On the road to Damascus and in neighbourhoods of Beirut

I don’t usually quote entire articles at length without commentary, however I’m going to make an exception this time. I quote it in its entirety because it is a letter to the editor and I don’t know how long they stay on-line and I want to keep it. And I won’t comment on it becuase it needs none.

On the road to Damascus and in neighbourhoods of Beirut


Because my wife Molly and I happened to be visiting our son Spencer in Beirut recently, our perspectives on events in Lebanon may be a bit different.

Beirut is a city of strongly differentiated neighbourhoods and the Dahieh is often referred to as a “Hezbollah stronghold.” On Sunday, July 9, we went for a walk there. It was a poorer area, with crowded streets and closely packed businesses. We had some sort of pizza from an outdoor stall, phoned my father from the Western Union office and shopped for clothes and trinkets.

Everywhere people were friendly and welcoming.

Our guide to the area was a friend of Spencer’s, born in Canada but with many relatives in the neighbourhood – so when we passed his grandmother’s place, etiquette dictated that we drop in for coffee. There was not much of a view from her second-floor balcony because the entire area was very thickly built up with closely packed eight- to 10-storey apartment buildings, but her sons supported her in her old age – it was a nice apartment.

Each area of Beirut tends to announce its political allegiances with posters of revered leaders, so the Sunni neighbourhoods have many photos of Rafik Hariri in heroic poses and South Beirut was dominated by pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader – but this is, in some ways, much like a Canadian election campaign. Hezbollah is a legitimate political party in Lebanon, with several seats in cabinet, and it was not clear how many signs were new or were left over from the recent general election. It was, however, absolutely clear that this was a peaceful, very densely populated civilian area, with no sign whatsoever of arms, militias or anything remotely resembling military activity.

The Dahieh is a fairly small area by Canadian standards, but it is the part of South Beirut that was attacked most intensively from the very first day. According to the New York Times website, in one 24-hour period last week, the Israelis dropped 23 tons of high explosives there.

The destruction of Beirut has been, however, a general thing. Christian neighbourhoods and the downtown, motorway interchanges, the airport runways and terminal, fuel storage depots, port facilities and public infrastructure of all types – all have been bombed repeatedly.

It is important to note that almost all of this destruction has no conceivable military purpose and no possible link to Hezbollah. Destroying an elevated motorway that is under construction in Beirut cannot possibly affect the ability of Hezbollah to conduct operations in the current conflict, but it does “make Lebanon pay a heavy price” (to use the words of an Israeli cabinet member). The only interpretation I can come to is that the Israeli objective is “collective punishment.”

Molly and I know which areas of Beirut were bombed because we watched on TV – like millions of people in the Arab world – the saturation news coverage of Arab-language satellite networks. By great good luck, we had gone to Damascus for a few days of sightseeing. There are TV sets in every little shop in Damascus, in every sidewalk pizza place and in every cafe where the men gather to suck on their water pipes. Everywhere, they were turned to the 24-hour news coverage of Lebanon.

The Israeli bombing was not just “an item” on the news; it was the news – but it is important for Canadians and Americans to realize that people in the Arab world do not see the sanitized version of events we typically get in North America.

Nothing grabs an audience’s attention like pictures of bleeding children, and Israeli bombing has produced many, many bleeding children in Lebanon. On the many competing Arab-language news networks, the camera does not flit away (as on North American TV news) – it shows every little detail, in long graphic shots, and pounds home the message (undeniably, a true message) that hundreds of totally innocent Lebanese civilians have died horrible deaths due to Israeli bombing.

According to the website of the Guardian newspaper of England, 377 Lebanese civilians and 17 Israeli civilians had been killed, as of July 25. I cannot imagine that the Lebanese total is anywhere near complete, since rescue crews have been unable to reach many areas of South Lebanon, or penetrate the collapsed wreckage of many Beirut apartment buildings – but even so, they imply that 95.7 per cent of civilian casualties in this conflict have been Lebanese.

For most of the TV viewers of the Arab world, the direct message of the unrelenting news coverage is simply one of Israeli brutality, but the implicit message is the total inability of the democratically elected Lebanese government to protect its citizens and the irrelevance of other Arab governments. When the New York Times website notes that the U.S. has expedited delivery of special laser-guided bombs to Israel, this information is disseminated instantly. Combine the ingredients – Israeli brutality, U.S. connivance, the irrelevance/acquiescence of their governments to prevent this suffering and humiliation – and the recruiters for al-Qaida must be rubbing their hands with glee.

Does Israel have a “right to defend herself?” Clearly, yes. Does that right mean that Israel can do anything it wants – kill any number of civilians, destroy any amount of infrastructure and housing – without criticism? I think not. The issue is not whether Israel had the right to respond to the capture of two of its soldiers – it is the brutal disproportion between provocation and response.

Collective punishment out of all proportion to provocation is, I am told, a war crime under international law. Having seen for myself the densely populated civilian areas of Beirut which have now been bombed into rubble, my opinion is that there is a reasonable case to be made that Israel is guilty of war crimes.

Collective punishment is also stupid policy. Collective punishment produces a collective experience and collective rage at unjust and brutal treatment. If Israel is to ever live in peace, it must some day sign peace agreements with its neighbours. Every bomb dropped in Lebanon makes it more likely that the rage and anger this brutality provokes will undermine moderate governments and fuel non-governmental organizations (like Hezbollah) whose raison d’etre is their uncompromising struggle.

Lebanon has lost hundreds of innocent civilian lives, billions of dollars of property damage and the hope for a prosperous, democratic, peaceful future. The region as a whole has lost any chance of peace for a long while to come. And all of us will lose a bit more of our personal security in future years, as the radicalism that Israel’s disproportionate response is producing percolates through the global system.

Lars Osberg is chair of the economics department of Dalhousie University, and a past president of the Canadian Economics Association.


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