Between Beirut and Tel Aviv there is . . . this strange dark kingdom.
— Jonathan Spyer
Leena and I pulled up to the last Lebanese army checkpoint before Hezbollah’s territory began.
“Who’s he?” said the soldier in charge. Leena didn’t need a permit to enter the zone, but I, as a foreigner, did. And I didn’t have one.
“He’s a friend,” she said.
“Where’s he from?” the soldier said.
“I’m American,” I said. There was no point in pretending I was anything else. I looked like an American, talked like an American, and carried an American passport. There wasn’t a chance I could convince him I was from South Lebanon.
“Like I said, he is a friend,” Leena said in Arabic with a southern accent that can’t be easily faked. “I’m taking him to my family’s house so I can show him where I come from.”
The soldier nodded and let us pass. So much for needing a permit.
As soon as Leena and I drove away from the checkpoint, we had effectively left Lebanon and arrived somewhere else. Neither government soldiers nor police officers were allowed down there. The Shia-majority cities of Nabatieh and Tyre behind us were within the government’s jurisdiction, but the only authority near the border with Israel was Hezbollah. Tehran had more sovereignty there than Beirut did.
Rapid urban migrations in developing countries are often not pretty, but the rural south appeared settled, moderately prosperous, even tranquil despite all the violence over the years. It was a relief after the impoverished and ramshackle dahiyeh. So many people in the suburbs south of Beirut came to the capital under extraordinary circumstances and left everything behind. Those who remained in the south had their reasons. Maybe they prospered there or couldn’t bear the thought of uprooting themselves. Either way, the south was their home and had been the home of their community for hundreds of years. Though the land was rocky in places and was less suitable for agriculture than the fecund Bekaa Valley, the southerners could still work it, and they could keep the fruits of the labor.
Many single-family homes were large enough to house three generations, and every village and town had sprawling villas. The apartment buildings were simple but looked nothing like the spirit-crushing slum towers in the southern suburbs. Some of South Lebanon’s money had been earned abroad in the Diaspora, and some of it came as aid from Iran’s Islamic Republic, but there was real wealth all the same. None of the south’s Shia villages or towns looked to my eyes like slums.
It was still Hezbollahland, though. The whole place was a gigantic outdoor museum for the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.
Portraits of “martyrs” hung from the sides of electrical poles just as they did in the dahiyeh. Here, though, the portraits were cleaner and appeared to have been installed a little more recently. Posters portraying Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and its current Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were outnumbered only by those featuring Hezbollah’s grinning beturbaned Hassan Nasrallah.
Billboards showed bloody and fiery depictions of mayhem and war accompanied by text in both English and Arabic. On the road beneath the crumbling Beaufort Castle, the story of suicide bomber Haitham Dbouq was told next to his portrait. “Haitham stormed into the convoy — that had 30 occupation troops in its ranks — blowing up his car amidst the vehicles that turned into fireballs and scattered bodies on the ground. Thirty Zionist casualties was the size of the material shock that hit the occupation army; the morale shock was much larger and more dangerous.”
The entire area was strewn with scorched tanks, blasted trucks, and military ordnance carefully placed by Hezbollah in order to best show it off. I saw young children playing on one of the tanks, their tiny legs dangling from the turret. A gigantic cardboard figure of Khomeini smiled down on them.
Funny place, Hezbollahland. It was basically a separatist region that hadn’t declared itself a separatist region. Nasrallah knew well the benefits of existing both alongside and inside the state. Beirut may as well have been the capital of a foreign country, yet he and his deputies held a few seats in its parliament.
They needed that state. Lebanon was Hezbollah’s vast human shield. Israel would have to think long and hard before striking Hezbollah and damaging the country that produced the Beirut Spring and was a respectable ally of the U.S. and Europe. If Hezbollah was recognized internationally as the ruler of its own sovereign state, it would be left naked and exposed to devastating military reprisals while Beirut and Mount Lebanon went their own way and prospered.
Leena wanted to show me the village of Ghajar, a pinpoint on the map where three nations converged and formed the strangest of knots. The northern half of the village was in Lebanon. The southern half was controlled by Israel. All of it once belonged to Syria.
After Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, Ghajar was stranded in a no-man’s-land between Lebanon and Israeli-occupied Syria. The residents couldn’t live suspended in limbo between the two countries forever, so they petitioned the State of Israel and asked to be annexed. They were Syrians — Arabs — not Jews or Israelis, but they would rather live in Syria under Israeli occupation than in Lebanon.
The Lebanese-Syrian border, though, wasn’t marked. Over time, Ghajar expanded northward, without anyone even knowing it, into Lebanon. And in the year 2000, when Israel withdrew from its security zone, the village was thrown into turmoil.
The United Nations wouldn’t certify the Israeli withdrawal unless the northern half of the village was ceded to Lebanon — which, in the real world, meant to Hezbollah.
Ghajar’s residents had been living under Israeli jurisdiction since 1967, and most took Israeli citizenship in 1981. So in 2005 the northern half of Ghajar was populated with Syrians in Lebanon with Israeli ID cards.
That’s where Leena intended to take me, but in hindsight I believe she mistakenly took me to a different village right next to Ghajar called Arab al-Luweiza.
Ghajar had been under Israeli control for decades, but the place Leena showed me was utterly destitute and in worse shape by far than anything else in the area, whether Christian or Shia. Some houses were crumbling boxes made out of cinder blocks. Others were shanties with tin roofs and walls. Barren ground was strewn with rubble and rocks.
A handful of barefoot children dressed in dirty clothes and playing in filthy streets ran up to us when we stepped out of the car. Somehow, they managed to smile.
“What is wrong with this place?” I said to Leena. The conditions were worse than in the dahiyeh. “Who lives here? Are these people Shias?”
Leena wasn’t sure, so she asked one of the boys.
“Alawi!” he said.
The Alawi, or Alawite, sect is a peculiar religious community that makes up around 10 percent of Syria’s population and a tiny percentage of Lebanon’s. Most Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast in Syria and Northern Lebanon, but a few live all the way down in Ghajar. They are descendants of the followers of Muhammad ibn Nusayr, who took them out of mainstream Twelver Shia Islam in the tenth century. Their religion has as much in common with Christianity and Gnosticism as it does with Islam, and both Sunnis and Shias have long considered them “infidels.”
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Alawites was that they were the rulers of Syria. The al-Assad clan was Alawite, as were most of the elites in the Baath Party, the bureaucracy, and the military. Imam Musa Sadr, founder of Amal in Lebanon, struck a deal with Hafez al-Assad in 1974 and issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, somewhat implausibly declaring Alawites part of the Shia community.
Yet the Alawites are not Shias. They’re Alawites. The two communities needed religious cover for their budding political alliance, however, and Sadr’s fatwa gave it to them. The relationship between Hezbollah and Damascus’s Alawite regime, though, was strictly one of convenience. The two felt little or no warmth for each other.
While Hezbollah and Amal were politically aligned with the Alawite government, the Sunnis were not, and Sunnis made up around 70 percent of Syria’s population. The fundamentalists among them had long detested al-Assad’s Baath Party regime, not only because it was secular and oppressive but because its leaders were “heretics.”
Al-Assad supported terrorist groups in his war against Israel for some of the same reasons the Khomeinists did in Iran. As minorities in the region, both were in danger without street cred from the Sunnis.
In 1982, the same year Israel invaded Lebanon and Iran founded the prototype of Hezbollah, Syria’s Sunni Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against Hafez al-Assad’s government in the city of Hama. Al-Assad dispatched the Alawite-dominated military and destroyed most of the old city with air strikes, tanks, and artillery. Rifaat al-Assad, the former president’s younger brother, boasted that the regime killed 38,000 people in a single day. Not once since then have the Muslim Brothers tried to rise up again.
In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dubbed the senior al-Assad’s rules of engagement “Hama Rules.” They were the Syrian stick. The carrot was al-Assad’s steadfast “resistance” against Israel. No Arab government in the world was as stridently anti-Israel, in both action and rhetoric, as his. There was no better way for a detested minority regime to curry favor with Sunnis in Syria and the larger Arab world than by adopting the anti-Zionist cause as its own.
As “infidels,” Syria’s Alawites didn’t feel they had the legitimacy to force Sunnis to make peace with Israel. That was a risky business even for Sunni leaders, as the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat showed after he signed a treaty.
Because most of Syria’s Alawites live along the Mediterranean coast and away from the Sunni heartland, they could, at least theoretically, be separated from Syria into their own Alawite nation. The Middle East would probably be a safer place if they had their own state. They did have their own semiautonomous government under the French Mandate between 1923 and 1937.
“The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria,” Suleiman al-Assad, grandfather of President Bashar al-Assad, wrote in a petition to France. “In Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. . . . The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.”
The Alawite state was dissolved back into French Mandate Syria, however, and has been an integral part of the country ever since. Had the Alawites declared and received independence, they might even have been natural allies of Israel for the same reasons the Middle East’s Christians and Kurds are. After all, when the Alawites of Ghajar were given a choice to live under a Lebanese or an Israeli government, they chose Israel’s. And they made that choice when Lebanon was considered the Switzerland of the Middle East, years before it descended into chaos and horror and war. Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights freed them from tyrannical Syrian rule, and it freed them from the Sunni demand to resist the Zionists.
The Alawites on the north side of Ghajar, however, were severed from their adopted country and abandoned to Hezbollahland, even though they were Israeli citizens and had no connection to Lebanon.
They were cut off from Jerusalem, and they were cut off from Damascus. They were even cut off from Beirut. In 1967 they found themselves in a no-man’s-land between Israel and Syria, and in 2000 they found themselves mired in Hezbollahland between Israel and Lebanon proper. Meanwhile, the village was Nasrallah’s flash point of choice. Hezbollah fighters liked to pick fights with the Israelis by firing from the northern side of the village into the southern half and bringing reprisals down on everyone’s head.
The people of Ghajar weren’t the only ones who lived right on the border. The Lebanese village of Kfar Kila and the small Israeli town of Metula were nearly built on top of each other. The first time I saw Metula from the Lebanese side, I couldn’t even grasp what I was looking at.
“That village is in Israel,” Leena said and stopped the car next to a field.
I scanned the tops of the hills for a settlement somewhere off in the distance, but I couldn’t see what she was talking about. “What village?” I said.
“That village right there,” she said, and pointed at a row of houses in front of us.
“Those houses right there?” I said. They were only a few hundred feet from where we were parked. “Aren’t they in Lebanon?”
“Look closer,” she said. “See the fence?”
There it was. The fence along the border ran just a few dozen feet behind the houses as though it demarcated a property line, not an international boundary. I could have stepped out of the car, walked right up to it, and had a conversation in a normal tone of voice with an Israeli family hanging out in the yard.
Hezbollah guerrillas were dug into the hills and holed up behind us in Kfar Kila’s houses.
I tried to imagine how I would feel as an American if the Taliban controlled territory thirty or forty feet from my house.
“This is nuts,” I said, and stepped out of the car to snap pictures.
“The border is not even guarded.”
“The fence is electric,” Leena said. “It won’t shock you, but it will alert the Israelis, and they’ll come out to investigate. So don’t touch it.”
“Why on earth would any Israelis want to live so close to Hezbollah?” I wondered out loud.
Unlike in Ghajar, the residents of Metula and Kfar Kila weren’t divided artificially or by accident. They were divided by ethnicity, by religion, by nationality, and by war. They lived just a few minutes’ walking distance apart, but most of the time they managed to do so without killing each other.
Americans at the time were fighting counterinsurgencies on the other side of the world in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Israelis fought counterinsurgencies against the PLO and Hezbollah in Lebanon, they did so literally in their backyard. I could have walked up to the fence and thrown a hand grenade into an Israeli’s kitchen window. No one would have been able to stop me. If Hezbollah fighters decided to shoot Jews in Metula, they wouldn’t miss.
Yet the border was quiet.
“This is not what I expected,” I said.
“Everyone who sees this is surprised,” Leena said. “That’s why I like bringing foreign journalists down here.”
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to make of it, though.
Hezbollah had launched attacks against Israel several times since the IDF left, often in and around Ghajar. Yet most of the time, the border was strangely and eerily quiet. Otherwise, Metula would have been destroyed or abandoned.
It was impossible to mistake calm for peace, though, which is what made the border unsettling.
“I want to wave hello to someone in Israel,” I said, though I knew it was illegal.
“Don’t,” Leena said. “I’m responsible for you, and I could get in serious trouble.”
Israel still had friends in South Lebanon who passed on information, including actionable intelligence, about Hezbollah. Hezbollah knew it, too, which is why it would not even tolerate hand signals to Israelis. I knew better than to wave and bring down the wrath of a militia on my head and Leena’s, but I wished I could defuse the tension on the border by an iota, and I wanted Leena to know it.
She and I arrived during a lull in a storm that had been raging for decades. The border may have been calm at that moment, but the calm was so tense I could feel it. The Lebanese side was saturated with so much violent Hezbollah propaganda that I doubted very seriously that the calm was sustainable.
The rest of what Leena showed me that day seemed to confirm that.
She drove us into Kfar Kila and parked next to the fence, where we could see some of Hezbollah’s outdoor museum pieces — an Israeli truck up on blocks that Hezbollah destroyed with an antitank mine, a rocket launcher pointing at Israel beneath camouflage netting, and two stone monuments representing the American “Great Satan” and the Israeli “Little Satan.” I also saw two kinds of donation boxes where people could give money to Hezbollah for either charity or “resistance” operations.
Just beyond the edge of the village was one of the world’s strangest tourist attractions.
Fatima Gate had been the crossing point between Israel and Lebanon before 2000, when the border was open. The gate itself was mere feet on the Israeli side. It was wrapped in cyclone fencing two stories high, the kind you see behind home plate on a baseball diamond.
Visitors from all over the Arab world drove down there from Beirut to throw rocks at Israel. Dozens of fist-sized stones were stuck in the fencing.
Thousands of Lebanese people had passed through that gate when the border was open. Those with security clearance were allowed into Israel to work and play. At that time, the border might have appeared almost normal, but only because Israel controlled both sides. If I had felt like being provocative, I might have asked residents of Kfar Kila what they thought the border region would have been like had Hezbollah, rather than Israel, controlled both sides. South Lebanon might have been sort of okay, but Metula, I thought, would not have fared very well.
At least the Israeli homes on the other side of Fatima Gate were out of rock-throwing range. They were not, however, outside rifle, mortar, and rocket range. Living in a house so close to South Lebanon in 2005 was like living on a seasonal floodplain or atop a tectonic fault. The false peace couldn’t hold. How could it hold?
Hezbollah’s hatred of Jews and Israelis was white-hot and total. It was difficult, if not impossible, for Westerners like me to wrap our minds around it.
It must have felt the same way to some of the South Lebanese.
Once in a while, those who lived at the edge of Kfar Kila could look out their front windows and see the same soldiers who had patrolled their own streets driving around in armored trucks. Israeli soldiers didn’t pick fights by randomly firing across the border, as Hezbollah sometimes did, but they could shoot back when provoked, and they could shoot back with much greater firepower. The place was a powder keg no matter which side you lived on.
“A guy from Hezbollah TV came down here to Fatima Gate once,” Leena said, “and some Israelis having a picnic on the other side recognized him. ‘Hey!’ they said. ‘You’re that guy from Hezbollah! What’s up?’ He was furious. He wanted to say something, but no one here is allowed to talk to Israelis. So he growled at them.”
She smiled. “He just clenched his teeth and went, ‘Grr.’”
“It’s absurd, isn’t it?” she said.
Even more absurd was the tomb of the disputed dead man on top of a nearby hill.
The Lebanese said Sheik Abbad was buried there. The Israelis said, No, the tomb belongs to Rabbi Ashi. I didn’t know who was right, nor did I care. Neither did anyone else who wasn’t Lebanese or Israeli. The dead man, whoever he was, was buried exactly — precisely — on the border between the two countries. The United Nations arm-twisted Israel and Lebanon into painting a blue line lengthwise down the tomb’s center. One side of the man’s body lay in Israel, and the other side lay in Lebanon.
Hezbollah erected a billboard next to him that faced south and taunted Israelis with horrific images of violence and war — dead bodies gunned down in a street, a soldier with skin missing on one side of his face holding a rocket launcher, and a Hezbollah militiaman holding up the severed head of an Israeli man by his hair. Underneath these gruesome photographs was text written in Hebrew referring to Israelis who had been captured and never returned: “Sharon don’t forget, your soldiers are still in Lebanon.”
I felt embarrassed for Lebanon that this was what Israelis saw when they looked north. What on earth must they have thought when their eyes lit upon that barbarous billboard?
Of all the cities in the world I could have relocated to, I chose Beirut, partly because I liked it, but mostly because it was the capital of the only country in the whole Middle East that had freed itself from the great Arab prison. Damascus was a dungeon, Baghdad was on fire, Cairo was choking with slums, and Dubai was a mall. Beirut was the light. From Israeli soil, however, Lebanon must have looked like Somalia.
From Lebanese soil, Israel looked like a superpower. A gigantic listening post festooned with radars, cameras, and other sophisticated surveillance equipment towered over the Israeli side of the disputed tomb. Hezbollah guerrillas hunkered down in a bunker just a few yards away, their yellow and green flag snapping defiantly from the roof. The ruins of a Hezbollah listening post lay in the shadow of Israel’s, but it was comically small and had been blown up years before.
Leena stood a few dozen feet from me, lost in her own thoughts and memories. She looked through the fence into Israel with what I can only describe as a thousand-yard stare.
I slowly approached.
“How does looking across the border make you feel?” I said.
She thought about my question for a long time before answering.
“Sad,” she finally said. “It makes me feel sad.”
“What should be done?” I asked.
“We need a peace treaty,” she said. “And an open border. Think about what that would do for the economies of both countries.”
“Is there any chance,” I said, “that that’s even possible?”
She thought long and hard about that question, too.
“No,” she finally said. Her eyes looked fixed on something I couldn’t see. “There has been too much blood.”
I stepped away from her and stood directly in front of Israel’s listening post. The structure itself was no more than twelve feet in front of me. There were a few rooms at the base of the tower, and I heard, but did not see, Israelis walking around and talking inside.
They would have heard me, too, had I said anything. Of course they were watching me. They probably talked about me since I was standing right there. They almost certainly photographed me and added my face to their files.
I saw more rocks stuck in the fencing and wire and had to wonder: What kind of moron stands within feet of an Israeli military post and throws rocks at it? A suicide bomber standing where I stood could easily kill everyone in there. It would only take a second or two to pull out a handgun and start shooting or to toss a grenade. I didn’t feel comfortable even putting my hands where the watchful Israelis couldn’t see them, let alone hurling something at them all of a sudden. Apparently, though, I could have thrown rocks without starting a cross-border incident, because plenty of people had already done it.
I didn’t go to the border to throw rocks at a country. I went there to see and to learn. I wanted to wave hello and send a few good vibes across the violent frontier. If love makes the world go ’round, hate makes it burn. I would have waved to the Lebanese if I had been on the Israeli side, but I didn’t dare wave from Hezbollah’s side. My wonderful guide, who was responsible for my behavior, could have been punished for treason.
— Michael Totten is author of the new book The Road to Fatima Gate, from which this is excerpted.