Precarious Lebanon

For decades, this tiny Mediterranean nation of four million has segued between two identities

Beirut, from an apartment damaged by Hezbollah shelling. As sectarian tensions flared this past May, hostilities escalated. The renewal of violence dashed hopes that Lebanon could soon become -- once again -- "a freewheeling place where everybody could live his own life.” (Kate Brooks / Getty Images)
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Despite the killing of his father, Jumblatt stayed loyal to Syria for the next two decades—it was a question of "survival," he says—while he remained in Lebanon to protect the small Druse community against sporadic violence. But in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the cooling of U.S. relations with Syria, Jumblatt felt sufficiently emboldened to call for an end to Syrian occupation—and publicly accused Syria of murdering his father. That defiant act put him high on a Syrian death list, according to Lebanese intelligence officials, and forced him to beef up his protection and curtail his movements. After the Hariri assassination, he became even more cautious. "They could be waiting for me at any checkpoint in Beirut," he told me. "They are able to fix up a car bomb anywhere, anytime."

Jumblatt led me through the palace's labyrinthine corridors, across a garden to the private wing of his house. His office, where a loaded Glock pistol was in plain view, was filled with souvenirs: Soviet flags from his days as a supplicant to the Communists in Moscow; photographs of him with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a 2006 visit to Washington to enlist support for the March 14 movement. We stepped into the garden and gazed across a gorge toward the domain of his nemesis, Syrian president Bashar Assad. Jumblatt told me that he had met the Syrian leader several times, most recently in 2003, when Hariri brokered a reconciliation attempt that went nowhere. "At the beginning, Assad convinced people that he was in favor of reforms in Syria," Jumblatt told me. "He spoke English fluently, he fooled a lot of people. But [he had] the same archaic, brutal approach as his father." I asked if Jumblatt had any regrets about turning away from his former protectors after 29 years. He shook his head. "Now my conscience is clear, finally, and that is good. I think my father would be approving." Jumblatt has pushed for the U. N. to investigate Syria's role in the Hariri murder. "It's not easy. It's going to be very long road, until we get rid of Bashar, until we get rid of Nasrallah, until we bury them like they buried us."

Two days later, I'm catching my breath atop the Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon, a Crusades-era ruin perched on a 2,000-foot cliff just north of the Litani River. The deep gorges of the Shiite-dominated south extend toward the red-tile-rooftops of Metulla, an Israeli border town just eight miles away. Israel used this medieval fortress as a battalion headquarters during its 18-year occupation; it overran much of the area again when it invaded in July 2006. The flags of Hezbollah and Amal (the Lebanese Shiite political party) flutter from the top of the cliff face, which was scaled 167 times by Hezbollah guerrillas during the first occupation; the fighters killed 19 Israeli troops during those assaults. Today, Israeli fighter jets scream overhead in the direction of Beirut on near-daily demonstrations of military might.

If Hezbollah and Israel go to war again, Muslim towns and villages lying south of Beaufort will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the assault in Lebanon, as they did during Israel's 34-day incursion in 2006. (The war was touched off after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others near a disputed border zone.) Despite Nasrallah's bluster, most observers don't think that another war is imminent: the people of the south are exhausted, still trying to rebuild their bombed-out infrastructure two years later. An 18,000-man U.N. peacekeeping force patrols a buffer zone between the Litani River and Israeli border, restricting Hezbollah's movements and making smuggling of weaponry into the area difficult. "I can never see Hezbollah initiating anything. It would be suicidal," Goksel had told me earlier, in Beirut. "Israel can't live with those rockets raining on their territory. Hezbollah knows that the next time, the Israelis will turn south Lebanon into a parking lot."

But as I tour Hezbollah strongholds in the south and in the Bekaa Valley, I get the sense that few Lebanese consider the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel resolved. "I hope there is another war," says Ahmed Matloum, a 26-year-old Shiite in the Bekaa village of Vritel, targeted by Israeli bombers four times during the 2006 conflict because nearby foothills are rife with Hezbollah training camps. Standing with two younger brothers in a "Martyrs Cemetery" on the outskirts of town, Matloum points out the marble slabs beneath which 12 cousins, all Hezbollah fighters, lie buried, killed during the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation. Beyond them are five granite tombs, the graves of a family blown to pieces by an errant Israeli missile two years ago. "What do you think?" he asks me. "Is there going to be another war?"

"I hope not," I say.

"Inshallah [God willing]," he replies. "But we are ready to fight."

In fact, these days, the more likely threat of full-scale war comes from another quarter: in mounting tensions between Hezbollah and the many factions that make up the current Lebanese government, including Sunnis, Druse and some Christians. Hezbollah loyalists aren't the only Lebanese who relish the prospect of further fighting. Not far from Ramzi Ghosn's vineyard, I visited another entrepreneur who makes his living from the soil. Nuah Zayitir is one of Lebanon's biggest cannabis cultivators, grossing, he told me, about $5 million a year. A pony-tailed 36-year-old, he lives with his wife and three children in a half-finished villa at the end of a remote dirt road, guarded by security men armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Zayitir said he had just had his most profitable year ever. In early 2007, Sunni militants affiliated with Al Qaeda gained control of a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli; after months of laying siege, the Lebanese Army wiped out hundreds of fighters and leveled the camp. With the Lebanese Army distracted by the Sunni extremists and the government in Beirut paralyzed, cannabis growers had been left to cultivate their crops in peace. "We hope there is never any government in Lebanon," he told me. "As long as there is war and chaos, it's great for people like me."

For the moment, it's hard to predict what kind of Lebanon may prevail. Will it be a Hezbollah-dominated state planted squarely in the Syria-Iran camp, a pro-Western democracy or the every-man-for-himself free-for-all that Zayitir finds so lucrative? The Carnegie Middle East Center's Salem believes that Lebanon will likely emerge as a new kind of Middle Eastern entity, "a country with both a strong American presence and a strong Iran presence—like Iraq," he says. "It will be less black and white, more nuanced, more Middle Eastern."

On May 25, after Lebanon's warring factions had met in Qatar to seek a compromise that would quell the violence, the stalemate ended with the election of Michel Suleiman, a Maronite, as president. In these negotiations, Hezbollah emerged with a major victory: it achieved parliamentary veto authority. If this complex power-sharing agreement works, says Salem, "Things will stumble along toward calm." But, of course, Lebanon remains one of the world's most fractious countries and similar deals have collapsed before.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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