Letter from Lebanon
In November 1999 the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish made his first appearance in Beirut since fleeing Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion. The great poet's visit to the city he once called home was nearly as charged with symbolism as Yasir Arafat's return to Palestine, and it seemed to herald a new chapter in Lebanese-Palestinian relations. Addressing a conference on Jerusalem at the American University in West Beirut, Darwish extended an olive branch to his audience: "People of Lebanon, allow us to love you. And if you do not allow us, I will say it and then leave: I love you." A few days later, Darwish received an icy reply from one of Lebanon's most venerable journalists, Ghassan Tueni, on the front page of An-Naharr, a leading Lebanese daily. "Some love kills," wrote Tueni, quoting the Arab proverb min al-hubb ma qatal.
Almost three years later, the hopes for a thaw in relations raised by Darwish's visit are finally being realized. Lebanese hostility to the Palestinians--who are widely resented for their role in the civil war and who comprise a large number of the country's destitute refugees--has all but evaporated, thanks to one man: Ariel Sharon. Since Sharon launched his war on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in late March, Beirut has seen a wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Tens of thousands of Lebanese, from radical Shiite supporters of Hezbollah to right-wing Christian Phalangists, have poured into the streets to denounce what many here refer to as Israel's "reoccupation" of the West Bank. On the radio, in newspapers, in cafes and in taxis, there is little talk of anything besides Palestine, while George W. Bush's decision to give the green light to Sharon's invasion has raised anti-American anger to a fever pitch. The Daily Star, a moderate English-language daily, ran a front-page editorial titled "America has worked hard to make itself hated," a sentiment increasingly shared by most Lebanese. In Cairo or Damascus this would hardly be worth noting, but in Lebanon the Palestinian Spring amounts to a sea change in attitudes, and virtually everyone in Beirut seems to be talking about it.
Some of the demonstrations have provoked confrontations with the police, notably the rally on April 2, when protesters surrounded the American Embassy. These clashes were dutifully noted by a US media obsessed by the mythical "Arab street." But what has captured the Lebanese imagination is the spontaneous explosion of grassroots youth activism on a scale not seen here in three decades. "The spectacle of mass demonstrations, of waving Palestinian flags and all that, is really reminiscent of the early 1970s," Muhammad Ali Khalidi, a young, soft-spoken Palestinian philosopher, told me in his office at the American University. According to Khalidi, the Saudi peace initiative, presented here at the Arab summit in late March, is fast losing whatever support it might have enjoyed among Lebanese youth, who object most strenuously to the Arab leaders' apparent willingness to compromise on the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. "For my students," he said, "the spectacle of these Arab leaders sitting around the table offering the sweetest deal possible to the Israelis at a time when they're wreaking havoc in the occupied territories seems like a complete betrayal."
In early April about a hundred men and women, many of them students too young to remember the PLO's involvement in the war, staged a sit-down in the middle of Martyr's Square, a stone's throw from the UN building, the Prime Minister's office and the Parliament. Huddled beneath a makeshift tent lined with drawings by Palestinian refugee children, they have handed out leaflets, distributed petitions and collected funds for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, the local branch of the Red Cross. On April 6 an oud player performed a selection of Darwish poems set to haunting Marcel Khalife songs, as drivers honked their horns in support.
The next day on Bliss Street, a busy commercial strip just across from the American University, dozens of students gathered in front of Hardee's. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and kaffiyehs (the trademark Palestinian scarf ) and waving Palestinian flags, the students railed against Arab regimes for their complacency in the face of Israel's siege and excoriated the Lebanese government for its recent crackdown on Palestinian guerrillas seeking to fire rockets from the border. A group of soldiers with machine guns stood by. The demonstration dispersed peacefully, and most of the protesters put down their flags, picked up their knapsacks and ambled back to their leafy, palm treelined campus overlooking the Mediterranean.
It would be easy, of course, to dismiss all this as radical chic, Lebanese-style. Beirut is notorious for being a city of appearances, of mirrors reflecting shifting poses rather than fixed positions. (The kaffiyeh, noted one street seller doing a very brisk business, "has become like a uniform" for fashion-conscious Lebanese.) "Hardee's?" one Lebanese friend of mine said, evidently amused by the protest venue. "You mean the place those kids eat at every other day?" Nevertheless, the intense passions ignited by Sharon's war represent a sharp break with the recent past, extending even to Christians who once loathed the Palestinians. Indeed, the Phalange Party, which sided with Israel against the PLO during the war and massacred thousands of Palestinians, sent a representative to the April 10 demonstration in Martyr's Square, which drew more than 6,000 people. At Saint Joseph's University in Achrafiye, an affluent, heavily Christian neighborhood, I spotted several students sporting kaffiyehs.
"This would have been unimaginable a few years ago," Joëlle Touma, the Beirut correspondent for the French daily Libération, observed as we strolled through the campus. According to Touma, the turning point came when Israeli tanks surrounded the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The images of Israeli soldiers firing at the church, broadcast repeatedly on Al Jazeera, have profoundly shaken Christians. By invading Bethlehem, Sharon has succeeded, ironically enough, in uniting the country's still dangerously fragmented polity around the very cause that heightened religious tensions during the war.