Perhaps the single most surprising, and enchanting, thing about Lebanon is the stillness of the place. High above Beirut on Mount Lebanon, signs at the Monastery of Saint Maron-Anaya admonish visitors to respect the quiet: “You can hear God in the silence.” At night even Beirut sleeps peacefully. When I was there two months ago, I stayed in the heart of Christian east Beirut; I slept with the sliding glass door to my balcony wide open, the curtains waving in the soft breeze, and I think I’ve never slept so soundly in my life.
A few blocks away from that place, just after midnight last Sunday night, a massive car bomb blew the façade off the main shopping mall in east Beirut, killing an elderly woman and demolishing dozens of cars. Monday night, with all Lebanon glued to the television, another car bomb destroyed another quiet corner of the city — this time in Sunni west Beirut. Yesterday, suicide bombers struck army targets for the first time. The heralds of terror and civil war have come to remind the people of Lebanon that their tranquility is on thin ice — and the ice is cracking.
Needless to say, after 15 years of civil war, and 15 more years of Syrian occupation, the people of Lebanon need little reminding how precious and fragile are their peace and their freedom. Monday night on the phone, one friend of mine in Beirut cried softly as we spoke, not because of what’s happened in recent days — Lebanon has seen much worse — but because of the inevitability of whatever is going to happen next. The aphorism that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it is really very stupid: those with excellent memories usually discover that they are hardly any better off, and indeed are arguably poorer, without the bliss of ignorance. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, there is hardly anything more deeply sad than Othello’s moment of clarity, when he finally understands that he has ruined what was most dear to him, beyond all hope of repair.
The Lebanese can hardly forget their history. Reminders are everywhere. Scores upon scores of buildings in central Beirut still bear the scars of the shelling and heavy-machine-gun fire of the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. The verdant no-man’s-land known as the “green line,” which divided east and west Beirut during the civil war, is still there, and it’s still green. Just a block west of the lively Rue Monot, the green line is a constant reminder of what close neighbors happiness and sorrow are in Lebanon.
For the Lebanese, the current news is a mirror of the past. A little over 30 years ago, near a refugee camp outside Sidon in the south, Palestinian militia members clashed with Lebanese army troops. The army was unable to bring the situation under control. The conflict quickly spread to the other refugee camps and to Beirut, and Lebanon fell apart.
Last Saturday night, near a refugee camp outside Tripoli in the north, Palestinian militia members clashed with Lebanese security forces searching for the culprits of a bank robbery. The suspects, members of Fatah al Islam, a Syrian-Palestinian al Qaeda franchise, were armed, and resisted, and some were killed. Just a few hours later, near three in the morning on Sunday, the Fatah al Islam struck back, surrounding several Lebanese army checkpoints and murdering the soldiers at their posts.
Initial reports suggested that the 27 Lebanese army soldiers who were killed on Sunday died in a firefight. That is not what happened. The soldiers were killed execution-style. According to one source close to the Lebanese army high command, nine of them were found with their throats slit — and with no other visible injuries.
Initial reports also suggested that the terrorists had emerged from the main Palestinian “refugee camp” outside Tripoli. This, too, appears to be false. One source within the army insists that the fighters could not have come from the refugee camp because the camp is cordoned off and the approaches from it are well monitored. They appear to have come from apartments in Tripoli and the surrounding region. Raids of suspected hideouts have reportedly turned up explosive belts. This means that Lebanese history is likely now to be in the hands of suicide bombers. Lebanon hasn’t felt very well in a long time, and it just learned that it has cancer: Al Qaeda sleeper cells have metastasized throughout the country, and their leader promised Sunday to “unleash the gates of hell” if the Lebanese army doesn’t back down. “This is going to turn into Baghdad,” my friend told me. “Bombs every night.”
Angry demonstrations in some of the other refugee camps — south of Beirut and outside Sidon — have now brought Palestinian militia members into tense stand-offs with Lebanese army troops. The conflict could quickly spread to all 11 refugee camps and beyond. It is common to speak of the Palestinian communities in Lebanon as “refugee camps,” but of course that is not at all what they are. There are no tents, for instance. On the contrary, they are teeming urban centers with tall buildings, bustling streets, and open-air markets. The fact that people call them “refugees” is, like so much else in Lebanon, the product of a complex dynamic.
The Six-Day War of 1967 drove a flood of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon. In accordance with the agreements reached soon afterwards, the Palestinians were allowed to keep their arms. This fatal compromise led to the civil war and to the Syrian occupation — but still the Palestinians are allowed to keep their arms, and still the Lebanese army is not allowed to enter their “camps.” Today, in a tiny country of less than four million, these refugees-in-limbo number some 600,000. Their presence has made Lebanon the chief collateral casualty of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Lebanon’s citizens cheer openly in the streets as Lebanese army units roll towards Tripoli. But what does the army think it’s going to do? They are not just fighting a militia. They are fighting an al Qaeda franchise entrenched in sleeper cells. As the United States has discovered in Iraq, the fight against al Qaeda depends first of all on intelligence. Reuel Marc Gerecht has argued that intelligence-gathering in a counter-terror context requires the pervasive presence of security forces, because intelligence can only come from the local population, which has to feel it is safe to trust you. But intelligence is the key.
The reflexive shelling of Palestinian areas near Tripoli, which continues to intensify, is partly just the rage of General Michel Sleiman, the Christian army chief, driven mad by a few poisonous flies, and trying to kill them with a sledgehammer. Instead he appears to be killing civilians mostly.
The Fatah al Islam has little support even among their fellow Palestinians, whom they keep hostage for use as human shields. But here is the heart of the problem: for Arab terrorists, today’s human shield is tomorrow’s recruit. The Lebanese army has been shelling the Palestinian camp for three days now. Anecdotal evidence suggests scores of civilian casualties, perhaps more than a hundred. Yet those in the camps, the neighbors of the terrorists, were the ones who could have done something to prevent this.
The terrorists came from apartments in the camps, in Tripoli, and elsewhere. Their neighbors know who they are: they should have seen all of this coming, and they should have done something about it; yet they did not. This works out well for the opposition, led by the unlikely couple of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and the Christian former president Michel Aoun. As could be expected, they are claiming that everybody saw this coming. According to them, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, increasingly impotent and irrelevant, had all the intelligence it needed and simply failed to act on it. They now demand that the army be given political cover to do its job.
Yet what a curious job it is. The only clear beneficiaries of what the army is doing now are Hezbollah and Syria — funny how often that happens in Lebanon — and those two are having great fun playing bewildered bystanders on TV. The thousands of Lebanese forces now surging north with their tanks and artillery to do God-only-knows-what are desperately needed to control Hezbollah and the border with Syria. They cannot be spared. The Lebanese army is pitifully tiny. South of the Litani River, 16,000 troops are buttressing the UNIFIL force in its peace-keeping mission. In and around Beirut, several thousand more are needed to keep an eye on the medieval besieging army of the Hezbollah protest-camp. In even the most peaceful times, there are not enough forces to man the Syrian frontier.
If Lebanon is to escape the tragedy that is already well in train, the international community must help and in a big way. It is vital to expand both the size and mission of the UNIFIL force, as well as the capabilities of Lebanon’s army and intelligence services. The first task is to control the border with Syria. If the border can be effectively controlled, a strategy of containment has some chance of success. If not, fighters and weapons coming from Syria will keep replacing those that are eliminated in Lebanon, and the Lebanese armed forces will expend their energy running on a treadmill, getting nowhere. The draft resolution on a Chapter VII tribunal for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which is now being debated in the Security Council, makes no mention of UNIFIL. That is a missed opportunity, and one we may well live to regret.
The tragedy of Lebanon weaves Hamlet and The Second Coming together: While the enemy is strong in arms and full of passionate intensity, the best lack all convictions and busy themselves in silly procrastinations. On the pro-democracy side, everybody from Washington to Beirut has 20 great reasons to do nothing. And while we watch, a new tragedy is gaining irreversible momentum.
Lebanon desperately needs to divorce itself from the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel, that cause to which the interests of Lebanon are always subordinated. The time for the state to reclaim a monopoly of legitimate force over the whole of its territory, from the borders to the refugee camps, is now. If the army is not strong enough to accomplish this, than it is urgent to strengthen it. And if the political crisis now paralyzing Lebanon leaves the government unable to govern, then that crisis must be resolved, as a matter of vital international concern. The Western powers must throw off the fiction that they take no position on internal Lebanese political issues. There is no such thing as an internal Lebanese political issue.
The fragile peace of Lebanon is precious, and it is worth fighting for. Let’s think fast and act boldly, before the quiet ceremony of Lebanon is lost amidst the explosions of another civil war.