Another War With Israel? It’s Syria That’s Obsessing the Lebanese

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Southern Lebanon, 2016.
Southern Lebanon, 2016.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The manicured villas on the hills over the Lebanese border suggest that war never touched this place, certainly not in recent years. Beyond Israel’s border road it’s only pastoral landscape as far as the eye can see.

“Everything has been rebuilt and life goes on,” says a member of the former South Lebanon Army, which helped Israel battle Hezbollah in the '80s and '90s. “Those enormous houses were built with money from abroad – the Gulf States and elsewhere,” he tells me on our excursion along the border.

But the calm isn’t real, even if the current war between Beirut and Jerusalem is cold.

“Many people in Lebanon believe that with the tacit understandings between Hezbollah and Israel, there won’t be another confrontation in the foreseeable future,” says A., a Lebanese political activist who opposes Hezbollah and requested that his name not be published.

“After the war in Syria started with Hezbollah’s direct involvement there, the scenario of a 2006-model confrontation is more remote than ever,” he says, referring to Israel’s Second Lebanon War.

Indeed, Syria’s bloody civil war, into which the Lebanese have been grudgingly dragged, is what occupies Israel’s neighbor to the north these days. After the 2006 war there was some optimism despite damage like south Beirut’s ruined Dahiyeh neighborhood, Hezbollah’s stronghold. Also blighted were dozens of Shi’ite towns and villages in south Lebanon.

Iran flag in Maroun al-Ras, Southern Lebanon, 2016. Credit: Gil Eliahu

More than 1,200 Lebanese died in that war, including hundreds of Hezbollah fighters. Thousands were wounded and more than 1 million people abandoned their homes, 100,000 of whom left Lebanon entirely. The financial damage amounted to an estimated $2.8 billion. There was plenty of environmental damage as well, on the ground and in the sea, partly due to Israel’s use of cluster bombs. But there was still hope.

“In Lebanese public opinion, as well as across the Arab world, Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah were depicted as having achieved an impressive strategic and diplomatic victory,” says K., a journalist living in Beirut. “This was a guerilla movement that stood up to the strongest army in the Middle East for a whole month.”

Funding pours in

Two years later, when Israel released Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar in a prisoner exchange, Hezbollah became a byword for success. The Lebanese army established positions along the border and aided the civilian population, while Hezbollah, helped by Iran, restocked its arsenal.

A major unresolved issue remained – the destruction. The government quickly repaired the Beirut airport and the communications networks. There wasn’t much cash left over for the Shi’ites, who are identified with Hezbollah and suffered the brunt of the war damage. No solution was found for the hundreds of thousands who had no roof over their heads.

“The organization [Hezbollah] and the Lebanese government realized they couldn’t cover the reconstruction costs,” says A., a Lebanese journalist close to Hezbollah. The group therefore embarked on a fundraising campaign. Iran was also involved, compensating people who had lost their homes in the war.

The rubble of a destroyed apartment building, in the village of Jbaa, east of Sidon, after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes overnight, southern Lebanon, Saturday, July 29, 2006.Credit: Mohammed Zaatari, AP

“I remember every family getting $10,000,” says A. “These were huge sums for Lebanon, and this gave some breathing room to people in distress.”

With all due respect to Tehran, most of the rebuilding efforts were shouldered by wealthy Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which donated hundreds of millions of dollars. Qatar alone donated more than $300 million and took charge of rebuilding houses in the 30 hardest-hit communities.

“One could say that most of it has been rebuilt,” says Hajj Yousef, a Beirut resident who says life in the area has returned to normal. “The houses that remain in ruins belong to people who took money and left for other places without rebuilding.”

Indeed, Qatar became the darling of Lebanon because of its reconstruction efforts. “The Qatari prince at the time, Hamad bin Khalifa, and his wife Princess Moza were widely acclaimed across Lebanon, including by Hezbollah,” notes A. “The words ‘Thank You, Qatar’ appeared everywhere on billboards across the country.”

But the Qatari romance didn’t last. With the Syrian war and Hezbollah’s entry on Assad’s side, Nasrallah was no longer smiled upon by the Gulf states, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which found themselves on the other side. Whereas Hezbollah views the Gulf states as sponsors of the Islamic State and other Salafi groups, the Gulf states view Hezbollah as a terror group. A few months ago the Arab League also adopted this definition.

Joblessness at 25 percent

Meanwhile, as Iran, the Gulf states, the Islamic State, Hezbollah and Syria all play their role, things are getting harder for the Lebanese. For two years Lebanon has had no president and the social gaps are widening, as is the economic crisis.

A Syrian refugee camp in Zahrani village, southern Lebanon May 3, 2016. Credit: Ali Hashisho, Reuters

After the war the Lebanese economy slowed and unemployment reached 14 percent, especially among academics, leading thousands of families to emigrate, according to the Lebanese media. Ten years later, the unemployment rate has soared to 25 percent, mainly due to the Syrian war.

The influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon – estimated at 1 million – has buffeted the country’s economy and society. A Syrian laborer is paid some 40 percent less than his Lebanese counterpart.

If you visited Beirut you wouldn’t feel the crisis immediately. The entire city has been renovated since the war and the tourists have returned. In fact, tourism today is the country’s economic mainstay; in May hotel occupancy was at 66 percent. But here too the threat from Syria casts a pall – in November more than 40 people were killed in two Islamic State terror attacks.

“The tension is aggravated by the fact that plenty of guys have gone to fight in Syria,” says Yousef. “Today in south Lebanon people are looking east and north toward Syria and are less worried about the border with Israel.”

According to the former member of the South Lebanon Army, the construction on the hills near the border means a quiet period is expected.

He says an acquaintance told him that “all in all, people manage. Some young people have left for Beirut or abroad, many work for the state, and some still make a living from farming, mainly tobacco.”

As the SLA man puts it, “After a decade you can say it’s quiet in south Lebanon. But is it because of an understanding or deterrence?”

He has no doubt that today too it’s clear that the real sovereign in Lebanon is Hezbollah. All that remains is “to wait and see where the war in Syria leads and if it changes things in Lebanon.”

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