Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Lebanese really blame Hezbollah

Michael Young, The Spectator:
The smoke from the countless fires burning in Beirut’s southern suburbs have turned the city’s skies battleship grey. It makes mid-July seem almost autumnal and saps Beirut of what remains of its spirit. Even the busiest high streets are largely empty now, and most shops close quickly at midday, not wanting to release their employees too late.

Outside central Beirut, the effect of Israel’s attacks is more dramatic. Many of the country’s roads are pocked with craters, the damage to the infrastructure could take years to repair, 235 are dead so far — most of them civilians — and buildings burn. On Wednesday morning, Israeli troops crossed into southern Lebanon to carry out what they call ‘pinpoint attacks’.

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Faoud Siniora, has said that ‘the gates of hell have been opened up in Lebanon— and it’s difficult to disagree. But what has not been so widely reported is that while officials will blame Israel for the misery and chaos, a substantial number of Lebanese in some cases, ironically, the officials themselves — have a more nuanced view. Of course the people here are angry and anxious about the possibility of a widening of the Israeli attacks, but their rage, as they see the country being taken apart, is often directed against Hezbollah.

The Lebanese people have watched as Hezbollah has built up a heavily armed state-within-a-state that has now carried the country into a devastating conflict it cannot win and many are fed up. Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Druze have no desire to pay for the martial vanity of the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Nor will they take kindly to his transforming the devastation into a political victory. READ MORE

Some even welcome Israel’s intervention. As one Lebanese politician said to me in private (but would never dare say in public) Israel must not stop now. It sounds cynical, he said, but ‘for things to get better in Lebanon, Nasrallah must be weakened further’.

Even some Shiites are beginning to have doubts about Nasrallah. If interviewed on television they will praise Hezbollah, but when the cameras are off, there are those who will suddenly become more critical. Many have had to flee, leaving behind their homes and possessions with no hope of recovering anything of any worth.

One evening this week I looked out of my apartment window in the Christian neighbourhood of Ashrafieh and saw an Israeli shell exploding on top of the grain silo at Beirut port. The colossal concrete silo got the better of that exchange, but in the Shia quarters of southern Beirut the bombs have won outright. Hezbollah’s so-called ‘security perimeter — the party’s sanctum sanctorum, where Nasrallah and his officials lived and worked — has been reduced to a smouldering wasteland. Displaced Shia families have moved into Beirut proper, taking refuge in schools, public facilities and empty apartments.

Here in Beirut, Nasrallah is also blamed for the suffering in southern Lebanon which, under heavy fire from Israeli cannons, has suffered in the same way as the southern half of the city. On Tuesday, a family of nine died after air strikes in Aitaroun; another family was killed in Tyre. It’s difficult for journalists to gain access to the south since the Israelis have bombed all the roads and bridges, but local television crews on the ground record an exodus of refugees northwards. Now that Israel has started targeting transport trucks — in the hope of preventing the movement of weapons to Hezbollah — it is becoming increasingly difficult for even UN aid to get through.

It is quite understandable, then, that those who can have fled or are fleeing the country. Nearly 400 people left on an Italian navy vessel on Monday night, and a ferry chartered by France took 1,200 Europeans to Cyprus. On Tuesday the first Royal Navy warship, HMS Gloucester, took 180 Britons to safety, with a further 4,750 waiting on the dock, hoping to follow by the end of the week. An American cruise ship is on its way to Lebanon to collect many of the reportedly 25,000 US citizens here, followed by planes and ships from countries as far away as Chile. Even the UN has let its non-essential staff go.

For the rest of us, stuck here in Beirut, the real question is how long the electricity, the water and the telephone network will last. Israel has not yet resorted to its usual tactic of hitting the power grid, and the electricity remains on in most regions outside the south; however, it seems inevitable that if Hezbollah bombs Tel Aviv, Israel will retaliate with an attack on the power supply. Even without a direct hit, if Israel pursues its blockade shortages will become acute — this could return us to the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, when we lived for three grinding months without electricity, water, fresh food or telephones.

The difficulties of doing without food and fuel are obvious, but what people forget is that when the electricity goes, so does the television. All the main stations have special programmes on the conflict which means extended news broadcasts with reports from around the country and interviews with analysts — dismally protracted to fill up a 24-hour schedule. It’s exhausting but the coverage can also be life-saving. It provides an early warning system for us here, allowing us to gauge where the danger zones are.

If the TV goes, so does Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television station which is still transmitting from a remote location (though the Israelis have demolished its headquarters in the southern suburbs). Al-Manar is all rousing propaganda, stock footage of successful raids on Israeli positions, of intimidating militiamen marching through the southern suburbs, of poor Shiites throwing rice on party members celebrating the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 — the party’s moment of absolute triumph. Interminable interviews with guests praise ‘the brave resistance’ — a phrase which even to Shiite ears sounds increasingly hollow.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor to Reason magazine in the United States.