Lebanese Warily Await Their Uncertain Future / At Flash Point of 1975, Divisions Remain Clear

November 25th, 2006 | Posted in Politics, War and Terror

Ain Rummaneh Bus

Ain Rummaneh bus, the flame that started the civil war in 1975

By Anthony Shadid-Washington Post Foreign Service

BEIRUT, Nov. 22 — The neighborhood of Ain Rummaneh was quiet Wednesday, its shops shuttered and streets empty a day after the assassination of an anti-Syrian politician from one of Lebanon’s most prominent Christian families. Nayef Mazraani took a break from washing his car and pointed down a shaded street.

There, he said, was where Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, when Christian militiamen massacred 27 Palestinians on a bus after an attack on a church. He gestured in another direction. There, he said, was that war’s front line, which remains a barrier of sorts between two Beiruts and two Lebanons, pulling ever further apart.

“The war has never stopped,” he said. “It started here, in 1975, in Ain Rummaneh, and until now, it hasn’t finished.”

These days are dramatic in Lebanon and, fitting the occasion, one phrase is heard often: civil war. But in the place where the 15-year conflict started, on a day meant to mark Lebanon’s independence, the conversations were more nuanced and, in some ways, more dire.

There was the pessimism that runs deep, the fear of sectarianism coupled with the loyalty it still inspires, the resentment of foreign influence and the worry that Lebanese will never transcend the politics that seem to inspire perpetual crisis.

More bluntly, there was the question: Can Lebanon, an awkward legacy of French colonial ambition, ever find peace?

“We keep thinking there will be, even though we were born into war,” said Elie Ghusn, a pharmacist.

Beirut was an unsettled city as it prepared for the funeral Thursday of Pierre Gemayel, the 34-year-old industry minister of the right-wing Phalangist Party and son of a former president, who was killed Tuesday in a hail of gunfire on a busy suburban Beirut street.

Cars equipped with speakers plied the roads, urging Lebanese to attend, and ads on a television station loyal to Gemayel’s allies offered a ride to anyone who wanted one, from anywhere in the country. Overnight, posters with his portrait went up: “We will not forget,” they read, sprinkled amid similar tributes to other anti-Syrian figures killed since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005. In Gemayel’s home town of Bikfaya, hundreds paid respects to his father and family.

Within hours of the assassination, political figures maneuvered for leverage in one of Lebanon’s biggest crises in a generation.

As with the deaths of Hariri and others, Gemayel’s allies blamed his killing on Syria — a charge it officially denied — and pressed for government approval for an international tribunal to try suspects in Hariri’s killing. In a byzantine legislative process, that sanction would require the consent of Syrian allies in the government — the president and the parliament speaker, whose intentions remain opaque. That suggests a stalemate might persist for days, even weeks.

Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement now finding itself on the defensive, appeared to postpone plans for protests designed to topple the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who is backed by the United States and France. Its television station aired suggestions that Christian rivals of Gemayel, not Syria, might be behind his killing.

But such intricacies were often lost on the largely Christian inhabitants of Ain Rummaneh. They read the events as many others in Beirut did: Violence begets violence, and in a country so combustible, every act has a consequence.

“This killing reminds me of 1975,” said Wafa Rizk, 52, who runs a cellphone store. “It reminds me of the beginning of the civil war. God willing, it won’t start again, but I don’t know that for sure. This might be the first spark.”

On the morning of April 13, 1975, gunmen in a speeding car fired on a church in Ain Rummaneh, killing four people. Hours later, militiamen loyal to Gemayel’s family killed Palestinian workers traveling on a bus through the neighborhood.

The event is often cited as the beginning of the civil war, but such a specific start is probably more a historian’s conceit. In some ways, it began long before, springing from issues of ideology, class, regional conflicts and crass ambition that transcended the usual notion of Christian against Muslim. After the killing in Ain Rummaneh, few acknowledged that a civil war was underway; even today, many recoil at the notion. Often, the war, which ended in 1990, was simply called “the events.”

The past still intersects with the present in Ain Rummaneh. Pictures on walls portray Gemayel’s uncle, Bashir Gemayel, elected president after the 1982 Israeli invasion but assassinated before he took office. Loosely translated, the caption reads, “We’re here to stay.”

They compete for space with the orange checkmarks of the movement led by Michel Aoun, a Christian former general who presided over one of the civil war’s bloodiest chapters and whose recent alliance with Hezbollah has fractured Christian opinion.

In a city whose segregated diversity can sometimes feel claustrophobic, checkpoints went up Wednesday in Ain Rummaneh and other Christian areas to deter vendettas. News broadcasts blared from passing cars, one delivering remarks by a Gemayel ally, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. “We are the legitimate ones, and they are the outlaws,” he said.

People huddled around televisions airing the condolences in Bikfaya. There, hundreds walked behind Gemayel’s coffin, waving the white-and-green flags of his Phalangist Party.

Across the street from Ain Rummaneh, in the largely Shiite neighborhood of Shiyah, where Gemayel was reviled, it was business as usual — traffic coursing past open shops as residents ignored a three-day period of mourning.

“Homegrown bananas!” one vendor shouted.

“These are the worst days the country has gone through,” said Yusuf Raad, a 23-year-old shopkeeper, who as a Shiite was a distinct minority in Ain Rummaneh. “Everything is possible in a country that is so divided.”

Raad ran through the conflicts that have left Lebanon divided into two camps — one coalescing around Hezbollah, with its allies Iran and Syria, the other around Siniora’s government and his allies, backed by the United States and France. That division dates to Hariri’s assassination and has left the country in a cold war of sorts for nearly two years.

Raad was glum about the future: If the problem isn’t foreigners, it’s the Lebanese themselves, too willing to follow their communal leaders. He pointed again and again across the street, at the site of the bus attack in 1975. It was a spark then that ignited a war already simmering. Lebanon is too fragile, too volatile, he said; it can take only so many provocations.

“People don’t act here with wisdom or responsibility. They don’t look far enough ahead,” he said. “One of the leaders decides something, and he expects the people to follow him. They can’t say no. As he walks, they walk behind him.”

The Taif agreement in 1989 that helped end the war also made ending the country’s sectarianism a priority but never set a deadline. Instead, it simply modified the calculus that has underlined politics since Lebanon’s creation under French tutelage and helped give rise to the civil war in the first place.

That system delivers Christians greater power than their numbers, granting them protections denied to minorities elsewhere in the Arab world. But it deprives the country of majority rule. Rights are enjoyed not by individuals but by communities — Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Christian, often with their own foreign patrons — giving communal leaders undue power.

At its deepest level, that system’s contradictions are at the heart of today’s crisis: a struggle over which community, its leaders and patrons will be ascendant, with implications for the regional ambitions of the United States, Iran, Syria and Israel.

“I don’t know if you know the history of Lebanon,” said Mazraani, the Ain Rummaneh resident, “but there’s not been one moment when Lebanon ruled itself by itself. There’s always someone else in charge. Is it not correct what I’m saying?”

He lamented the inability of the Lebanese to break through their sectarian loyalties, which often funnel the economic frustrations that, in so many ways, define daily life to a far greater extent than identity, he said.

“I wish we could take all the Lebanese to Canada or America, let them live there for two months and have them start thinking differently,” he said. “Then we would bring them back, and they would change the situation at its most basic level.”

A few minutes later, though, he drew on more traditional fear. He pointed at nearby Shiyah, the Shiite Muslim neighborhood, and the old Sidon Road that marked the last civil war’s front line and the frontier between Christian and Muslim.

“That building with the glass over there,” Mazraani said, “that’s the border.”

He nodded, a gesture that was knowing.

“Be careful,” he said, “don’t go any farther than this street.”

1 Comment »

That wasnt the phalange party who did that, THATS SYRIANS

Comment by Lewis — June 20th, 2007 @ 10:54 AM

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