Coming home to an old/new war

A vacation for me, a true vacation, is more than just getting away from work, playing with my camera, and seeing a new part of the world. A true vacation for me is also a vacation from thinking about the Middle East and any other news of the day. It’s rare when I can resist the temptation to pick up a newspaper, and that temptation is so strong that I will often struggle through a newspaper in Spanish or Arabic if I can’t find one in English. But my trip to Guatemala didn’t involve a single newspaper. I think starting in the disconnected jungles of lowland northern Guatemala helped.

When I left on 12 July 2006, I believe that two Israeli soldiers had just been kidnapped by Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon. When I turned on NPR this morning, I expected to hear Daniel Schorr commenting on Iran’s efforts to evade IAEA inspections on its Bushehr nuclear facility, on sectarian violence in Baghdad, on the further fumblings of the mendacious autocracy of George Bush. I did not expect to hear that for the past 10 days, the Israeli Air Force had been pounding southern Lebanon,  that the IDF was calling up reserves and massing on the border for a potential invasion, that over eighty Lebanese civilians, including children, had already been killed.

When Ariel Sharon, the man who masterminded the IDF’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, withdrew the last Israeli forces from Southern Lebanon in May of 2000, there was already hope that Lebanon had put behind four decades of intermittent sectarian violence. Beirut had been rebuilding for a decade, and was beginning to reclaim its title of the Switzerland of the Middle East. Lebanon might even have become a symbol of hope for peaceful, democratic and self-realized sectarian reconciliation in other Arab countries that had only tamped down on simmering tensions with violence and repression. Think Syria and Egypt for "successful" examples of this repression. Think Iraq and Algeria (from a few years back) for examples of what happens when that unfortunate safety valve of repression is suddenly removed.

Is this another full chapter in the Lebanese war? Or just a footnote? Will this rip Lebanon apart again? Could Syria’s minority Alawite government resist the pressure of sectarian violence from both the West and East? Will my friends, the Khalafs, have to flee Beirut again?

All I know is that there are again coffins for children killed in a war I grew up watching on the evening news, in a country whose refugees started me on a path of studying Arabic and the Middle East, in a land that might have proved an example to the entire Middle East.

The violence in Lebanon first erupted in 1958, though it didn’t last
particularly long. In fact, for almost two decades, tensions merely
simmered, until, in 1975, full-blown war broke out again. Syria sent in
troops in 1976 to stabilize Lebanon (and prevent Israel from invading),
but it didn’t hold long: a new faction had established itself in
Beirut. After the brief civil war in Jordan in 1970–called Black
September–when Yasser Arafat and the PLO made a failed attempt to
overthrow King Hussein, the PLO fled to the only Arab country that both
shared a border with Israel and that did not have a strong enough
central government to keep them out: Lebanon.

Israel first invaded Lebanon in 1978 as PLO attacks from bases in
Southern Lebanon increased. Then in June of 1982, Israeli Prime
Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon launched a
secretly planned invasion to push the PLO out of Lebanon entirely. It
didn’t take Israel’s potent and well-oiled military machine long to achieve its objectives: by the end of August
1982, Yasser Arafat and most of the PLO had fled Beirut, reestablishing
themselves far from Israel, in Tunisia.

In the process, however, Israel
had shattered what little was left of the Lebanese government and army,
and severed the weak bonds of restraint holding back the dozens of
different factions, militias and tribes. Lebanon descended into a vicious,
self-destructive civil war that even experts on Lebanon still don’t
entirely understand.

Sound like Iraq or Afghanistan? It’s exactly like Iraq and Afghanistan. Just like Sharon and Begin had difficulty seeing more in Lebanon than a western-aligned Christian Arab country vs. a PLO mini-state in West Beirut and Southern Lebanon, Bush and Cheney had trouble seeing more than Saddam Hussein vs. Shi’ites and Kurds, or the Taliban & Al-Qa’eda vs. the Northern Alliance. But lift that one oppressive power, and the complex, ever-shifting web of tribal and sectarian alliances and fueds are let loose in all their violent and destructive splendor.

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