On the Ground in Beirut An interview with Robert Fisk


Robert Fisk, the Lebanon-based correspondent for the


of London, has been traveling the countryside, touching base with
key players in a volatile political situation. I spoke to Fisk on
March 31


Give us your overall analysis on the current
situation in Lebanon. 

FISK: The Syrian army continues to withdraw—you can see Syrian
army trucks pulling out—under the terms of the UN Security
Council Resolution 1559, supported principally by the United States
and France. The great fear of the Lebanese who oppose Syria, who
are probably a majority, is that, as they leave, they will provoke
violence, saying, well, you wanted us to go, look what’s happened,
now that  we’re leaving. 

have been three bombings in industrial areas of eastern—Christian—Beirut,
which have killed three people so far. Many people believe that
since these bombs did not set off any kind of inter-sectarian fighting
that there will be other bombs. So people are very tense here. This
evening, I was invited out for dinner in the Christian East Beirut
area. My hosts called and said they’d rather not meet for dinner
because they were too frightened to go out to the restaurant. 

the bombs have done is “petrify” the economy. This is
a country, remember, that has a $33 billion dollar public debt,
which was being serviced principally by the French and other European
nations, courtesy of Rafik Hariri. With his death, who’s going
to service the debt? People are running out of money, the Central
Bank has spent five out of eleven billion dollars in trying to stabilize
the Lebanese pound in the last five, six weeks. It’s a very
serious situation. 

you briefly lay out who the interested parties are, who is vying
for power, and what the struggle there is like? 

we’ve got a government that was effectively set up by the Syrians
and a parliament that was elected under Syrian auspices, the majority
of whose members are pro-Syrian. The president, who is a Christian
Maronite, Emil Lahud, is a close friend of Syria. Omar Karami, the
prime minister, who may or may not be resigning soon, is pro-Syrian.
Most importantly, the Hezb Allah guerrilla movement is pro-Syria
because all their weapons and money from Iran come via Damascus. 

to this you have a very large number of the Sunni Muslim community,
of whom the murdered ex-prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was a member;
plus the Druze, headed by Walid Jumblatt and the Christian Maronites.
So you have a country split along sectarian lines in which many
Druze and Sunnis hope the Shiites come across to them, thereby making
it a unified Lebanese opposition to Syria. 

Jumblatt, the Druze leader, is effectively the leader of the opposition
now that Rafik Hariri is dead. He told me a few days ago that he
and Hariri had met about a week before Hariri’s murder and
Hariri had said, “Well, which of us is first, you or me?” 

Lahud of Lebanon, who is Syria’s best friend, has said, after
his initial refusal to accept such an idea, that he would go along
with a UN international inquiry into Hariri murder. This is quite
a change; previously, he said no, we can’t have it, this is
an internal Lebanese matter. He was protecting the security chiefs
here who are basically Lebanese, but who work for the Syrians and
who had, according to the initial UN inquiry commission report published
later, tampered with the evidence. 

we have a whole series of events taking place: the possibility of
an international inquiry; the appeal to the Hezb Allah to join the
anti-Syrian opposition; and an opposition that could easily split
apart between Druze, Sunni Muslims, and Christian Maronites. You
have the Shiite population, which is partly with the Hezb Allah,
and you have this constant Syrian presence, including security officers. 

Jumblatt came out saying that he opposes the resolution pushed through
by France and the U.S. in September. He opposes the resolution to
disarm Hezb Allah. Could you talk about that? 

are two issues here. There is the UN Security Council Resolution
1559, put forward by the United States and France, which calls for
the total withdrawal of Syrian forces, including the entire intelligence
apparatus of the Syrian Arab Republic from Lebanon, and also the
disarmament of the Hezb Allah. 

Jumblatt, who was a great friend and ally of Syria for many years—despite
the fact that he believed that the Syrians murdered his father—has
all along believed that 1559 was, in fact, an Israeli project. It
was an U.S.-supported resolution that effectively demanded what
Israel wants—the end of Syrian rule in Lebanon and the end
of the Hezb Allah guerrilla movement. 

is not interested in playing the Israeli card. Needless to say,
Omar Karami, you know, the boneless wonder of Lebanese politics,
as I always call him, and Lahud have been claiming that the opposition
is just doing Israel’s work for it by demanding that Syria
withdraw and that Hezb Allah disarm. Three weeks ago, we had Bahia
Hariri, the sister of Rafik Hariri, saying, “We will protect
the resistance. The Hezb Allah can be protected by us. We will stop
this nonsense about the disarmament.” 

is aware that he appears to be backing 1559. So what he is saying
and, indeed, what the Syrians are saying, is that the Syrian withdrawal
is in accordance with the Tayif Agreement. (Tayif is a city in Saudi
Arabia where in 1989 a peace treaty by all the factions to the Lebanese
civil war was signed.) It was agreed that the Syrian army would
withdraw from Lebanon and that the militias in Lebanon would be
disarmed. So now the Hezb Allah are saying they’re not a militia,
they’re a resistance movement—that’s different. 

and large, the Lebanese anti-Syrian coalition is saying, “No,
we’re going along with Tayif, not 1559. We agree that it’s
a resistance movement, not a militia, so it doesn’t have to
be disarmed. ” 

no one is talking about, but everyone whispers, is that if Hezb
Allah is disarmed and the Syrians have left, the U.S. ambassador
will immediately pay a visit to the new Lebanese president and say,
so how about a peace treaty with Israel—which the Lebanese,
by and large, don’t want. Not until there is a settlement of
the Palestinian-Israeli issue and the return of Golan to Syria and
so on. 

the opposition has this problem: the more they shout for a Syrian
withdrawal, the more they can be accused of playing Israel’s
theme via Washington. The problem of the pro-Syrians is that the
Syrians have agreed to withdraw under 1559 as well as Tayif. Which
leaves them with what? Well, the Hezb Allah. So, which side will
the Hezb Allah take? Will it become Syria’s surrogates or will
it become a patriotic Lebanese movement and defend Lebanon? There’s
the problem. 

there is a disarmed Hezb Allah, who will speak for these Palestinians
still in these horrible camps in Lebanon? How will that play into
the future of Palestinian liberation?

one will speak for them. You see, oddly enough, the Syrians and
the Hezb Allah are the only people who do speak for the Palestinians
in Lebanon because the Lebanese, whatever their color and creed,
would like the Palestinians to leave. The Palestinians in Lebanon
do not have the right to go to work or to own property—a law
passed two and a half years ago here  stated specifically that
Palestinians who owned property in Lebanon could not pass it on
to their families.  Inside Syria—let’s for a moment
grit our teeth and be kind to Syria—the Palestinians can hold
Syrian passports, they can buy property, and they can have proper
jobs. The Lebanese don’t care whether the Palestinians leave
for Syria or whether they leave for the West Bank or whether they
go back to their home villages—which the Israelis will not
allow them to do, nor will the Americans, so where do they go? The
failure to address the Palestinian issue here over the years is
one of the major problems that Lebanon faces. 

you talk about the Shebaa Farms and why that’s such a crucial

the situation. In 1946, when Lebanon gained its independence from
France, in the far southeast of Lebanon was an area of hills and
mountains adjoining the Golan Heights. The nearest town was called
Shebaa, and Shebaa Farms was an area to the southeast where Lebanese
shepherds and Lebanese farmers looked after orange groves, olive
groves, areas where they could put their animals to graze. At this
time, the president of Syria believed that Syrian Jews were being
smuggled from Damascus into Palestine—illegally, in his view—through
Shebaa Farms, which is on this strategic road from the Golan Heights,
from Damascus down into what was then Palestine and what is now

wrote to Bishara Khouri, the very corrupt, slightly mad first president
of Lebanon—a man who used to surprise his guests by appearing
at the front door holding an eggplant and putting cocktail sticks
into it and saying, look at my beautiful eggplant—and said,
“Look, I believe that our Jewish citizens of Syria are being
smuggled illegally through Shebaa Farms into Palestine. Please stop
it.” Bishara Khouri didn’t care a damn about southern
Lebanon any more than any other president and ignored the request.
As a result, the president of Syria sent the police into Shebaa
Farms, which was clearly part of Lebanon under the French mandate
maps of the 1930s. The police took over a house and put up the Syrian
flag along with a sign reading, “The Temporary Police Station
of Shebaa Farms.” 

1967 when the Israeli Army took over the Golan Heights, they captured
Shebaa Farms, saw the Syrian flag on the police station and thought
it was part of Syrian territory. From that day onwards, the Shebaa
Farms area became part of Israeli-occupied territory. It was regarded
by the Israelis as Syrian territory and was later annexed and became
part of the state of Israel. Once the Israelis withdrew from southern
Lebanon in 2000, the Hezb Allah guerrilla movement said, well, hold
on a second, we’ve driven the Israelis out, what is our raison
d’etre? And one of them obviously said, Shebaa Farms is Lebanese.
We’ve still got to have this liberated. The Israelis said,
no, this is part of what was Syria, and we’ve annexed it. 

have to tell you, I’ve been to the French mandate maps in Paris
and Shebaa Farms is definitely Lebanese territory and the Israelis
are still on it. I’ve been to the border fence from the Lebanese
side and I’ve been inside Israel and have gone into Shebaa
Farms from the Israeli side and it is Lebanese. It should be handed
back to Lebanon. 

the Hezb Allah now say, as long as the Israelis stay in Shebaa Farms,
our resistance war continues. The Israelis say, “No, this is
annexed by us from Syria, it is part of the state of Israel now,
any attack on this territory is terrorism,” and here we go
again. Of course, the fly in the ointment for everybody, or particularly
for the Hezb Allah and the Lebanese, is that when the United Nations
redrew the border between Lebanon and Israel after the Israeli withdrawal
of 2000, they put Shebaa Farms on the Israeli side of the border,
saying, the future of this area can be decided after there is a
peace treaty.

you have the UN in effect backing Israel, you have the Israelis
acknowledging privately that it is Lebanese territory—but actually
it’s annexed to Israel now—you have the Syrians, who previously
thought it was, or pretended it was, Syrian territory, saying it’s
Lebanese, the Lebanese must fight for it. You have the Lebanese,
who never cared about Shebaa Farms, suddenly wanting desperately
to recover this lost territory of their sovereign land. 

there a fear now, with the bombings, that there could be a civil

I live here and I’m concerned about it. The great danger is
that the people believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Syrians were
behind Hariri’s murder. People believe that as the Syrian army
withdraws from Lebanon, as it continues to cross the border into
Syria, that the Syrians will try and make the Lebanese pay for their
departure. The Lebanese are saying, well, who’s setting off
the bombs? Maybe the Syrians are doing it. 

three bombs which have gone off so far have exploded in Christian
areas; the Christians being the opponents of the Syrian presence
in Lebanon for many years now. The great concern and fear is that
whoever is setting off these bombs—and be sure, the next bombs
will kill many Lebanese people in the streets—will be attempting
to re-ignite the civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990, 15
terrible years which cost 150,000 Lebanese and Palestinian lives. 

upside of this is that the alliance between the Druze, the Sunni
Muslims, and the Christians was in place before Hariri’s murder.
The Christians no longer express their hatred of Muslims as they
would have done 20 years ago; they express their cynicism towards
Syria. Whether or not the Syrians are behind these bombings, they
have not yet managed to provoke a single sectarian attack. There
have been attacks, tragically, against Syrian workers in Lebanon—
at least 35 Syrians, according to my statistics, have been murdered
in Lebanon since Hariri’s death. 

was talking to a young friend of mine on the phone this evening
and she said she didn’t want to go out into the streets tonight—she’s
in East Beirut—because she felt that there would be bombs going
off outside restaurants. Now we’re beginning to talk about
East and West—East was Christian and West was Muslim during
the civil war. You see how the old language returns. In West Beirut,
where I live, people still go out, but with great caution. 

was in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, and it’s a very tense
situation, where you have followers of Hariri and of Sunni Muslims;
you have followers of the pro-Syrian former government of Omar Karami,
who comes from Tripoli; in the mountains above Tripoli you have
a very extremist  element of the Sunni community who support
Osama bin Laden, and you have a minority of Alawites, an offshoot
of the Shiite faith who run Syria. Even in the daytime, everyone
is watching everyone. 

there isn’t a civil war, so far. Communities are not fighting
each other. I can travel between different parts of Beirut. The
young of Lebanon, particularly those who as children were sent away
during the civil war to be educated in the U.S., London, Geneva,
they don’t want to have the sectarian bitterness of their parents
and their grandparents. If Rafik Hariri’s death has created
anything good, it has produced a society that won’t go back
to civil war—not yet. Let’s wait and see what happens
in the coming weeks.

This interview
aired initially on March 31 on Pacifica Radio’s “Flashpoints.”
Dennis Bernstein is the host and executive producer of “Flashpoints,”
a daily investigative news magazine. His articles, essays, and interviews
have appeared widely in the mainstream and alterative press.