TCS Daily


No Peace Without Syria

By Michael Totten - November 28, 2005 12:00 AM

"No war without Egypt. No peace without Syria." - Arab proverb

BEIRUT - Once again Lebanon's hot southern border is a frontline in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last week it exploded in violence as Hezbollah fighters stormed across the border into the village of Al Ghajar, inside Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and engaged the Israeli army in battle. They also fired mortars and rockets at Israel's Abbassiyeh post. Israel retaliated with air strikes against the villages of Shebaa and Kfar Shouba, the Al-Mari Valley, and at Hezbollah positions outside Khiam and southeast of Tyre. Beirut's Daily Star says more than 250 explosions were reported. Israel says it was the largest counterattack inside Lebanon since the withdrawal of their occupation forces five years ago.

Several Lebanese people I know in Beirut said this is exactly what was going to happen. On October 22 UN Special Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis named high level Syrian officials as chief suspects in the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and in the wave of terrorist attacks in Beirut throughout 2005. Syria needs a distraction. So does Hezbollah.

Hezbollah, the "Party of God" in Arabic, is a creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It receives arms, supplies, and money from Syria, too. Lebanon's civil war has been over for fifteen years, and the only way Hezbollah can justify its existence as an autonomous armed militia is by engaging in endless battles with Israel. It especially needs a heated conflict with Israel now. As the international community debates how sternly to punish the Syrian Baathists, leaders of Hezbollah's so-called "resistance" hope to channel the ire of their countrymen onto the "Zionist entity" instead of their besieged patron regime in Damascus.

Al Ghajar village, where the fighting broke out, is an odd place. One side is Lebanese. The other side is controlled by Israel. All the villagers on both sides of the border are Alawite, a minority sect -- some say heretical -- that long ago splintered off Shia Islam. Historically the village was part of Syria. The Alawites of Al Ghajar belong to the same ethnic-religious group that holds almost all the levers of power in Syria.

The Lebanese side of the village is the poorest and most forlorn place I've seen anywhere in the country. Many houses are crumbling cinderblock boxes or shanties with tin roofs and walls. The mosque is squalid. Barren ground is strewn with rubble and rocks. I saw barefoot children dressed in rags playing in filthy streets. Somehow they managed to smile.

The Israeli half of the village is on the other side of the Wazzani River. There the houses and apartment buildings are trim and freshly painted. They're decked out with satellite dishes. Cars look brand new. I saw no evidence of squalor from where I stood on the Lebanese side of the line.

From 1967 to 2000 both sides of Al Ghajar were controlled by Israel after it took the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six Day War. But in the year 2000, when Israel withdrew its occupation forces from South Lebanon, the United Nations declared that one side of the village is actually Lebanese, not Syrian. If Israel wanted its withdrawal to be internationally certified, half the village would have to be ceded to Lebanon -- against the wishes of the people who lived there. Al Ghajarians would rather be part of Syria than of Israel, most likely because of their ethnic-religious ties to Bashar Assad and his regime. But they would rather belong to Israel than to Lebanon.

Much of Lebanon is moderately prosperous, if not exactly wealthy. It's not what most Westerners think of as the Third World. But Al Ghajar was ruined only five years after being pushed into Lebanon. The village is in the deep south. This is Hezbollah country, a virtual state-within-a-state. Neither the Lebanese government nor the Lebanese army have any writ there. It is there -- the Israeli side of Al Ghajar -- where Hezbollah launched its attack last week. If Hezbollah were to successfully "liberate" the Israeli side of the village, the prosperous half would join the poorer half in more ways than one.

The people of Al Ghajar aren't the only ones who live right next to the electrified fence between the two countries. I knew before I went down there that Hezbollah routinely fires Katyusha rockets over the border into Israel. So the first time I saw Metulla I literally could not believe what I was seeing.

"That village is in Israel," my guide said as we drove toward a row of single family homes.

"What village?" I said as I scanned the distant hills for some kind of settlement.

"That village right there," she said and pointed at the homes directly in front of us. Just behind us Hezbollah guerillas were dug into the hills and holed up inside abandoned houses.

"Those houses right there?" I said. They were only a few hundred feet from the car. "Aren't they in Lebanon?"

"Look closer," she said. "See the fence?"

There it was. The little electric fence that demarcated the border runs alongside the edge of the village, right in the Israelis' back yards. I could have gotten out of the car, walked up to that fence, and easily had a conversation in a normal tone of voice with an Israeli family hanging out on their back porch. No soldiers guarded the border.

"Why on earth would they live there?" I said. "Mere feet from Hezbollah when they are at war?"

If the wretched condition of the Lebanese side of Al Ghajar says something about Hezbollah and what the border region is like, Metulla says something, too. At least a handful of Israeli civilians feel comfortable enough with the hyper-near presence of Hezbollah guerillas -- who fire rockets into Israel -- that they don't mind living within rock-throwing or even hand-shaking range. Anyone could hurl a hand grenade through an Israeli civilian's window at any time. If Hezbollah wanted to strike those houses with rockets they could not possibly miss. Clearly, then, when Hezbollah fighters say they don't target Israeli civilians they're in one sense plainly serious: Nothing physically stops them from blowing up towns whenever they feel like it.

The border may be a hot one. Most of the time, though, it's strangely, eerily, calmer than you might think considering that battles do erupt there. If the area weren't generally calm, those Israeli houses in Metulla would have been destroyed or abandoned.

It's impossible to mistake calm for peace, though, which is what makes the border unsettling. The area along the fence is a gigantic outdoor museum for violent Hezbollah propaganda.

Portraits of "martyrs" killed in battle with Israel line the streets and the roads, as do posters of Iran's dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini. Images of Hezbollah's spiritual leader Sheik Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, Imam Musa Sadr -- who in 1978 vanished forever in Libya -- and Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah also make repeated appearances.

Billboards show bloody and fiery depictions of mayhem and war accompanied with text in both English and Arabic. On the road beneath Beaufort Castle, which looks down into Israel, the story of suicide bomber Haitham Dbouq is told next to his portrait. "Haitham stormed into the convoy -- that had 30 occupation troops in its ranks -- blowing up his car amidst the vehicles that turned into fireballs and scattered bodies on the ground. Thirty Zionist casualties was the size of the material shock that hit the occupation army; the morale shock was much larger and more dangerous."

The area is strewn with scorched tanks, blasted trucks, and military ordnance carefully placed by Hezbollah in order to best show it off. I saw young children playing on one of the tanks. Their tiny legs dangled from the turret. A gigantic cardboard figure of Ayatollah Khomeini smiled down on them.

Fatima's Gate is one of the world's most bizarre tourist attractions. It was an open border crossing between Israel and Lebanon before the year 2000 when the Israelis still occupied South Lebanon in order to prevent Hezbollah from launching attacks across the border. The predominately Christian South Lebanese Army aligned itself with Israel against Hezbollah. Their family members -- along with trustworthy Shia Muslims -- were allowed through to commute to jobs inside Israel. The gate has been sealed by the electrified fence ever since the withdrawal. The customs house on the Israeli side looks like yet another mangled casualty of war wrapped with wire and stuffed with sandbags.

Tourists from all over the Middle East go to Fatima's Gate and throw rocks into Israel. A trim suburban-looking town lies only a few hundred yards from the fence -- not quite within rock-throwing distance, but close. I saw several rocks snagged in the fencing around the old customs house.

Even more absurd than Fatima's Gate is the tomb of the disputed dead man. The Lebanese say Sheik Abbad is buried there at the top of the hill. The Israelis say, no, Rabbi Ashi is buried there. I have no idea who is right, nor do I care. Neither does the international community. Because the dead man, whoever he is, is buried exactly -- precisely -- on the border, the United Nations arm-twisted both Israel and Lebanon into drawing the line right through his tomb. One half is in Israel. The other half is in Lebanon.

Just next to the tomb on the Lebanese side is a billboard erected by Hezbollah that directly faces Israel. On the billboard is text written in Hebrew. On the billboard, also, are horrific images of violence and war.

An Israeli soldier with skin missing on one side of his face is depicted holding a rocket launcher in his bloody hands. Dead bodies are shown gunned down in the streets above another photograph of the severed head of an Israeli held up by his hair.

I felt embarrassed for Lebanon that this is what the border looks like from the other side. Anyone who has been here recently, and to Beirut in particular, knows that severed heads aren't what this place is about anymore. Hezbollah, not the Lebanese government, is responsible for that billboard and the border violence that goes along with it.

Just across the fence from that gruesome display is an Israeli listening post. A gigantic radio antennae is festooned with radars, cameras, and other First World surveillance equipment. Hezbollah guerillas hunker down in bunkers just a few yards away. Their yellow and green flag snaps defiantly from the roof. United Nations soldiers, most of them from South Asia, keep their eyes on the two sides.

"How do you feel when you look at this place?" I asked my guide.

She thought about my question for a long time before answering.

Like many Lebanese who live now in Beirut, she is a Shia Muslim who grew up in the South. I knew she did not think highly of the Israelis. She didn't care much for Hezbollah either. Before she took me down to the border, she said she likes to drink in clubs and dance on tables.

"It makes me sad," she finally said.

"What should be done?" I asked.

"We need a peace treaty," she said. "And an open border. Think about what that would do for the economies of both countries."

More Lebanese want peace with Israel than you might think. I've met a considerable number of Christians -- who make up around 40 percent of the population -- who want a treaty right now. That's not surprising, though. The Maronite Catholics were Israeli allies during the civil war.

But it's not just the Christians. Nor is my border guide the only Shia Muslim I've met who has had enough of the conflict that never ends. I know another Shia, a computer programmer, who said he has no problem with Israel whatsoever. I've met a handful of Sunni Muslims and Druze who say the same thing. They are circumspect, though, when they say this to me. Open support of Israel is still a red line in this country.

It's a red line in part because a lot of Lebanese want it that way. But there is more to it than that. If Lebanon were to unilaterally open peace talks without Syria, many fear Syria's punishment would be swift and severe.

Syria can strangle Lebanon without firing a shot. Earlier this year shipment trucks from the port of Beirut were not allowed to cross the Syrian border. The drivers were held up for weeks. It was a total disaster. Beirut has long been a gateway for goods shipped from the West to the Middle East. Those goods have to go through Syria in order to get to points beyond. Whether the Lebanese government likes it or not, Lebanon will remain in a state of war with Israel as long as Syria says that it has to, and as long as Syria and Iran continue supporting Hezbollah's "resistance" and control of the border.

I heard, but did not see, Israelis walking and talking inside their compound next to the tomb of the disputed dead man. Surely they would have heard me had I said something. Surely my photograph exists somewhere now in the Israeli Defense Forces archives.

More hurled rocks were stuck in the fencing and wire protecting the compound. I felt embarrassed all over again, especially as I was standing right next to Hezbollah's menacing billboard. Of course the Israelis were watching me. They probably thought me a Hezbollah sympathizer who might pick up a rock.

I didn't go to the border to throw rocks at a country. I went there to see and to learn. I wanted to wave hello, to send a few good vibes across the violent frontier. If love makes the world go 'round, hate makes it burn. But I did not dare wave hello. My wonderful guide, who was responsible for my behavior, would have been punished for treason.

Michael J. Totten is based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a TCS columnist whose work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log and Middle East Journal at MichaelTotten.com.

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