Back in Beirut … For Now

BEIRUT — Sorry for the weekend silence. I meant to write yesterday, but with the events in Qana and the riot/demonstration in Beirut, as well as me running around trying to find a driver and a way to file when I’m down in Tyre, time got away from me. I also, sorry to say, had to take a little break.
Beirut is split and strange. I have no real data on this, but after a week away from Beirut, it feels like it’s whistling past the graveyard. The city is full of refugees from the south and Dahiyeh, but it’s not been hit in sevveral days. (This is before the 48-hour cease fire has gone into effect.) On my street, which is normally very quiet, by early evening, there are dozens of people I’ve never seen before hanging out on balconies, milling about in the street. Children are much more common as are women dressed in conservative hijabs. The south has come to the city, and the city has gone to the mountains. Beirut has become much more Shi’ite in the past three weeks.
The infrastructure situation is iffy. Internet is iffy, power is dominated by rolling blackouts. We still have water and taxis are still running. I hear there’s still a bit of night-life, but I was only here for two days and didn’t feel much like going out.
My week in the south was instructive. Most roads south of Tyre are free-fire zones. People are dying every day and Lebanese Red Cross can’t get to the bodies. The massacre in Qana was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen but if this cease-fire doesn’t hold, we may see more of these things.
Some recent stories:
* “A piece on the growing anti-Americanism in Lebanon”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/28/MNG2RK79R81.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=002&sc=409
* “An analysis of the political map in Beiriut — and what Siniora must do”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/30/INGA0K5COQ1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=001&sc=1000
I head back to Tyre today after I buy a new laptop that will work with my sat phone to file. With a 48-hour window to move without air strikes, this is an opportunity to see get to some of these villages that we’ve not been able to get to.

Tales from the South, sort of…

TYRE — Greetings everyone. I’m in Tyre at the moment, about as close to the front line as you can get if you’re not an active fighter. The growl of Israeli jets overhead is constant, as is the whine of the surveillance drones. Every morning since I’ve been here, I’ve heard the thump-thump sound of the pamphlets being dropped by jets.
To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.
Most villages across the south are now inaccessible because the Israelis have turned many of the roads around the cities into kill zones. “Two ambulances were hit Sunday night”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/25/MNGJCK4N0A1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=001&sc=1000. Last night, the Israelis hit the United Nations post at Khiam, site of an infamous prison run by Israel’s proxy army during its occupation, the Southern Lebanese Army.
With all that, I’d like to provide some links to recent stories I’ve done. My internet connection is very bad here, and I’m unable to get online much. My apologies. I’m also not able to get the larger story, as my access to the wires and what’s happening is limited. But here they are:
* “War with Israel helps bridge sectarian divide”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/07/23/MNG98K42651.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=002&sc=420
* “Road to Nowhere”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1218556,00.html
* “Fleeing Bint Jbail”:http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1218838,00.html
* “Hezbollah Nation”:http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1218049,00.html
More later, inshallah. I am well, and Tyre would be beautiful under better conditions.

Trying To Get South

BEIRUT — Wow, this seems like old times for the blog, eh? Here I am trying to get a driver to take me south to Tyre and I’m thanking you all for your generosity in donations. I’m really, really grateful. This will help a lot, considering the Lebanese — who are a merchant people — have recognized the war as a gouging opportunity.
The Israelis have come in, but it’s unclear just how far in they are. Most reports say only a kilometer or two inside the border, but I’m trying to get more information via phone, etc. Frustrating to be up here in Beirut while this is happening. I hear they’re bombing Sidon now, but again it’s unclear how badly.
Yesterday I dashed into Sidon with some colleagues and we found some refugees who had just arrived from the south a couple of hours previously. I will be posting that shortly. And it won’t be appearing in any newspapers. Think of it as a value-add for your generosity.
OK. Going to try to find a drive crazy enough to drive south who won’t charge us $600-700. I hear they’re charging $400 *a day* down in Tyre. Man.

Donations update

BEIRUT — To all donors and contributors: A while back I sought donations for a reporting trip to Iran, and raised about $2,000. I was in the process of getting visa applications together and making other plans when the new war here broke out. Now, I’m running into a cash crunch because there are no dollars to be had in Lebanon (you can only withdraw Lebanese pounds) and rates for drivers and translators have gone up to about $300 per day. I am getting reimbursed for some — not all — of these expenses from my freelancing, but at the moment I need to pay these guys working for me.
So the Iran trip is, obviously, off. In the next day or so I will move the funds for the Iran trip into my checking account so I can continue to cover this war. If anyone who donated does not wish their donation to be used for this purpose, please let me know either in the comments or via email and I will refund your donation. I will wait a couple of days for responses to this post, but after that, I will be transferring the funds so they’ll be available to me here in Beirut. (ATMs still work.)
Also, if you want to donate to support the coverage of the Lebanese war, feel free! (Donation button to the right and at the bottom.) I’d be most grateful. I’ll also be rebranding this site in the coming days. assuming I have time. Yes, Back-to-Iraq.com likely will be no more. My original idea, “Warchaser.com,” is catchy, but doesn’t capture the mood I want. I’m still thinking about it.
Above all, sorry for the change of plans, folks. Israel threw a curveball at us.

Bombs and Politics

BEIRUT — Why, oh, why do people with access to really big bombs continue to think they can change people’s loyalties by dropping those big bombs on their homes and families?
Israel’s strategy in Lebanon is pretty clear now: Make the pain of “supporting” or “harboring” Hezbollah so great that the Lebanese will deal with the group. That was also the idea behind the attack on Gaza and Hamas as well as the so-called Bush Doctrine — the U.S. will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them. It’s also the hot air for the trial balloon often floated in D.C. regarding regime change in Iran: Bomb the mullahs and watch the pro-American youth embrace the _Pax Americana_!
Except… it almost never works. I mean, George Bush was considered barely qualified to make coffee at the White House in August 2001. (Remember that?) And then, boom, 9/11 hit and he’s suddenly the best wartime leader since Churchill. Was there a rethinking of American policy on the part of the masses and a call for changing those policies? Or even, dare I say it, removing the Bush Administration from office because the consequences of having a nincompoop in office had grown too painful? Hell, no! Americans rallied around the flag and the leader. In fact, the only incident that I can think of that involved bombs leading to the victims blaming their leaders and punishing them was … Madrid.
So why do Washington and Tel Aviv think Arabs would react any different? (Maybe a bit of cultural chauvinism?) Did the Iraqis turn on Saddam Hussein through 13 years of sanctions? No. Did the Palestinians turn on Fatah after the start of the 2001 _intifada_? That’s a negative. The Gazans this year? Nope. Will the Lebanese turn on Hezbollah? Not likely, and certainly not in the short term.
Another reason the “bomb ’em and they’ll love us” strategy won’t work here is that Hezbollah is not the PLO. An historical digression, if you’ll allow me: Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 in two attempts to dislodge the PLO from Lebanon, where it was using the country launch attacks on the Jewish state. The Palestinians had developed a state-within-a-state in the south, which was often called “Fatah-land.” (Sound familiar?) In 1983, Israel finally pushed the PLO out and Yasser Arafat and his followers fled to Tunisia. Still, the Lebanese war dragged on for another seven years as various militias — some supported by Israel, others by Syria and Iran — before finally ending in 1990 from exhaustion. Lebanon was shattered and Israel ended up occupying parts of the country for 22 years, spawning Hezbollah.
This is important. Hezbollah was not _started_ by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It was _organized_ by them out of the disparate Shi’ite groups that popped up to resist the Israeli occupation. Iran helped merge them together, but they’re a Lebanese creation.
This means Hezbollah is an indigenous group, not a foreign body like the PLO was. Saying that Lebanon “harbored” Hezbollah is like saying the United States “harbors” white supremacists or anti-government militias. You probably hate them and despise their goals, but you can’t they’re alien parasites on American society. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, they’re an integral if extreme part of the political and social fabric. Ending of expelling Hezbollah is akin to amputation rather than lancing a boil.
I’ve been in love with Lebanon since 2004 when I took a flat here and began immersing myself in the place whenever I could take a break from Iraq. In March, I settled here for the foreseeable future. I have a wide variety of friends, not just upper-crust Christians, and while I’m not a polling company, I think I have a decent grasp of the zeitgeist here.
Before this damn war, Hezbollah was losing support. It wasn’t draining, but it was ebbing. The political process was stuttering along, but it was moving. Many people here hated Hezbollah… Many people also loved it. The society was split but there was a consensus the problem had to be settled judiciously and politically because no one wanted another civil war.
When the first Israeli bombs fell, some Shi’ites even blamed Hezbollah. I met a guy in the southern suburbs last Saturday, just four days after things started. He’s a Shi’ite from Nabatiyeh in the south and hated Hezbollah. He thought they’d screwed up big-time. These days, when I talk to him, he says he hopes Hezbollah rips the Israelis apart. Another friend of mine, one of those upper-crust Christians, told me last night that as much as he hates Hezbollah, he hates the Israelis even more now.
The Lebanese are closing ranks in the face of an external threat, just like people all over the world do — with the exception of Spain, I guess. They’re no different from anyone else, and the same thing happened in the initial days of Iraq. The same pattern would play out in Iran, too, if this war gets that far east. The West has no monopoly on unity, patriotism and nationalism.
That said, unity rarely lasts. In the case of America, it led to a polarized public where the public debate seems to involve screaming “traitor!” when someone votes for a Democrat for the school board.
In the Middle East, things rarely stay at that level. Once that unity breaks, we’re left with civil war. (See, Lebanon, 1975-1990 and Iraq, 2003-present.) And in civil wars, lots of people die and the situation that needed to be fixed is usually worse. (Does anyone think Iraq is a more stabilizing force than it was?)
Which is why it’s important to end these things before they start.

Lebanon Delenda Est?

BEIRUT — Yesterday I went on a media tour of Harat Hreik, one of the southern suburbs with Hossein Nabulsi, spokesman for Hezbollah. The devastation of that neighborhood is total. It’s gone. I’m posting a video I shot of Nabulsi as we stumbled through the rubble in a kind of roving press conference. Anyone know who was that guy was who kept pushing Nabulsi on Hezbollah “infiltrating” itself into civilian population?
Anyway, I’ll just let Nabulsi speak for himself in this video. And I screwed up and put “June 20” on the video instead of “July 20.” I’m going to leave it because I would have to re-encode the whole video and upload it, which takes forever, and I’m short on time and bandwidth. I regret the screwup.
“A Flickr set”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/baghdadchris/sets/72157594206552541/ is available and I will be updating it as I go, so feel free to subscribe to its RSS feed. (By the way, can Windows users see this movie?)