Sunday, 21 December 2008

Phoenicians, so they say

A goodwill message for Lebanon? Well we share the Phoenician DNA, apparently.

I am very suspicious of genetic determinism so not sure what the results tell us, but the heirtage question is an important plank of of the so called "Libanism"— a specific Lebanese nationalism that seeks to distinguish the coast from the rest of the Arab world.

Libanism emerged with the creation of the country in the 1920s as a specific nationalist project that sought to separate Lebanon from "socialist" Syria, and justify free market capitalism.

There have been similar studies to show that one in six Lebanese Christians are descended from Crusaders, so worthy of western support "against the eastern hoards".

Of course the obvious research would be to see how many are actually Arab... err quite a lot I suspect. These arguments have taken different forms in different historical periods. For centuries the main question was whether families were "Yemeni or Qaisi"... but that's for another time.

Anyway, here's the BBC spin on the Phoenician story:

In Lebanon history has always been a source of contention - even when it came to something as ancient as the country's Phoenician heritage.

In the first millennium BC, Phoenicians, enterprising seafarers from the territory of the modern day Lebanon, established their trading empire.

From their base, they spread across the Mediterranean founding colonies and trading posts along its shores.

Described by historians as the "worlds first capitalists" the Phoenicians controlled the Mediterranean for nearly 1,000 years, until they were finally conquered by the Romans.

Today they are among the most enigmatic of ancient civilizations, history knows very little about them and most of their legacy has long been lost.

But during the civil war in Lebanon, Christians and Muslims often disputed their Phoenician roots, each claiming they were the true descendants.

Now science has put this argument to rest.

The genetics lab at the Lebanese American University is part of the multimillion dollar Genographic Project that uses genetics to map out human migration.

In Lebanon, geneticists led by Dr Pierre Zalloua have managed to identify the Phoenician gene.

"The Phoenicians were here three thousand years ago and we were not at all sure whether we would be able to find out any genetic remains of their civilization. I think the fact that we did is amazing," says Dr Zalloua.
'Identical'

Dr Zalloua and his team studied DNA data from more than 6,000 men across the Mediterranean, and used a new analytical technique to detect the genetic imprint of historical migrations.

"Whether you take a Christian village in the north of Lebanon or a Muslim village in the south, the DNA make-up of its residents is likely to be identical," says Dr Zalloua.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Lessons of victory

Haaretz reports that Israel had to learn the lessons of the Lebanon war... that's the one they claimed they won, right?. Well not according to the US Army War College:

A new report warns that the American military must learn the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, in which Hezbollah operated more like a conventional army than a guerrilla organization.

The report, "The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy," warns against placing too heavy an emphasis on classic guerrilla warfare, and raises the possibility of further non-state actors following the Lebanese militant group's example.

"Hezbollah's 2006 campaign in southern Lebanon has been receiving increasing attention as a prominent recent example of a non-state actor fighting a Westernized state. In particular, critics of irregular-warfare transformation often cite the 2006 case as evidence that non-state actors can nevertheless wage conventional warfare in state-like ways."

The authors give a high grade to Hezbollah's performance in the 2006 war, describing it as more effective than that of any Arab army that confronted Israel in the Jewish state's history, and that Hezbollah militants wounded more Israelis per fighter than any previous Arab effort.

Unlike a traditional guerrilla force, however, Hezbollah emphasized holding territory and digging in to bunkers, instead of the usual tactic of hiding among civilian populations. Likewise, the militant organization's discipline and coordination highly resembled those of conventional armies.

Israel seizes 2 men

The AFP newsagency reports:

Israeli soldiers captured two Lebanese civilians on a raid across the border into southern Lebanon on Friday, a Lebanese security official said.

Tarraf Tarraf and his brother Hassan Tarraf, both aged about 50, were taken on Lebanese territory near the border village of Blida, the official said.

Negotiations are under way between the Israeli soldiers and Unifil (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) to free the men, he said.

An Israeli army spokesman said the two men were arrested on Friday morning when they "crossed the border."

Israeli forces have informed Unifil that "they have in custody two Lebanese civilians that appear to be from the area of Blida," Unifil spokeswoman Yasmina Bouziane told AFP.

"Unifil is in contact with all parties urging them to exercise restraint while the circumstances of the incident are assertained," she said, without commenting on where the Lebanese official said the capture took place.

In July, a Lebanese shepherd was captured by Israeli soldiers before being handed over to Unifil after a few hours.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Armoured cars and guns... part 3


Now the Russians are jumping into the Lebanese arms fest. According the LA Times:

Russia will give Lebanon 10 Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jets as a donation and commit to supply the teetering Arab democracy abutting Israel's northern border with more war machines, an official told reporters today, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

"As a trend toward stabilization of the situation has become visible, Lebanon has decided to intensify military-technological cooperation" with Russia, said Mikhail Dmitriyev, the director of Russia's Federal Service for Military Technological Cooperation.

Dmitriyev also said Russia could soon provide "ground equipment," such as tanks and artillery, to Lebanon.

"We consider the Lebanese army as a key element of political stability within this country and are ready to provide it with arms," he said.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Armoured cars and guns... part 2

No sooner had the US offered to send more arms... that Iran will do the same, but with a 5 year security pact thrown in for good measure.

The irony was not lost on the Jerusalem Post: "By supplying the Lebanese army with weapons, Iran will thus be responsible for arming Lebanon's two major armed forces: the national army, and Hizbullah".

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Non-toxic assets


The AFP news agency reports:

Lebanon's banking sector is weathering the global financial crisis and profits are expected to increase by 10 percent this year, the Central Bank governor said, in a reflection of the country's ability to rebound from a legacy of adversity.

Riad Salameh attributed the growth in the banking sector, which comes at a time when a liquidity crisis has gutted some of the world's top banking giants, to strict regulations imposed by the Central Bank, including a cash reserve requirement of 15 percent.

The strength of the country's banks is largely a reflection of the country's resilience as it has repeatedly looked to rebuild after years of conflict and instability turned broad swaths of Beirut into a gutted battleground with different areas controlled by competing militias and armies.

"There are no toxic assets in our banking sector and that has created a comfort to the markets and to depositors," he said.

Salameh said private banks' assets currently top $100 billion, or nearly four times the country's gross domestic product. Foreign currency and other assets held by the Central Bank have risen steadily to nearly $20 billion.

Most of the country's banks have reported an increase in deposits and profits in the first nine months the year, he said.
Bank Audi, Lebanon's largest in assets and deposits, announced last month that its net profits for the first nine months of 2008 increased by 28.7 percent, to $180.6 million, compared to the same period a year ago.

****

Picture: Hussein Malla/Associated Press. An employee at the Central Bank of Lebanon stacks bricks of Lira... there is lots of cash going through the system, but how much of it stops in the country?

Armoured cars and tanks and guns...


"The United States is planning to boost its military support to Lebanon’s army with high-tech tanks," writes Raed Rafei in the LA Times:

The Lebanese daily An-Nahar reported last Friday that the United States was going to provide Lebanon with dozens of M60 battle tanks to be shipped in batches starting early 2009.

The assault tanks in question are all-purpose vehicles with advanced firepower and mobility at night and under conditions of limited visibility.

[The deal] coincides with the visit of Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence James Robert Clapper.

He is responsible for overseeing and providing policy and budgetary guidance to defense intelligence agencies.

In past years, the US has significantly boosted its military aid to Lebanon, providing the army with ammunition, communication devices and Humvees. But Lebanese military experts say that this kind of military assistance is not enough to lift the capacity of an army with ailing equipment.

Israeli military officials reportedly frowned upon the alleged offer.

"There is a possibility these tanks will fall into Hezbollah's hands," one official told the Jerusalem Post. "At the moment, Hezbollah does not yet have heavy armor in its arsenal."

But some military officials toned down the impact of these weapons.

"Hezbollah's strength is that it is a guerrilla force that does not operate in a conventional manner," another official told the Israeli daily. "Tanks are easy targets from the air and from the ground."

Meanwhile Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Hizbollah had greatly improved its capabilities since the 2006 war.

"Hezbollah has three times the ability it had before the Second Lebanon War and now has 42,000 missiles in its possession, as opposed to the 14,000 it had before the war," Barak said.

He warned that in view of Hezbollah’s integration into the Lebanese government, Israel would bomb Lebanon’s infrastructure in case of a military confrontation between the two countries.

Hezbollah ruled out this possibility anytime soon.

****

Picture: The M60 battle tank. Designed 1960. Even though it has some new bits added on, it is primarily a siege gun.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

End of the death penalty?

Mona Alami reports on plans for Lebanon to abolish the death penalty.

The Lebanese government will use television to gain maximum attention for its plan to abolish the death penalty, giving one station the first right to question Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar about the details of an abolition bill which will be eventually presented to parliament.

News of plans to abolish the death penalty was first made public on Oct. 10, the World Day against the Death Penalty.

On the same day, Najjar informed the cabinet of the details. A brief official press statement said then that the proposal was to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment with hard labour.

Abolishing the death penalty was in line with Lebanon's religious and humanitarian values, as well as its legal culture, Najjar said at the time.

"Preventive measures are more effective than the death penalty in reducing crime," he said.

The abolition bill comes after years of campaigning by anti-death penalty activists.

"I am confident that it is only a matter of time before the law is passed," Walid Sleybi, head of the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights, told IPS.

"Society should not be allowed to sit back and look at the killing of people, even if they are found guilty of a crime. A crime should never be punished by another crime.

"Recent studies have shown that capital punishment does not contribute to curbing crime levels. On the contrary, people tend to resort to violence when they see the state itself committing the ultimate crime."

Sleybi has long struggled to implement civil rights initiatives in Lebanon, promoting non-violent movements and battling against sectarianism with fellow-activist Ugarit Younan. In 1997, Sleybi published the book The Death Penalty Kills, a critique of capital punishment.

In 2004, the movement against capital punishment, which includes seven MPs such as long-time activist Ghassan Mokhaiber, also proposed a bill to abolish the death penalty.

However, the adverse political situation after the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri and the ensuing paralysis of parliament until recently prevented it ever being put to a vote.

"We have new hope now that parliament is reconvening on a regular basis," Sleybi said.

He added that executions in Lebanon had often been tied to politics.

"Presidents have often used the death penalty as an instrument to reaffirm power and control over the state, especially after the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. This was best illustrated during the term of President Elias Hrawi (1989 to 1998), which witnessed the highest number of executions," Sleybi said.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Global goes local


Meanwhile the global credit crisis is washing ashore in Beirut. According to Reuters news agency:

Lebanese real estate developer Solidere said on Thursday that a fall in its share price was temporary, and maintained its 2008 profit outlook, which should remain at the 2007 level of about $130 million.

"The value of the assets of the company is definitely not reflected in this price," Mounir Douaidy, Solidere's general manager and Chief Financial Officer, told Reuters on the sidelines of a business conference in Beirut.

"I don't see the drops in the price really lasting for a long period."

Douaidy said profits for this year should, as forecast, remain near 2007 levels of $130 million.

Shares in Lebanon's largest developer hit a year-low on Thursday.

The A share fell 7.12 percent to $16.95 on the Beirut bourse and its B share shed 8.44 percent to end at $16.80. The share price hit $40 in July.

Picture: Samer Mohdad, Solidaire , Beirut City Center, Lebanon, 1997/2008, Silver print on original mount.

Be regional, demand the impossible

Sami Moubayed notes the warming of relations between Syria and the west led by France and Britain:

The fact that Syria was willing to enter into indirect talks with Israel - under the auspices of a world-recognized honest broker like Turkey - was proof that the Syrians were not as bad as the world had thought since 2003.

The turning point came when French President Nicolas Sarkozy began engaging both Damascus and Hezbollah, to find constructive solutions to the presidential crisis in Lebanon, in 2007.

When the Doha agreement - which had Syria's fingerprints all over it - was hammered out in May, Sarkozy invited Assad to Paris in July. In September, he went to Damascus - signaling a clear break from the policies of his predecessor Jacques Chirac - and met with Assad to discuss the indirect talks between Syria and Israel, via Turkish mediation.

Based on the above, Miliband arrived in Damascus on November 17 for talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem and Assad. His visit, the first for a senior British official since 2001, signals a new start in Syrian-British relations.

Speaking on his arrival in Damascus on Monday, shortly before visiting the historical Umayyad Mosque in the heart of the Old City, Miliband said that Syria had an "essential role" to play in securing Middle East peace.

***

This regional approach is part of the US rethinking its strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wrote in Socialist Worker:

The US needs Iran's compliance, if not its direct cooperation, to wage its wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Iran shares a long and relatively quiet border with Afghanistan, and it enjoys some influence among sections of the Afghan insurgency.

The regional approach for the US would draw Iran into helping to pull the "moderate Taliban" away from the "hardliners" and into a compromise with the Afghan government.

Much of the chatter in the US media is that Iran and the US share a great deal in common. They both mistrust the Wahhabi Islamist ideology that underpins the Taliban and Al Qaida.

This is neat spin, but it hides another, more important problem. The Wahhabi Islamists have spread fear and death among Shia Muslims, but they cannot overrun Iran or annihilate its economy – only the US can do this. For Iran, the US remains a dangerous enemy camped on its borders.

Iran has emerged out of the US debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq greatly strengthened. So now the new US administration will have to balance its need for Iran's cooperation with unease over its drive to master nuclear technology.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Killers are homesick

Apparently Lebanese who collaborated with Israel are sick of living in the "only democracy in the Middle East":

Bshara Rizk awoke at dawn and headed home, making his way through mine-infested fields and climbing over a barbed wire fence that stood between him and his native Lebanon.

Bloodied but euphoric, he arrived in his hometown of Qlayaa, located just across the border from Israel, where he exclaimed to the local priest: "I'm back."

Rizk, 24, had been living in a northern Israeli town since 2000, when his father's mainly Christian militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), followed its Israeli allies as they withdrew back across the border, after a long and brutal occupation of south Lebanon.

For eight years, Rizk worked at a factory in Israel, but most SLA members never felt welcomed in Israel.

"I never felt complete there and I always wanted to go back to Lebanon," the burly Rizk said following his return home on a Thursday back in June.

His family was amongst hundreds who fled because of their links to the SLA which was trained, financed and armed by Israel during its decades-long occupation of southern Lebanon.

They were seen as traitors.

Islamists in the mist

The Financial Times is attempting to get a grip on the murky world of Islamists, Syria and Lebanon:

Syrian television last week broadcast what it said were the confessions of members of the Lebanon-based Fatah al-Islam faction, admitting responsibility for a bomb attack in Damascus in September that killed 17. The Lebanese authorities yesterday said they had arrested five of the militants on suspicion of involvement "in terrorist acts".

The controversy arises from televised claims by the militants that they had been financed by Lebanon's anti-Syrian Future movement. The movement, led by Saad Hariri, son of murdered former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, is Lebanon's main Sunni political party.

The Future movement has denied the allegation. Ahmad Fatfat, a former cabinet minister, called it "a fabrication by the Syrian security services that can only prove their own involvement with Fatah al-Islam".

Damascus has repeatedly accused Salafi groups of involvement in violence in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has sent about 10,000 troops to the border in what Syria says is an attempt to contain them.

Apart from their apparently limited number, much of what is known about the Salafists is a matter of dispute. The movement is splintered and divides into openly anti- and pro-Syrian factions. Members vary in their ideological affiliation with al-Qaeda and have different financial backers with wildly diverging agendas.

The sharpest division seems to run between groups for whom anti-US and general anti-western motives trump local politics, and those for whom antiSyrian, anti-Shia, antiHizbollah and anti-Iranian sentiments dominate - to the extent that they co-operate with the US-backed mainstream Sunni Future movement.

Phoenicians

According to the AP news agency: Archaeologists say they have unearthed pottery up to 3,000 years old in southern Lebanon that ancient Phoenicians used to bury the remains of the dead after cremation.

Archaeologist Ali Badawi tells The Associated Press that a team of Lebanese and Spanish experts discovered more than 100 earthen jars at an excavation site in the southern port city of Tyre.

The pottery dates to between 700 and 900 B.C., when Phoenician traders flourished on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Badawi said Wednesday that such discoveries offer a rare window into Phoenician history and culture.

Originating from what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians were early seafarers who spread their culture to other countries around the region.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Spies

Breaking news:

Lebanon's Daily Star has a scoop: It seems that the "two men arrested for running an Israeli spy ring in the Bekaa Valley are relatives of a suicide hijacker who piloted a plane in the September 11, 2001, attacks, a security source told The Daily Star on Sunday.

"The army said that the men had been arrested on Friday, but the source said that they were actually captured two weeks ago and the discovery of the arrests by the media prompted the army to announce their capture"

*** ***

Media Line reports:

Lebanese authorities announced over the weekend it had apprehended two Lebanese civilians, who were spying on behalf of Israel's foreign intelligence body, the Mossad.

The two were recently captured in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley and have reportedly confessed they were employed by the Mossad, the Lebanese daily Al-Safir reported.

The ringleader, A.G., was recruited in the 1980s, during his activities with a Palestinian organization in the Beqaa.

A.G. then recruited several other men, including his relative, Y.G., who was the second person captured last week.

The cell gathered information on Lebanese military bases, Syrian intelligence centers in Lebanon and Palestinian institutions in the Beqaa and Hizbullah headquarters, informed sources revealed to A-Safir.

During their investigation it was further revealed that the group also gathered information in security centers in Damascus and in Kafr Sousa, where Hizbullah's operations chief 'Imad Mughniyya was assassinated last February.

In 2006 the LAF's Intelligence Directorate revealed it had captured an Israeli network that had been operating in Lebanon for many years. Its leader, Mahmoud Rafi, admitted that the network was behind the assassination of Hizbullah and Palestinian officials. Rafi further admitted the group planted explosive charges in several locations in Lebanon.

According to Ynet :

The man arrested on suspicion of employing network of agents working with Israeli intelligence to map out sensitive locations in Lebanon, Syria—including Damascus neighborhood in which Hizbullah leader Mugniyah was killed:

Sources said the network has been operating for over 20 years, and was responsible for mapping out the Beqaa Valley, including Syrian military bases and Palestinian sites. Recently, a-Safir reported, the spies have been pursuing Hizbullah operatives and outposts.

The ring was said to have operated in Syria as well, where it is suspected to have mapped out areas in Damascus such as Kfar Sousa, the secure neighborhood in which Hizbullah leader Imad Mugniyah was killed in February by a car bomb.

Investigators are currently attempting to link the espionage ring to Mugniyah's murder, as well as to divine its function in the transfer of information to Israel, the report said.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Anger in Syria

The BBC reports:

Thousands of people have held a peaceful demonstration in Damascus against an alleged US raid on a village that Syria says killed eight people.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Damascus, waving flags and carrying banners reading "No to American terrorism" and "America the sponsor of destruction and wars".

The protesters, including many civil servants and students, also waved pictures of the Syrian president, as they converged on the central Youssef al-Azmi square.

Syria said a US school would close temporarily and warned US citizens to avoid the area.

Five of those killed in the raid on Sunday were from the same family, and the BBC's Paul Wood spoke to the woman who lost her husband and four sons at the scene of the raid.

She was being treated in a Syrian hospital for injuries she said she received during the attack.

"I went outside to get my son and the Americans shot me," she said. "I was screaming in terror."

She said all the men were working on the house that was in the compound where the Americans landed, and denied any link between them and al-Qaeda.

Stability, apparently

A curious piece in The New York Times commends Lebanon's financial sector. Curious because of the great secrecy at a the heart of our banks means we don't actually know what they have in vaults. Of course it could just be that they are awash with billions of dollars looted from Iraq.

For those with time have a look at A Political Economy of Lebanon.

Here's the NYT piece:

This small country, chronically battered by war, turns out to have a banking sector that has so far been a beacon of stability and growth, The New York Times’s Robert F. Worth writes. Its banks are posting record profits, aided by conservative central bank policies, skillful management and money from Lebanese expatriates.

Lebanon’s very instability — its 15-year civil war and frequent political crises — appears to have bred the banking sector’s fiscal prudence, analysts say.

Three years ago the central bank here barred investments in derivatives and other structured financial products, giving banks virtual immunity to the widening financial contagion. The banks here have done little borrowing on international markets. Deposits account for about 83 percent of their assets, making them among the most liquid in the world.

“The banks here are used to turmoil,” Nassib Ghobril, the head of economic research and analysis for Byblos Bank, the country’s third largest, told The Times. “Since the end of the civil war in 1990, there has been no loss of deposits, and there’s great confidence in the sector.”

As of August, the money flowing into deposits grew 16 percent over 2007 — itself a record year. Lebanon had no working government for most of that period, and at times seemed to be on the verge of civil war.

Those inflows appear to be rising further. The central bank released statistics showing that it increased its foreign assets by $572 million in the first two weeks of October, possibly a sign that foreign deposits are growing.

Lebanon has also attracted the hedge fund industry, which has until now focused more on Persian Gulf markets. “We consider the well-capitalized Lebanese banks as safe as the safer banks in the gulf,” Florence Eid, the regional managing director for Passport Capital, a hedge fund based in San Francisco, told The Times.

An added asset is Lebanon’s often wealthy expatriates. About 4 million Lebanese live in the country, but an estimated 12 million live abroad, and many send money home and invest in real estate. The total of such remittances is expected to top last year’s, $5.5 billion, one of the world’s highest per capita rates.

Partly for that reason, banks here have grown so large that they dwarf the national economy. Lebanese bank assets are about $100 billion, in a country with a $25 billion gross domestic product, said Marwan Barakat, in charge of research at Bank Audi, the country’s largest lender.

This growth has allowed the banks to expand internationally. Bank Audi, for example, now has branches in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Qatar and Sudan.

The continued growth here is probably also related to some modest good news in politics. In May, after 18 months of deadlock, Lebanon’s warring factions agreed to a compromise. So far, the deal seems to be holding. But the banks are also doing their part, holding much of Lebanon’s $45.4 billion public debt.

“In this crisis, governments in the US, Europe and elsewhere have been stepping in to rescue their banking sectors,” Mr. Ghobril told The Times. “Whereas in Lebanon the sector is so large it has been supporting the state for years.”

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Why attack Syria?

The US military attack on the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal I believe exposes growing divisions among the “coalition of the willing” behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The timing and target of the raid raise many questions.

The Syrian regime, which is dominated by the Alawite branch of Islam, has been reeling recently after a series of bomb attacks widely blamed on Al Qaida and other Sunni Islamist groups.

If Abu Ghadiyah, the main US target, was an Al Qaida leader, as the US claims, then the Syrian regime would have had no scruples in arresting him. The US intelligence services acknowledge that for several years Syria has cracked down on the so called “foreign fighters” passing through its territory into Iraq.

Some commentators say that Syria’s recent moves to ease tensions in the region are the main motivation for the US attack. The Syrian regime has been involved in peace talks with Israel and has formally recognised Lebanese independence.

The US is also worried that a resurgent Russia is preparing to rebuild its ties with Syria. Last month Russia reopened a Syrian port used as a Mediterranean base for warships. The port was closed down following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Embarassingly for the British government, the US raid came as foreign secretary David Miliband was due to hold a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart. Miliband “withdrew” from the conference as news of the attack came through.

The fact that the US did not warn its ally of the raid has left the British foreign secretary deeply compromised.


The result, writes Sami Moubayed is that:

"One theory says that the entire ordeal was part of the internal US politics in the final lap of the presidential campaign, aimed at boosting the chances of Republican Senator John McCain by giving him more reason to pursue Bush's "war on terror" - this time with Syria.

"Had the Americans struck at a terrorist stronghold, the Bush team would have been the first to brag about it on all available media. The fact that the traditional US chorus remained silent seems proof that the Americans were not too proud of what they did, and that perhaps human error had come into play."

Another possibility is that this raid could be part of a recognition that, as the US withdraws from the western part of Iraq, the resistance will once again take over.

Whatever the truth, by attacking a Syrian border town the US is sending a message that it is prepared to spread the “war on terror” over borders.

This is a dangerous turn of events.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Saudi Games

The Saudi regime is using its cash in attempt to build a rival to Hizbollah, writes Sami Moubayed in Asia Times:

The Saudis are reportedly funding a rival wing of Hezbollah itself, modeled around Sheikh Subhi Tufayli, one of the party's original founders who has been sitting in the dark since the 1990s.

Tufayli started out as a firm supporter of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, having studied Islam in Najaf (Iraq) during Khomeini's long exile in the holy Iraqi city, before the Islamic revolution of 1979. He returned to Lebanon and helped co-found Hezbollah - with Iranian support - during the Israeli invasion of 1982.

Under Tufayli's leadership, Hezbollah managed to drive Amal from Beirut during the height of the Lebanese civil war in the late 1980s. Under his command rose the young Nasrallah in 1989, leading a commando force against Amal in Iqlim al-Tuffah, and becoming a member of the central command of Hezbollah at the young age of 29.

A hardliner, Tufayli once said that his supporters did not dream of eradicating Israel in the near future, but plans to lead a battle that will last "for centuries". More recently, he has distanced himself from Iran for its firm support for Nasrallah, a man whom he respects but envies tremendously. He can't challenge him, beat him, or replace him as head of Hezbollah or the Lebanese Shi'ite community.

In 2000, when Nasrallah liberated south Lebanon against Israel, Tufayli was believed to be politically finished, since Hezbollah was at the apex of its career and no Shi'ite with a right mind could challenge the charisma or popularity of Nasrallah.

But on several occasions he came out and spoke against Nasrallah, objecting to the latter's alliance with Iran and claiming that he broke with Hezbollah because of the overt Iranian agenda of its secretary general. Earlier, in his final act of defiance, Tufayli clashed with the Lebanese state when his followers tried to take over a party-run religious school in Baalbak.

The Lebanese government of Siniora has tried in vain to get rid of Hezbollah, but was unable to do so due to the party's power base and the repeated victories it scored against Israel since 2000. The UN could not disarm Hezbollah, nor could the United States, or Israel in its failed 2006 war on Lebanon.

Now, all parties are trying to break Nasrallah's kingdom from within, through splinter Shi'ite groups loyal to people like Tufayli and through the money of dissident Syrians. Any person who has seen how popular Nasrallah was in Lebanon in 2000 or 2006 realizes how foolish it would be to try and challenge him by resurrecting figures like Subhi Tufayli.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Two nations, one people

The carve up of Bilad al-Sham is now formalised in the "mutual recognition" of Lebanon and Syria.

According to the BBC, "A signing ceremony has been held in Damascus establishing diplomatic relations for the first time between Syria and Lebanon. A joint statement said Syria and Lebanon would respect each other's sovereignty and independence."

This division was put in place by the French Mandate in the early 1920s and rejected by the overwhelming majority of people both sides of the border.

But after democracy was so brutaly crushed in Syria the idea of beng ruled by the cabal of Baathists in Damascus killed any chance of unity.

The death knell, I guess, was the invasion by Syrian troops in 1976 which crush the secular democratic revolution in Lebanon. It was downhill from there.

On a personal note: my grandma, who has just turned 100, still keeps her education certificate from the "Syrian Girls College" hidden in her suitcase. It always jarred when members of my family put down "Syrians", and they usually got angry when I pointed out that technically both grandfather and grandmother were born in Syrian (before 1922). There's even a boat ticket to New York (from the 1910s) were our address is given as Berbara, Syria.

Hopefully the two countries will become one again... but only under a democratic socialist system.

I will wait patiently.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Interview with Tony Cliff—1996

Saudi backed terror?

Sami Moubayed writes in Asia Times:

While Saudi Arabia's official policy remained critical of Syria, a certain branch in the Saudi royal family still harbored ambitions to topple the Syrian government altogether and replace it with pro-Saudi opposition figures like former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam.

Tension was further elevated when terror struck in the heart of Damascus on September 27. A suicide bomber loaded with 200 kilograms of explosives killed 17 Syrians and injured between 15 to 40 civilians. Saudi Arabia was the only country in the Arab world that refused to condemn the attack, although it was harshly criticized by France, Russia and even the US.

Although it became clear to everybody - France being first on the list - that the Saudis were not getting the upper hand in Beirut politics, Lebanon remained closely allied to Riyadh, due to the personal and financial bond between Saad Hariri, the parliamentary majority leader, and the House of Saud.

One of the first to realize that the Syrians are overpowering the Saudis in Lebanon was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a strongman of the March 14 Coalition. He realized that the US-imposed isolation of Syria has crumbled, after Bashar Al Assad's visit to Paris in July 2008.

More recently, what worried both the Saudis and Jumblatt was the semi-rapprochement that started developing between Syria and the US. Last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at her request, and discussed a variety of issues related to the Middle East.

The Syrians believe, although they have not said it bluntly, that the Saudis are furious at Syria's repeated diplomatic successes. Eager for vengeance, they are now financing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon to strike at both Hezbollah and Syria and have not yet digested the outcomes of May 2008.

Assad said that the sectarian violence taking place in northern Lebanon was dangerous to Syria. Many believe that the suicide bomber who detonated a bomb in Damascus was a product of a fanatical group trained and created in Lebanon. That might explain why the Syrians amassed thousands of troops on their border with Lebanon, to prevent the influx of jihadi fighters to Syria.

If Saudi Arabia was not guilty of the September 27 attack, it certainly looked and acted guilty by refusing to say anything about it.

Meanwhile, the Saudis, frantic to save their positions in Lebanon, had already started pumping money to build a Sunni armed movement to confront Hezbollah if matters escalated once again.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

"Old election law"

The BBC reports:

The Lebanese parliament has approved a new election law as part of a reconciliation process begun in May.

The new law, which alters the boundaries of voting districts, will be used as the basis for parliamentary elections next year.

It is an amended version of a 1960 law under which voting is held in smaller districts known as cazas.

The new law also calls for Lebanese elections to be held on one day, rather than over several days.

Several proposed reforms were rejected, including a lowering of the voting age to 18 from 21, quotas for women in parliament, and allowing Lebanese citizens living abroad to vote.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Forest fires

The UN news agency warns:

Devastating fires caused by climate change are threatening forests in Lebanon, in turn accelerating the pace of global warming.

"We are witnessing a rise in temperature which leads to the dryness of forest soil and pushes it towards desertification," Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, director-general of the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation (AFDC), a local NGO, told IRIN from Beirut

The country is witnessing forest fires earlier than usual. "We noticed that fires are starting in April, three months earlier than the usual season, which commences in June or July.

With the ongoing increase in temperature, the land is losing much of its humidity and trees are becoming drier. This causes severe fires that are difficult to suppress," she added.

Fakhreddine said on average, about 1,500 hectares of woodland were affected by fires annually, but in 2007 more than 4,000 hectares of forests were ravaged in the worst fires to hit Lebanon for decades. "In one day we lost three times what we planted in 17 years."

According to AFDC, forests covered 35 percent of the country in 1965 - against 13 percent in 2007. "If we witness fires like the ones that erupted last year, Lebanon will lose its forests completely in 15 to 20 years," Fakhreddine warned.

Public meeting

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Resistance vs resistance

According to Naharnet:

Lebanese Army units contained a quarrel between partisans of the Lebanese Communist Party and AMAL movement in the southern village of Kfar Rumman overnight.

The quarrel started after AMAL partisans tried to knock down a monument erected by the LCP to commemorate "martyrs" of the Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF), the leftist alliance that fought invading Israeli troops in the 1980s.

Kfar Rumman was a main base for LNRF resistance fighters before Hizbullah established control over south Lebanon in the early 1990s.

Several LNRF fighters were killed in combat against Israeli troops and several others were liquidated in serial assassinations that targeted leftist activists in Beirut and south Lebanon in the late 1980s.

The bodies of at least nine LNRF fighters remain in Israel and have not been included in the recent swap between Hizbullah and the Jewish state.

Beirut synagogue


Bloomberg posts an interesting account of attempts to rebuild the synagogue in Beirut:

In 1983, Isaac Arazi and his wife were caught in sectarian fighting during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. A Shiite Muslim militiaman helped the couple escape.

Arazi, a leader of Lebanon's tiny Jewish community, sees the incident as a lesson in the Arab country's tradition of tolerance. Now he is trying to make use of that tradition, along with the global diaspora of Lebanese Jews, in a drive to rebuild Beirut's only synagogue, damaged during the war.

"Those who don't have a past don't have a future,'' Arazi said to explain his push to rebuild the synagogue.

Beirut's Maghen Abraham Synagogue opened in 1926 in Wadi Abou Jmil, the city's Jewish quarter, located on the edge of west Beirut near the Grand Serai palace, where the government meets, and within walking distance of parliament.

Lebanon then was something of a haven for Jews, some of whom were the descendants of those who had fled the Spanish inquisition; it later served a similar role for refugees from Nazi Germany.

With "no history of anti-Jewish tensions,'' it was the only Arab country whose Jewish population rose after Israel's creation in 1948, according to Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of The Jews of Lebanon.

By the mid-1960s, there were as many as 22,000 Lebanese Jews, said Arazi, 65. In addition to heading the Jewish Community Council he owns a food-machinery business with 1,000 customers.

"Christians, Muslims and Jews were all living together when I was growing up,'' said Liza Srour, 57. "Whenever there was a war with Israel, or tension, the government used to provide protection for us.''

That changed with the nation's 1975-1990 civil war, as Jews fled the violence triggered by rivalries among the nation's Christian, Muslim and Druze factions and emigrated to Europe, North and South America.

Now, Arazi said, only 100 Jews live permanently in the country, while another 1,900 go back and forth or have intermarried into other religions. Srour is the only Jew still residing in Wadi Abou Jmil.

In 1982, according to an Associated Press report at the time, Israeli shells tore through roof of Maghen Abraham as the Jewish state invaded southern Lebanon in an effort to crush Palestinian guerrillas. The synagogue has been closed ever since, its brittle entrance gate chained and padlocked. Plaster and rubble are scattered on the floor.

Walking among the weeds overgrowing the cemetery's tombstones, Arazi said: "I remember my father when I come here.''

Image is an artist impression of what the restored building will look like.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Palestinian vs Palestinian

Reuters reports:

Three Palestinians were killed in fighting between rival factions at a refugee camp in south Lebanon on Monday, security sources said.

The fighting began when gunmen shot dead a member of the Islamist Jund al-Sham militant group in Ain al-Hilweh camp, 40 km (25 miles) south of the capital Beirut.

The killing triggered fierce exchanges of gunfire and grenades between the militants and Fatah gunmen in which a second Jund al-Sham member was killed.

Few hours after the fighting stopped, the father of a senior Fatah official was shot dead by unknown attackers.

Shia vs Sunni

China's Xinhua news agency reports:

Fierce clashes erupted in the town of Taalabaya in Lebanon's Bekaa valley on Tuesday when gunmen opened fire from overlooking hills on a funeral procession for a Sunni victim who was shot dead earlier, local As-Safir daily reported Wednesday.

The victim Abdallah al-Adawi was a member of Future movement headed by MP Saad Hariri.

The Tuesday clashes blocked traffic along the highway connecting the pre-dominantly Shiite village of Taalabaya and Sunni village of Saadnayel, said the report, giving no more details about the clashes.

In June, more than three people died in clashes between Shiite supporter of Hezbollah and Sunni supporters of Future Movement in Taalabya and the neighboring village of Saadnayel.

Christian vs Christian

The BBC reports on an armed tiff between the clan militia loyal to the Franjiehs and the Lebenese Forces. This blood fued dates from the early days of the civil war.

A gunfight between rival Christian political groups in northern Lebanon has left two people dead and three wounded, security officials say.

The clash between the anti-Syrian Lebanese Forces group and the pro-Syrian Marada group was triggered by a disagreement over hanging banners.

On Tuesday, leaders of 14 of Lebanon's rival factions started talks aimed at solving deep divisions in the country.
The army has now set up checkpoints around Bsarma where the clash occurred.

One supporter from each of the Lebanese Forces (LF) group and Marada were killed, reports say, while the injured were a policeman and two LF members.

Marada, led by the pro-Syrian leader Suleiman Franjieh, is allied to the Shia-led Hezbollah. LF is led by former rightwing warlord Samir Geagea, who belongs to the Western-backed alliance led by Sunni politician Saad Hariri.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Jaw jaw on war war

The Financial Times notes:

The assassination of a pro-Syrian politician has heightened tension in Lebanon, less than a week before talks begin aimed at reconciling deep divisions between the country's factions.

Saleh Aridi, a senior member of the Lebanese Democratic party, which is allied to the militant Shia group Hizbollah, was killed on Wednesday night by a bomb as he started his car at his house in the mountains east of Beirut, the capital.

Aridi was a close adviser of Talal Arsalan, a Druze leader who is a minister in the new unity government and who recently helped bridge differences among the Muslim sect that comprises about 10 per cent of Lebanon's population.

The attack has significant implications for Lebanon's political stability, coming only a day after [the president] Michel Suleiman announced the resumption on September 16 of a "national dialogue" aimed at forming a defence strategy and defining the roles of the army and militias such as Hizbollah.

But the government has been playing down expectations of immediate progress.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Northern deal

Agence France-Presse reports that:

Sunni and Shia rivals in northern Lebanon are heading towards reconciliation, in a move to curb sectarian fighting, sources close to both sides said on Monday.

High-ranking leaders of both factions who met on Sunday are scheduled to sign later on Monday a memorandum titled "The Tripoli Document", which offers, in addition to safeguarding civil peace, to hand over the city's security to the Lebanese army.

The document also calls for removing all armed presence in north Lebanon, allowing displaced people to return to their homes according to a set timetable and paying compensation for residents whose houses have been damaged during the fighting.

Tripoli has been the scene of a series of deadly clashes since May between Sunnis and rivals from the Alawite community who support Lebanon's Shia movement Hezbollah, in which 23 people were killed.

The initiative, launched by Sunni ruling-majority leader Saad Hariri, also the head of the Future Current movement, could pave the way for further reconciliations in light of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's announcement that he was open for dialogue with Hariri.

"We are open to dialogue with the Future Current movement and all Sunnis, and if a meeting with MP Saad Hariri is not possible for security reasons, nothing prevents us holding meetings between the parties' officials," Nasrallah said during a Ramadan dinner on Sunday.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Pay up


A United Nations report reiterated a call for Israel to compensate Lebanon for damage from the 2006 war.

A report published last week by the office of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, called "Oil Slick on Lebanese Shores," commended Lebanon for its cleanup efforts along the Mediterranean coastline and urged Israel to help pay for them.

"The secretary-general wishes to urge the government of Israel to take the necessary actions towards assuming responsibility for prompt and adequate compensation to the government of Lebanon,” the report says, according to U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq.

The report cites World Bank data that estimated the environmental toll from the 2006 war at a minimum of $526.9 million and a maximum of $931.1 million.

This is not the first time the secretariat has called on Israel to help pay for the war’s environmental costs.

The latest report will be made available to the UN General Assembly when it convenes in New York later this month.

Picture by Guy Smallman is of oil polution at Ramlat al-Bayda, Beirut.

Public meeting

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Overflights

The AFP news agency reports:

Six Israeli jets flew over south Lebanon and broke the sound barrier twice over the port city of Tyre on Wednesday, a security official said.

"Six Israeli warplanes flew all over southern Lebanon and the city of Tyre at low altitude for more than an hour and broke the sound barrier twice over Tyre," the official told AFP.

The overflight prompted scared shoppers to flee Tyre's main market, an AFP correspondent said.

Economic bounce?

Mona Alami writes a strangely optimistic piece on the economy in Asia Times:

Lebanon, whose status as "Switzerland of the Middle East' for its advanced banking sector has long been lost amid civil and cross-border war, may be going some way to regaining its standing.

Since 2005, Lebanon's economy has struggled to keep going under the threat of further civil strife, renewing fears of a return to the 15-year civil war that started in 1975.

"The budget deficit is hovering between US$3 billion to $4 billion, the public debt at about $45 billion, with a 2009 forecast of $49 billion. That is approximately twice our GDP [gross domestic product], making it the highest debt-to-GDP rate in the world," says Louis Hobeika, professor of economics at the American University of Beirut.

This year, levels show moderate growth. "The government is forecasting a 5% GDP growth, although in my opinion, only half can be realistically expected," says Hobeika. Ghobril estimates growth at a minimum of 4% - provided the political situation remains stable.

Challenges facing the new government, formed in the wake of the election of President Michel Suleiman three months ago, include reducing public debt through reforms such as the privatization of the telecom sector, electric plants, the Casino du Liban and the national carrier Middle East Airlines, as well as cutting expenditures.

"Privatizing these industries would generate as much as $10 billion in revenues for the government, and bring down debt levels from $45 billion to $35 billion," says Hobeika. The AUB economist also emphasizes that since Lebanon has been without a budget for the past four years, this year it should be submitted within the legal timeline.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Roumieh

Dr. Omar Nashabe, author of If Roumieh Prison Speaks Out, is leading an open dialogue on Behind Bars: What's going on in Roumieh?

On the agenda are social and humanitarian situation of the Roumieh prison; what is the prison; who are the prisoners; how they are treated; and what is the impact of this prison on its inmates.

Club 43, Gemmayzé (facing Doculand)
Monday 1 September at 8:30pm

For more information:
01 354466 / 03 562478
info@na-am.org

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Power surge

Jordan said on Wednesday it has offered to sell power-starved Lebanon between 50 and 70 megawatts of electricity a day until the end of 2009 to help the country meet a drastic shortfall, reports the AFP news agency.

Jordan's energy minister Khaldun Qteishat told his Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese counterparts in Amman that the kingdom was ready to provide Lebanon with electricity "at special prices," the state-run Petra news agency reported.

"We are studying the Jordanian offer," Petra quoted Lebanese Energy Minister Alan Taburian as saying, adding that his country needs 2,200 megawatts of electricity to meet daily demand, but currently generates only 1,400 megawatts.

"Around 25 percent of Lebanon's gross domestic product (GDP) goes on energy," Taburian said. Earlier this month he said Egypt would supply his country with 200 megawatts daily.

Electricity is a constant concern for the Beirut government, which allocates the third largest slice of its budget, after debt servicing and salaries, to power supply.

The country suffers daily power cuts, including in the capital where many businesses and apartment blocks use generators to tide them over during lengthy blackouts.

The situation has been made worse by high fuel costs.

Jordan already supplies the Jericho region of the Israeli-occupied West Bank with 20 megawatts of electricity per day.

Ahmed Sayyed's art

Mme Sursock walking her dog

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Meeting on racism

Suicides

Foreign maids are dying each week in Lebanon often by committing suicide to escape bad treatment by their employers, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday, reports the AFP news agency.

"Domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week," said Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at HRW, in the second damning report since April on the working conditions of foreign workers in Lebanon.

"These suicides are linked to the isolation and the difficult working conditions these workers face in Lebanon," including financial pressure due to earning below minimum wages, Houry said in the report.

According to HRW around 200,000 domestic laborers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Philippines and Ethiopia, are not protected by Lebanese labor laws.

Most of those who take their own lives or "risk their lives trying to escape" from the high-rise apartment buildings where they are employed, are women.

HRW said that at least 24 housemaids have died since January 2007 after falling from multi-storey buildings. "Many domestic workers are literally being driven to jump from balconies to escape their forced confinement," Houry said.

Interviews conducted by HRW with embassy officials and friends of domestic workers who committed suicide "suggest that forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer abuse and financial pressures are key factors pushing these women to kill themselves or risk their lives."

Thursday, 7 August 2008

More guns or disengagement?

General David Petraeus made an unannounced visit to Lebanon yesterday to discuss American support for the country's national army, writes the New York Sun:

"The presence in Beirut of General Petraeus, confirmed recently as head of US Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East, is an indication of the growing strategic prominence of Lebanon in the complex regional map.

"The general's discussions about increased military aid to the government of Prime Minister Siniora, however, come amid growing Israeli alarm at that government's deference to Hezbollah."

****

The visit was to discuss "key developments in the region", according to the Lebanese presidential office. This is diplo-babble for "something is going on, and we're not telling you".

The International Herald Tribune notes only that "Petraeus, who was accompanied by a US military delegation, also held a meeting at the Defence Ministry with acting army commander Major General Shawki al-Masri. The general later met with Saniora for more than an hour."

***

By process of elimination Sursock has narrowed down the content of the talks:
1) Petraeus tells Siniora government to attack Hizbollah.
2) He tells him not to attack Hizbollah.
3) He tells Siniora the US still wants military bases in the north.
4) He tells him the US no longer needs military bases in the north.
5) He tells Siniora that Syria is still the enemy.
6) He tells him that Syria not the enemy... at least for now.
7) He enjoys hummus and wants Mrs Siniora's recipe, or it's hashish time in the Bekaa and he wants to increase supplies to his troops in Iraq.
8) Israel are gong to surrender at there will be a golden future for the region.
9) He is visiting Lebanon because US policy is in disarray and he has to put up a pretence that the Americans are still key players in the region.
10) None of the above, and its not our business to know.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Loopholes

Sami Moubayed writes in Asia Times on Syria and the "US loopholes":

The Israelis are eager to end the conflict, since they believe peace with the Syrians also means peace with Lebanon, and a curbing of the power of Hamas.

Alon Ben Meir, a professor of international relations at New York University, wrote, "Israel will have to return the Golan Heights [to Syria] whether it is now or in five, 10 or even 100 years.

"The Golan will have to be returned if Israel wants to live in peace. Why not negotiate now and appreciably reduce Israel's security concerns with its two northern neighbors and free itself to focus on the threat of Iran?"

Even if Olmert leaves office in September as he has promised, under charges of corruption, his successors are hurrying to uphold the Syrian track, showing just how strongly the mood has changed in Israel.

Prime minister-hopeful Shaul Mofaz (current deputy premier), said, "My opinion and my goal will be to continue to speak to the Syrians without preconditions. The way is, peace for peace."

Salafi fury

The Jamestown Foundation provides an important update on the fury of Salafis in Lebanon. The Salafis received a double blow over the past two years; the crushing of Fatah al-Islam by the Lebanese army; and the expultion of Salafi fighters from west Beirut by Hizbollah during the "May events".

Below is an edited version of a report posted by one of its experts, Abdul Hameed Bakier:

A Lebanese jihadi posted a letter addressed to Osama Bin Laden [that] details the sectarian politics of Lebanon, highlights Hezbollah’s continuing attempts to take over Lebanon and describes the misfortune of the Salafi-Jihadi Fatah al-Islam organization.

The core of Omar al-Bayruti’s message revolves around Shiites and their alleged attempts to take control of Lebanon with the help of Iran and Syria to form a “Shiite Crescent” through the Arab Middle East.

Al-Bayruti adds that Shiite militias have, for the second time in the last quarter century, invaded and vandalized Beirut, this time with the collaboration of “Sunni agents” in an attempt to hide the “heinous face” of Shiite occupation.

According to al-Bayruti, the atmosphere is ripe for al-Qaeda to get involved in Lebanese politics; “It’s time to work on inheriting al-Hariri’s [political] stream in Lebanon without a rude entrance or through Iranian and Syrian intelligence networks as did Fatah al-Islam last year in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. Such a wrong approach inflicted a double loss on the Lebanese Sunnis.”

Fatah al-Islam, explains al-Bayruti, was used as a scapegoat, with all the dirty work and political assassinations committed by others pinned on them. By assassinating the late prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the main foe of Syria and the Shiites, and accusing the mujahideen of responsibility, Hezbollah eliminated the Sunni initiative in Lebanon.

By starting a war with Israel, Hezbollah escaped the guilt of having to use heavy weaponry to subdue internal political rivals, since the war led to Hezbollah’s political rivals temporarily forgetting their conflict with Hezbollah.

Al-Bayruti explains the political situation in Lebanon and Shiite attempts to control the Sunni population by recruiting Sunni agents to facilitate a Syrian and Iranian agenda in Lebanon through groups such as the Islamic Scholar’s Assembly.

As a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Iran hosted a conference for Lebanese Muslim scholars from both the Sunni and Shiite sects in Tehran. The outcome of the conference was the establishment of an assembly comprised of Sunni and Shiite scholars with the blessing of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Finally, al-Bayruti says the objective of his message is to caution Sunnis about Hezbollah’s ideological gains in Lebanon, urging the mujahideen not to abandon Lebanon and to apply a “practical strategy”.

His message received negative comments from the forum in regards to his notion that al-Hariri and his Future Movement represent Sunnis. Others rejected the assumption that Hariri was assassinated by Hezbollah, though they all agreed to the need for a Salafi-Jihadi amir in Lebanon.

Initiatives to end the intensive ideological conflict between Sunnis and Shiites have failed so far to mend fences between the two sects. The complicated sectarian nature of Lebanese political life, however, means that it will not be easy for al-Qaeda to find enough supporters and adherents to challenge the strength of Hezbollah’s well-organized partisans.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Convertion rates

Asia Times notes that:

Aoun claims the support of 70% of Lebanon's Christians, and Hezbollah is seeking to bolster the FPM in advance of 2009 elections, in the hope that Aoun can bring a majority of Christian votes with him, and thereby secure a pro-Hezbollah majority.

Alain Aoun, the FPM's political affairs officer, told Asia Times Online that "Westerners misunderstand our MOU [understanding] with Hezbollah.

The Shi'ites are a pillar of Lebanon, and they have chosen Hezbollah as their main representative. And we are working with Hezbollah on the basis that the reasons for Hezbollah bearing arms must be addressed, as part of a national dialogue, before any progress can be made on this issue."

Christian politicians across the divide have a problem: how to halt the seemingly inevitable drift to Hezbollah, and the possible material carrots this may bring to Christians who lost their homes or saw family members imprisoned by Syria during the 1975-1990 civil war.

With Hezbollah help, from Tehran via Damascus, the FPM may be able deliver on these, a potential game-breaker come election time, scuttling the UN investigation into Rafik Hariri's death, and sending the Cedar Revolution full-circle.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Fighting in north

The AFP news agency reports on continuing calshes in north Lebanon:

Hundreds of people were still homeless on Sunday after the latest bout of deadly sectarian fighting in the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

Army reinforcements were sent to Tripoli on Saturday after militants from the rival Sunni Muslim and Alawite (Shiite) communities agreed to halt clashes that erupted early Friday, killing nine people and wounding dozens more.

Fighters battled with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons causing massive damage to property and sending hundreds of people fleeing for cover from the neighbouring districts of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen.

A source from the Future Movement of Sunni leader Saad Hariri said almost 2,200 families fled their homes in mainly Sunni district of Bab al-Tebbaneh and the mostly Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen.

Tripoli municipality chief Mohammed Rashid Jamali told AFP that 1,500 people were holed up in eight schools across the city waiting to return home.

Tensions between the two communities date back to Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Funerals

Al-Jazeera reports:

A Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon's capital, is hosting a mass funeral to mourn the remains of 21 fighters from various Lebanese and Palestinian groups.

The bodies arrived on Monday in Shatila, a southern district of Beirut.

Rula Amin, Al Jazeera's correspondent reporting from Shatila, said: "Some of the bodies that are being buried are of people that had been killed from over 20 years ago, and for many families, wounds have been reopened."

In Damascus, the Syrian capital, 90 other bodies will be delivered to families living in refugee camps there.

The bodies are of fighters from a number of nationalities, including Kuwaitis, Moroccans, Tunisians and Libyans who had joined the ranks of Palestinian and Lebanese national movements in the 1970s.

National humiliation

Israeli commentator Ron Ben-Yishai says Israel is "traumatized by mistakes" over the prisoner exchange:

The ridiculous triangular interaction between the Israeli government, the Regev and Goldwasser families and the media, in the final days before the prisoner exchange deal, maximized the effect of Israel's humiliation by Hizbullah's hand to that of a "mass physiological assault."

The anguish and helplessness felt in the public were more detrimental to Israeli national resilience than any of the rockets launch at the country's north during the Second Lebanon War.

No moral justification or self glorification can wipe away the acute blow dealt to Israelis' sense of self respect and security, or the equally destructive blow dealt to our soldiers' sense of safety.

That Lebanese cadaver monger was able to get a massive strategic return on his investment, upgrading his status in the Lebanese, Muslim and pan-Arab arenas.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Yameni fighter

The remains of a Yemeni volunteer killed in opperations agaisnt Israel in the 1970s are being repatriated, according to News Yemen:

It is said that some Yemenis joined operations against Israeli forces in Palestine and south Lebanon during the seventies.

Yemeni bodies were handed over to Hizbullah among other 199 bodies of Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab nationals.

The Yemeni opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties, congratulated Hizbullah on prisoners swap with Israel.

The opposition said the successful prisoners exchange and getting back the hero Samir Kuntar and his colleagues and bodies of 199 Arab martyrs is a great victory for all Arab and an extension for Lebanese resistance’s victory in 2006 war with Israel.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Morning after

Veteran Lebanon reporter Nicholas Blanford sheds some light on potential trouble for Hizbollah on the morning after the night before:

Hezbollah's leaders have long championed intra-Muslim unity, believing that the schism between Shiites and Sunnis only benefits the enemies of Islam.

Yet, since May, Hezbollah has been slow to reconcile with moderate Sunni leaders, who were left looking weak and helpless before the Shiite party's military machine.

Angry, humiliated, and frightened by the May clashes, Sunnis are clamoring for weapons and training, a step that the moderate Sunni leadership is unwilling or unable to take.

That leaves an opening, however, for Sunni extremists to move in. And there are mounting indications that Al Qaeda-inspired militants are mobilizing.

A previously unknown group called the Sunni Resistance recently circulated a list of names of Sunnis cooperating with Hezbollah, calling for their assassination.

"It's a very dangerous atmosphere. We see these tensions happening everywhere," says Abdullah Tiryaki, leader of the Fajr Forces, a Sunni armed group allied to Hezbollah.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Bitter tears

For Israelis there are only bitter tears of defeat, according to the New Zealand Herald:

Family and friends outside the homes of two captured Israeli soldiers burst into tears when TV showed Lebanese guerrillas turning over two black coffins believed to contain the bodies of Israeli soldiers captured two years ago.

An aunt of Regev's sank to the ground when she saw the coffins appear on a small TV hooked up outside the soldier's father's house.

Some 50 friends, neighbours and family who had gathered there sobbed, rocked back and forth in prayer, or tugged at their hair.

"Nasrallah, you will pay," several of the mourners vowed. "It's the saddest day for Israel. They kept us waiting until the last second to learn the fate of our sons,"said another, then burst out crying.

Other people in the crowd criticised Ehud Olmert, saying the soldiers died for nothing.

Olmert waged a much-criticised month-long war against Hizbollah in 2006 after the Israeli soldiers were taken.

The sorrow that swept across Israel with the images of the coffins contrasted sharply with the hero's welcome that awaited Samir Kantar upon his return to a homeland he left 29 years ago to set out on his deadly mission.

Nasralla wins


Hassan Nasrallah makes a brief appearence with Qantar.

Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed sets out the ballance sheet of the exchange for Asia Times:

The biggest winner by far is Nasrallah. The man has surrounded himself with something of a superhuman aura in the eyes of millions in the Arab world. For the past eight years he has delivered nothing but success to his constituency.

Now he boasts of a long record: getting the Israelis to leave South Lebanon in 2000, the prisoner exchange of 2004, the Israeli defeat of 2006, and more recently the overpowering of his opponents in Lebanese domestic politics in May.

This led to the election of Suleiman — a friend of Hezbollah — as president and gave a greater representation, with veto-power, to the Hezbollah-led opposition.

And now the exchange, which leaves no Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

Few can deny Nasrallah's achievements, and Arabs from every end of the political spectrum (even those loyal to Saudi Arabia, which is not too fond of his powerbase, considering him an extension of Iranian influence) have showered him with praise.

Former adversaries such as Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze, called on their followers to celebrate July 16 and mark the day as a national holiday so that all Lebanese, regardless of sect, can honor what Nasrallah has done.

And the losers ...
Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, has now been put in the embarrassing position that Nasrallah has been able to release more Palestinians than both he and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, were ever able to achieve with Israel.

Nasrallah has been challenging the authority of Abbas — without knowing it — since Arafat's death in 2004.

Nasrallah had allied himself with the Palestinian uprising of September 2000, coordinating with anti-Arafat groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and abducting Israeli soldiers in October 2000 to pressure then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to change course with regard to the Palestinians.

That endeared him to thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He was young, charismatic and an accomplished war hero who never spoke of defeat, whereas Abbas was aged, ailing, compromising and had never obtained — or strived for — a war medal in his life.

If Nasrallah is able to bring Qantar back to Lebanon, then the least Abbas could do is to work for the release of Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic West Bank leader from Fatah, from Israeli jails.

Other losers are hardliners in the Israeli government who argued against the deal, claiming that it would encourage more violence against Israel and "proves that terrorism pays, and pays well".

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Mabrouk


Mabrouk to Bassam Kuntar for the return of Samir.

I have known Bassam for years, and remember him as a tireless campaigner for his brother's release.

Of course much is made of Samir and his comrades' opperation in 1979 as that of a "criminal act". It was an act of war, the same type undertaken ten thousand times by Israeli troops—and all armies.

All war is ugly by its very nature, all the reason for it to stop.

***

Hassan Nasrallah greeted the returned POWs with the words, "The age of defeats is gone and the age of victories is upon us."

PR inside has more details:

The Shiite leader kissed and hugged each of the five men in his first public appearance since January. Nasrallah, who only appeared for the third time in public since the war fearing Israeli assassination, later addressed the crowd from a secret location on a giant projection screen.

One of the released prisoners, Samir Kantar, vowed to continue fighting Israel.

"I returned today from Palestine but believe me I will not return until I go back to Palestine," he told the roaring crowd. "I promise my people and dear ones in Palestine that I and my dear comrades in the valiant Islamic resistance are returning."


Image is of Samir, aged 16, before his capture

Prisoner swap

Reuters has the latest on the prisoner swap:

Hezbollah handed the bodies of two Israeli soldiers to the Red Cross on Wednesday to be exchanged for Lebanese prisoners held by Israel in a deal viewed as a triumph by the Lebanese Shia guerrilla group.

Many Israelis see it as a painful necessity, two years after the soldiers' capture sparked a 34-day war with Hezbollah that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 159 Israelis.

Two black coffins were unloaded from a Hezbollah vehicle at a UN base on the Israel-Lebanon border after a Hezbollah official, Wafik Safa, disclosed for the first time that army reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were dead.

The International Committee of the Red Cross took the coffins and drove them into Israel. Safa later said DNA tests conducted by the ICRC had verified the identity of the soldiers. The Israeli army said it had started its own checks.

"We are now handing over the two imprisoned Israeli soldiers, who were captured by the Islamic resistance on July 12, 2006, to the ICRC," Safa said at the border. "The Israeli side will now hand over the great Arab mujahid (holy warrior) ... Samir Qantar and his companions."


***

It seems the Lebanese communist party has not be invited to the official celebrations to welcome home the boidies of fallen resistance fighters—even though many of the bodies are of CP comrades.

Party chief Khaled Hadade told NTV television that he believes the reason behind the snub is because communists continue to believe that resistance should be linked to struggle for democracy.

Hadade spoke against sectarianism and criticized those is in charge of the celebrations (meaning hizbollah and the new pressident Michel Suleiman).

Monday, 14 July 2008

Syria—in from the cold

Syria basks in diplomatic breakthrough, writes Sami Moubayed in Asia Times:

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad got things done — his way — first in Doha in May and now in Paris at the weekend. In a series of meetings at a "Mediterranean" conference, Assad resumed diplomatic ties with Lebanon and held indirect talks through Turkey with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Assad also made it clear that Damascus is central to solving problems in the Middle East. He also helped launch the Union for the Mediterranean with more than 40 other heads of state and government.

The Europeans — more so than the United States — realized that "isolating" Syria had led nowhere, except to empower groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. If anything constructive was going to be done in the Middle East with regard to Arab-Israeli peace, it needed to include the Syrians.

The perception of Syria started to change, from problem-maker to problem-solver. Among other things, it was reasoned that getting rid of Hezbollah through military force was impossible — as Israel found out in 2006.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The cabinet

Lebanon's Daily Star has the new cabinet line-up:

The opposition took the coveted posts of foreign minister, telecommunications minister and deputy premier, while the ruling bloc kept the Finance Ministry.

The president made three appointments, including Elias Murr, who kept the defense portfolio despite opposition reservations.

He appointed lawyer and electoral law expert Ziyad Baroud to head the Interior Ministry, which will be responsible for organizing legislative elections next year.

Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah, who was appointed by the ruling bloc, served as Siniora's senior adviser in the previous cabinet.

Free Patriotic Movement, whose party had not been represented in the previous government, took four posts including the deputy premiership.

Hizbullah was allocated three seats, but one ministry - Labour.

The two other seats were given to the movement's allies.

Berri also managed to keep two of his ministers in their posts (Health Minister Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh and Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh), while obtaining the Industry Minister for MP Ghazi Zeaiter.

The list in full:

Prime minister: Fouad Siniora

Deputy prime minister: Issam Abu Jamra

Defense minister: Elias Murr

Foreign minister: Fawzi Saloukh

Interior minister: Ziyad Baroud

Finance minister: Mohammad Shatah

Minister of state for administrative development: Ibrahim Shamseddine

Telecommunications minister: Gibran Bassil

Information minister: Tareq Mitri

Justice minister: Ibrahim Najjar

Public Works and Transport minister: Ghazi Aridi

Sports and youth minister: Talal Arslan

Education minister: Bahia Hariri

Minister of the displaced: Raymond Audi

Energy and water minister: Alain Tabourian

Labor minister: Mohammad Fneish

Agriculture minister: Elie Skaff

Health minister: Mohammad Khalifeh

Social affairs: Mario Aoun

Industry minister: Ghazi Zeaiter

Tourism minister: Elie Marouni

Culture minister: Tammam Salam

Environment minister: Antoine Karam

Economy and Trade minister: Mohammad Safadi

Minister of state: Youssef Taqla

Minister of state: Wael Bou Faour

Minister of state: Ali Qanso

Minister of state: Nassib Lahoud

Minister of state: Jean Hogassapian

Minister of state: Khaled Qabbani

Friday, 11 July 2008

National unity

Al-Jazeera reports:

Lebanon has announced a new 30-member national unity government, seven weeks after an agreement brokered by Qatar brought the country back from the brink of civil war.

Fouad Siniora, reinstated as Lebanon's prime minister, announced the new cabinet following a meeting with Michel Sleiman, the president, in Beirut on Friday.

Mohammad Chatah, a close adivser to Siniora, was named as finance minister while Mohammad Fneish, a Hezbollah official, was named labour minister.

Fawzi Salloukh, a lawyer and diplomat, was given the post of foreign minister.

The opposition was granted 11 of the cabinet's 30 seats.

Ballance of fear

Amos Harel of Haaretz on the ballance of fear between Israel and Hizbollah:

Two years on, the balance of the Second Lebanon War remains negative for Israel, yet with time it seems to become even more complicated.

Deterrence is a key question because it will determine to a large degree if, and when, the next war will break out. Immediately after the war, there were speculations that exposing the weakness of the [army], government and even Israeli society would necessarily lead to another attack on Israel.

This has not happened so far, although Israel provided Syria at least with a perfect excuse to do so, by bombing the Syrian nuclear facility last September.

Hezbollah has also refrained for the past two years from any provocation along the northern border. The quiet there was disrupted on two occasions by isolated Katyusha fire, in both cases by a radical Sunni faction.

It appears that Israel did not pay enough attention to the impact of the huge damage it caused Lebanon's Shi'ite population - from the Dahia in Beirut to south Lebanon.

The Israeli message that another round would lead to worse destruction is understood better in Beirut than in Jerusalem. Fear is one of the things restraining Hezbollah today.

The worst result [for Israel] was the near total ending of the arrangements stipulated in Resolution 1701 (that ended the war).

Arms smuggling across the Syrian border has become a flood. Although the organization's presence along the border with Israel has disappeared, Hezbollah has rehabilitated its military infrastructure in south Lebanon and is now concentrating it in the Shi'ite villages.

***

The China news agency reports on the latest secatarain confrontations:

The death toll in fierce clashes between government supporters and opponents in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Wednesday rose to five, with 64 others injured.

The Lebanese army is carrying a redeployment plan in the north early Thursday to separate Alawite fighters in Baal Mohsen from Sunni fighters in Bab Tabbaneh.

Sources in Tripoli said the army maintained its deployment in Bab Tabbaneh, and some of its troops have been hit by sniper fire form Baal Mohsen.

The fighting erupted on Wednesday after four grenades were fired at a street separating the districts.

Explosions and machine-gun fire raged Tripoli as Sunni supporters of the government and Alawite gunmen close to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah-led opposition battled on the outskirts of the second largest port city of Lebanon.

Meanwhile, tension is mounting overnight in the west Beirut districts of Qasqas and Tariq Jedideh, where residents set fire to tires and blocked traffic to protest against the assualt on two government partisans by opposiotn Amal supporters.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Cash cow

Israelis are intending to sue banks who they say helped fund Hezbollah by letting two of its alleged front organizations perform money transfers prior to and during Lebanon's 33-day war with Israel in 2006, reports Canada.com.

The front groups in question are the Yousser Company for Finance and Investment and the Martyrs Foundation, both of which have been identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as terrorist financiers.

"The bank knew these organizations were both organs of the Hezbollah… and yet continued to let them transfer millions of dollars," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, a lawyer with Darshan-Leitner & Associates, an Israeli-based firm working for the plaintiffs.

"We deny the allegations," said Tina Al-Hattouni, LCB's main representative in Montreal. She said she wouldn't comment further because bank officials in Lebanon have not yet received notice that a class action suit has been filed. LCB has a Montreal office, but no Canadian branches or accounts.

The four plaintiffs are claiming more than $6 million collectively in damages.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Prisoner deal*2

The AFP news agency reports on the latest moves in Hizbollah-Israel prisoner deal:

Israel received a report from the Lebanese Hezbollah militia that an Israeli airman reported missing in Lebanon since 1986 has been dead for more than 10 years, the Haaretz daily reported on Friday.

Israel had demanded that the militia provide a report on the fate of navigator Ron Arad as a precondition for a prisoner swap expected to take place in about 10 days.

In the report Hezbollah describes its efforts to locate Arad, says it failed to find him but concludes he has been dead for more than a decade, the daily said.

As part of the deal Israel delivered a report on the fate of four Iranian diplomats who disappered in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, saying that the men were dead.

It said they were killed by a Christian militia in Lebanon after being stopped at a roadblock, and that it was unclear where their remains are.

Iran's embassy in Lebanon insisted on Thursday that the four are still alive and being held in Israel.

Hezbollah is to release the remains of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev whom the Israeli authorities say died after they were captured by Hezbollah in a July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a 34-day war in Lebanon.

In exchange Israel will free five jailed Lebanese prisoners, among them Samir Kantar, a Palestine Liberation Front militant serving a 542-year sentence for the brutal killing of two men and a four-year-old girl in a 1979 raid on northern Israel.

***

The agency notes that: The Israeli army was on Sunday set to exhume bodies of Hezbollah fighters ahead of a prisoner swap with the Shiite Lebanese movement in exchange for two captured Israeli soldiers, officials said.

The army declared a cemetery for enemy combatants near Amiad in northern Israel a closed military zone as representatives of the military rabbinate began preparing to exhume the remains of the Hezbollah men.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Prisoner deal

The Economist presents Hizbollah's prioner deal as a fait accompli for the Israelis:

The Lebanese swap, which could take place in the next fortnight, would be the first success.

The next could be to close a deal with Hamas to exchange Gilad Shalit, a soldier it has been holding (alive) in Gaza for two years, for more Palestinian prisoners—possibly over a thousand, making it the most expensive such swap in Israel’s history.

Again, for a weakened prime minister, the pressure to get Mr Shalit back safely has been intense.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Tremor warning


Image is a simplified structural map of Lebanon showing major faultlines.

"Health officials in southern Lebanon and northern Israel have been warned to prepare for mass casualties from a major earthquake expected to hit the region", reports Arabian Business magazine.

"There have been around 500 minor tremors in a three-month period from February to May, which have been increasing in frequency and intensity.

"Mo’een Hamzeh, head of the Bhannes Centre for Seismic and Scientific Research, said on Monday that Lebanon could face an earthquake similar to the one that hit the nation in 1956."

According to the American University of Beirut :

Lebanon is cut by faults of every scale. The longest fault in Lebanon is the Yammouneh Fault that runs along the western margin of the Bekaa and links the major fault of the Jordan Valley to the Ghab Valley Fault of Northern Syria. This is a lateral, or strike slip fault and is the Lebanese segment of the Dead Sea Transform Fault.

It originated around 12 to 10 million years ago as the boundary between the Arabia Plate and the Levantine part of the African Plate and has ben moving since. The result of this is that the Bekaa has moved some 50 km northwards with respect to Mount Lebanon.

The evidence suggests that the Yammouneh Fault has not moved for many thousands of years; and whether it is dead or dormant is not clear. We would dearly love to know will move again.

Like many large faults the Yammouneh Fault is not actually very impressive on the ground and is often only marked by a wide breccia zone.

The Roum Fault, which runs from near Marjayoun towards Beirut is probably where most of the plate tectonic motion is going on now and may be the present plate boundary between the Arabian and the African Plate.

One model is that the plate motion has fairly recently (in geological terms) switched from the Yammouneh to the Roum Fault. The last recent earthquakes in Lebanon have been along this fault including the Chhim earthquake of 1956 that caused many deaths and much damage.

One slightly worrying point is that the Roum Fault seems to be on line for Beirut. If it does have an active fault segment near (or even under) the capital then that must raise the earthquake risk. Earthquakes are discussed below in Section 2.7.

There are other major faults particularly in the Anti-Lebanon. The main highway to Damascus shows a good deal of faulting in the road cuts as it passes through this area. The Serghaya Fault in particular is apparently another major strike slip fault.

There many other faults in Lebanon with displacements ranging from a few centimetres to several kilometres. Working out which are major faults, and which are minor, is not easy.