War clouds again

WHAT are you doing here?" the Lebanese Army officer asked me as I stood by the silhouette of the St Georges Hotel in Ain Al Mreisse in Beirut with my 10-year-old twins. "I came here to remember the past, to show them what happened here," I replied, pointing to the Corniche where, 25 months ago, Rafik Hariri's motorcade was hit by an assassin's bomb that changed the history of the Middle East.

By Matein Khalid

Published: Wed 30 May 2007, 8:39 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:29 AM

Something in Lebanon died with Hariri, the illusion that an economic renaissance was enough to put an end to Lebanon's tribal blood feuds, that Beirut was once again destined to resume its centuries-old role as the Levantine entrepot between the East and the West or the mythical Arab Switzerland.

It is impossible to enter Beirut's fabled Downtown, the brainchild of Hariri's Solidiere, without being haunted by the ghosts of the country's tragic past. A giant poster of Pierre Gemayel drapes the head office of the Phalangist Party, whose Maronite militias had once controlled the Christian enclaves of Jounieh, Jubail and East Beirut during the civil war. The Place des Martyres commemorates Lebanese patriots hanged by the Ottoman sultanate in the twilight of the Turkish imperial rule. Across the road from the Omari Mosque, next to the reconstructed buildings in the Belle Epoque style of the French mandate, stands a statue of Gibran Tueni, publisher of Al Nahr, an outspoken anti–Syrian critic murdered only hours after he returned from his exile in Beirut. Next to the Amin mosque, Quranic verses played as we murmured the fatiha, the Muslim prayer for the dead, over the tomb of Rafik Hariri and seven aides who are buried in an annexe next to their slain leader. In Ashriefieh, one can see even today walls with posters of Bashir Gemayel, the Pesident of Lebanon who was assassinated days after his election. The visages of the dead warlords act as the confessional sentinels of Lebanon, the past haunts the troubled present.

A masked Fatah Ul-Islam spokesman outside the Nahr Al Bared camp referred to the Lebanese Army as "crusaders", a derogatory Salafist–jihadist term of abuse popularised by Osama Bin Laden. Unlike Afghanistan or Iraq, Lebanon is peppered with Crusader castles, visible remnants of the existential struggle between Christianity and Islam that convulsed the eastern Mediterranean 900 years ago. There is the Castle of St Gilles in Tripoli, the Castle by the Sea next to the Corniche in Sidon and the Beanfort Castle in the south, once a PLO stronghold bombed by the Israelis. In an ominous sectarian reference, the Fatah Islam spokesman also referred to the Lebanese Army as " Christian" with some truth, as the Constitution decrees that its commander must be a Maronite Christian.

It is a pity that one of the most savage and protracted civil wars of modern times did not result in a Lebanon where political parties criss-crossed sectarian and ethnic identities. Lebanon's destiny is still decided by leaders whose power derives from the allegiance of their own co-religionists. So Dr Samir Geagea and the Gemayel clan command the loyalty of the Maronite Christians, the Druze follow their maverick civil war warlords and hereditary Sheikh Walid Jumblatt, the impoverished Shia of the Dahiya, South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley swear blind loyalty to Hezbollah, the Sunnis of Beirut, and Sidon and Tripoli support the heirs of Rafik Hariri and Rashid Karami, both murdered Prime Ministers.

Even after more than two decades, I was shocked by the squalour and inhumanity of the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In the 1980s, Sabra, Chattilla and Bourj al Barajneh were besieged by the Phalangists and the Shia militia, Amal, when thousands of Palestinians refugees were butchered in cold blood as part of political reprisals that any human being with a conscience would call a war crime. The 400,000 Palestinians of Lebanon are the ultimate dispossessed children of the Nakba, the orphans of Madrid/Oslo whose homeland in the Galilee was lost forever to the State of Israel in May 1948. Deprived of Lebanese citizenship, barred from most occupations, manipulated by the PLO and the Syrians and bombed by the Israelis, the Palestine camps in Lebanon are a stain on the conscience of an Arab world whose billions of petrodollars could not end the human misery in Ein al Hilweh, Rashidiyeh, Mieh Mieh, Badawi and Nahr Al Bared.

Flags fluttered on the roofs of the corrugated iron huts of the Palestinian refugee camp Al Baas in Tyre, located next to a 2000-year-old Roman necropolis and hippodrome and the ruins of the fabled Phoenicia that Maronite ideologues often sought to claim as their own. But the flags bear not the red-lined cedar tree of Lebanon, but the green, black, red and white colours of Palestine. A quarter century after Begin and Sharon's brutal blitzkrieg expelled Arafat's PLO guerillas from West Beirut, Lebanon's Palestinian time bomb has still not been defused. The people of the camps have not forgotten their horrors that define their past. It is only possible to weep at the grisly photographs of the murdered children of Sabra and Chatila, whose killers still roam the streets of Beirut. There are no UN tribunals to bring the mass murderers of Sabra and Shatila to justice, no State Department missions to try warlords like Dr Geagea for war crimes and no justice for the dispossessed of 1948.

The Nahr Al Bared crisis has highlighted Lebanon's multiple political fissures. The Sunni jihadists filled the political vacuum in Tripoli and Akker, the most impoverished region of Lebanon. What with the bomb blasts in Ashrafiyeh and Rue Verdun, the deaths of 30 Lebanese Army soldiers, Fatah Al Islam'threats to "open the gates of hell", the plight of Palestinian refugees caught in the crossfire, the widespread suspicion of the Syrian Baathist regime and its dreaded intelligence agencies, the possibility of another war between Hezbollah and Israel in the South promise a summer of blood and death in Lebanon.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst

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