The Birthplace of Civil War

AIN EL-RUMMANE, Lebanon — It’s an odd place to start a war.

Ain el-Rummane, a Christian neighborhood in the hills above Beirut occupies an ominous place in Lebanese history. It was here, in 1975, near a statue of the Virgin, that a bus full of Palestinian refugees was ambushed by Christian militiamen. It was a massacre in response to an assassination attempt, and the reprisals it generated in turn quickly grew into the Lebanese civil war.

And now this residential neighborhood may provide some of the soldiers to fight in a new one. Members of the Lebanese Forces, the same militia that killed the Palestinians in 1975, still claim Ain el-Rummane as home and they simmered Wednesday, the day after the grandson of the founder of their political party was killed by assassins on a busy Beirut street in mid-afternoon.

“One more mistake and we will take the streets with our hands,” said Arz Wehbe, 27, a member of the militia. “There are no weapons out now, but when it becomes serious, we will take weapons from under the ground.”

The assassination of the 34-year-old Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon’s minister of industry, on Tuesday was the latest, most ominous development in Lebanon’s latest, most ominous political crisis that began in February 2005 with the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Since then, Lebanon has seen five assassinations, 15 bombings, a vicious war between Hezbollah and Israel and an attempt by the Shi’ite group to topple the elected government.

But Gemayel’s death is more than just another assassination, because he was the first sitting member of government to be killed and his death brings the spectre of a government collapse closer than ever. Two weeks ago, five Shi’ite ministers and a pro-Syrian Christian minister resigned from Fuad Siniora’s U.S.-backed cabinet over the issue of the approval of an international tribunal on Hariri’s killing — which many think would implicate senior Syrian officials. Other politicians gave ominous warnings that Syria would try to assassinate some of the remaining cabinet ministers in order to reduce it below its quorum level of 16 members. With Gemayel’s death, only two ministers stand against its dissolution, and with it the international tribunal.

In Lebanon, history casts a long shadow. It was an attempt on the life of his grandfather, the Phalangist Party founder who was also named Pierre Gemayel, that sparked the massacre in Ain el-Rummane 31 years ago.

“We will not shut up, we will not be silent,” said Wehbe. “Even if the country is destroyed, we will stay.”

Another Lebanese Forces loyalist, Simon Ghanime, 39, said that everyone was ready to take to the streets. They were just waiting for word from their leaders, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, and Amin Gemayel, the slain man’s father and a former president.

“At the end of the day, you have to defend yourself,” Ghanime said. “I listen always to my leader.”
And if, at the end of the day, Geagea or Amin Gemayel says fight?

“Then we have to fight,” he said with a shrug. “They are hunting us (Christians) like birds.”

For now Amin Gemayel has counseled patience and prayer in Bikfaya where his son would be buried on Thursday. But in Beirut and its suburbs like Ain el-Rummane, angry men prowled the streets.

“I won’t leave Lebanon to the Shi’ites or the Syrians,” said Charbel Nasrallah, 24, from a massive convoy that was passing the Phalangist Party Headquarters in East Beirut. “We don’t want Syrians or Iranians to decide our fates. We will.”

But even within the ranks of Lebanon’s right-wing Christians, there are those with less appetite for confrontation.

“The aim of March 8” — the name of the pro-Syrian coalition — “is to get us to fight,” said a former Lebanese Forces fighter who gave his name only as Carlos. “We can’t slip into this trap. It’s in their interest to get us to fight, but we don’t want that.”

Another man who was taping pictures of the slain Gemayel to his car and who gave his name only as Eli echoed the idea that Lebanon’s Christians must unite and not fall into the trap of violence set by Syria and other foreign powers. But he said that even he would fight if his leaders told him to.

“To ensure the Christians stay in this part of the world?” he asked. “Of course I would fight.”

Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger.