from  Paul Mobbs
from  Max Fuller
from  Lars Osberg
from  Robert Minhinnick
from Amy Gdala
from Tony Blair
from YOU
Travel in good company, try the

Observations from Beirut and Damascus                                  

Lars Osberg

                                                                                                July 23, 2006


Many people around the world have been watching events in Lebanon over the last few days, but because my wife Molly and I happened to be visiting our son Spencer in Beirut at the time, perhaps our perspectives may be a bit different. This note is intended to be one person’s account of what he personally observed directly in recent days, and the implications that can be drawn from those facts.      

Like many other people, we had heard about both the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 and the rebuilding efforts since then - but we did not really know what to expect. When we arrived in the sleekly modern Beirut airport terminal on July 7th, it was immediately clear that Beirut was a city of enormous contrasts. The massive extent of the rebuilding effort, and the huge costs of the civil war, were both everywhere apparent. Beside stylish modern downtown skyscrapers, one would find pockmarked, burnt out shells of apartment buildings, untouched since the ceasefire – but construction cranes and building sites were scattered, seemingly randomly, everywhere. Although driving was totally crazy, with incredible congestion and no regard for traffic rules, new motorways were under construction. Older areas downtown that had been major battlegrounds were now home to trendy cafes and sports bars with valet parking and impossibly beautiful young men and women.  The downtown area had been totally reconstructed and was full of people at night – tourists from the Persian Gulf and from Europe, as well as local people – dining out on the sidewalk, chatting and strolling. We spent Saturday walking in downtown Beirut - some areas had not been repaired, but it seemed impossible to imagine that this would not soon resemble a modern European city.

On Sunday, July 9th we went for a walk in South Beirut. The Dahieh was a poorer area, with more of the third world about it. There were crowded streets of ground floor shops, with many ‘schools’ offering instruction in English and computer subjects on the second floor.  We had some sort of pizza from an outdoor stall, phoned my father from the Western Union office to wish him happy birthday and shopped for clothes and trinkets. Everywhere people were friendly and welcoming. Our guide to the area was a nice kid from Kanata, born in Canada but with many relatives in the neighborhood – so when we passed the apartment building of his grandmother, etiquette dictated that we drop in for coffee. She turned out to be a woman of forceful personality, with 8 sons by two husbands. 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 ten story apartment buildings, but her sons supported her in her old age and it was a nice apartment.

Beirut is a city of strongly differentiated neighborhoods and the Dahieh is the area of South Beirut that the Canadian media typically refer to as a “Hezbollah stronghold”.  Each area of Beirut tends to announce its political allegiances with posters of revered leaders, so the Christian areas have many photos of Rafik Hariri in heroic poses and South Beirut is 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 in Lebanon.  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 place but it is the area of South Beirut that was attacked most intensively from the very first day. Yesterday, the New York Times web site reported that in just the preceding 24 hour period, the Israelis had dropped 23 tons of high explosives on the neighborhood. 

The destruction of Beirut has been, however, a general thing. Christian neighborhoods 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 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 left most of our luggage in Beirut and gone to Damascus for a few days sightseeing, while Spencer did some work. Our first hint that something was happening was when we turned on the TV in the hotel room on the afternoon of the 13th and found live broadcasts of Nasrallah’s press conference announcing the capture of the two Israeli soldiers on at least three channels simultaneously.  We could not follow the questioning of the Arab media, but it was clear that something big was happening. By the next morning, we did not really need Spencer’s email headed “DO NOT RETURN TO BEIRUT TODAY” to realize that our original plans needed changing.

When we had first thought of visiting Damascus, we did so with some trepidation, since there has been so much rhetoric about the “axis of evil”, but Syria is actually a delightful place to visit – even if we did spend considerably longer there than we had intended. Molly and I have both traveled quite a bit, but neither of us can recall a place where people in general are nicer or more welcoming.  Syrians are clearly proud of the thousands of years of history that lie around them and they are well informed about current events – satellite TV dishes cover the rooftops, and all the channels of our thousand channel universe are available. In the souk of old Damascus, for example, one vendor with very little English at his command was nonetheless able (once he had ascertained that we were from Canada, but not from Alberta) to convey his  enthusiasm  for Ralph Klein’s $400 per capita disbursement of oil revenues – clearly a public policy initiative with international resonance. And we discovered that you cannot tell about people just by looking – while enjoying a cold drink,  we paid little attention to a middle aged woman who looked entirely traditional [clad completely in black, with a string of kids in tow] -  and we were a bit surprised when she started chatting with us in perfect English (turns out she has a sister in Toronto). 

There are TV sets in every little shop in Damascus, in every sidewalk pizza place and in every café 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 – understandably, since it is less than an hour’s drive from Damascus to the Lebanese border.  But I think 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.

Journalists in North America often say cynically that  if it bleeds, it leads” – in the competition for ratings, nothing grabs an audience like pictures of bleeding children. Israeli bombing has produced many, many bleeding children in Lebanon. On the 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.

What is ‘balance’ in news reporting? According to yesterdays’ totals on the website of the Guardian newspaper of England, 330 Lebanese civilians and 15 Israeli civilians had been killed, as of July 21st. 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 if those are the correct numbers, they imply that 95.6% of civilian casualties in this conflict have been Lebanese. To put it another way, the ratio of Lebanese civilians killed to Israeli civilians is about 22 to 1. If a TV news item on civilian impacts of the war assigns an equal amount of time to Israeli casualties and Lebanese casualties, is it not then saying implicitly that an Israeli life is 22 times more important, more deserving of our attention, than a Lebanese life? If one had the perspective that every human life is valuable and equally worthy of consideration – regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin (one might call this a non-racist perspective on events) – would one not think that coverage should be in proportion to casualties – i.e. that about 95% of TV news time coverage should be allotted to Lebanese casualties?

This may not exactly be the balance of Arab news coverage – but it is plain that coverage of the destruction in Lebanon, both physical and human, is complete and unrelenting. From our walks in downtown Beirut Molly and I recognized many of the locations of bomb damage – clearly civilian areas, often several kilometers from anything remotely connected to Hezbollah. The long and close links between Syria and Lebanon mean that many people there will also recognize the localities of friends and relatives – but for most of the TV viewers of the Arab world, the direct message is simply one of Israeli brutality, while 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 (yesterday) that the US has expedited delivery of special laser-guided bombs to Israel, this information is disseminated instantly. Combine the ingredients – Israeli brutality, US connivance, the irrelevance/acquiescence of current Arab governments to prevent this suffering and humiliation  the recruiters for al Quaeda must be rubbing their hands with glee.

When we did get to Europe, and got more access to Western media, I was also struck by how the Western pundits all cast these events in grander geo-political terms – but the version of events that we heard in Damascus was much more local.  We had hired a guide in Damascus – a well educated man who happened to be from Syria’s Christian minority.  He summarized Nasrallah’s news conference statement for us - which focused  on the issue of three Hezbollah prisoners held by Israel,  one since the 1980s, and Hezbollah’s inability to gain the release of these prisoners through negotiation in the six years since the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. According to our guide, nine months ago Nasrallah gave a news conference declaring that if he could not get his people back by negotiations, he would seize hostages and make an exchange. In his news conference on the 13th, he repeatedly declared that he was not interested in escalation of the conflict – only in indirect negotiations leading to prisoner exchange (precedent for which existed). In fact, although Hezbollah has long had the rockets it is now firing at Israeli cities, it did not fire those rockets until after the Israeli bombing of Lebanon began.

I am not a defender of Hezbollah, and it is clear that cross border seizure of hostages cannot be justified – but the issue of prisoner exchange does illuminate two important points. First and foremost, it illustrates the fact that unilateral lasting peace is a nonsense idea. It takes two to fight and it takes the consent of both parties to make a lasting peace. In a peace treaty, the issues in a conflict are mutually agreed to be over and loose ends – like prisoners and compensations – are resolved. Unilateral withdrawal, as in Israel’s withdrawal of troops from South Lebanon six years ago, does not involve the consent of the other party. It leaves unfinished business, and no mutual commitment to peace. Secondly, the prisoner exchange issue is a clear example of choice. In some of the news interviews I have seen on TV, the defenders of Israel sometimes say “we had no choice” – but this just represents their unwillingness to accept moral responsibility for the implications of Israel’s choices. Israel has exchanged prisoners with Hezbollah in the past and Israel could have started negotiations for a prisoner exchange instead of bombing Lebanon. I rather suspect that in the end, three Hezbollah prisoners in Israel will be exchanged for the two Israeli soldiers now in Hezbollah hands – a resolution that will only deepen the bitterness in Lebanon, since this outcome was available from the start.

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 in my view is not whether Israel had the right to respond to the capture of two of its soldiers – the issue 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 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 neighbors. If those agreements are to have any chance of being effective, the governments with which it signs such agreements must have the internal credibility and popular support to negotiate plausibly equitable agreements and to isolate and control extremist rejectionists. 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.

Our own personal story had a happy ending. We located a travel agent in Damascus who rebooked our tickets [INVOLUNTARY REROUTING DUE TO XXL]  with cool efficiency (and refused to take a penny in compensation).  We were able to fly out of Damascus on July 17 and our son Spencer and his German partner were evacuated from Beirut on the 19th. We lost our luggage – no big deal. 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.  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.