Lebanon: Currents of Conflict


    Broadcasts from Beirut II: An interview with Bilal Elamine.


    Photo: Al-Akbar, youth protests in Beirut.

A Tadamon! interview project aiming to highlight progressive voices from the ground in Lebanon on the ongoing conflict, voices independent from major political parties…

Conflict in Lebanon has spread this past week beyond Beirut, to mountain areas above the capital city, to Tripoli in Northern Lebanon. Throughout Lebanon a tense political stand-off remains between the U.S.-backed government lead-by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and a political opposition fronted by the armed Lebanese political party Hezbollah.

Fear concerning a return to the violence that defined the fifteen year Lebanese civil-war has spread across Lebanon and the entire Middle East. In recent days fighting has expanded beyond the capital as the death toll resulting from internal strife has sharply risen, including a gruesome killing carried out against Hezbollah supporters by pro-government militias in the mountains above Beirut. Events in recent days are intensifying fears that Lebanon will once again fall to the bloody violence common throughout the fifteen year civil conflict.

Current conflict in Lebanon is intimately tied to recent history, particularly the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon that left over one-thousand Lebanese civilians dead and wreaked major damage to the civilian infrastructure across the country. Despite Lebanon’s major losses, resistance to Israel’s attack lead by Hezbollah, severely undermined Israel’s military image in the Middle East, after the Israel failed to wipe-out Hezbollah with strong U.S. backing for a war that ended with a U.N. brokered ceasefire in August 2006.

Disarming Hezbollah is a critical point to U.S. policy in the Middle East, a goal central to U.S. support for Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006 and defined in writing in the U.S.-French sponsored U.N. Resolution 1559. A recent move by the current Lebanese government to declare Hezbollah’s telecommunications network illegal, compliments U.S. aims to disarm Hezbollah in Lebanon. This government decision sparked the recent violence in Lebanon.

In this interview Bilal Elamine, currently living in Beirut, originally from Southern Lebanon, the former editor of Left Turn Magazine, offers reflections on recent events in Lebanon and their relation to the broader U.S.-driven policies in the Middle East.

Stefan Christoff: Since mid last week there has been fighting in Lebanon, first in the capital Beirut but now it has spread to other districts in Lebanon. Could you provide your perspective on the current situation in Lebanon?

Bilal Elamine: Beirut has now calmed down significantly. Fighting in Beirut created immediate ripples to the north where some ugly incidents took place. Hariri supporters in the north, who were seeking revenge after loosing the battle in Beirut, went around burning offices of opposition political parties in northern Lebanon, attacking an office for the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which is involved with the opposition in Lebanon. In this attack eleven people from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party were killed, a pro-government militia attack with a high number of deaths.

Then fighting moved into the mountains, up above Beirut, an area that is heavily populated by Druze in Lebanon, an area traditionally dominated by the politician Walid Jumblat. Confrontations started in the mountains yesterday, including some civil-war type atrocities carried out by militias loyal to Walid Jumblat, when a small group from Hezbollah were kidnapped, then two were killed execution style, their bodies cut-up with knife blades. After this four civilians were killed in an attack on an area sympathetic to Hezbollah, carried out again by pro-government militias, which really ignited a battle up in the mountains.

This battle in the mountains ended after Druze leaders allied with the opposition stepped-in, engaging in negotiations with Jumblat and starting to work to disarm the mountain areas. A call was put out after these negotiations to halt any fighting within the Druze community split between opposing sides in this conflict. Although now opposition leaders are claiming that militias allied with Walid Jumblat still maintain heavy weaponry, that could be used to further sectarian violence. People in Lebanon are uneasy at the possibility that militias allied with Jumblat in the mountains maintain heavy weaponry and worry further if they plan to use this weaponry against the opposition. This situation in the mountains is much less stable compared to the situation in Beirut.

Today there was an Arab League meeting which doesn’t seem to have resulted in any new developments. However the Arab League is sending a number of ministers to Lebanon for Wednesday to hold a marathon type negotiation to attempt to resolve the political crisis. Now concerning the Lebanese government which is currently under the lights, the government of Fouad Sinora, most people in Lebanon expected that the government would reverse their two decisions, which ignited this entire episode, however the government has postponed a decision on this until Wednesday. This suggests that the government may not even go back on these two decisions and that they are certainly not going to resign, however we will wait until the Arab League arrives to broker discussions.

It is clear that the opposition has now created facts on the ground, which are going to be difficult to reverse, having tipped the power scales to where they should have been a long time ago between the government and the opposition. Clearly the opposition will win political gains from what they have done on the ground in Lebanon in recent days. If the violence doesn’t become carried away in the mountains, the opposition will have carried out a rather short and limited operation that avoided confrontation with the Lebanese army and major sectarian violence. Certainly sectarian tensions exist however the situation hasn’t broken down into major sectarian violence between Lebanon’s religious communities. Hopefully we will arrive at a political solution very soon, especially after these last horrible days. Casualties may rest at around sixty people dead with over one-hundred injuries.

Stefan Christoff: In Lebanon today parallel identities or political visions for the country exist. First the shadow of the former Lebanese government lead by Prime Minister Fouad Sinora and then the Hezbollah-lead opposition, which maintain very different visions for Lebanon. Could you highlight the key political differences between the two major forces in Lebanon today?

Bilal Elamine: Often the difference between these two political forces is characterized as being sectarian, however it’s really a political disagreement. The cutting edge for this disagreement is related to the U.S. project in the Middle East, which began officially after the events of 9/11 in New York. This U.S. project in the Middle East is met with resistance from both political movements and government regimes in the region who are opposed to the U.S. project in the Middle East, who stand to oppose it and have everything to lose from the U.S. vision for the Middle East. This force includes the governments of Iran and Syria who have been openly targeted by the U.S., along with Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Often it’s repeated that Hamas and Hezbollah are tools for Iran in the region, however a more accurate way to view the relationship are than these are all political forces that have a common opposition to U.S. interference in the Middle East. Also movements and governments that are opposed to Israel.

In Lebanon we are divided between these two separate visions for the Middle East, with one side represented by the current government who is attempting to implement the U.S. project for the region, from the adoption of a neo-liberal economy, to opening the door for concessions to Israel, or even the possibility to settle the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon as a major concession to Israel in order to erase the Palestinian right to return.

So the other political force in Lebanon is openly trying to resist this U.S. vision for Lebanon and the Middle East, this side is lead by Hezbollah and a number of other political parties within the Lebanese opposition. It is clear today that the Lebanese opposition spans all sects in Lebanon and that the major difference spurring the current fighting in Lebanon is political not sectarian.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning the current events in Lebanon there obviously exists a major fear within the country towards a return to the violence that defined the Lebanese civil-war between 1975 and 1990. Do you feel that people in Lebanon today who are politically sympathetic to the ideals represented by the opposition are also critical towards the recent actions taken by opposition forces in Beirut?

Bilal Elamine: Certainly it was a very dangerous undertaking, the recent actions from Hezbollah, a movement that has always had great fear to turning their weapons towards internal battles in Lebanon. Hezbollah turning their arms toward internal political battles could lead people to categorize Hezbollah as another militia and Lebanese are very fearful towards militias due to traumatic and violent experiences within the civil-war.

Also this recent move from Hezbollah is dangerous because it has the possibility to create sectarian strife in the country particularly between the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim communities in Lebanon. Unfortunately sectarian civil strife has a long history, so once it starts it’s difficult to reverse the tide.

For these reasons the Lebanese opposition has been reluctant to do anything for so long, to take any concrete action against the government despite continued provocations. It’s been two years now for the opposition receiving blow after blow from the government, particularly Hezbollah, even the gunning down of Hezbollah supporters by the Lebanese army only months ago.

A decision from the Lebanese government last week to attempt to shut-down Hezbollah’s communication network was a qualitative provocation from the government, in that the decision directly attacked a key element for the Lebanese resistance. This communication network is very important, it protects the Hezbollah leadership, it’s an attempt from the government to uncover Hezbollah to an enemy that is dying to attack, which is Israel.

This move to enter Beirut by Hezbollah was taken in this context and this move from Hezbollah preempted what could have been a serious civil war because essentially pro-government forces have been using increasingly sectarian language in Lebanon. Last week the night prior to a major labor strike called by General Labor Confederation, the grand Mufti in Lebanon, the top Sunni cleric, delivered an extremely sectarian speech, that to any Lebanese should be a terrifying speech, which was openly using sectarian language. This speech illustrates that the pro-government forces were attempting to rally Sunni communities in Lebanon around the government on a sectarian not political basis, which is extremely dangerous.

Sectarian strife in Lebanon has been avoided until now due to the methods behind Hezbollah’s recent actions, which did include some serious mistakes including an attack on a pro-government T.V. station and newspaper by Hezbollah allies. Although overall the Hezbollah-lead actions were quick, clean, they avoided the type of sectarian violence that we all fear in Lebanon. Although clearly things are not settled especially in the mountain areas above Beirut.

Stefan Christoff: Can you comment on the role that media has played in the recent conflict in Lebanon, you mention that a pro-government T.V. network, Future T.V. was attacked by opposition forces. In this context could you expand on the political role that media in Lebanon and internationally has played concerning recent events in Lebanon?

Bilal Elamine: Most media networks in Lebanon are an extension from the various political parties, especially in such times this reality becomes more defined. There is one channel that is sympathetic to the opposition but that doesn’t belong to a political party, which is New T.V., which you can view for some semblance of balance. Today political news is passing over the T.V. channels 24 hours a day, without missing a second, even in calm periods there is heavy political coverage in Lebanon, many talk shows on the various networks debating political issues with politicians and analysts.

Concerning recent events many networks have been maintaining live coverage throughout the day, which allows one to follow the events closely, however you have to view a mix from all the channels to get a sense on what’s really going on, to get a clear picture. One thing that stood out in these recent events, is that once opposition forces did attack the Future movement media outlets, Al-Arabia, a Saudi Arabia financed T.V. station attempting to compete with Al Jazeera T.V., played a nasty, vicious, Fox T.V. type role concerning the events in Lebanon by propagating rumors that have the potential to create massacres in Lebanon.

Last week an angry person, who doesn’t belong to any political party, attacked a funeral in Beirut procession for a Sunni person who died in a very sensitive area in Beirut, killing a number of people at the funeral. After it was was clear that this person had no connection to the opposition, Al Arabia continued to broadcast that this person was from the opposition. In a sense Al Arabia was compensating for the type of broadcasting that is common on Future T.V., which is often sectarian and rumor based.

Also Al Arabia is currently preparing to air a program framed on the future for Sunni Muslims in Lebanon. For Lebanese clearly we are aware that sectarian sensitivities exist, sensitivities that are amplified in the context of the current political dispute, however Al Arabia is attempting to portray Lebanese society as more sectarian that it really is, which is extremely provocative.

Clearly the government throughout the past couple years has been attempting to contain the opposition movement as Shi’ite or Iranian-backed, attempting to tip the scales against the opposition. This same language is being heavily utilized by Al Arabia.

Today it’s possible that the possibility for sectarian violence in Lebanon has been possibly thwarted by the recent actions from the opposition, who have successfully undermined the government that has been propelling sectarian strife in the country.

Stefan Christoff: Now let’s focus on the way that you witnessed recent events. In Beirut you with friends operate an alternative café in the Hamra district, Taa Marbuuta, can you describe the recent events in Lebanon as you witnessed them?

Bilal Elamine: As the fighting started had all just finished watching the speech from Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, at the café. Within the hour after the speech, in the area surrounding the café became very tense. This is an area which is close to where opposition leader Saad Hariri lives, an area with major security. Despite claims from pro-government parties that they aren’t harboring or creating militia forces it has became apparent that pro-government parties, mainly the Future movement, have been organizing groups of young unemployed men into militias throughout West Beirut.

Shortly after the speech from Hassan Nasrallah last week, men appeared in the area carrying large machine guns, with military vests, then suddenly these men working in pro-government militias started screaming and yelling then fire fighting broke out. By the next morning these elements had disappeared, the Hariri militias, who were completely routed out by Hezbollah, very quickly. Looking back it’s easy to understand, as the Future movement militias were obviously very disorganized, meaning that they were very easy for Hezbollah and allies to disperse.

In Hamra, Hezbollah forces did come into the area however along with other armed groups that are based in the area, including the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, who in coordination took over the entire area throughout the night. The next morning in walking around it was clear that there were some battles that did take place but nothing major, as the death toll after the first night of fighting in Beirut was below a dozen people, which was surprising.

In this area, in Hamra, the two sides practically know each other, as we are talking about the Syrian Social Nationalist Party came from just a few blocks down the street to take this area. Most likely the people fighting on both sides had some level of familiarity which most certainly helped to diffuse the tensions very quickly. Since late last week people are weary, coming out from the house not often, just to stock-up on supplies, to get some fresh air.

Last week during the days of fighting I did see some armed men driving around in cars with arms hanging out the windows, a scary image reminiscent of the Lebanese civil-war, however by yesterday in Beirut most of the armed men were off the streets although there are still pockets around the city especially in sensitive areas.

Mainly now it’s the military that is present, all around the Hamra area, near the café, which is very unusual for this area. At night people generally stay inside, many are waiting for the meetings to start this week, brokered by the Arab League, hoping that they will bring good news.

Stefan Christoff: Now let’s talk about the regional context relating to the recent events in Lebanon, especially the war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006, especially given that you mentioned that many are awaiting to see the results from the upcoming visit from the Arab League to Beirut.

Bilal Elamine: Clearly the U.S. has a particular project to change the political face of the Middle East, a project that is facing some major opposition, often represented by the governments of Iran and Syria. In Lebanon resistance to the U.S. project for the Middle East has been lead by Hezbollah, now a targeted organization or movement.

Hezbollah has been faced with many obstacles in recent years, first U.N. Resolution 1559 that didn’t really develop into anything concrete in Lebanon, it essentially failed, then after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the U.S. was able to increase the pressure by pressuring the Syrians to leave Lebanon, hoping to cut-off the links between Syria and Hezbollah.

Then the most serious attack on Hezbollah came in July 2006 as Israel attacked Lebanon. At this time it became quickly apparent that Israel after a couple weeks wanted to halt the attack on Lebanon, however the U.S. insisted, pushing Israel to continue the war until Hezbollah was finished. This scenario lead Israel into a military disaster in Lebanon.

Since 2006 pro-U.S. forces have been gathering in Lebanon, bringing together various parties that cut-across sectarian lines, lead by the Future movement represented by Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblat from the Progressive Socialist Party in Lebanon, to undermine Hezbollah internally in Lebanon through various attempts that until now have been unsuccessful.

For example the tragedy surrounding Nahr el-Bared, when the Lebanese army virtually destroyed a Palestinian refugee camp in North Lebanon in the past year, in a battle against the radical Sunni militia Fatah al-Islam. At one point the government had thought, which was outlined through various research conducted by journalists internationally, that Fatah al-Islam could be utilized a shock troops against Hezbollah. Clearly this plan exploded in the government’s face.

Until now the pro-western government has tried many things to undermine Hezbollah which hasn’t worked. Now the government moved to apply pressure on Hezbollah in declaring their communications network illegal, a move that provoked the fighting in recent days.

At one point it was clear that the U.S. was pushing to hit Iran with military strikes, however U.S. allies in the region, particularly the Arab Gulf states, argued correctly that at strike on Iran would be disastrous for their economies. The U.S. also moved to attempt to isolate Syria, to put pressures on the Syrian regime, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, a move toward Syria that eventually didn’t go anywhere.

Also the U.S. has been developing ways with allies in the region and in Lebanon to apply serious pressure on Hezbollah, within the same campaign. Between the events in the past week and the 2006 war that Israel lost, the U.S. seems to have gotten their fingers burnt in Lebanon. Now the U.S. campaign in the Middle East has gotten another slap in the face.

Hopefully with a new administration in the U.S., some lessons will have been learned as a result of numerous serious set-backs to U.S. interests in the region and beyond, from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Palestine and now in Lebanon. Despite the failings for U.S. policy in Lebanon, other strategies are being attempted, now the U.S. has once again sent the USS Cole, a massive U.S. military ship, to patrol the coastal waters not far from Beirut.

Although I think that the movement from the U.S. to send the USS Cole is most likely an empty gesture. In a sense I think that the U.S. wasn’t ready for the events that have taken place in Lebanon this past week, in any case the U.S. isn’t reacting quickly, or at least don’t know how to respond exactly to the situation today in Lebanon.

Until now the U.S. hasn’t moved to address the current situation in Lebanon at the United Nations, hasn’t threated anything serious in a unilateral sense, actually in comparison to other situations the U.S. statements have been mild, which perhaps means that the U.S. didn’t expect Hezbollah to sweep Beirut in the way it did, it has taken the U.S. and their allies off guard.

Bilal Elamine is currently living in Beirut, originally from Southern Lebanon, the former editor of Left Turn Magazine. In Beirut, Bilal works with the alternative café in the Hamra district, Taa Marbuuta.

Leave a comment

Upcoming events