Letter from Lebanon

Letter from Lebanon

Hostility to the Palestinians has all but evaporated, thanks to Sharon’s war.


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.

The Lebanese-Palestinian reconciliation is the latest twist in a long, ambivalent relationship. In 1969 the Lebanese government caved in to pressure from the Arab League and invited Palestinian fedayeen (guerrillas) to launch attacks against Israel from southern Lebanon. Although many Lebanese Muslims and Christians favored giving support to the Palestinian armed struggle–a fact conveniently forgotten by the many Lebanese who blame the Palestinians for dragging their country into a ruinous war with Israel–the Cairo accord grew increasingly unpopular as guerrilla raids exposed Lebanese civilians to brutally disproportionate Israeli reprisals. (Israel’s retaliatory strikes took the lives of 880 civilians from 1968 to 1974.) In September 1970, after its members were massacred in the thousands and ruthlessly evicted from Jordan by King Hussein, the PLO settled in Lebanon, where it soon found itself playing a major, and increasingly divisive, role in the civil war. The rift was sealed in 1982, when Israeli troops led by then­Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon with the aim of crushing the PLO. By the end of Operation Peace for Galilee, which leveled much of the city, some 19,000 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, lay dead, killed in their homes by cluster and phosphorous bombs. Although the PLO fought bravely, most Lebanese breathed a sigh of relief when Arafat and his fighters boarded ships bound for Athens on a one-way ticket out of Lebanon.

The current escalation has many Lebanese worried that the conflict could once again spill across the border into Lebanon, although there is no shortage of people who hope for such an outcome. The Lebanese government has arrested Palestinian guerrillas on the border with great fanfare, but it refuses to curb Hezbollah’s efforts to drive Israeli soldiers out of the disputed Shebaa Farms. Since early April, Hezbollah has repeatedly fired at Israeli positions in the farms, which it claims are Lebanese but which most Lebanese consider Syrian. Although Hezbollah is widely admired for liberating southern Lebanon from Israeli control and for its work among the poor, many Lebanese resent it for doing Syria’s bidding in Shebaa in Lebanon’s name and thereby inviting Israeli reprisals on Lebanese soil, if not a wider war. Still, there is little doubt that Israel’s offensive has temporarily strengthened the hand of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a shrewd politician who has parlayed his support in poor Shiite areas and his Syrian connections into an influential foothold in Lebanese politics.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian movement’s return to armed resistance has raised its stature among the Lebanese, many of whom felt that Arafat made humiliating concessions at Oslo. Lebanese demonstrators have paid endless homage to the “heroes at Jenin,” the 200 tenacious Palestinian fighters who defended the refugee camp from Israeli troops over a fierce twelve-day battle in which several hundred Palestinians may have perished, including an untold number of civilians crushed to death under Israeli bulldozers. “The second intifada has made people here much more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause,” Khalidi told me. “As a Palestinian, I used to get comments from Lebanese asking me, basically, ‘why can’t you people get your act together and kick the Israelis out the way the Lebanese resistance did in southern Lebanon?'”

For the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians scattered throughout refugee camps in Lebanon–a bleak, wretched world apart in which few Lebanese bother to set foot–Lebanese cheerleading is welcomed with more than a grain of cynicism. “When we [the PLO] were in Lebanon, there was little sympathy for us,” Muhammed Abou Roudeina said in his cramped but immaculate apartment on a narrow, dusty street of the Shatila camp. “Now that we’re out, there is. They claim we were the spark of the civil war, but there was hatred between them before we came here.” Roudeina was 6 when his father, his sister, his sister’s husband and eight other relatives were murdered in the September 1982 massacres, in which Israeli-backed Phalangists methodically killed between 800 and 3,000 civilians over thirty hours, while Sharon’s troops stood guard, lighting the camp entrance at night.

Sitting on a small couch beside a picture of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and nervously chain-smoking, Roudeina, now a plaintiff in the war crimes suit against Ariel Sharon under way in Belgium, spoke about the invasion of Ramallah, Jenin and other Palestinian towns in a tone of bitter, weary familiarity. The smells of sewage and of fried onions wafted through the room as he showed me a photograph of his family: a stack of corpses piled up outside the door of his apartment. I asked him whether he expected to return to his family’s village in Haifa, a town he has never seen. “Absolutely,” he said without flinching. He paused to reflect, lighting another cigarette. “But there are 3 million of us. Where would we all go? I don’t understand.”

No one has suffered more during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the refugees, most of whom crossed the northern border into Lebanon during the 1948 war as a result of forcible expulsion, threats of violence and panic created by massacres like Deir Yassin. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Lebanese government naturalized between 30,000 and 50,000 Christian refugees, condemning the Muslim majority to the camps. (Reliable figures are hard to come by, but most analysts estimate them at 200,000–about half the Lebanese government figure.) The Sabra and Shatila camps provide shelter to thousands of refugees, who live off United Nations assistance alongside a growing majority of non-Palestinian immigrants–Syrians, Gypsies, Bedouins, Africans, Sri Lankans. Deprived of most civil rights, the Palestinian refugees face harsh restrictions on their freedom of movement and on their ability to obtain work permits, and they are barred from a number of professions, including medicine, engineering and law. In March 2001 the Lebanese Parliament passed a law that effectively prevents Palestinian refugees from purchasing land in Lebanon.

The Lebanese government continues to insist on repatriation, fearing that a massive influx of Palestinians would upset the fragile sectarian balance, inflating the Muslim majority and possibly provoking another civil war. This position echoes, of course, Israel’s claim that allowing the refugees to settle within Israel would “instantly change the character of our state.” Not that most Palestinians want to become Lebanese. Many of the refugees, including Roudeina, say they would reject Lebanese citizenship even if it were offered to them, since doing so would mean relinquishing their territorial claims. Still, they resent the Lebanese government for failing to make their lives more tolerable. “The Lebanese are not helping us to live a normal life,” said Roudeina, who pointed out that his Syrian neighbors in Shatila “have the right not only to be naturalized but to work here in every kind of job–lawyers, doctors, you name it. For us, it’s the worst kind of slavery. We don’t differentiate between our [Arab] leaders and the Israelis anymore.” Trapped between a state that dispossessed them and a state that wants to get rid of them, people like Roudeina stand to become the biggest losers of the “peace process,” if it ever re-emerges from the rubble of Jenin. And so, as the Lebanese raise their voices on behalf of West Bank Palestinians for the first time in years, the Palestinians of Lebanon continue to wait to go home, tired of living in what Mahmoud Darwish, at the end of the 1982 siege of Beirut, called “a country of words.”

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