Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Heart-to Heart with Israel/ Cont'd

Of Facts and Truths (Part Three)

Nini Nini Ka’ Ka’ (as in Ne Ne Nee Ne Ne)

As I was heading towards the Syrian-Lebanese border last August, three days after the ceasefire took hold, I received a phone message from a Palestinian acquaintance: Since you are the closest thing to a Shiite I know, I want to congratulate you on this victory. Allah yl’aan Abu Ammar (God curse Abu Ammar, aka Yasser Arafat). To which came my reply: Shiite? Humm… Victory? Really? Glad to inform you we are one on Abu Ammar.

Interesting how a congratulatory message from a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan secular man should unknowingly indulge one of this region’s worst habits: an ugly sectarianism that is constantly insisting it can make itself look pretty. He saw Hezbollah’s triumph as Shiite, he automatically assumed that I, as a Shiite by birth, would identify with it, he himself saw me as a Shiite but, as a Sunni Palestinian, he still took pride in this “Arab” deed, lamenting Arafat’s failure to claim for his people a similar feat.

So Israel, after all, did get its sectarian reaction but in reverse: For a moment there, when the debris had barely had time to settle over the wreckage, the spectacle of Arab parochialism cheering the war’s designated baddie—and a Shiite, no less—must have been a sorry sight for a dumbfounded Israel. The idea was to boost the stock of violence but to destabilize the stage upon which an overconfident Hezbollah and its Persian friends were so freely playing; to punch the whole silly and breathe fervor into its feuding parts. As I wrote in that letter to my American journalist friend towards the end of the fighting:

Bludgeon the country, [Israel] decided, and make it pay for cradling a boastful, cheeky ingrate. Kill it, it even thought, and let its orphans, including Hezbollah, fight over the charred bits and pieces. In either case, let Iran crow like a plucked rooster over the trash heap that would have become Lebanon.

But try as Israel might in thirty-three days of combat, events would not stir as scripted. Its indiscriminant strikes infuriated even those extremely unsympathetic to Hezbollah’s cross-border raid, Christian homes welcomed Shiite refugees, the Resistance’s performance shamed its detractors into enthusiastic (if disingenuous) endorsements, while Maronite Aoun’s alliance with it injected resilience into the country’s fraying national fabric.

Yes, for a little while there, the facts were laughing themselves silly at a fuming Israel. So many of us were overtaken by the hype and so very few felt the chill of the ill winds that were coming. Slow down when reading these next few lines because what transpires between them is far more telling than what occupies the surface: We forgot that Lebanon’s delicate constitution was not made for such pricy victories; that Hezbollah may have won this round but that Lebanon did not; that cunning on the battlefield is an imp without the support of grit in the political arena; that with the people’s sympathy Resistance is a hero but without it it’s a bully; that Hezbollah cannot pack such muscle and expect its envious sisters to stay so scrawny; that it cannot weigh itself in gold while the rest are trading in cents and dimes; that Arabhood is for our poetry books and sectarianism is for real; that arrogance is every smug victor’s Achilles’ heel; that deterrence against Israel involves much more than nini nini Ka’ka’.

Our victory, divine that it was, brought with it a time of reckoning: Scores had to be settled, chips were being called in, loyalties were being put to the test, choices were being called into question. Lebanon begged for foresight and magnanimity but instead, as our he-men were pounding their chests, the smallest of calculations by the pettiest of leaders were shaping the most momentous of happenings (details are always awaiting you in Piss and Hassounah).
Today, exactly one year after, from this balcony smack in the center of Beirut, this is the landscape that my eyes see: A Shiite-Sunni drift into a nasty rift, a battered South up to its ears from a life of endless sacrifice, around 20,000 Lebanese and foreign troops dotting a terrain where the Resistance alone used to have free reign, a Party of God which can’t seem to tell the difference anymore between a halo and a hula hoop. Meanwhile, our politics has become even more smarmy, our government is barely functioning, our parliament is shut down, our people cannot quite decide what kind of life they want to live, our sects can’t quite agree on the nation they want to be, our friends and foes can’t quite figure out the game they want us to play, graduates are booking the first flight out while Al Qaeda’s are slithering in…

Now tell me: Who do you think won last summer?

For some of this, of course you would be right to thank Israel (and while you’re at it send a note to the Syrians, the Americans, the Iranians…) but the make, I’ll have you know, is vintage Lebanese.

The fact is Hezbollah won last summer but the truth is it lost.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Heart-to Heart with Israel/cont'd

Of Facts and Truths (Part Two)

Nifsi Fi wi’ Tfou Aleh (I Want Him and I Spit on Him)

There is no better way to usher you into our house of mirrors and paradoxes, a mirthful abode where the rules giggle every time they are broken, where every absolute and its opposite may share the same bed and the most prudish of principles can turn playful at a moment’s notice.

Let me begin with the year 2000, right before Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Eight years into the end of our civil war, the country had become the incarnation of that wonderful Palestinian adage Min Barra Rkham w’ Minjouwah Skham (On the Outside Marble, On the inside Crap). In this most imperfect of democracies, as the charade of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction lulled the willing and the fatigued into a life of silver linings, fiefdoms thrived, corruption turned frogs into princes and villains and heroes ran around happily exchanging business cards. Lebanon was either flying or sinking, depending on the sect, the day, the issue and—it goes without saying--our pocket’s demands. Underneath it all, bad people with bad intentions kept their eye on the ball, and way above everyone hovered mother Syria, eyes fixed on every single one of her babies.

The South was occupied but so was the rest of the country. It would be sheer heresy for us to even insinuate a likeness between an Israeli offense and an Arab brother’s affront but, emotions aside, on the most practical level, the upshot for us was all the same: Decisions were made but none were made by Lebanon. Between Syria and Israel the dos and don’ts had been agreed, the deal had been sealed and the rough (sometimes bloody) haggling was fine tuned into hardheaded bargaining.

In this context soared Hezbollah, an unusually motivated Iranian-Lebanese Shiite endeavor provoked into life by Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and subsequent occupation of the South. Into the pundits’ bag of examples fell yet another illustration of how Israeli brutality suckles the very radicalism it pretends to detest, and into our Arab-Israeli predicament was woven another thread in the paradox that makes of Israel and Islamic fundamentalism the best of friends even though they are the worst of enemies.

There is nothing original about this proposition if you are under the impression that the friendship between the two is the unintended consequence of Israel’s stubborn attachment to physical force as a principal instrument of policy. If that is where you are, then you must be as flummoxed as all those who cannot quite fathom why Israel keeps resorting to methods that further radicalize its foes, or as certain as those others who believe that Israel pursues them merely because it is genuinely (if erroneously) convinced that Arabs understand only force. But if you dig deeper into psyches, if you dare ponder the exhaustively researched ways Islamism and Israel nurture one another’s raison d’etre, if you allow yourself the thought that both cannot survive without a life of stark, frightening contrasts, if you bring yourself to see how both cannot be without their ghouls and monsters, then you will have successfully crossed from the fact of Islamic fundamentalism and Israel as enemies into the truth of their friendship.

When Israel occupied Lebanon’s South it gave the most noble of meanings to Hezbollah’s quest. From the start, Hezbollah never really was much interested in our fratricide. There were violations here and there (kidnappings of Lebanese citizens, for one) but when every warlord was busy dipping his hands in Lebanese blood, Hezbollah was content to watch from the sidelines. Its interests lay elsewhere, its technique was different and its ambitions were grander than back-street fights.

By 2000, as Hezbollah, under the auspices of Syria and its active protection, progressed from a firebrand militant group into a flourishing resistance movement with a remarkably successful record against an otherwise unbeatable Israeli army, the cross-sectarian consensus behind its struggle in the South had blossomed into near-reverence. While still purposefully operating on the outskirts of Lebanese politics, it had become a full-fledged enterprise investing in everything from heroism to schooling for its children.

Suddenly Israel up and left, without so much as a goodbye. In some key people’s breath Ya, Habibi (roughly, Oh Dear) ran very close after Allah Akbar. Like clockwork, asinine questions began to be asked, and not only by the “collaborationists” and the “cowardly.” Absent an Israeli occupying army, to what end the arsenal of the Resistance? Absent an Israeli occupying army in a multi-confessional state, to what end a resistance in the exclusive hands of one sect? Absent an Israeli occupying army, to what end a resistance which refuses to cede its role to the state’s revived forces? And if in fact there was and is not much of a state to cede roles to, as Hezbollah claims, to what end then running in its parliamentary elections, taking ministerial portfolios in its governments, filling up quotas in its departments? If this activism actually demonstrated Hezbollah’s willingness to engage with the Lebanese state, then to what end the exclusion of the military from such noblesse oblige?

It did not matter that Hezbollah had (and still has) a myriad of answers for each of these questions. That they were being asked in the first place—and by many—signaled an imminent turning point. Now that the Resistance had no actual land to liberate, applause started to grow more faint. That the fellows (and Syria) clumsily latched on to Shebaa Farms (Israeli occupied 25 square kilometers of previously Syrian but now conveniently Lebanese land) to buy themselves an extension for the Cause only added to suspicions that they were not in the mood to rethink identities or rewrite mission statements. Still, things were not so bad: Syria was still in control, our political class was still beholden to it and Hezbollah was still basking in its shade.
And then, suddenly, Syria was chased out of town. The silent grew rowdy, the meek turned mean, questions developed into accusations and, like a trapeze artist on speed, Hezbollah’s ripostes swung between the perfectly reasonable and the downright nasty. Eloquence itself began to stutter.

Are you with me so far?

This is where friendships come to the rescue. Had Israel been the least bit interested in a peaceful resolution to the problem, had it been keen on depriving Hezbollah of its reasons—or showing them up for the excuses that they are—and undercutting Iranian and Syrian encroachments on the Lebanese state, this would have been the golden moment to strike through creative diplomacy. Neither the Farms nor the landmine maps are of any historical or strategic importance to Israel. It could have handed the two to the UN and released two of the three remaining Lebanese prisoners, leaving Samir Kuntar, who smashed four-year old Einat Hrat’s head against a rock, to rot for another thirty years in his Israeli prison. But as hard as the world’s emissaries tried, Israel just wouldn’t bite because, you see, creative diplomacy is for ninnies, war is for men. For Israel, the Lebanese state is only sovereign enough to take punishment for Hezbollah’s actions, for everything else it might as well keep twiddling its thumb--and, funnily enough, that is exactly what Hezbollah keeps saying.

Every time the Lebanese government broaches the subject of the Farms with the UN, Hezbollah comically accuses it of conspiring against the Movement, not realizing that, in its haste to defend the logic of perpetual resistance, it is tacitly offering us a most embarrassing revelation: By refusing thus far to return the Farms peacefully, Israel can only be serving the Movement’s interests.

But in the end, this is certainly not about a conspiracy of interests or treason, or of Zionism and Islamic currents in active cahoots—as the latter keep accusing their adversaries—this is about a meeting of mindsets, an intimacy of the most disturbing kind between two orientations.

With such like enemies who needs friends. For what fun would there be without a scarecrow with which to scare the children? What’s the point of rooting for the good guys if there are no bad guys to vilify? What’s the use of all that armor if there are no bogeymen to pound every once in a while? How can Israel keep shining if Lebanon stops looking so black? Now switch names in the last sentence, and you get yourself a ditto for Hezbollah.

More to come.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Heart-to-heart with Israel/ cont’d

Of Facts and Truths (Part One)

“Sometimes facts threaten the truth.” Amos Oz told me this two weeks ago in his Tale of Love and Darkness. True, I thought, facts, like the parents of an unwanted child, oftentimes just ignore it. Alas, we have so many unwanted children in these parts.

We can live with facts, however painful they are. We even collect and display them as trophies of grief to console a broken spirit or stoke dimming ire or justify indescribable cruelty. But the truth…the truth is something special. However mild its rebukes they can shatter the heart. If unshackled and allowed to walk free, it can suck the life out of age-old myths and puncture gaping holes into the steeliest pretensions. At its most kind, it can bring light into our night and cajole the humane out of the inhuman.

I know you’re getting antsy but if you stay with me for a few more lines, you will see the light.

The dance between fact and truth in Oz’s memoir first swings onto the page in the death of his grandmother: The fact is that she passed away while scrubbing herself in the bathtub, but the truth is that she died from a life-long obsessiveness with germs. Benign, isn’t it, and yet so seductive to the susceptible mind because from it spring a thousand different beats about this burning Arab-Israeli expanse. For practice, one can set the tone quickly with a couple of very simple ones: The fact is Gamal Abd al Nasser expired from an exhausted heart, but the truth is that he died from a twenty-year friendship between high promise and abysmal failure; the fact is Saddam Hussein was brought down by the US and Britain, but the truth is he perished from a twenty-year antagonism between his brain and sanity.

Once the oppressiveness of conventional wisdom recedes in the mind’s calculus, the trickier blends become easier to make: The fact is Israel and Islamism are real enemies, but the truth is they are good friends; the fact is Hezbollah won last summer’s war, but the truth is it lost; the fact is Hamas won, fair and square, in the last Legislative Council elections, but the truth is it lost. You get the rhythm now? If you are even slightly versed in our realities, the arguments implied in these combinations should not be unfamiliar to you. But stop at the facts and you are just looking in through the peephole, reach for the truth and you are stepping into the room with the door wide open.

To move from Hezbollah’s triumph to its loss, you need to understand the ground rule that delivered the former and chew slowly over the paradox that explains the latter. In the history of Arab-Israeli military face-offs, the ground rule has always been thus: If it is not an absolute, swift and resounding victory for Israel, it is a defeat; and if it is not an absolute, swift and humiliating defeat for the Arabs, it is a victory. Simple. For stamina, this peculiar formula has long depended on an unyielding, deeply entrenched temperament--that of Israeli arrogance and Arab defeatism. Whatever the score is at the end of every contest, it is this attitude that separates the victors from the vanquished.

Not surprisingly, with such a crude yardstick the bar becomes unsustainably high for the mighty and hilariously low for the little guy. Trip up the mindset of a triumphalist Israeli militarism that thinks squashing its Arab enemy is akin to twisting the life out of a spent cigarette and you’ve got yourself a winner. Economies wrecked long after the gunfire has stopped, death tolls, villages wiped off the map, entire neighborhoods flattened, killing fields torched and littered with cluster bombs, a childhood denied its innocence, whole generations heading for the door, are for the history books; for us, a slap on Israel’s red face will do just fine, thank you. You saw it in 1973, when the Arabs rejoiced over a victory that wasn’t; and you saw it last July, when 33 days of combat in Lebanon left Israel tongue-tied and fuming.

Hands down, Hezbollah won because it was never muscle that was going to win the fight, it was psychology. Over a million Israelis forced to hide for weeks on end in shelters, a stubborn barrage of Hezbollah rockets and katyushas that spread panic deep into Northern Israel, Israeli soldiers outwitted on the hills and narrow streets of the Lebanese South, a Hezbollah leadership that stayed alive and remained intact, and, lo and behold, we got ourselves an unqualified champ. Simple. Simple and also uninteresting because this is the least revealing part of the war. The more compelling bit is the one that most pundits—even the best of them—keep glossing over in fits and starts before their analysis finally sputters into a predictable stop.

In the first few days of the war, Ehud Olmert announced to the world that Israel’s objective was to devastate the infrastructure of Hezbollah, disarm it, expel it from the South and return the two abducted soldiers (see his speech before the Knesset on July 17, 2006). That Olmert’s goals, as the Israeli Winograd Commission concluded, were “over-ambitious and not feasible” is patently obvious. Dwell on it and you end up (like so many still are) running in your place. Digest it and then ask yourself this question, Why would Israel publicly set for itself a mission it knew it could not fulfill, and you might just be getting somewhere. After all, Israel was very well aware that Hezbollah, as a powerful and pervasive political presence above the ground but a stealth military force under it, would be far less vulnerable to air strikes that typically bring standing armies down. Of course it could be harmed, but it could not be devastated, nor disarmed, nor expelled, nor forced to return the two Israeli soldiers. Moreover, Hezbollah entered the latest round with a consistently impressive performance against Israel. As a disciplined, highly focused grassroots guerilla movement, it succeeded where Yasser Arafat and his band of pot-bellied, lewd, ersatz revolutionaries had always failed: It wrestled with Israel over Southern Lebanon for eighteen years and won in 2000, when Israel unilaterally ended its occupation of the South.

However, till this very day, in explaining Israel’s loss, both its critics and supporters skip over motive, as a given, and focus on malfunctions and miscalculations. Both expend all their energies over the nuts and bolts of failure because both have taken Israel’s declared objective at face value. Both believe Hezbollah was combatant and target. And both are wrong. The fact is Israel was fighting Hezbollah, but the truth is it was after Lebanon. Its arrogance was not directed at a well-tested Hezbollah, it was directed at the infinitely more fragile Lebanese polity. It did not think Hezbollah would break in the first few days of the war, it thought Lebanon would. But it did not (and you will be pleased to know that the reasons will make an appearance here soon). Therefore, it was poor, feeble Lebanon—and not majestic Hezbollah--that first tripped up Israel’s mindset.

Interesting? A tad bit over the top? Yes, but you haven’t read the last of it yet. And this is the juncture where you need to cross from the realm of basic ground rules into that of mirrors and paradoxes.

Stay tuned.