josh Wood

The crowd at Mlita on southern Lebanon's anniversary of independence on May 25, 2010. Photo by Josh Wood.

Inside a bunker at Mlita. Photo by Josh Wood.

A US-made TOW missile launcher on display. Guides refused to comment on how it may have been acquired. Photo by Josh Wood.

An anti-aircraft gun at Mlita. Photo by Josh Wood.

Mlita's strategic hilltop view of the "at-Touffah" region surrounding Nabatieh and southern Lebanon. Photo by Josh Wood.

Visitors (and apparently supporters of Brazil, Lebanon and Hezbollah) at Mlita on May 25, 2010. Photo by Josh Wood.

As promised, a few pictures of Hezbollah’s “educational park” at Mlita in southern Lebanon which I blogged about a while back.  I’m bad at getting my own photos up on the site for two reasons:

1.  I have incredibly bad luck with cameras in this country.  To date, I’ve had two nicked off me in country, one at gunpoint.  Thus, I usually just travel with a pen, steno book and voice recorder.

2.  The internet in Lebanon is horrible.  It took over an hour to upload these.

That said, I’ll try my best to get some more photos uploaded in the future, Inshallah.

Written by woodenbeirut

August 16, 2010 at 2:12 am

Posted in Hezbollah, Lebanon

Clashes on Blue Line today

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Today saw the Lebanese-Israeli divide at the Blue Line break into violence for the first time in a long time.  There have been the occasional rockets fired from Lebanon by random groups at times since the 2006 war, but this has clearly been the biggest outbreak in the last four years.

Details are still murky.  UNIFIL is currently trying to get a handle of what has happened down there.  It appears that several Lebanese citizens – three soldiers and a journalist from Al Akhbar – have died in the fighting and there are reports of an Israeli officer KIA.  Feed from the TV which I’ve been glued to all day showed thick fighting on the Lebanese road that skirts the Blue Line and Israeli security road between the villages of Addaiseh and Kfar Kila.  UNIFIL soldiers could be seen ducking for cover alongside journalists under very audible machinegun fire.  Also shown were Merkava tanks on the security road and Lebanese soldiers armed with RPGs.

It will take a while to figure out exactly what has happened today as the reports are still filtering in.

The real sticking issue though, revolves around whether Katyusha rockets were launched against Israel today (as reported earlier) or if this was the result of tense nerves over the Israelis allegedly trying to uproot a tree on Lebanese soil.  If it is the former, this could get worse.

I was going to blog a little bit earlier, talking about how when there is a situation in say, Gaza, it could lead to quite real problems on Israel’s other tense borders.  Yesterday we saw militants launch rockets at Eilat, apparently from the Sinai, seemingly in retaliation for the weekend’s violence in the Gaza Strip.  What happens in Gaza, in short, has the propensity to make people act in other places – do do things, like fire rockets, that they wouldn’t have necessarily otherwise done.  Did this just happen in Lebanon?

Of course, Israel’s last war on Lebanon came in a cycle of violence that began with the June 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit by Hamas.  Israel subsequently began operations against the Gaza Strip and in July Hezbollah eventually launched its own operation to capture Israeli soldiers, kicking off the war.

Last night was the first time since Friday that Gaza didn’t see violence.  But, to keep up to date on the situation over that way follow the excellent reports from my buddy Theo May on twitter or at his blog.

Nasrallah is speaking tonight at 7 PM Beirut time, should have some interesting things to say.

Update

Israelis have been denying that katyusha rockets landed in northern Israel today.  UNIFIL has no information on possible rockets neither does Lebanese media.  So it’s looking like today was just an extremely rare skirmish between the Lebanese Armed Forces and the IDF.

Written by woodenbeirut

August 3, 2010 at 5:02 pm

…and the Palestinians

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Fatah fighters play a variation of chess at the organization's base in Beddawi refugee camp, north of Tripoli. I'm taking notes in the back, opposite the barely visible lad with the stockless AK. March 2010. Photo by Sam Tarling.

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.

Written by woodenbeirut

July 30, 2010 at 11:33 am

Resistance for all the family

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A woman takes a photo of a piece of field artillery at Hezbollah's "educational park" at Mlita, June 2010. Photo courtesy of Sam Tarling/Executive Magazine

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.

Written by woodenbeirut

July 29, 2010 at 11:03 am

Bekaa Valley Rap in Esquire

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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.

Written by woodenbeirut

July 13, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Trouble Down South – Continued

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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.

UPDATE:

The fire got to Frances Guy too, she has now been removed from her post as the UK’s ambassador to Lebanon.  See here

Written by woodenbeirut

July 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Posted in Hezbollah, UNIFIL

Trouble Down South?

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Members of UNIFIL's Indonesian battalion's mech infantry study charts on the Blue Line in Kfar Kila, Lebanon. March 2010. Photo courtesy of Sam Tarling/Executive Magazine http://samtphoto.blogspot.com

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.

Written by woodenbeirut

July 8, 2010 at 5:33 pm

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