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Street Notes from the Hamra District

Hezbollah Eases Up and Beirut Opens Its Shutters

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Saturday Afternoon May 10 2008 witnessed a pronounced easing of tension.

Based on a US Congressional source, the Siniora government is reportedly able, with US approval, to offer the following face-saving proposal to Hezbollah to end the current crisis:

1. Hezbollah can keep its landline optic telecommunication cables for use in its Resistance struggle against Israel. But they should be put under "State Control".

Translation: Hezbollah controls them exclusively same as now and no one else will touch them. But ‘officially’ they will be under ‘State’ control, i.e. not State control.

2. Concerning the other major issue regarding the head of Beirut Airport Security, General Wafiq Shouqair gets reassigned but Hezbollah gets to name his replacement.

Translation: Wafiq stays in office, keeps his authority and puts his deputy’s name card slipped over his on the office nameplate.

The public version of the proposal above reads a bit differently as offered this afternoon by Siniora. It does not mention to the public "due to sectarian sensitivities" points one and two above. It also includes the formation of a national unity government in which the minority cannot block decisions and the majority cannot impose them.

Siniora has also proposed a five-point introduction to a settlement, including placing the two government decisions in the hands of the army but will withdraw these quietly.

The Lebanese army announced at 5:30 p.m. Beirut time that it recommended that the two government measures against that had triggered the group to take control of Beirut, and the military urged gunmen to withdraw from the streets.

The army said in a statement it was keeping the head of the security at Beirut airport Wafiq Shouqair in his post and that it would handle Hezbollah’s communications network in a way "that would not harm public interest and the security of the resistance."

Lebanon’s U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said earlier on Saturday that he was putting the two issues, which have sparked the worst fighting in Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war, into the hands of the Lebanese army.

Hezbollah has issued no comment on this report as of press time.

The current situation in Hamra

Many Hezbollah fighters left the streets of Hamra and turned them over to the Lebanese Army which had been largely absent on Friday.

Some of Hezbollah’s withdrawing ‘regulars’ were replaced by ‘reserves’.

"Its good for their training", one fellow who was obviously in charge outside of Starbucks on Hamra Street, explained through an interpreter. Some Hezbollah and Amal forces seemed quite willing to speak with the media about their mission.

Some pro-opposition commentators wandered around Hamra trying to assure returning residents.

"This was not a coup! Think of it as a protest and message to Bush and Olmert. If we wanted a coup we could surround the Serail. Mr. Siniora would perhaps hand us the keys. We don’t want them. Let’s all prepare for elections and let the people decide who sits in Parliament and makes up Cabinet."

Hezbollah reportedly has excellent relations with the Lebanese Army and wants to maintain them. Evidence of this is apparent today as Hezbollah’s forces made a point of politely and almost paternally yielding some of their street corner locations to the Army with handshakes and sometimes kisses.

Outside Costa Coffee down from the Bristol Hotel, one seasoned Hezbollah fighter spoke to some obviously younger and ‘greener’ Party members and instructed them on their duties as they relieved him and he headed south for rest. He explained that things went fairly smoothly yesterday and that they would likely see residents start returning to Hamra. "Be helpful to those who need help. Assure them their neighborhood is secure and safe. We will start no violence and if someone else wants to we can assure those in who live in Hamra that we will quickly deal with troublemakers".

A few isolated acts of vandalism were reported yesterday and an internal joint Hezbollah-Amal investigation is underway to find out about what happened and insure that there is no recurrence. "No bad behavior by our fighters or any of our allies will be tolerated and bad behavior (from our side) will be severely punished and if vandalism occurred, Hezbollah will pay for it! Lebanon knows our standards. Remember during the July 2006 War. When our fighters had to use food and water that belonged to absent owners we left IOUs on the table. Everyone was later paid."

Some Amal guys were looking for an open sandwich shop but doubted that "people here in Hamra make sandwiches as great as we have in Ouzai. Our area has the best kebabs in all of Lebanon!!" (this observer did not have the heart to ask the young man if this was his first time outside of his "area").

"We will be magnanimous toward our adversaries in the small victory we achieved the past couple of days", explained ‘Ali’ an acquaintance of this observer who also lives in Haret Hreik.

"If the "ruling team" wants to claim victory that is fine with us. They can attack us verbally all they want. We are used to this. This situation was forced on us and we defended ourselves. Now we should seek a just and quick solution and heal any wounds", one young woman, obviously a Hezbollah supporter explained as she chatted with some fighters and journalists. She added, "We want dialogue and a fair peaceful solution. We are a Resistance movement and will not participate in a civil war".

As of this afternoon the losers and winners appear as follows:

The main losers obviously are the Bush administration, Israel and their Welch Club allies. Personal losers are Amin Gemayel, barely still the "leader" of the Phalange Party, as he talks tough and tries to rally his ‘forces’…from Paris. Samir Geagea has pretty much nudged him aside and is reportedly casting his dark gaze toward Saad Hariri who may be planning to retire from politics and help with the very big family business. After the parties meet with President Bush next week, a ‘shaking out’ process may begin.

Walid Jumblatt is another loser since his provocations, taunts, and Welch Club cheerleader role to take on Hezbollah left him at its mercy both in the Mountains and in his Beirut home. Whatever credibility he had has evaporated. Among the Druze there is discord and inter-party fisticuffs as there was last night in Choufeit when Jumblatt asked the army to occupy and secure his Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) HQ but some of the younger members threatened violence, as the villagers watched beneath a huge a poster of party founder Kamal Jumblatt and the army and Jumblatt jr. backed off. PSP problems will require Walid’s sustained attention for some while party members explained last evening to this observer.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora loses more of his waning influence and status. One of his main problems is that he is increasingly seen as a Bush administration puppet. Not least of his worries this morning, as he prepares to avoid being dumped by Bush next week, is the ringing endorsement he received yesterday from Secretary of State Rice, without bringing herself to mention Siniora by name:

"Our support for the legitimate Lebanese government, its democratic institutions, and its security services is unwavering. This support is a reflection of our unshakable commitment to the Lebanese people and their hope for democratic change, economic prosperity, and confessional harmony. We will stand by the Lebanese government and peaceful citizens of Lebanon through this crisis and provide the support they need to weather this storm."

She would not even mention his name as she employed the standard State Department verbiage just before a US puppet is dumped. It was dusted off from Vietnam days when JFK (Diem) and LBJ (Thieu) used almost identical language before switching horses.

The rest of Rice’s analysis seemed to many in Lebanon, whose population is among the most politically sophisticated in many ways, as simply obtuse: "No one has a right to deprive Lebanese citizens of their political and economic freedom, their right to move freely within their country, or their sense of safety and security".

State Department officials said this morning that the international coalition supporting the Lebanese state against Hezbollah has never been stronger. Washington believes Hezbollah has "bitten off a bit too much" and now risks alienating the rest of Lebanon’s population, including Hezbollah’s important Christian allies, an official said.

The Bush administration reminded the World that it has spent $1.3 billion over the past two years to prop up Siniora’s government, with about $400 million dedicated to boosting Lebanon’s security forces. This statement constitutes a hoax according to some informed observers in Lebanon:

"The money the Bush administration has spent has been to create a Sunni ‘Internal Security Force’ not for the Lebanese but for the ‘ruling team’ (the name the oppositions and its allies call the current government of Lebanon) which is no more than a militia run by pro-American officers. Hezbollah could defeat and disband this Bush militia in three hours of less", according to one long time UNIFIL program administrator.
One frustrated US Senate Intelligence Committee staffer emailed this morning with a tinge of irony and cynicism:

Referring to President Bush: "Now this loser has really done it. Having effectively delivered Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran, he has now handed them Lebanon. Mark my words, Saudi Arabia is next and the Saudis know it and will make a deal with Iran."

The major winners are obvious: Lebanon’s Christian population allied with General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Hezbollah, Amal and their Sunni, Druze and international supporters.

Hassan Nasrallah’s position is probably the strongest it has ever been, not just in Lebanon but throughout the region. If he wanted to be a dictator of all of Lebanon, which he eschews, he could have the position today.
Rami Khoury, writing in Beirut’s Daily Star this morning got it right in this observer’s view when he wrote:

Nasrallah’s task now is to create an inclusive environment conducive to the answering of these and other challenges. He and his party cannot be expected to come up with all of the solutions, and nor should they want to: If they cannot draw other players – and not just their closest allies – into the process, Nasrallah runs the risk of being cast as a dictator by default.

Hizbullah and its partners have frequently argued that their counterparts in the March 14 Forces coalition were not interested in true partnership, only in dictating terms. Now Nasrallah has to prove that his side is ready, willing and able to live up to its own expectations, and speed is of the essence: After 15 years of civil war, 15 of diluted sovereignty, and three of limbo, the Lebanese deserve at last to have a level of politics commensurate with their talents and energies. If Nasrallah is the man who makes this happen, history will judge his actions to have been a revolution, not a coup, and a long-overdue one at that.

Late news is that the airport may open by Monday but this is not certain.

FRANKLIN LAMB can be reached at fplamb@gmail.com