The lord of no man's land: A guided tour through Lebanon's ceaseless war
Harper's Magazine 01 Mar 07
Israel should have known better. Even before abandoning their bases inside Lebanon in 2000, the Israelis had been unable to rout Hezbollah; now they planned to cross the border into territory where they had neither facilities nor allies in order to defeat the Shiite Muslims of the Party of God. Indeed, no foreign army- whether Israeli, Syrian, Egyptian, American, British, French, or any other over the past two centuries - has invaded Lebanon without suffering for it. The Old Testament Book of Habakkuk warned all who dared try: "For the violence of Lebanon shall cover thee, and the spoil of beasts, which made them afraid, because of men's blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein." "There is only one way to win a war in Lebanon," the octogenarian Israeli gadfly Uri Avnery recently observed, "and that is to avoid it."
So it should not be surprising that after thirty-four days of fighting in Lebanon last summer, Israel's vaunted military achieved none of its objectives: it did not turn the majority of Lebanese against Hezbollah, did not destroy the militia's infrastructure, and did not rescue the two Israeli soldiers Hezbollah guerrillas had abducted on July 12, the event that triggered the month-long war. Israeli intelligence also failed to find or kill Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader; Israeli commandos did manage to kidnap another Hassan Nasrallah, a bemused grocer from the Bekaa Valley, but released him three weeks later after realizing their error. During the invasion, 120 Israeli soldiers were killed, 50 Israeli tanks were disabled, and an Israeli warship suffered a direct hit from a Hezbollah- fired cruise missile. A few days after Israel agreed to a cease-fire in August, I traveled the coastal highway between Beirut and the Israeli border. Billboards proclaiming Hezbollah's "triumph over Israel" already lined the seashore road, many playing on Hassan Nasrallah's name-"Nasr," meaning victory, and "Allah," God- to read, NASR MIN ALLAH, "Victory from God." Shops were selling everything from Hezbollah clocks and pens to postcards of Nasrallah's beaming, bearded face, and Lebanese beauties, in tight jeans and with midriffs exposed, waved the party's yellow flags. Even the country's Christians, normally unenthusiastic about the Shiite militia, could be seen wearing Hezbollah T-shirts.
"I seem to see Beirut with its soul and guts hanging out," Hanan al- Shaykh wrote in her 1992 novel, Beirut Blues. "Then I see it strong and unyielding and am filled with affection for it. Life appears normal, despite the collapse of its outer trappings." It was like that again as I reached the areas of Beirut hardest hit by Israel's aerial campaign, the city's predominantly Shiite Muslim suburbs. When I first traveled to Lebanon in 1972, these suburbs, called the Dahiyeh, existed only as a motley collection of breeze-block shanties, populated mostly by Shiite peasants who had fled the combat zone that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization had made of their villages and farms in the south. By the time Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war ended, in 1990, the "misery belt" surrounding the capital had been transformed into a full-fledged modern city, with its own high-rise apartments, businesses, mosques, churches, schools, and restaurants. Thirty-four days of Israeli bombardment reduced much of the achievement to wasteland.
All afternoon until sunset, I wandered the Dahiyeh with a Lebanese friend, Jamil Mroue, the owner and editor of Beirut's English-language newspaper, the Daily Star. We moved eerily from collapse to normality-an unscathed apartment block beside its vanished twin, old men taking coffee amid smoking ruins, and traffic snaking around craters in the palm-shaded boulevards. Jamil photographed the more spectacular examples of destruction: twenty stories of concrete twisted into an abandoned accordion, a gaping hole where a house had been. On the ground baby carriages, family photographs in cracked frames, burning sofas, and other frail relics of domesticity jutted haphazardly from the rubble.
In 1987, when I was in Lebanon researching a book, members of Hezbollah kidnapped me and held me captive for sixty-two days in the Dahiyeh. The night I escaped, I kept out of sight of local residents, fearing they might return me to my captors. But now, even in the aftermath of an Israeli onslaught that used weapons supplied by the United States, no one threatened Americanlooking me. Unarmed Hezbollah guards politely cautioned me to look out for unexploded bombs and lifted yellow-tape barriers so that Jamil and I could get a closer look at the devastation. Beside us on the sidewalks were crowds of what I can only call strollers. Theirs was an evening passeggiata-whole families gazing at the damage to their or their friends' houses as insouciantly as spectators at a county fair. Most of the young women we saw wore T-shirts and jeans, some had on skirts, and only a few female heads were wrapped in scarves. One of these covered women stepped just ahead of us toward a crushed mass of cement and wood. "That's my house," she said. I waited for wailing and tears that didn't come. She shrugged. "We can rebuild."
Outside the confines of Shiite Lebanon, however, many of the country's Sunni, Christians, and Druze believed that Hezbollah's Syrian and Iranian backers had callously used Lebanon as a battlefield for their own conflicts. They counted a thousand dead civilians, 15,000 homes reduced to rubble, factories and dairies ruined, much of the civil infrastructure eliminated, the summer tourist season, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the country's GDP, lost, and a million active cluster bomblets scattered across the south. Hezbollah, using Iranian money, was paying for much of the country's reconstruction. But the greater challenge would be restoring the consensus that had allowed Lebanon to emerge from its long civil war. "Yes, yes, we will rebuild," Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon's Druze Muslim leader and of late one of the country's most outspoken critics of Hezbollah and Syria, pronounced at a press conference. "But something has been destroyed that cannot be rebuilt, and that is trust. Trusting that the Lebanese people will not be dragged into yet another war."
I had come to Lebanon, in fact, to meet with Walid Jumblatt. The last of the old feudal lords to remain prominent in Lebanese politics, he seemed to me a proper case study to help diagnose whatever pathology kept the nation in near constant crisis. Over the past thirty years, Jumblatt had looked out for the welfare of his Druze minority by expediently maneuvering amid Lebanon's tangle of sects, factions, blood feuds, and competing foreign interests. Only a couple of years ago, the "Druze warlord," as the press called him, was Damascus's most valued ally in Lebanon. He was now declaring that "the decision of war and peace is that of the Lebanese state" and not Hezbollah's or any other militia's. But when the PLO operated from within Lebanon, he adamantly backed Yassir Arafat's right to make this very decision.
Lebanon contends that it is the most modern of Arab states, pointing to its beaches, ski resorts, free press, and universities. Yet a close look at the career of Walid Jumblatt alone reveals how little the country has changed since Ottoman times, when local beys, pashas, and sheikhs delivered their communities like Chicago ward heelers to some dominant outside power in order to gain an advantage over a shifting field of local rivals. Consequently, Lebanon's political system is one of the Arab world's most ineffi- cient and convoluted. Certainly any country that was, say, devising its foreign policy toward Lebanon, would do well to examine a figure long at the center of this political morass.
I have known Walid Jumblatt, though not well, for thirty years. When I was beginning graduate study in philosophy at the American University of Beirut, in 1972, he had just completed his B.A. in political science and public administration. Student politics were at their most leftist and pro- Palestinian at the time, and Jumblatt's reputation as a bon vivant and rebel against the country's conservative social mores still lingered on campus. Everyone knew him as the son of Kamal Jumblatt, who was, improbably, both the Druze's feudal leader and the country's leading progressive politician. Walid was working then as a reporter at the Arabic daily An Nahar, Lebanon's equivalent of the New York Times; his lanky frame, in blue jeans and bomber jacket, could be seen in restaurants and the occasional nightclub, or cruising around town on a motorcycle. He was friends with Christians, Muslims, Palestinians, and foreigners. When his father was assassinated, in 1977, Walid Jumblatt, without shedding his enfant terrible persona, was thrust into power.
Not long after arriving in Lebanon last summer, I was invited to dinner with Jumblatt at his Beirut home, which is protected by armed guards at a fortified checkpoint. In a concrete yard behind the house, I sat with him and his wife, Noura, while servants brought us platters of fresh tabbouleh and lamb from the kitchen and poured me arak with water and ice. Walid, who had been an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, drank chilled vodka. Naturally, I wanted to ask about the recent war and Jumblatt's challenge to Hezbollah, but he was preoccupied with Washington. Was Condoleezza Rice more influential than Dick Cheney? How could he persuade the Bush Administration to help depose Lebanon's pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, weed out Syrian moles in Lebanon's army and intelligence services, and overthrow the regime in Syria? Having abandoned his Syrian partnership in 2004, Jumblatt was without an outside backer to match Hezbollah's friends in Damascus and Tehran. Israel was obviously not an option. The only viable counterweight, then, was the United States. He didn't seem to mind that Washington had supported the Israeli invasion or that most Lebanese were opposed to its war in Iraq. When I asked how he could turn to a power that, in 1983, had shelled Druze villages in the Chouf Mountains from the battleship New Jersey, all he did was shrug, as if to say, "This is Lebanon. What do you expect?"
Noura told me they never stayed the night in Beirut. Prominent critics of Syria and Hezbollah recently had been blown up in their cars; another would soon be gunned down in the street. So after dinner she and Walid drove with their bodyguards to the Jumblatt ancestral seat, the magnificent Ottoman palace in the mixed Druze-Maronite mountain village of Mukhtara. The Jumblatts felt safer from assassins in the Chouf, surrounded by their loyal Druze.
I went to the palace in Mukhtara a few mornings later, taking a detour around a bridge Israel had bombed at the town of Damour, just south of Beirut, and following a road up to the mountains. Here, where Shiite Lebanon ended and Druze Lebanon began, there were no posters of Hassan Nasrallah and also no destruction. Israel had spared the Chouf in its attack on the rest of Lebanon.
Walid's father wrote in his memoir, I Speak for Lebanon, that the ancestral seat "had been built in stages over two and a half centuries," on stone foundations left by the Crusaders. The first Jumblatts migrated to Lebanon from Syria in the seventeenth century, according to the 1853 account of Colonel Charles Churchill, a retired British officer who lived in the Ottoman Empire province of Mount Lebanon. The original family name, Janboulad, is Kurdish for "iron heart." One of the tribe's ancestors was a governor of Cairo; another, Ali Jumblatt Pasha, governor of the Syrian city of Aleppo, laid siege to Damascus in 1613. "Shortly afterwards," Churchill writes, "Ali Jumblatt fell by treachery." Ali's sons, Jumblatt and Yesbeck, fled to the Chouf. According to family history, the Jumblatts had converted to the Druze faith-a secretive, syncretic sect, born in eleventh-century Cairo, that mixes Ismaili Shiism, Christian Gnosticism, and classical Greek philosophy with a belief in reincarnation-long before this move. The Druze, under centuries of Sunni persecution, "became a society culturally conditioned by and for war," writes Claude Boueiz Kanaan in Lebanon 1860-1960. "Their social hierarchy centered on military service, with consequent implications for the community's modern self-image."
Now in Mukhtara, in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion, Walid told me more about his past. He had had a troubled childhood, living with a father who was famously reserved and ascetic. Just before his ninth birthday, Walid recalled, the civil war of 1958 broke out. Lebanon's president at the time, a Maronite named Camille Chamoun, had embraced the Eisenhower Doctrine guaranteeing protection to governments that opposed Communism. Thus Chamoun situated Lebanon in the Western camp; the country's Muslim establishment, however, demanded alignment with the Arab world. President Eisenhower sent in the Marines to calm things down, lest Lebanon fall to an Arab nationalist revolution, as Iraq had that July. "I remember the Marines landing in Lebanon," Jumblatt said. "I remember the fighters who were sent by [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser to help us, the Druze fighters-beautiful guys, physically speaking." The Druze of Syria rallied to Kamal Jumblatt, holding him up as the new antiimperialist Druze chief.
During the fighting, Walid, for his safety, was lodged with a Christian family in Beirut. When the war ended, Camille Chamoun stepped down as president, but Washington allowed the Egyptians to assume control of Lebanon, just as it would let Syria do in 1976. "I was brought back here," Walid told me, referring to the Chouf. "It was my birthday, and one of the guards fired in the air. My father was furious." Kamal Jumblatt threatened to jail the man, telling him, "You have to respect the people who died in the civil war. It's not the time to have a birthday for my son." For Kamal Jumblatt, tribal leadership superseded familial obligations.
When Walid was twenty, he married, against his father's wishes, an Iranian actress, ten years his senior, who drank too much. The marriage, he said, led to estrangement between father and son. After a divorce and his father's death, Walid married a blonde Circassian from Jordan named, coincidentally, Gervette Jumblatt. Everyone called her Gigi, and I remember her dancing uninhibitedly with friends in the Roman ruins at Baalbek late at night during the civil war. She and Walid had their first child, a son, in 1982. They named him Taimur- Tamerlaine, as the name is known in the West-the man who conquered and destroyed Damascus in 1400. Walid divorced again, finally marrying Noura, whom he met and courted when she was married to one of his cousins.
One of the few Lebanese to have seen the enormity of the country's conflict as it began to unfold in 1975 was Ghassan Tueini, the editor and proprietor of An Nahar, the paper where Walid once worked. I had listened to Tueini in early 1975 at the American University Hospital as he warned physicians there to prepare for the worst. After Nasser's death, Egypt lost interest in Lebanon, and the PLO, Israel, and Syria all moved to take advantage of the resulting vacuum. Palestinian commandos took control of parts of south Lebanon; Israel bombed the south and, occasionally, Beirut; and Syria supplied arms to the Palestinians and the Lebanese Muslim factions to shore up its influence. Lebanon's Maronite Christians insisted that the Palestinians be disarmed, Sunni Muslims demanded that the state support the Palestinian struggle against Israel, Shiites joined militias on both sides. Kamal Jumblatt backed the Palestinians and the Sunnis, while his Maronite opponents armed their militias to confront the Palestinians. In April 1975, the Lebanese civil war officially began when Palestinians aboard a bus were massacred by Christians. Tueini became a member of a six-man emergency cabinet appointed by President Suleiman Frangieh to find a way out of the war. A newspaperman and a Greek Orthodox Christian, Tueini was well placed to arbitrate among factions. He was also close to Kamal Jumblatt, who, alone among Druze notables, stood by him when he crossed religious lines and married a Druze poet.
Last August, as Israeli planes still flew missions over Beirut and its warships were preventing aid ships from reaching the city's port, I went to the village of Beit Mary, a few miles up Mount Lebanon from east Beirut, to see Ghassan Tueini. His house had changed since my visit a year before, when it was open to all comers. Now even Tueini, an independent politician who had never been involved in the country's sectarian and feudal violence, had protection. Under tall umbrella pines, a guard rolled a mirror to search for bombs under my taxi before swinging open a reinforced iron security gate.
We sat down for an al fresco lunch on his shaded patio, which overlooked Beirut, the Mediterranean Sea, and, just below, a backyard pool. Two tiny girls were swimming with their mother and a Filipina nanny. The twin girls, Tueini said, were thirteen months old, born just after their father-his son Gibran, who had also opposed Syria's presence in Lebanon-was killed by a car bomb.
During lunch, Ghassan gave me a long oral tour of modern Lebanese history, most of which he had lived through as journalist, diplomat, and politician. A personal crisis, he told me, almost brought the country's factional leaders together about six months into the civil war. Tueini was in a cabinet meeting, at the presidential palace in Baabda, when Kamal Jumblatt called. "Ghassan," he said, his voice quavering, "Walid has been kidnapped." Camille Chamoun, the former president who had become minister of the interior, grabbed the telephone. Although the two men had not spoken since the previous civil war, in 1958, Chamoun promised to help. A few hours later, Chamoun's son, Dany, discovered that members of his own Maronite militia, bent on avenging the death of one of their relatives, were about to execute Walid. Dany delivered Walid Jumblatt to the presidential palace, where Tueini, Chamoun, and the other ministers treated him as if he were their own son.
Walid's rescue led to a momentary rapprochement between Kamal Jumblatt and the Christian leaders, but the conflict proved too large. The tragedies that befell each leader who welcomed Walid that night indicate the extent to which the Lebanese, by repeatedly calling in outsiders to back their various rival factions, traded away control over their own fate. President Suleiman Frangieh's son, Tony, Tony's wife, and their three-year-old daughter were murdered at their home by rival Maronites allied to Israel. The Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Rashid Karami would be assassinated by a bomb planted in his army helicopter, probably by the same Maronites who killed Tony Frangieh. Camille Chamoun's son, Dany, his wife, Ingrid, and their two small sons would be gunned down in their east Beirut apartment. Adil Bey Osseiran had already lost his older son, Abdallah, to assassins from his own Shiite sect; his next son, Ali, would be kidnapped in 1987. Ghassan Tueini lived to see his only surviving child murdered for standing up to Syria.
Tueini said Walid still visited him from time to time, occasionally pretending to seek advice. "'You are the only survivor,'" he said Walid will begin. "I say, 'Yes, I know the story. What do you want to know?'" And Walid will ask, "'How do you think Kamal Bey would have acted in this or that situation?'" Both Walid and Ghassan are said to be on Syrian "death lists" currently circulating in Lebanon.
I was invited to another meal at Mukhtara, a dinner with Walid, his wife, and his mother, Mai Jumblatt. When Mai came outside to the terrace where we were having drinks, we all rose to greet her. She asked Walid about his recent trip to France, where he had just met the interior minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy. "He's just as nervous as me," Walid said, as he motioned to his leg, which, as usual, bounced up and down. His mother asked why there weren't any real men left in France or anywhere else. "Men like Richelieu," she said. Cardinal Richelieu, she went on, had destroyed the Huguenots at La Rochelle in 1627, starving the city in a siege in order to save France. I was about to ask whether she wanted someone to do the same in Lebanon, when Walid shook his head and we went to the dinner table.
Kamal Jumblatt and Mai Arslan were married in Geneva in 1948. He had studied at a Catholic boarding school in Lebanon and at the Sorbonne; she was a princess of the Jumblatts' traditional Yazbecki Druze rivals and a society beauty distantly related to Kamal's mother. Just as the couple returned to Lebanon from their honeymoon, Israel declared its independence. Lebanon joined the futile Arab invasion, losing in the process nine border villages and receiving more than 100,000 Palestinian Arab refugees. In 1949, Kamal Jumblatt founded the Progressive Socialist Party. His critics called him "Comrade Kamal Bey," a term that was later uttered with affection. Walid was born that same year and was three when his parents separated. Although Walid lived with Kamal, he said he used to "smuggle" himself out to visit his mother.
In the spring of 1976, Kamal Jumblatt's coalition of Palestinians, Muslims, and left-wing militias seemed to be winning the civil war. The Christians, fearing annihilation, turned to Syria for help. Kamal Jumblatt went to Damascus to ask Syrian President Hafez al- Assad, an air force general from the dissident Alawite sect of Shiite Muslims who took power in 1970, to stay out of the fighting. A leftist victory, Kamal argued, would be good for both Lebanon and Syria, as Lebanon would be able to write a new, secular constitution and end the war for good. The two leaders met for hours. Assad presented his version of the meeting on Syrian television on August 20, 1976:
[Kamal Jumblatt] said, "Let us discipline [the Maronites]. There should be a military settlement. They have ruled us for 140 years, and we want to get rid of them." Here, I saw all the masks falling. . . . The issue is not between the Right and the Left, not between progressive and reactionary, and not between Christian and Muslim. The issue is that of vengeance and revenge, which goes back 140 years. Kamal Jumblatt left this meeting leaving the impression he insists on fighting. I told him, "Don't count on my help."
Other Arab countries, on learning that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger approved of Syria's intervention in Lebanon, refused to help Kamal Jumblatt fend off the Syrians. Jumblatt wrote to Assad, "I beg you to withdraw the troops you have sent into Lebanon. We do not want to be a satellite state. We want to be independent. . . . We do not want the great Syrian prison."
Less than a year later, Kamal Jumblatt and his bodyguards had cleared a Syrian military checkpoint near the village of Baakline when, at a turn in the road, four assassins shot him dead. Walid had just finished lunch at a seaside Italian restaurant in west Beirut when he heard the news. As he now told me about that moment, some thirty years later, Walid still appeared stunned. He tapped his foot nervously and looked around his study, which was dominated by memorabilia from his father's time-pictures, awards, books. On his way to Mukhtara, he recalled, Syrian soldiers stopped him. One Syrian officer, who clearly recognized Walid, demanded to know who he was, making his contempt known.
At the palace, his father's lacerated body lay in the Mercedes-Benz in which he'd been shot. "I think it was my first act of command," Walid said. "I told them to take him to where the library now is. I told them, 'Take him there, and we'll see later on.' Because at that time, we heard news that Christians were being killed in the villages around us." Walid said he and the Druze spiritual leader, Mohammed Abu Shakra, drove out to stop Druze from exacting revenge on their innocent Maronite neighbors. "We managed in two villages to cool down people. In the third village, they told us nobody's left." The entire Maronite village of Deir Dourit, with some 270 people, was wiped out. An estimated 1,000 Maronites died that day. Others fled, but Walid was able to convince the majority that they would be safe if they remained.
Walid ordered his father's funeral and burial that night. They wrapped his father's head in white cloth, because a large part of it had been shot away, and the pallbearers carried the body on foot from the house to the grave. The day after the assassination, a Syrian Baath Party official named Abdallah al- Ahmad came to Mukhtara to deliver the official message: Israel had killed Walid's father. (Like so many others in this mountain tale, Abdallah al- Ahmad was later killed when a car ran him over in Syria, in what was offi- cially declared an accident.) Walid remembered going along with the lie. "Of course I told him politely it was Israel. Of course everyone knew it was the Syrians. But we had to say it was the Israelis."
I asked Walid who really killed his father. "One guy called Hafez Assad," he said. "Within the apparatus, who did it, it's minor for me. In such a totalitarian regime, there is no possibility it was an accident." Walid did not conceal the lingering anguish. In a garage beside us sat his father's Mercedes, scarred with rifle fire and untouched since 1977. Walid still had his father's identity card with the bullet holes in it. "The Druze are known for their vendettas," Samir Frangieh, a Maronite political ally of Jumblatt's, told me. "The Druze never forget."
At age twenty-seven, Walid, whose political experience was limited to a stint as a journalist, found himself supreme leader of the Druze, chief of the Progressive Socialist Party, and nominal head of the combined forces of Lebanon's leftist and Muslim militias. The Druze called him the "son of the pillar of the sky." His first political choice was between vengeance, the feudal lord's prerogative, and pragmatism, the duty of the modern politician. Walid sacrificed revenge. In June 1977, he made a pilgrimage to Damascus to meet President Assad. Assad said to him, "It's strange how you look like your father." "I still had my hair," Walid told me, laughing a little as he patted his bare head. "I looked at him," Walid continued, "and I felt, to tell you the truth, I knew that he killed my father, and he knew that I knew that he killed my father. And it was quite a strange feeling. And we sat. I didn't feel hatred."
How could he do it? He believed he had no other choice. "I knew that the war was not over," Walid said. The right-wing Maronite militias were still powerful, so he had to find a way to strengthen his own forces. "In Damascus, we had a good friend, Hikmet Shihabi, the chief of staff," he explained. "And I convinced Hikmet slowly to convey messages to Hafez al-Assad that I need weapons, that I need to be trained." Syria provided Jumblatt with arms and trained his militia. Through the Soviet Union's ambassador in Beirut, Druze fighters also went to Russia for military instruction. Walid estimated that the Russians supplied him, over the years, with some $500 million worth of weapons, ammunition, and training. They even let Walid open a restaurant in Moscow. And thus Walid found himself becoming an enemy not only of the Maronites but of Israel and the United States as well.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to expel Yassir Arafat and the PLO, the Druze fought alongside the Palestinians in Beirut. Israeli bombs rained down on west Beirut for three months. Rather than allow Beirut's complete destruction, the United States negotiated a withdrawal of PLO commandos by sea. "When Arafat decided to leave," Walid told me, "we went together to the port of Beirut and said farewell." Walid fired his Kalashnikov into the air in salute. "It was emotional, very emotional for me." For all of Walid Jumblatt's life, his politics had been defined by his father's and his own commitment to justice for the Palestinians. Suddenly, the cause had moved elsewhere.
Surrounded by Israeli tanks, the Lebanese parliament, in September 1982, anointed Ariel Sharon's choice, Bashir Gemayel, as president. Just before the inauguration, a pro-Syrian Lebanese Christian assassinated Gemayel; Bashir's older brother, Amin, was then chosen to serve in his stead. Amin Gemayel arrested and tortured suspected enemies, and his late brother's Lebanese Forces militia went into the Chouf with the Israelis to exact revenge for the massacres of Maronites that had followed Kamal Jumblatt's assassination. Walid had just held a secret meeting at a friend's house in west Beirut, to discuss peace with a representative of Lebanese Forces, when a car bomb was detonated alongside his armored car. I happened to be a few blocks away and heard the blast. Walid, at the wheel, was wounded. Beside him and also injured was Gervette, pregnant with their second son. Six bystanders and Walid's bodyguard died. At the American University Hospital, Walid hurried to show his followers he was alive, in order to avert another bloodbath in the Chouf. Later, a second bomb exploded in a restaurant, the Smugglers' Inn, where Jumblatt and his closest political adviser often met for dinner.
Because Beirut was no longer safe for critics of the Israeli occupation or Gemayel's government, Walid moved to Syria. "Jumblatt was never a Syrian man," novelist Elias Khoury told me. "After they assassinated his father and after the Israeli invasion and the Christian fascists took over, he had no choice but to go to Syria." In Damascus, Walid joined other anti-Israeli Lebanese in exile-everyone from Muslim fundamentalists to Communists. ABC News had sent me there to cover the Syrian side of the Lebanese war, and I saw a lot of him then. Walid spent his time mainly in cafés and bars with Lebanese friends and allies. Once I accompanied him and a Soviet delegation to a floor show at the Meridien Hotel, where the Russians drank vodka straight and howled with abandon at the nude dancers. Walid seemed bored.
Back in Lebanon, the American Embassy, the U.S. Marine headquarters, and a French army barracks all were destroyed by suicide bombers. The Israeli occupiers suffered daily attacks. A new, more militant Shiite militia- Hezbollah-was formed by radical members of the Shiite Amal militia, clerics allied to Iran, and disaffected young men dedicated to expelling the Israelis. Israel had radicalized many of them in the prison camps of southern Lebanon and incited others by assassinating their religious leaders.
In September 1983, I was in the back seat of Walid's white Range Rover as he drove at ninety miles an hour up the highway from Damascus back to the Chouf. His military commander, Sharif Fayad, sat beside him in front. To the north of the highway was the Syrian army, to the south the Israelis. "Sometimes Lebanon seems to be just an artificial creation," Walid said at one point. "Maybe it should be divided between Syria and Israel." I asked which half he would live in. He paused and answered, "The No Man's Land."
The Lebanese army disintegrated when Druze and Shiite soldiers defected to Jumblatt and the Shiite Amal militia. West Beirut fell to Druze and Amal forces in February 1984, and the Marines soon "redeployed to the ships," in the contorted vocabulary Washington used to conceal defeat and its abandonment of Lebanon. Syria, which Israel had expelled from Lebanon along with the PLO in 1982, successfully reimposed itself through its Amal and Druze proxies. The Lebanon it acquired, however, was in chaos. The militias battled one another over territory, illegal ports, smuggling, and the ubiquitous extortion rackets.
With the presidency, what was left of the army, and essentially all that remained of the Lebanese state now in Maronite hands, Jumblatt turned his back on the country and retreated into his Druze canton. He dispensed justice from the family seat at Mukhtara, just as his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors had done, by resolving family disputes and issuing the death sentence for murder. He forbade the singing of Lebanon's national anthem in Chouf schools, and he banned Lebanon's cedar-tree flag. By the fall of 1986, Jumblatt's militia controlled west Beirut jointly with the Shiite Muslim Amal militia of Nabih Berri. When Jumblatt ordered all Lebanese flags there removed, the Amal militia refused. Of all the wars within the war that is Lebanon, none has been more pointless than the "War of the Two Flags" that then erupted in November 1986. Much of the fighting, conveniently for the international press, took place close to its favorite bar in the Commodore Hotel.
I was visiting Beirut on the day the flag war broke out, having borrowed my old flat opposite the Commodore. I watched the shooting from a balcony. A rifleman somewhere on another rooftop was firing down upon the street, while gunmen on the ground were firing up. Bullets shattered the windshield of a passing car, hitting a man inside. From the Commodore came a posse of photographers, all of them clicking away as the driver, under fire, tried to pull his bleeding passenger to safety. "What are you doing?" he screamed. "Why don't you help?" They told me the passenger later died, one of a hundred or so victims of the two-flags war.
The Lebanese flag-the one Jumblatt detested a few years ago-now flutters in the skies above the Chouf. Jumblatt has embraced the Christians, more or less. The man he said once tried to kill him, former President Amin Gemayel, is at present his ally. Gemayel's son, Pierre, was murdered in Beirut in November, the latest anti- Syrian to lose his life in the undeclared war of nerves that is again pushing Lebanon toward civil war. Jumblatt remains up in Mukhtara, rarely venturing out, believing that he will be the next victim.
On my final visit to Mukhtara, Jumblatt led me outside and up a winding stone staircase to the room he currently uses as his study. On the desk was a pot of sugarless Turkish coffee, fuel for another session of questions. Near it was a collection of pistols, modern and ancient, along with uniforms from the old Soviet army. The Soviets, after all, had armed his militia when he and the other Lebanese leftists had fought for Palestine. Now Jumblatt was condemning Hezbollah for doing what he had done: challenging Israel. Why did he apply one standard to the PLO and another to Hezbollah? "Well, maybe we felt more secure with the PLO," he said. "Arafat was a man you could speak with, not that fundamentalist approach like Nasrallah."
Israel finally left southern Lebanon, after twenty-two years, on May 22, 2000. Hezbollah's new leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, ordered his fighters not to harm those who had collaborated with the occupier-a show of restraint that gave the Shiite militia credibility among the country's Christians. The war could have ended then, but Syria found a pretext for prolonging Hezbollah's usefulness as a lever against Israel. The excuse was Sheba'a Farms, a sliver of Lebanese land that Syria had seized in 1954 and Israel had taken from Syria in 1967. Most Lebanese had not heard of it before 2000. With Syria's blessing, Hezbollah launched occasional raids and grabbed Israeli soldiers along the border to trade for Lebanese abducted by Israel.
At this time Jumblatt praised suicide bombings, which Hezbollah and Hamas had been carrying out against Israeli targets. In March 2004, he had this exchange with a journalist on Al Arabiyya television:
Journalist: Your message to the youth tonight is to die a martyr's death? Jumblatt: Do you have another option? Journalist: That they live. Jumblatt: There is no other option. That they live? No one can live under humiliation.
Yet American foreign policy was changing. The mandate that James Baker had given Syria over Lebanon in 1990, in exchange for its help against Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, became obsolete; the overthrow of the Baathist regime in Iraq in 2003 left Washington's neoconservatives with ambitions to depose the Baath government in Syria. Driving Syria out of Lebanon would chip away at its power. Jumblatt, always a politician first, seized the opportunity to do what he had long wanted: to turn against the regime that had killed his father. He called not only for the expulsion of the Syrian army from Lebanon but also for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, who became president after his father's death in 2000. Walid recanted his harsh criticism of America's Iraq invasion, cultivating Washington's neo-cons as allies in his feud with the al-Assad family. And he ended a twenty-eight-year public silence by declaring openly that the Syrians had murdered his father. His personal and political objectives were finally in accord: opposing Syria satisfied his desire for vengeance and allowed him to protect his Druze minority from Syrianbacked Shiite domination.
On February 14, 2005, a little over a year after former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri helped to pass U.N. Resolution 1559, which demanded full Syrian withdrawal and the disarmament of Hezbollah, Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in west Beirut. Misjudging the public mood, Hezbollah took a half million supporters onto the streets to support Syria; in response, on March 14, well over a million Lebanese gathered in the heart of Beirut's downtown to demand an immediate Syrian departure and al haqiqa, the truth, about Hariri's murder. A month later, the Syrians left. The U.N. appointed a commission to investigate Hariri's death, and much of its evidence pointed at Syria. Without Hariri, whose sons lacked political experience, the Sunni Muslims were leaderless. Jumblatt filled the void, speaking for Druze and Sunnis against Syria. Christians who had always hated Syria rallied to him as well.
Unexplained explosions in Christian areas followed Syria's withdrawal. Car bombs killed prominent anti-Syrians- Ghassan Tueini's son, Gibran; the journalist Samir Kassir; former Communist Party chief Georges Hawi. Other anti-Syrians spoke out but lived in fear, barricaded in their houses and traveling only with bodyguards. On one side stood Hassan Nasrallah and his formidable Hezbollah fighters, supported by Syria and Iran. On the other were most Christians, the Sunnis, and Jumblatt's Druze. Jumblatt urged the crowds in central Beirut to wave the Lebanese flag and no other. Then came Hezbollah's sudden capture of two Israeli soldiers just over the border, prompting Israel's thirty-four-day retaliation.
In this current crisis, the combination of sects and groups and countries that are allied or opposed may be new, but these configurations seem mostly another incarnation of Lebanon's centuries- old story. Ottoman Turks once guarded Sunni interests in Lebanon, while the French gave protection to the Maronites, the Russians helped the Greek Orthodox, and the British had a loose partnership with the Druze; later Muslims turned to Egypt and Syria to replace the Ottomans. The Shiites have always looked to Iran or to the Shiite clerics of Iraq. Walid's ancestors very likely would recognize- and approve of-their descendant's manipulation of local and outside powers. And they would not be surprised to see that the latest and probably most modern Lebanese politician, Hassan Nasrallah, is a mullah who wears a black turban denoting his descent from the Prophet Muhammad. In Lebanon, things change so that they can remain the same.
Once outside of Mukhtara, I drove down the mountain toward Beirut. Lebanese flags dangled from telephone wires and electrical poles, and fading posters of the Jumblatts- Walid, his father, and Walid's older son, Taimur-were tacked to walls and pasted in windows. "Somebody has to inherit this house, be able to continue this tradition, this political family tradition," Walid had said just before I left his palace. "But I don't see the future bright. I see it bleak. So I don't envy the future of my son." At the bottom of the last foothill, I reached the chasm where the Damour bridge had been demolished by the Israeli air force. On the road beside the sea loomed a possible future-bombed-out roads and houses as well as images of Hassan Nasrallah and his glorious martyrs.
The lie that sustained most Lebanese, including the thousands who returned from diaspora in the 1990s, was that the long civil war ended when the shooting stopped. But Syria did not want it to end, Hezbollah could not let it end, and Israel would not agree to terms that would allow it to end. Iran, too, had a use for Lebanon: if the United States or Israel bombed Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran could ask Hezbollah to shell Israel, something the militia proved in July it could do effectively. The latest Israeli invasion has convinced many Lebanese that they face perpetual war as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict persists.
Driving again past collapsed buildings in the Dahiyeh, I thought of the Flag War, the "Two Years War" of 1975 and 1976, the "Mountain War" of 1983, and the "War of Elimination" between two Christian factions that in 1990 compelled 100,000 to emigrate. The Christian General Michel Aoun's other futile war, against Syria and financed by Saddam Hussein, nearly destroyed east Beirut. Aoun, the Christians' former anti-Syrian champion, had just returned from exile to declare an alliance with Hezbollah and Damascus. I headed north into Beirut and then beyond the Palestinian refugee camps, whose devastated shacks the Amal Shiite militia had assailed for more than a year at Syria's behest in the "Camps War." The camps had been attacked before and since by Israel, which invaded Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1996, 2002, and 2006. They called them all wars, but each was an episode, or phase, in the unfolding madness that was-and remains-the Lebanese war. Lebanon's long, long war.
© Charles Glass 2007
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