Sunday, October 22, 2006

Murder in Beirut

Nick Blanford, a respected colleague who writes for The Times and Christian Science Monitor among other publications, has finally seen his book on Hariri published. It's a solid, serious understanding of the man and the political situation in Lebanon over the last 15 years up to his death in February 2005 and one that makes the realities of Lebanese politics more able to be understood by people who don't know the country or live there. Below is a recent review bu Jonathan Steele in The Guardian. Buy the book.

Murder in Beirut
Nicholas Blanford gives a stimulating account of a country in turmoil in Killing Mr Lebanon, says Jonathan Steele

Jonathan Steele
Saturday October 21, 2006

Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East
by Nicholas Blanford
256pp, IB Tauris, £17.99
This summer's ferocious Israeli offensive against Lebanon was the most unusual of wars. There was no visible build-up of tension, no preliminary sabre-rattling, none of the gathering clouds that leave anxious observers arguing whether the storm will really break and if there's time to find shelter.

War erupted out of the blue. It was as though a whole country had been mugged. Successfully rebuilt after years of civil war and with Beirut back in place as the Arab world's most sophisticated multicultural metropolis, the country was unexpectedly knocked to its knees.

The crisis eclipsed everything that had gone on in Lebanon over the previous two years, which, as this authoritative book makes clear, was also a time of great turbulence. No physical destruction occurred, but the fabric of communal harmony that had kept the peace since 1990 came under severe strain with the murder of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's charismatic Sunni leader.

Nicholas Blanford has lived in Beirut for more than a decade, working for the Christian Science Monitor and the Times. He is widely recognised as the best-informed outside expert on Lebanese politics, and his account of Hariri's life and death is stimulating but measured. He rejects the simplifications that informed many interpretations of the "cedar revolution" of 2005, when huge crowds came into the streets demanding the departure of Syria's troops after Hariri's murder.

He points out that the phrase was invented by Paula Dobriansky, US undersecretary for global affairs, to try to make it more understandable to western viewers, with its overtones of people's power in former Soviet republics. The phrase Blanford and most Lebanese preferred was the "independence intifada", an analogy less palatable to Washington.

Blanford does not go into detail on the investigation into who killed Hariri, though he clearly supports the view that Syria thought it had most to gain from Hariri's removal and that senior figures in Syrian intelligence probably organised it. His book's main value is the light it sheds on this gregarious businessman-turned-politician and the real nature of politics in Lebanon.

Like barons in medieval England or caudillos in 19th-century Latin America, the strongmen of Lebanese politics were hard-riding communal leaders who demanded unstinting loyalty from their followers even as they switched their own allegiances and made deals with previous rivals with breathtaking lack of principle. Hariri had no militia, but used money in its place. "He was a corrupter rather than corrupt," as Blanford quotes one Hariri admirer saying. During his rise to power, eventually emerging as prime minister, he would lavish money on people he felt could be useful, even supplying new cars and jewellery to the secretaries of powerful figures so that they would put him through to their employers whenever necessary.

His campaign against Syria was not motivated by prejudice or ideology or even by a desire to play down the confrontation with Israel, and for years he was close to the Syrians himself. He dithered and hesitated, but in the end felt that Syrian influence was preventing domestic Lebanese politics from developing.

With the hindsight of this summer's war, some of the best passages in this book (which was completed in February) cover Hariri's discussions with the Hizbullah leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. The two men used to meet frequently for secret late-night talks, which Blanford describes as "relaxed and peppered with jokes". They both came from humble origins. Both were Arab nationalists with a vision going beyond Lebanon. Both had lost 18-year-old sons - though the manner of the two deaths marked a profound contrast in lifestyles. Hariri's son was killed in a car crash in the United States, Nasrallah's as a resistance fighter in a clash with Israeli commandos in occupied south Lebanon.

Although lionised by the Americans, particularly in death, Hariri did not share their view that Hizbullah had to disarm. As Blanford puts it: "Hariri understood that forcing Hizbullah to disarm would have perilous consequences for Lebanon's stability." He favoured a gradual approach under which Hizbullah would become more enmeshed in the domestic political framework and slowly cease to be a militia, provided of course there was a just settlement of the central Middle Eastern conflict, Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.

Hariri's death produced a temporary polarisation within Lebanon, made worse by pressure from France and the United States, but by the time of this summer's war, deals among the disparate politicians had restored a surprising degree of unity about the country's priorities. This did not mean that the rawness of Hariri's death had been forgotten. Rather it was that Hariri-style compromises and his view that people should focus on the bigger picture beyond communal politics had won out again. Not a bad legacy.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Catalogue of mistakes saw hundreds of Lebanese civilians dead

This extract from a report from Middle East Newswire says a lot. With a thousand plus in a war managed under these circumstances one wonders how many would have died if it it had been properly coordinated.

TEL AVIV [MENL] -- Israel's military, refusing to treat the 34-day battle with Hizbullah as a war, kept its commanders away from the front and sent soldiers on poorly-planned missions in Lebanon.
An investigation by an outside panel concluded that the General Staff did not treat the Hizbullah rocket strikes against Israel as a war, rather a security exercise. The report by a team led by [Res.] Maj. Gen. Yoram Yair said commanders relayed unclear orders and failed to fulfill even tactical missions.
Yair focused on the army's Division 91, commanded by Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, but examined system-wide failures during the war. He said the Israel Army was hampered by inadequate training, preparations and logistics.
The report said Division 91 failed to define missions and sometimes changed orders on an hourly basis. Yair said this generated confusion and resulted in aborted operations.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

How Britain loses friends in Lebanon

The timing was ‘a little bit tight’ apparently. That was the excuse Margaret Beckett gave as to why no criticism of Israel’s war on Lebanon last July was included in the British Foreign Office’s annual human rights report released last Thursday.
There was enough time however to include criticism of Hizbullah for its rocket attacks on Israel during the same war, as well as listing the number of Israeli casualties.
The wording goes: “We remain deeply concerned by Syria’s ongoing support for Hizbullah. Hizbullah’s role in the major outbreak of violence this year with Israel included abducting and detaining two Israeli soldiers and firing unguided rockets into Israeli towns and cities. In total Hizbullah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israeli territory.”
What is not mentioned is the 1489 buildings, 535 road sections, 21 of the 29 bridges over the Litani River and 545 cultivated fields were destroyed or damaged in South Lebanon; the 326 residential buildings damaged or destroyed in the southern suburbs of Beirut; the damage to Beirut Airport’s runways and 6 strategic highway sections; and the over 1,000 civilian dead.
Since it’s difficult to treat much that comes out of the FO or the PM’s office on the subject of Iraq, Iran, Israel and the Middle East as truthful these days it’s tough to believe the omission was a mere oversight as the report’s authors claimed last week.
One of the writers said that the British embassy in Damascus had sent information on Syria and Hizbullah for inclusion in the report but there were was no such communication from the British embassy in Israel. Funny that… What about from the British Embassy in Beirut?
Either this was blatant neglect or a policy choice - during the war Tony Blair was accused of bias towards Israel by most in Lebanon and the Arab world as well as many in the UK, for refusing to call for an immediate cease-fire.
The point is that this omission in a 356-page report which lists countries the British government views as being of major concern with regard to human rights, including Burma, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Israel - in regard to the Occupied Territories - continues to damage Britain’s reputation in Lebanon, an educated and literate country which probably has more admirers and supporters of Britain and its democratic and cultural values than any other Arab nation, by furthering the belief of pro-Israeli bias.
The facts of the summer’s conflict - which dominated the foreign news and front pages of the global media in July and August - are clear. Viewed as war crimes by the Lebanese and corroborated by reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published immediately after the war, Israel illegally targeted Lebanese infrastructure including economic targets, directly attacked civilian areas massacring countless men, women and children in just over 30 days, and used some of the most powerful and devastating cluster bombs known to man.
Reporting in Beirut this summer, seeing the damage, the fear and the terror caused by Israel’s relentless over flights, spy drones and bombing raids, running through the southern suburbs of Beirut to the site of a bomb which had leveled a residential apartment block killing over 60 civilians it is absolutely right and proper that Israel should come in for heavy criticism in the FO’s report.
It is incredibly depressing that it doesn’t.
The omission merely undermines the report especially considering the criticism tabled against Hizbullah and Syria and serves to enforce the opinion on the street in Beirut certainly that Britain tacitly supported Israel’s actions.
If it really was a case of not having enough time as Beckett claims then it comes at a great (and unnecessary) cost to Britain’s reputation in Lebanon and the Muslim world, when it is already at an extraordinarily low point
Or perhaps the FO just doesn’t care anymore and open pro-Israel bias today is acceptable.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Maliban Bottling Factory film

Above is footage I took during the war in Lebanon, an interview with the manager and foreman of the Maliban bottling factory in the Beqaa Valley, which was bombed to kingdom come by the Israelis for no other reason but that it was an economic target. There were no militias, or fighters there - not that that would have been justified either. One man was killed. See the Maliban post about a month and half ago for more details.
It is still not known whether the factory will rebuild and the business will continue.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

U.N.: Israel Should Face War Crimes Probe Over Lebanon

Israel should be held to account for possible war crimes during its offensive in Lebanon, the United Nations' food rights expert said in a report obtained on Tuesday. Jean Ziegler, who reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council, called for an international probe to determine whether Israel was responsible for "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions and "possibly, war crimes" under the rules of the International Criminal Court. The controversial Swiss sociologist, who has regularly crossed swords with Israel in the past, visited Lebanon from September 11-16. He is due on Wednesday to present his findings to the 47-nation Council, which is currently in session. In his report, which was obtained by AFP, Ziegler said that during its July 12 to August 14 offensive Israel appeared to have forgotten that the Geneva Conventions which govern conflicts bar warring parties from attacking food and water supplies. "According to international jurisprudence, the government of Israel should be held responsible under international law for any violation of the right to food of the Lebanese civilian population," he said. He said that victims of such breaches should receive compensation for the losses suffered during the conflict as well as the post-war impact of the disruption of livelihoods. During its campaign to dislodge and destroy Hizbullah, the Israeli military destroyed roads and barred aid convoys, hampering efforts to supply the population of southern Lebanon, which bore the brunt of the offensive, Ziegler said. The immediate destruction of the war is set to have a longer-term effect because of the unexploded cluster bombs that litter farmland, he said. In addition, the Lebanese fishing industry has been hit by an oil spill sparked by Israel's bombardment of fuel depots. Israel should pay the Lebanese government for the clean up and compensate fishermen for their economic losses, said Ziegler. He also called on the Lebanese government and aid organizations to ensure that the post-war effort to rebuild the country includes programs to help farmers, agricultural laborers and fishermen. "The right to food and water must be a central part of the reconstruction effort," he said. He said that the Lebanese authorities should institute a moratorium on debt for small-scale farmers to reverse the cycle of poverty that is set to be caused by the loss of this year's harvest. The Lebanese government, with support from donors, should also accelerate efforts to clear cluster bombs from farmland, and Israel should provide full details of where it used such munitions, Ziegler said.(AFP)

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Beirut Live

It has been a while since I have posted on Beirut Live due to travel engagements and other work. Despite the fact that Lebanon has become a page 10 story or later in most broadsheets in recent weeks Beirut Live and other sites still have a purpose in providing current news from Lebanon, covering important stories and breaching otherwise undiscussed topics. The situation in Lebanon is not stable and far from ideal and so we at Beirut Live will continue to endeavour to provide a strong insight into all things regarding the situation as it is on the ground, the people here, media stories from the around the globe and the nature of writing and reporting itself. We hope that the readers of this blog will continue to read it and participate in the Middle East and Lebanese debate.