By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
Peace is a distant dream in Lebanon’s south, where the Israelis and Hizbollah are only the latest players in a deadly theatre of war that has existed for centuries.
IN early October, Israeli drones flew over the olive groves of Altaroun in Bint Jbeil district of southern Lebanon. On October 11, Israeli troops crossed over the Blue Line, the technical fence that divides Lebanon from Israel and is supervised by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which was formed in 1978 to monitor the immediate withdrawal of invading Israeli troops.
Its mandate had to be revised twice as a result of two subsequent Israeli invasions of Lebanese territory, in 1982 and 2006. The “interim” in its name is a rebuke to the tangled history of the region. This time, the Israelis withdrew their small force on October 11, but then returned the next day with sniffer dogs and a dozen soldiers. The olive harvest is in its early days. The Israeli troops confronted and harassed the olive pickers before returning home.
A month ago, Israeli soldiers crossed the Blue Line near the town of Labouneh, in the Naqoura sector, when a landmine went off and wounded four of them. Local residents detected unusually busy Israeli helicopter and drone activity then. Reading the UNIFIL reports on Israeli incursions is dizzying. In the first six months of this year, the U.N. detected close to 1,500 air violations. UNIFIL, whose mandate from U.N. Resolution 1701 (2006) is to support the Lebanese Army, is unable to respond to Israel’s violations, and Israel’s armed forces seem to revel in their impunity. In early May, UNIFIL “lodged firm protests” with the Israelis, “asking them to cease the overflights”. The next day, four Israeli aircraft violated Lebanese airspace—two reconnaissance aircraft flew over Baalbek and Beirut, while two warplanes flew across “all regions of Lebanon”. U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said that UNIFIL “has observed a higher number of Israeli air violations over Lebanese airspace”, and offered the typical, and toothless, warnings.
Towards the eastern part of the Blue Line, on the outskirts of Marjayoun, is the encampment of the Punjab Rifles, the 15th Indian battalion to be in this sector since 1998, taking over their U.N. command from the Norwegians. Standing outside their mess, the Punjab Rifles Commanding Officer, Colonel Sajesh P.G., a calm and intellectual leader, pointed towards the beautiful peak of Mount Hermon (Jabal al-Shaykh). In the upper reaches of that mountain and its range (called the Anti-Lebanon) sit both the Golan Heights, which is disputed territory between Syria and Israel, held by the latter, and UNIFIL’s forward posts that are manned by Indian troops. It is not an easy job in those reaches, far from finished roads and in the mouth of the Israeli army. On February 19, on a dirt road in Saddanah, near Shebaa Farms (claimed by Lebanon but held by Israel), three Israeli tanks “took up positions behind some earthen berms,” said General Jean Qahwaji, Lebanon’s Army commander. Israeli troops left their vehicles and “took up combat positions.
The tanks also aimed their heavy and medium weapons, including cannons and 12.7 mm machine guns, at members of the Indian contingent.” The Indian troops had to sit and watch this display of force. In these circumstances, the UNIFIL mandate does not allow anything other than observation and notification. Colonel Sajesh is too much of a professional to talk about any special incident or even the broad mandate. He leaves that to UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura.
Since their deployment over these 15 years, about 15 Indian soldiers have died at their posts. A total of 250 U.N. troops have died over the entire mission. There has been nothing in this sector, as far as U.N. troops are concerned, like what happened in Gaza in 1967, when Indian troops in the United Nations Emergency Force, led by the colourful Major General Inderjit Rikhye, were attacked by the Israeli army—14 Indians died and many were wounded. The U.N. Secretary-General recognises the weakness of the situation—protected by the United States in the Security Council, Israel can get away with repeated violations of the Blue Line and attacks on U.N. positions (twice in the village of Qana, in 1996 and 2006, killing hundreds of civilians who had taken shelter in the U.N. compound). In his 2008 report on Resolution 1701, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote that Israeli violations “undermine the credibility of UNIFIL”.
One of the most difficult aspects of UNIFIL’s mandate is to ensure the disarmament of South Lebanon. This means that UNIFIL is tasked to work with the very weak Lebanese Army to disarm Hizbollah, the Army of God, set up in the midst of the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. In Lebanon, Hizbollah is known quiet simply as The Resistance (al-Muqawama), to underscore its crucial role in the guerilla campaigns during the occupation, in forcing the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 by inflating the price of occupation, and in resisting the Israeli onslaught in 2006. That last war, over 33 days, had been prosecuted by the Israelis with the sole purpose of destroying Hizbollah. Sustained bombardment of Hizbollah’s strongholds in the south and in Beirut did not succeed in breaking the back of the organisation. On the contrary, the military resistance to the Israelis, Hizbollah’s ability to rebuild the south and Beirut with Iranian funds, and the defiance of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, left the organisation stronger after the Israeli departure.
The south is saturated with the emblems of Hizbollah and its political ally Amal, as well as by a culture of resistance that too often looks like a culture of martyrdom. Flags and banners from Hizbollah and Amal hang on parity with the Lebanese flag to mark the south off from Israeli ambitions. Beside them are large pictures of the main leaders—the current head of Hizbollah, Nasrallah, the vanished Imam who helped give the south its voice in the 1970s, Musa Sadr, and the military leader of Hizbollah who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, Imad Mughniyeh. There are also pictures of important Iranian and Shia leaders such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah al-Sistani, and Ayatollah Khamenei. Smaller images of dead Hizbollah fighters are in every village, reminding the people that it was their blood that won them whatever sovereignty they enjoy now. Crude and enormous statues of crushed Israeli tanks and helmets overwhelm the roadways. It is impossible to miss the ubiquity of Hizbollah.
But there is no sign of the fighters. Lebanon’s south runs from below the Litani river to the Blue Line. Here, the Lebanese Army is not as visible as the U.N. troops. Hizbollah is visibly absent apart from its cultural displays of power. This is for good reason. Hizbollah would be vulnerable to disarmament by UNIFIL if its men walked the streets with their weapons and in their fatigues, and they would be observable by Israeli drones. “Secrecy,” writes Hizbollah’s deputy leader Naim Qassem, “was the key to success on the jehad battlefield.” But occasionally this rule is broken. When Hizbollah gathered to bury one of its fighters who was killed in Syria in the small village of Deir Kifa, members of its military wing ran down the narrow streets with their guns aloft chanting, Labayka ya Zaynab (“We are with you Zaynab”—the eldest daughter of Imam Ali, whose shrine is in Damascus, Syria).
Driving through the south, the journalist Bilal el-Amin pointed out places that had been levelled by the Israeli army. In a road towards Israel that sits above Bint Jbeil, one of south Lebanon’s main towns, el-Amin showed how Israeli tanks had lined up and bombed the town to smithereens. It no longer looks as it did at the end of the 2006 war. Jihad Al Bina, Hizbollah’s reconstruction wing, said that after that war that 33 days of the 2006 war were more destructive than the 22 years of Israeli occupation (1978-2000). Iranian money flooded the coffers of Hizbollah and Amal, enabling them both to move swiftly when the conflict ended to rebuild the basic infrastructure. Cash payments to families came from Jihad Al Bina, el-Amin recounts, with its members keeping careful accounts of the extent of the damage and then the consequent compensation.
Part of the bluster of Hizbollah’s reconstruction, funded by the Iranian government, is at the Iran Park in Maroun al Ras, which overlooks the Israeli kibbutzim of Avivim and Yir’on. The park is set up for military training, as a tourist stop complete with an observation tower that looks out at Israel, and as a picnic area with a children’s playground. Each part of the picnic area is named for a region in Iran and offers a potted history lesson of that area. The most striking thing about this overlook is that one gets to have a view of the difference between the landscape in Israel and in Lebanon. Israel is a highly developed agricultural economy, illustrated by its green fields and expensive infrastructure, as well as its migrant workforce that is in this sector largely from Thailand. Lebanon, on the other hand, looks bare. Part of the issue is water: the Israelis fulfilled the British demands of June 1920 by seizing the Metulla Finger (what the Israelis call the Finger of the Galilee), which stretches from the Hula Valley to Metulla—a four-kilometre narrow strip of arable valley that draws the groundwater and is able to be green and fertile. Despite the bravado of Iran Park, the Metulla Finger is a standing rebuke to Lebanon and its resistance.
The landscape of the south is mired in wars that never seem to end. Driving past the 12th century Beaufort Castle near the village of Arnoun, one is reminded of how the Crusaders tore a swathe through this region in their fanatical quest to take the Holy Land. In 1976, the Palestine Liberation Organisation took the castle and used it as a base for its operation against Israel, leading the latter to bomb it repeatedly and then capture it in 1982 in the Battle of the Beaufort (the Israelis held it until 2000). The castle blends into the rock face, innocent of the blood spilled in its crevices. In Deir Kefa, Rayan el-Amin stands in the house of a relative who remained in her home despite the Israeli bombardment. He points across the valley to a minor crusader castle, which had been a base of some fighters. A jagged line links those century-old fortresses to the new battles. There is little expectation that the south, a battlefield in which people live, will ever settle into peacetime.
Up in Syria, outside Aleppo, sits the Qabr Inglizieh, the burial ground for the troops of the British Empire who fought the Ottomans in 1918. Seventeen Indians of the Jodhpur and Kashmir Lancers are buried there. They fought a battle against Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s retreating Ottoman forces. A monument at the graveyard signals that this was the site of “the last engagement in the Middle East of THE GREAT WAR 1914-1918”. No such ultimate monument exists in Lebanon’s south. Of course, there is Hizbollah’s reminder of the war dead, and there is the armed presence of UNIFIL as it maintains its largely futile vigil of the dangerous border. In the little village of Ebel-es-Saqi, near the Indian base, there is a more hopeful memorial. The townspeople have built two gardens to honour the UNIFIL detachment under whose shadow they survive. There is the garden of the Norwegians (jnayet al Narooj) and there is the garden of Gandhi (jnayet Gandhi). Each year, on Gandhi’s birthday, the townspeople and the Indian troops gather near Gandhi’s statue to honour his legacy. In one of his last statements on Palestine, to Reuters in May 1947, Gandhi said that the Jews who were there “should meet the Arabs, make friends with them, and not depend on British aid or American aid or any aid, save what descends from Jehovah”. Sage advice from Gandhi that bears repeating today for the sake of Israel, Lebanon and Palestine.