According to official reports in Lebanon over the weekend, 167 people have been infected by the coronavirus. The estimate is that these reports, as is the case in many other countries, do not present a true picture, mainly because Lebanon lacks testing kits. The government’s requests to European countries to supply such kits, as well as ventilators and additional protective equipment for patients and medical personnel, have been rejected.
Germany and France explained to the Lebanese representatives that at present European citizens have priority, and that they are also suffering from a shortage. Citizens who want to be tested or hospitalized are encountering overcrowded hospitals, which even in ordinary times are incapable of meeting the demand.
Although Lebanon’s government has instructed private hospitals to operate as government hospitals and to provide the required assistance to anyone who shows up, in these hospitals, too, the number of ventilators is estimated at slightly over 1,000 (compared to 165 in the government hospitals) and they cannot meet the increasing demand.
Lebanon has yet to impose a curfew on its citizens and is trying to convince them to stay at home, but it has no solutions for the approximately one million Syrian refugees living in temporary housing, some in tents or public parks. Refugees are trying to flee from the north of the country and Beirut to south Lebanon, which according to statistics is suffering less from the virus. But there they encounter homeowners who refuse to rent apartments to them out of fear they are bringing the coronavirus with them. Several towns have even issued official notices calling on citizens not to rent apartments to refugees or to residents coming from the north.
On social media, there is harsh criticism of the conduct of the government, which is incapable of providing the minimal conditions needed by patients and is exploiting the coronavirus crisis to divert the public discourse from the country’s acute economic crisis. Along with the panic caused by the coronavirus, citizens are also contending with upsetting financial news: The Finance Ministry plans to use depositors’ savings to help banks in trouble, and to grant the banks permission to reduce their liquidity level in a manner that is likely to endanger their stability.
A perusal of Lebanese media outlets reveals that news about the coronavirus has stiff competition from another infuriating topic grabbing headlines and inundating the op-ed columns. Last Thursday a U.S. V-22 Osprey, a tiltrotor aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing, landed in the area of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in order to pick up Amer Fakhoury and return him to his home in New Hampshire.
Who gave an American helicopter permission to land in Beirut? How is the government remaining silent in light of such a blatant violation of Lebanese sovereignty, and how did an American helicopter land when all the airports in Lebanon are closed because of the coronavirus? These are the tough questions that are being put to the Lebanese government after the military court ordered Fakhoury’s release.
Fakhoury was a senior officer in the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army under the command of Gen. Antoine Lahad, and was in charge of the notorious Khiam Prison, in which thousands of Lebanese citizens were detained, interrogated and tortured during the first Lebanon war in 1982. Horrifying testimony has been published about what was happening in Khiam Prison during the years of harsh abuse perpetrated by Fakhoury, who was dubbed “the Butcher of Khaim.” He was accused of personally torturing and causing the death of detainees, at a time when the prison was under Israeli control.
When the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Fakhoury moved to the United States, obtained citizenship and opened a luxury restaurant that hosted senior officials in the Republican party, to which he donated money. It isn’t clear why he even decided to return to Lebanon for a visit. His family said he was relying on the sweeping invitation by Lebanese President Michel Aoun to SLA members to return to their homeland, and on the promise that they would come to no harm.
He apparently also received specific promises from senior Lebanese officials that he would not stand trial. But when he landed in September he was arrested after a report of his visit was published in one of the newspapers. The intention was to prosecute him for his activity as the overseer at Khiam Prison, for which he was expected to be sentenced to a long prison term.
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But then American diplomacy went into high gear when the embassy and senior U.S. State Department officials exerted strong pressure on the government to release Fakhoury, since he is an American citizen. The administration even threatened to freeze assistance to the Lebanese Army, which totals over $100 million annually, and to impose sanctions on those responsible for his arrest.
Lebanon – which is dependent on the United States to back its request to the International Monetary Fund for a loan to extricate itself from the economic crisis – could not afford a conflict with the Trump administration. Last week the Lebanese military court overturned the charges against Fakhoury and released him from prison.
On Friday Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah tried to evade the criticism against him for doing nothing to halt the release of the “Israeli agent” and failing to prevent his being flown out in an American helicopter. “There was no deal and we didn’t know about any deal to release him,” said Nasrallah, who also attacked the government of which his organization is a member.
In order to allay the criticism he announced that Hezbollah was placing 20,000 doctors, nurses and assistance teams at the disposal of the government in order to deal with the coronavirus crisis, as though they are part of an international aid organization. At the same time Nasrallah demanded the appointment of an investigative committee to look into the circumstances of Fakhoury’s release.
Apparently Nasrallah prefers such a probe, which would embarrass the prime minister and the president, to a committee that would investigate the conduct of the Lebanese Health Ministry in the face of the coronavirus crisis, since the ministry is headed by Hamad Hassan, who was appointed by Hezbollah.