Lebanon One Year After the Israeli Withdrawal

by As'ad AbuKhalil | published May 29, 2001

Quiet has apparently returned to the Lebanese-Israeli border after violent incidents last week marked the first anniversary of Israel's forced withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Israeli forces shot two Lebanese men who were throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers across the border, and downed a small plane flying into Israeli airspace from Lebanon. Last year, the world, and the US in particular, heaped praise (and in the US case, additional aid) on Israel for ending an occupation that had lasted, in effect, for more than 24 years. But Israel left southern Lebanon the way it has (not) left the West Bank: more impoverished and more devastated than when it "arrived." Hizballah's vow to continue fighting for Israeli evacuation of the disputed Shebaa Farms area and the return of Hizballah leaders imprisoned in Israel is only one cause of ongoing Israeli-Lebanese tension. Israeli leaders used to assert that Lebanon would certainly be the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. But the bitter taste of the Israeli occupation remains: now, it can safely be said that Lebanon will be the last Arab country ever to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Many of Israel's former allies on the Christian right wing have not forgiven Israel for what they perceive as the abandonment of their cause. Even Antoine Lahad, former commander of Israel's proxy militia, the disbanded South Lebanon Army (SLA), revealed in a recent interview his anger at the "Israeli betrayal."

Just over a year since a prolonged guerrilla campaign compelled Israel's withdrawal—albeit incomplete—from the south, internal and regional tensions weigh heavily on the political system and on ordinary Lebanese. Lebanon's political elite has written the obituary of the Lebanese civil war more than once, officially in the 1989 al-Ta'if agreement, which reoriented Lebanon toward the Arab world, especially Syria. Yet the underlying conflicts that produced Lebanese civil wars in the twentieth century, if not the nineteenth, remain unresolved. The al-Ta'if constitutional reforms juridically established what had previously been an informal understanding that Muslims and Christians are equal in number in Lebanon. Lebanon is still governed according to this myth.

Billionaire Prime Minister

The post-war era in Lebanon has largely been shaped by the personality, ambition and financial interests of billionaire Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the Silvio Berlusconi of Lebanon. Hariri made his money as a construction mogul in Saudi Arabia, and still holds Saudi citizenship. He enjoys the enhanced powers granted to the Sunni Muslim prime minister by the al-Ta'if constitutional reforms. Christian leaders have raised a hue and cry over what they see as the reduction of the powers of the presidency—Lebanon's highest office—which is reserved for Maronite Christians. But Hariri's remarkable influence stems more from his great personal wealth and his network of alliances and connections, which he has used not only to enhance his own standing but to punish his rivals. Before returning to the prime ministership in 2000, he halted many "rebuilding" projects and orchestrated a daily drumbeat of economic doom and gloom in the media to undermine the government of former prime minister Salim al-Huss. These moves basically spread the message that economic misery would not end as long as Hariri was kept out of the premier's office.

Hariri's campaign reinforced the power of money in Lebanese politics. The summer 2000 elections were probably the most financially corrupt in the modern history of the country. Foreign media reported the disbursement of large sums to buy votes for political neophytes whose constituents barely know who their new representatives are. As one poor Shiite voter said, "If [Hariri's people] pay me, I will show up and do what they want." Estimates vary, but Hariri certainly spent in excess of $100 million on his glitzy, overpowering campaign, waged mostly in the media. Glossy, oversized posters printed at high cost in France covered edifices of buildings. Hariri's honest but weak rival al-Huss, who lost his seat, said that since the construction magnate now controls (directly or indirectly) all but one of Lebanon's daily newspapers, campaigning against him was extremely difficult. On election day, Hariri's Beirut lists swept the entire three-tier districts. The role of the Syrian government was less heavy-handed than in past elections, as Bashar al-Asad had just assumed the presidency in the wake of the death of his father, and was likely consumed with internal matters. The Syrian intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, headed by Ghazi Kanaan, was active in supporting and opposing various candidates. But Kanaan did not succeed, for instance, in his efforts to unseat or weaken Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Rebuilding for Whom (And at What Price)?

Hariri's reform plans have been simple and clear: to recreate pre-war Lebanon, flaws and all. But it is precisely the pre-war concentration of banks, hotels and service industries in Beirut that helped to generate the country-wide resentment which propelled civil strife. In present-day Beirut, largely uninhabited luxury apartment buildings dot the shoreline, but one looks in vain for subsidized housing for the poor. Hariri took out huge loans—increasing Lebanon's foreign debt from $3 billion to around $30 billion—largely to finance high-profile accommodations for Lebanon's trickle of tourists. Beirut's new Olympic stadium, expanded and modernized airport and lavish conference center do little for the average Lebanese. The rebuilding effort also aims to recapture for Lebanon its pre-war status as the casino, playground and brothel of the region. But wealthy Gulf Arabs now have European and US destinations, and less affluent Gulf Arabs may prefer Syria, which offers cheaper, less extravagant versions of Lebanese entertainment and pleasures.

Hariri has been an unabashed advocate of privatization (as was his predecessor al-Huss), and has given ownership of the Lebanese postal service to a Canadian company which charges DHL prices for domestic mail. The government will be privatizing the water and electric companies, though these experiments have been abysmal for Greater London. Two years ago, Microsoft representatives gave the government the Arabic text of a new copyright law for the Lebanese parliament. Lebanese officials were warned by the US Embassy that foreign investment would not arrive without the law's passage. The parliament did what it was told, causing the prices of software and CDs to skyrocket beyond the reach of all but the ultra-rich. Inflation has affected consumer staples, as well: Hariri advised those complaining about increasing poverty to repair their old shoes, instead of buying new ones. Of course, Hariri does not run Lebanon by himself, as much as he tries.

Contending with Neighbors

A prime source of headaches for the country is that Israel has not really left. Not only has Israel continued to violate Lebanese airspace and bomb targets deep into the heartland, but Israeli troops still occupy the Shebaa Farms area, which the Lebanese government maintains is part of south Lebanon. Following last year's withdrawal, the UN, under pressure from the US, asserted that Israel had completed its obligation to leave Lebanese territories according to UN Security Council resolution 425, and that the Shebaa Farms are Syrian, not Lebanese territory. It is odd that the UN accepts the US-Israeli position on the disputed territory, although Syria itself asserts that it is indeed Lebanese. The UN argues that Lebanon is unable to present documentation of the 1951 Lebanese-Syrian "oral agreement" in which Syria says it ceded the farms. But no one disputes that the Shebaa villagers who worked the farms prior to their occupation by Israel in 1967 live in Lebanon. It is also curious that the UN has treated the occupation of what it says are Syrian lands so casually. Of course, with its generous assertion of Lebanese sovereignty over the farms, the Syrian government retains what is called the "Lebanon card" in Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

The Lebanese government always has to contend with Syrian influence: 30,000 or more Syrian troops, and many Syrian workers, are in Lebanon. In the 1970s, Syrian officers and soldiers engaged in notorious acts of thuggery and criminality. Today the military presence is felt mostly in the political arena. In April, Hariri displeased his Syrian allies by allowing his main daily mouthpiece al-Mustaqbal to question the wisdom of Hizballah's most recent attack on Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad canceled a scheduled meeting with Hariri, receiving instead his Greek Orthodox deputy, Isam Faris, the other billionaire in the cabinet (who contributed to George W. Bush's campaign). Asad did not meet with Hariri until May 22, apparently feeling the need for a united front against Israel as the withdrawal's anniversary approached.

There are substantive Lebanese grievances against the Syrian intervention in Lebanon; many would simply like Syria to produce a timetable for withdrawal or to redeploy its forces outside of the environs of Beirut. Southern Lebanese farmers complain that the influx of cheap produce from Syria undercuts their livelihood. But many complaints of the "anti-Syrian" camp are xenophobic. Led by Jubran Tuwayni of the Beirut daily an-Nahar, "anti-Syrian" analysts have highly exaggerated the number of Syrian workers in Lebanon in order to blame them (and, by extension, Syria) for the worsening economic conditions in the country. Syrian workers are the gypsies of Lebanon—many sleep in parking lots or abandoned cars—but the right continues to insist that they are stealing the country's wealth.

Sectarian Tensions

Hariri also needs to navigate between various interests in a small republic teeming with sects and political bosses. Last September, Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfayr began vocally demanding that Syria commit to withdrawal from Lebanon—a demand which had previously been the domain of the exiled right-wing General Michel Aoun and his cohort. Sfayr does not necessarily speak out of a firm attachment to the sovereignty of Lebanon, as he was largely silent about the Israeli occupation, and recurrently pleads for judicial mercy for ex-SLA militiamen charged with crimes. Many members of the Maronite establishment still harbor the fantasy of restoring Maronite political hegemony in a country that is over 70 percent Muslim. The patriarch is emboldened in his pronouncements by the change in government in Syria; critics of the Syrian presence seem confident that Bashar will not resort to the tactics of his father in Lebanon. Complicating the constantly confusing political map of Lebanon is the emergence of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (formerly the leader of the Lebanese left) as a critic of the Syrian presence. Jumblatt claims to argue on principle, though his new stance has served his electoral interests, since his districts now have a heavy Christian presence. He can no longer win elections with only Druze votes, as he did in 1992. On May 22, however, Jumblatt also met with Asad, and emerged from the meeting talking about Arab unity.

Still, the recent intensification of Lebanese sectarian tensions paints a grim picture. In April, the commemoration of the anniversary of the Lebanese civil war turned into a sectarian spectacle. The increasingly assertive Maronite-oriented right wing, hoping to reduce Muslim political power, highlighted the imperative of Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, prompting the government to ban public demonstrations. Nevertheless, members of the cultish Sunni movement known colloquially as al-Ahbash took to the streets brandishing swords, hammers and axes, sending a sectarian message to the right. The constitutional reforms of al-Ta'if, which ostensibly ended the civil war, may have only provided a respite from bloody sectarianism. They failed to address the roots of the conflict: a political system which cannot guarantee democratic freedoms and constitutional equality, as long as it adheres to obsolete arithmetic formulas for the distribution of power according to sectarian affiliations. It is hazardous to predict the future of Lebanon, given the multiplicity of domestic and regional variables to which Lebanon has been held hostage for decades. But it is safe to say that the last chapter in the centuries-old conflict in Lebanon has not yet been written. If the Syrians do withdraw, many fear that Lebanese feuds could easily be reignited. The Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon, which already suffers cruel treatment at the hands of the Syrian and Lebanese governments, could serve as a convenient scapegoat.

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