The Explainer: Lebanon

Those were scenes showing the bombing of Beirut by the Israeli air force in recent days.  “The Lebanon” a song by the Human League, reminds us that for most of the 1980s and early 1990s, Lebanon was synonymous with war. Now, after a decade of renewed optimism and rebuilding, Lebanon is again under attack and some have begun talking darkly of World War III.


This is the Explainer…

…I’ll explain the background to the ongoing conflict in Lebanon when The Explainer returns.




Of the world’s major religions, three –Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- were born in the Middle East, and sectarian violence has marred the interactions between the three faiths for centuries. The Roman Empire ruled Israel first as a protectorate and then a province; and then as the empire itself turned Christian, large portions of North Africa, and the portions of the Middle East in which we find Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, became some of the most ancient centers of Christianity.

From what is now Saudi Arabia, the Prophet Mohammed brought large portions of the Middle East and beyond, under the green banner of Islam. At its height, the Islamic caliphate, which found its political center established under the Turkish Ottoman Empire, stretched from what is present-day Bulgaria  in Europe to Morocco in Africa and to Central Asia.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire battled its way up to the gates of Vienna in 1683. Hence the legend that the croissant commemorates the Muslim crescent on the banners of the defeated Islamic army. But then, centuries of decline followed, with various European empires eventually establishing colonies in former Ottoman lands.

France, for example, came to control Syria and Lebanon. The British established their influence around the Persian Gulf, and came to dominate Iran. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Britain played a crucial, and controversial, role in establishing regimes in what are now known as Saudi Arabia, Jordan,  and Iraq. They took over Palestine and committed themselves, in 1917, to the creation of a Jewish state.

The problem, of course, was that while Palestine was the ancient Jewish homeland, since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 71, the Jews hadn’t ruled their homeland even in name. In the intervening centuries, a large Arab population moved in.

After World War II, Jewish settlers began a war of liberation against the British. Their ranks were strengthened by the migration of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

In 1947 Britain announced it would withdraw from Palestine. A plan was proposed in the United Nations: British Palestine would become two countries, the State of Israel and a Palestinian homeland. Jerusalem, sacred to Jews and Moslems, would be placed under international control.

The Philippines, it is said, cast the deciding vote in the United Nations for approval of this plan. But the Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries didn’t accept the plan.

When Israel proclaimed its independence in 1948, the Arab nations attacked. Their attack failed. What was to be Palestine was, instead, carved up between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

Further Arab-Israeli wars took place in 1956, 1967, 1970, and 1973. The most famous of these wars were the Six-day War of 1967, a preemptive attack by Israel on Egypt…

And the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an Egypt-led effort to invade and destroy Israel. The Israelis won all these wars. Finally, in 1982, Israel went on the offensive and invaded Lebanon. Israel did this because of an assassination attempt against their ambassador in London and attacks  on the Israeli border with Lebanon.

The invasion helped fuel a brewing civil war between Lebanese Maronite Christians and Muslims. American Marines sent as peacekeepers became the target of bombings of the US Embassy and the US Marines barracks in 1983, inaugurating the kind of attacks familiar to us today with World Trade Center attacks in 1992 and 2001; the Americans withdrew in 1984. In 1985 Israel itself withdrew from Lebanon, except for a six-mile security zone which it only withdrew from in 2001.

The Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims were supported by Israel’s traditional enemy, Syria. Since 1976, Syria had been sending soldiers to intervene in the fighting between Arabs and Christians. With Israel’s withdrawal, Syria came to dominate the Lebanese government and occupied large portions of the country. In 2005, in a stunning display of People Power known as The Cedar Revolution, the Lebanese basically told the Syrians to go home.

But Syria has long supported a Shia political party known as Hezbollah, which opposed Israeli occupation and which finds inspiration in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Arabs consider Hezbollah a legitimate political movement. Israel, Britain and Canada consider it a terrorist organization; the European Union says at least one major Hezbollah leader is a terrorist and advocates the disarmament of the party.

Lebanon, then, is a flash point because it represents the place where Israel is most vulnerable to attack by Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria.

The Middle East is a sea of Islamic green with a tiny blip of Israeli blue. While there is an element of ethnic enmity, we should remember not all Muslims are Arab: the Iranians are not Arab, for example, they’re Persians, a different ethnicity entirely. And not all Muslims, Arab or not, belong to the same kind of Islam. Just as Christianity, for example, has the Catholics, the Orthodox, and Protestants, Islam has different traditions, two of the main ones being the Sunnis and the Shias. Their differences stem from whom they recognize as the successors of the Prophet Mohammed as the legitimate political heads of Islam.

The Sunnis represent the largest portion of Islam, about 90% of Muslims today; their name means, the “folks of the tradition.” What their name means helps us understand their view of Islam: it is less fundamentalist, in that it stresses interpreting the Koran and the processes by which those interpretations are arrived at, and then taught.

Upon the death of the Prophet Mohammed, there arose the need for someone to succeed him not as prophet, but as political head of the nation of Islam. That head, or successor, came to be known as the caliph, which means “successor” or “representative”. The Sunnis believe that Mohammed’s successor was Abu Bakr,  who was elected in the year 632.

The Shias, on the other hand, are the second-largest Islamic denomination, numbering roughly 200 million, and the predominant kind of Muslims in the Middle East. Shia means, literally, “The Party”: they are the loyalists of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, who they claim was designated by the Prophet as the political leader of the nation of Islam. They reject the various caliphates that have emerged to claim Islamic leadership since then.

Still, the dominant  political organization of Islam was the institution of the caliphate. The last caliph was the last Emperor of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan Mehmed VI. The new Republic of Turkey abolished the caliphate on March 3, 1924. For over eighty years, Islam has had no formal head. However, parts of both major branches, the Sunni and the Shia, have developed the view that Islam should supersede existing national borders. Muslims should be brought back together in a great Islamic empire under a restored caliphate.

Some have argued that the dream of restoring Islamic greatness under a central authority, lies at the heart of  the crisis in Lebanon today. More on the players –and what they want- when we return.




That clip is from the movie “Munich.”  The scene shows Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir expressing the Israeli view that Arab vows to exterminate Jews and wipe Israel off the map had to be fought aggressively. Israel has long believed in preemptive war, that is, starting and winning a war before someone else can wage war on them. They have also tended to believe in a military strategy known as “defense in depth.” In layman’s terms, that’s the view that it is better to invade, and then fight, in your neighbor’s garden, than to turn your own garden into the front line.

There are three Lebanons of the popular imagination. The first is the Lebanon of the Bible, with its famous cedars that are commemorated on the Lebanese national flag. That  Lebanon of the ancient Phoenicians of antiquity in turn, has been claimed by the Maronite Christian minority of the country: a community that has  been in communion with Rome for 1,300 years; and there is the third Lebanon, Arab Lebanon. A Muslim majority, composed of the Druze, a sect of Islam, which competed with Christians for power from 1840 until Sunni Muslims increasingly defined the Muslim population of Lebanon after independence from France in 1943. This third Lebanon is a Lebanon of civil war, invasion, destruction, and suffering.

The players and their interests in Lebanon are the following.

There is, of course, Israel, against which the Arab nations are allied to one degree or another.

Israel, in turns, counts on moral, financial, and military support from the United States and its allies, including Great Britain.

And there’s Hezbollah, whose attacks on the Israeli border provoked the Israeli attacks on Lebanon, and which has left the Lebanese people and government helpless victims of bombing and shelling. Hezbollah, as we’ve seen, derives its political and spiritual inspiration from Iran, one of the most hostile countries towards Israel.

There is also Syria, which supports Hezbollah even though its support didn’t prevent the Cedar Revolution. The rest of the Arab world is hostile to Israel, and sympathetic to the Lebanese people and to Hezbollah. But Iran and Syria are considered the major players here, particularly as they represent the centers of Shia power. The Shias, for example, believe Sunni governments in the rest of the Arab world are lacking in courage and are weak from corruption.

France, the former colonial ruler of Lebanon, and the European Union, have a more ambivalent attitude towards Israeli policy and have traditional sympathies for the Lebanese people.

Russia, too, also has strong ties to the Arab World, dating back to the Cold War, when it assisted Arab regimes opposed to Israel and the United States. In recent years, it has begun to renew its warm ties with these countries. Both these countries sit on the UN Security Council. They have veto powers to neutralize America and Britain’s in the security council. Their opinion counts, as does the other security council seat, China.

The stakes are high for everyone concerned. Among Muslims, the conflict and its players represents a debate over who will come to represent the authentic aspirations of Islam when it comes to Israel, the occupation of Palestine, and the influence of the United States, over Middle Eastern governments that may condemn Israel in official statements, but which have come to prefer the status quo.

For hard liners in Israel and perhaps for the United States, there is the tantalizing possibility that war now could destroy not only Hezbollah, but also either seriously weaken, and maybe even destroy, the governments of Iran and Syria, which are mortal enemies of both Israel and America. Israel has reversed about a decade of steady withdrawal from lands it once occupied and has refused to close the door on the possibility of a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. In response to Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on the Israeli border and nearby cities, Israel has destroyed a great deal of the infrastructure it’s taken decades for the Lebanese to rebuild. Israel claims this is because Hezbollah is hiding its guerrillas, leaders, and armaments in civilian areas; the Lebanese and much of the world insists this is not only an overreaction, but also a horrifying insensitivity, even brutality, towards innocent Lebanese who want peace and don’t even support Hezbollah.

All these things –the motivations of individual countries, the debate within Islam, what is happening and might happen in the region- are, of course, reported on in the papers and television. But unlike 1982, when the world had to wait for journalists to go to Beirut to report, the world is finding out news, and exchanging views, on Middle East developments in real time.

The internet is a major media front in this conflict. There are passionate supporters of Israel and Lebanon presenting their opinions. Most important of all, whether it’s a podcast of an Israeli teenager hiding from rocket attacks in a basement, or a Lebanese writer explaining why she will not evacuate her city despite being bombed every day, we are getting to see, hear, and read, the real voices of real people on both sides of a terrible historical divide. This map gives you an idea of how many bloggers, for example, are contacting the world from this troubled area.

Beyond the bombing, what we’ve been seeing night after night, are governments rushing to evacuate their citizens from Beirut and other Lebanese cities. A trickle of Filipinos have started to make their way home. Tens of thousands remain in Lebanon, their fate uncertain. The difficulties faced by our countrymen there are being compounded by a significant number of Filipinos employed by foreigners who promptly abandoned them when it was time to evacuate.

Over a million Filipinos work in the Middle East; and that includes thousands of Filipinos in Israel. Should war escalate, the Filipinos facing uncertainty in Lebanon will be joined by Filipinos in Israel, and so on, as conflict spreads, and dislocations to the global economy take place. As in Lebanon, their first problem will be, where do they go, and how will they go home? And once at home, where will they work? What will they do? A domino effect is a genuine possibility. Filipinos fleeing from war; others fired because of economic problems in the countries in which they work; their families here at home, deprived of income; and our government and economy suffering from a reduction in remittances.

We are therefore, part of a regional humanitarian crisis. We are being held hostage by an unfolding drama, the extent of which we can neither fully foresee, nor  control.

When we return, we’ll be getting the views of Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, an editor at the Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and to _____, with the International Committee of the Red Cross.


My view

The idea of peace is not only a question of principle, it is an essential requirement for human survival. A few days ago I received a copy of an email written by Rasha Salti, a New York-based writer and cultural organizer now in Beirut. She says Israel is mistaken in assuming that exterminating Hezbollah is not only possible, but will achieve security. At stake, she says, is the life of Lebanon which only very recently thought it had finally emerged from the horrors of the 1982 Israeli invasion. Her remarks must make us reflect why is it that Lebanon must die, so that Israel can live.

I support, strongly, Israel’s right to exist. But I have always believed preemptive war is wrong. A general war in the Middle East threatens not only the million and more Filipinos in Arab countries, it threatens the thousands of Filipinos in Israel.  Neither our economy, dependent on remittances, or our society, which has several Filipino dependents for every Filipino working overseas, can risk the enormous dislocation a Middle East war will cause. And so as a nation and a people, I am of the opinion we cannot sit on the fence. We must speak up for peace: immediately, and in no uncertain terms.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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