The Shape of Lebanon Since Israel’s Assault

An Interview with Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist whose “unembedded” reports from Iraq in 2004 and 2005 provided an uncompromising look at life under the U.S. occupation. Earlier this year, Dahr returned to the Middle East to report on the aftermath of Israel’s assault on Lebanon last summer. He talked to Socialist Worker’s Eric Ruder about the situation in Lebanon today, and what the future may hold. You can see Dahr Jamail, speaking, along with Dissident Voice co-editor Joshua Frank, and many others at Socialism 2007, June 14-17 in Chicago.

Eric Ruder: Can you describe the conditions facing the Lebanese population since the 2006 assault by Israel?

Dahr Jamail: First, it’s important for people to remember the scope of the destruction of the Israeli assault on Lebanon last summer.

When the war was going on, there were almost a million Lebanese who were displaced as refugees. There were between 300,000 and 500,000 Israelis who were displaced because of the fighting. As of last December, there were still 200,000 Lebanese who were internally displaced or refugees.

There were 1,200 Lebanese civilians killed and 4,400 injured. There were 43 Israeli civilians killed and 1,500 injured. As far as Hezbollah fighters, 250 were killed, and as far as Israeli military, there were 119 killed.

When the war broke out, Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said on Israeli army radio that all those in South Lebanon were terrorists who were related in some way to Hezbollah. The Israeli air force flew over 12,000 combat missions in the 34-day war. The army fired 100,000 artillery shells. The navy fired 2,500 shells.

At the end of the day, the Lebanese infrastructure were completely destroyed: 400 miles of roads; 73 bridges; ports, water, electrical and sewage treatment plants; 25 fuel stations; 350 schools; two hospitals; and 130,000 homes, mostly in South Lebanon.

That’s the broad strokes of the destruction, and as far as reconstruction, it’s something that we could compare to Iraq, in that nothing happened at all at first from the Beirut government — until this past January, when the U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora successfully obtained pledges of over $7 billion in aid from meetings held in Paris.

The bulk of that came from the World Bank as loans, and also from other countries like the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia, which of course want to cash in on the loan interest action and some of the rebuilding, if possible.

But of that promised $7 billion, what I saw when I went around South Lebanon and South Beirut is that there’s been no help whatsoever from the government in Beirut. Every single person I spoke with — and I’m not exaggerating — had nothing but disdain for the government. They were disgusted that nothing had happened.

They were also disgusted with the fact that Prime Minister Siniora had never once even come down to Southern Lebanon to survey the damage. Instead, the Hezbollah organization has stepped to the front. Immediately after the war, it went around and gave the head of each household $12,000 cash and said, “Here’s some money to tide you over for a while.”

For another left-wing perspective on Lebanon, see “Lebanon and the Middle East Crisis,” an interview with Gilbert Achcar published by the International Socialist Review.

After that, they started using their own engineers — they have a group of roughly 1,500 engineers — and they started doing reconstruction in these places in South Lebanon.

The state of Qatar has adopted four villages in South Lebanon — the four that were the most heavily damaged from the war. Beirut’s doing nothing, and the great irony is Qatar and also Iran are contributing heavily to reconstruction. They have engineers that are overseeing the reconstruction of all of the roads in Lebanon that were damaged or destroyed during the war.

So you can imagine where people’s loyalties are. Their loyalties go with whoever’s helping them. That’s not Beirut — instead, that’s Hezbollah, that’s Iran and Qatar.

The aid that Hezbollah has delivered translates politically into even more support than it had before the war, which is exactly what Israel wanted to avoid. At the beginning of the war, Israel stated overtly — especially when it became evident that they were going after the civilian infrastructure even more than fighters — that it wanted to isolate Hezbollah and turn the people of Lebanon against them.

In fact, Hezbollah now has more power in political terms and is part of a large and powerful opposition group. A significant part of this opposition is Maronite Christian. One of the main Maronite currents, the Free Patriotic Movement, is led by Gen. Michel Aoun, who’s positioning himself to possibly become the next president of Lebanon.

Aoun has several members of parliament loyal to him who remain in then government, and then there is the current president, Emile Lahoud, also a Maronite Christian and also with the opposition, even though he is part of the government.

All of these forces oppose the government of Siniora, who governs along with Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, who has both Saudi and Lebanese citizenship and is basically a U.S. pawn, and with Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze, who is also quite loyal to the U.S.

It’s these three key figures in the U.S.-backed government that the opposition oppose — because they want representation in the government and assistance for the people who suffered the most during the war.

As a result, there’s a sit-in and tent city that has been going on for more than six months around some of the parliament building in downtown Beirut. The government is basically gridlocked and can’t do anything. As time goes by, it’s distancing itself more and more from what amounts to the majority of the country’s population, which the opposition has come to represent.

Eric Ruder: To what extent has Hezbollah found support beyond its historic Shia base as a result of the dynamics you described and its role in the opposition?

Dahr Jamail: It’s complex. On the one hand, there is sectarianism. For example, if you go to the tent city around the parliament building, it’s split; there’s a Shia camp that’s primarily made up of Amal and Hezbollah supporters, and if you go a little further in the other direction, there’s more of the Christian-secular camp.

But at the same time, they’re all mingling and talking with each other, and people are happy to be unified as an opposition against the government.

I spoke with people from all of the camps who said this was fascinating for them because even though Lebanon is such a small country, people from the north just don’t meet people from the south, and vice versa. But at this opposition camp against the government, they’re getting to know each other, and they hope that this experience ripples out into the wider society.

So there is some sectarianism and lines drawn as far as how people are set up in their camps, but the lines are also being crossed.

Among the Maronite leadership of the opposition, there’s also some positive sentiment toward Hezbollah. I actually interviewed Gen. Michel Aoun, and I interviewed President Lahoud. They both supported Hezbollah’s right to stay armed, and they supported Hezbollah as a resistance movement against Israel. They said that as long as Israel continues to pose a threat — which, of course, they do — Hezbollah will have this support.

When I was there, I got a chance to see what Lebanese have been living with since the so-called “ceasefire” brokered by the UN — where there are always surveillance drones overhead and Israeli warplanes flying overhead every other day. All of this is in direct breach of the UN ceasefire and international law, but this is something that Lebanese have been used to for quite some time.

Because of that, people are supportive of Hezbollah as a resistance. They’re acutely aware that the war ended when it did, and that Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon — though not the Shebaa Farms, which they still occupy — because Hezbollah forced them to.

So the leadership of the opposition is of the opinion that Hezbollah is Lebanese, not an arm of Iran or a group that is subservient to and taking orders from Tehran, as U.S. officials assert.

They are the Lebanese mujahideen, which fought a legitimate resistance against an invading army and defended their homes and their country. Therefore, the Maronite Christian leadership and beyond feels a certain kinship with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. They were happy that Hezbollah has a powerful militia, because the Lebanese Army like the government is almost totally impotent.

Eric Ruder: What’s behind the Lebanese Army assault on Palestinian refugee camps?

Dahr Jamail: What we’re seeing now in Lebanon — with the Lebanese Army fully backed by the U.S., with freshly provided weapons and ammunition — is a shining example of how plans so easily go awry when the U.S. backs fundamentalist groups to do their bidding.

The U.S. has, for quite some time, been arming and funding groups like Fatah al-Islam to serve as a counter-balance to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Unlike when the U.S. armed, funded and supported the Afghanistan mujahideen, including Osama bin Laden, to go after the Soviet military in the 1980s, the unintended consequences of backing groups like Fatah al-Islam visited them much more quickly.

Siniora is happy to send in the Lebanese military against these smaller, isolated groups, to show that the military can accomplish something — unlike last summer, when they were so utterly humiliated by the U.S.-backed Israeli military. So you could view this as a playground bully taking out his recent beating on a smaller, more easily defeated foe.

Ironically, the attack is clearly backed by Israel as well. Israel, rather than risk another lashing by Hezbollah in the event of a possible summer offensive, is much happier watching, as the Lebanese military goes after Sunni fundamentalist groups — particularly since that means frontal assaults on Palestinian refugee camps, which, of course, fits into the Israeli plan of destroying any semblance of Palestinian unity or stability.

What’s extremely disconcerting — especially now as the fighting has spread to another Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon in South Lebanon — is that the vast majority of the Lebanese population and political leaders of virtually every group in the country, including Hezbollah, are supportive of this policy.

It might surprise people that Hezbollah, and particularly Nasrallah, would be supportive of this. But keep in mind that Nasrallah is a specific target for the U.S.

The Bush administration, via the Hariri thugs in Lebanon, decided to begin supporting these fundamentalist groups to go after Nasrallah, and ideally (for the Bush administration) to take him out of the picture. So, of course, Nasrallah supports the government when they are attacking groups who would like to attack him.

Nevertheless, it’s a disgrace to humanity, and more specifically to the Lebanese people, that they cheerlead from the sidelines as the Palestinians in Lebanon are once again on the end of the whipping stick.

Eric Ruder writes for Socialist Worker where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.