War and solidarity

Print edition : August 25, 2006

The Lebanese forge a national identity in the face of Israeli aggression and appear determined to bargain for a truce on their terms.

ATUL ANEJA in Lebanon

MOURNERS WITH THE bodies of those killed in Israeli air strikes in Beirut on August 9.-NABIL ISMAIL/BLOOMBERG NEWS

RISING steeply from the shores of the Mediterranean on the outskirts of Beirut, the hill slopes, dotted with pine trees and an array of well-designed buildings, bear an unusually serene appearance. However, the calm is broken occasionally by the thud of a falling bomb, probably exploding in the Hizbollah stronghold of Dahiyeh in south Beirut. Israel and Hizbollah have been at war since July 12, after the Lebanese militant group captured two Israeli soldiers.

A complex of three yellow-and-brown buildings in these hills, which is part of the Beirut university campus, offers yet another reminder that Lebanon is at war. Inside, there are refugees who have fled from the war zone - a 30 - kilometre stretch from the border to the Litani river in south Lebanon - that Israel has ceaselessly bombed. Most of the refugees have tales of horror to narrate.

With Israeli warplanes swooping low and bombing their homes, panic-stricken residents, unable to leave together as families, simply ran from their villages. Many, seeking security, walked until they could find a vehicle that would take them to Tyre or Beirut. Some took shelter in nearby Christian villages such as Rameish, hoping that these would be spared.

Doctors in hospitals admitting patients from the war zone say that these individuals miscalculated grossly.

Fatime Ayoub, a bombing survivor interviewed by this correspondent during a recent visit toLebanon's second largest city, Sidon, said that she had fled to Rameish along with her brother. When the village was cut off, conditions worsened. Along with the family that had given her refuge, she was soon surviving on breadcrumbs that had been originally stored as dog-food. Their home was eventually bombed, and the Red Cross ambulance that reached the village, brought her to Sidon with a broken jaw and an injured leg.

At the Hamshari hospital in Sidon, Dr. Khalil El-Farmawi treats some of the war-victims. He, however, has been perplexed by the appearance of some of the bodies recovered from the area. He points out that they were featureless "as if they were baked in an oven". Farmawi did not rule out the possibility that phosphorous bombs, whose use on civilians is banned by Geneva Conventions, might have caused the damage. "We have sent samples for forensic investigation and are awaiting results," he said.

WHEN ISRAELI PLANES bombed Khiam village in southern Lebanon on August 8.-KARMALLAH DAHER/REUTERS

Back at the Beirut University campus, Hizbollah volunteers work together to distribute relief materials with volunteers of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), who are clad in orange overalls. The FPM is a Christian organisation led by former Prime Minister Michel Aoun. It surprised many when it carved out a "common understanding" with Hizbollah in February. Ziad R. Abs, a party official of the FPM, told Frontline that the Hizbollah was an unusually strong fighting force. "The Hizbollah have the will to fight and are not afraid of death. It is hard to defeat such a force."

While Hizbollah's fighting skills are well known, its blueprint for a modern Lebanon of co-exististing communities - Shia, Sunni, Christian, and Druze - is less well known. In the Paper of Common Understanding Between Hizbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement the group commits itself to "consensual democracy" based on equal rights for all Lebanese citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. It also advocates the formation of an independent judiciary and respect for the rule of law.

Abdo Saad is the director of the Beirut Centre for Research and Information - a think-tank that frequently conducts opinion polls. He told Frontline that "it was a myth to assume that Hizbollah wanted to set up an Iran-style Islamic state in Lebanon". He pointed out that given Lebanon's diversity, the Hizbollah recognised that the Lebanese state had to be based on modern secular principles, where individual rights based on the principle of equality were guaranteed. Saad pointed out that a recent survey conducted by his institute showed that the popularity of the Hizbollah was no longer confined to Shia groups. The poll conducted between July 24 and 26 showed 87 per cent support for Hizbollah's retaliatory attacks on northern Israel. Nearly 63 per cent of the respondents expected Hizbollah to defeat Israel. The survey also showed growing disenchantment with the United States. Over 89 per cent of the respondents did not consider the U.S. to be an "honest broker". Only 35.5 per cent felt that the U.S. and Israel would be able to impose their conditions on a possible ceasefire deal.

Saad said that the war had begun to forge a new Lebanese national identity, with the Hizbollah-FPM combination as the nucleus. He pointed out said that this combination had around 64 per cent support among Lebanese citizens. "The centre of gravity is clearly shifting towards the formation of a new Lebanon based on a strong national identity which rejected all forms of external domination - Syrian or Israeli," he said. Asked why there was relatively less support for Hizbollah among Lebanon' s Druze population, Saad said that this could possibly change in the coming days. "The Druze are a tight-knitted community who respond to the calls of their leader. Their views could change substantially if their leader, Walid Jumblaat, decided to support Hizbollah in the days ahead."

As the war progresses, there is a quiet air of confidence in the Hizbollah camp. The group is determined to drive a hard bargain with the Israelis on its own terms once negotiations begin. For instance, Hizbollah is clear that it would reject any ceasefire arrangement that compels it to disarm. Speaking to Frontline, senior Hizbollah leader Ghalib Abu Zainab said his group would oppose the positioning of an international "stabilisation force", inside Lebanese territory as envisaged by the U.S. and Israel. He stressed that the purpose of this force would be to disarm Hizbollah, and therefore the proposal was unacceptable. Zainab emphasised that "no force can come and disarm Hizbollah".

Elaborating, he said, "We [Hizbollah] will not accept any force that is deployed under the provisions of Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter." Unlike the routine deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, forces sent under Chapter 7 provisions are heavily armed. They are expected to fulfil a political mandate that the Security Council has defined. Abu Zainab clarified that Hizbollah would not oppose the deployment of an expanded United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Hizbollah, he said, would insist on an "unconditional ceasefire and the right of the refugees displaced by the war to return to their villages".

The Hizbollah official observed that the ongoing war had "historic" ramifications: "We agree with [Israeli Deputy Prime Minister] Shimon Peres that the war would change the face of the Middle East [West Asia]." He explained that since the1982 Israeli invasion, Hizbollah had fought for "the liberation of Lebanon from occupation." But now, its struggle was reaching the "second level", where the Arab people would challenge "the U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the region". Asked whether Hizbollah was winning the war, Zainab said this would "depend on what was understood by victory... For us, having steadfastness and the strength to fight back with our rockets would be vital. Besides, our capacity to write off the main demands of the U.S. and Israel would also be essential. Together, it would be victory."

On August 7, Hizbollah supported a proposal by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to deploy 15,000 Lebanese soldiers along the border in tandem with a 2,000-strong UNIFIL force as part of an arrangement to bring hostilities to a halt. The U.S. and Israel, however, have been insisting that any proposal on the deployment of international forces must be linked to disarming Hizbollah.

With diplomatic efforts at a virtual standstill, Israel has undertaken a fresh military initiative in the hope of altering ground realties in southern Lebanon. On August 9, the Israeli Security Cabinet approved a military plan to capture Lebanese territory from the border to the Litani river. The decision was taken after a six-and-a-half hour debate. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had asked his military commanders to present alternative plans, apprehending that the existing proposal could lead to hundreds of casualties.

Already, Israel has suffered heavy casualties. More than 100 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have died. Hizbollah rockets have hit the industrial hub of Haifa at regular intervals. The town of Kiryat Shimona has been evacuated and the navy has lost one of its warships to a Hizbollah missile. Despite the war causing hardships in Lebanon, the Lebanese political establishment has remained remarkably united. Prime Minister Siniora on August 9 praised Hizbollah and said that its resistance would help the government to negotiate with a strong hand. In an interview with Al Arabyia television, he said Hizbollah's "legendary effort exerted in holding off the brutal Israeli aggression, combined with the steadfastness of the Lebanese... are all essential means we use to fight the other fierce [diplomatic] war."

As the conflict threatens to intensify, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned that his organisation would turn southern Lebanon into an Israeli graveyard. Known for his credibility, Nasrallah's words could mean that an end to the war is nowhere in sight.

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