The Edginess of Lebanon

Khiam detension center and Ansar Prison, Lebanon

The edginess of the people in Lebanon is palpable these days, North and South, East and West. A car exhaust backfires, a dump truck’s rear metal gate slams shut, a fresh Lebanese army recruit drops his US mint new M-16 on the pavement outside the Main Gate of the American University of Beirut, as he and his buddies pile into the army transport truck at shift change, and people flinch and grimace. The sandwich man at the Socrate Deli and the Ras Beirut book store employee and their customers exchange knowing glances and read each others eyes: “is this it’?

“It”, being the spark as in 1914 Sarajevo that was all that was needed to ignite a war so horrible that many European societies still have skewed demographic tables, such was the needless loss of millions of young men in World War I.

It is a tense atmosphere here when often the first question on rising each morning or greeting a friend is “how was the night? Are things OK?”

There are rumors and there are rumors of war.

This observer is not sure what to make of, for example, the snide jokes and rumors that Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Sinioiri is not being allowed to leave his Serail compound office without the permission of US Ambassador Feltman, or that Feltman has to issue a ‘hall pass’ if Siniori wants to use the men’s room, or that Siniori’s personal phone is answered at the US Embassy. Or that the Embassy is using Lebanon’s General Security agency to monitor journalists and pro-Palestinian and pro-Lebanese Americans, even supplying General Security with files complete with transcriptions of phone conversations which took place in America with US NGO’s and Pro-Palestinian groups during the early days of the July War.

Whatever the use being made of Lebanon’s General Security agency by the Bush administration, or the pressure from the Welch Club, PM Siniori’s stock rose in the hearts and minds of many when on June 27, 2007 at his Paris news conference, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Lebanon joined those calling for the release of all the Lebanese and Palestinian Prisoners held in Israeli prisons in exchange for the Israeli soldier held by Hamas and the two held by Hezbollah

Siniori’s ‘clean swap’ prisoner exchange appeal is supported by the Findings and Recommendations of a recently completed six month study of the Lebanon /Palestine prisoner file undertaken by American researchers at the American University of Beirut. The conclusions of the Study are solely those of the Researchers as AUB’s administration had no input and have no responsibility for the Recommendations.

The have been 34prisoner exchanges between Arabs and Israel dating from 1948 to the present. In addition there have been 13 ‘political prisoner releases’ by Israel, Syria and others. Of the prisoner exchanges, six took place during the 1960’s, nine during the l970’s and five in the l980’s. The political exchanges were attached to particular events such as Oslo, the Mossad’s botched attempt to kill Hamas leader Meshal in Jordan, or to encourage the other side to act in a particular way. The largest release was Arafat’s 11/23/83 success with gaining the release of 4,700 Arab prisoners from Ansar prison and the May 20 1985 “Jibril Deal” which gained the release of 1,155 high value prisoners.

Yet the history of the prisoner exchanges has been problematical. Often exchanges failed because Israel suspended talks over prisoners, changed their minds and insisted on renegotiating established criteria for their release, or unilaterally ‘switched the rules’. When negotiations did result in an agreement, Israel typically ignored deadlines set for the releases, released nonpolitical prisoners and claimed it had fulfilled its obligations, or simply dismissed or ignored agreements.

There have been three prisoner exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel. In July 1996, Hezbollah released the remains of two Israeli soldiers in exchange for the remains of 123 Lebanese soldiers. Hezbollah also released 25 members of Israel’s proxy South Lebanon Army (SLA) a mercenary force for whom the US taxpayers unknowingly footed the bill, and in exchange the SLA released 25 Lebanese prisoners from the Israeli controlled Khiam detention camp in south Lebanon. Khiam, which Amnesty International called a ” bleak limbo” is distinguishable from a prison by the fact that detainees have not faced, indictment, trial or judgment, but were herded into crowded cells f and kept there, many for more than ten years. Of the prisoners Israel still holds, 400 have been held for more than 20 years, 20 more than a quarter century.

In June 1998, Hezbollah returned the remains of Itamar Ilya in exchange for the remains of 40 Hezbollah soldiers, among them the body of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s son Hadi who was killed fighting Israel in 1997.

In January 2004, Israel released a total of 436 prisoners including 400 Palestinians; 23 Lebanese; two Syrians; three Moroccans; three Sudanese; a Libyan; and a German Muslim. Israel also returned the remains of 59 Lebanese soldiers. Israel received the remains of three Israel soldiers and the release of an Israeli drug dealer named Elhanan Tennenbaum who Hezbollah claimed was also an Israeli intelligence officer. Sheikh Abdel Kareem Obaid, who Israel kidnapped from Lebanese territory in 1989, and Sheikh Mustafa Dirani, kidnapped in 1994, were among those released by Israel.

On 34 occasions Israel has released prisoners to get what it wanted but subsequently assassinated them. There most famous example was the revered cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin..

According to the Ramallah-based Mandela Institute for Human Rights, and other sources, there are approximately 11.000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails and detention centers, among them approximately 150 women and 400 children.

Some Findings and Recommendations from the American NGO study with respect to the inevitable Prisoner Swap

There will be no prisoner exchange by Hezbollah without Samir Kuntar included. Hezbollah has made this clear. Israel’s former Army Chief of Staff calls Kuntar “a nail without a head and thus impossible to take out”. Yet, according to a recent book my Israeli military and intelligence specialists, Captives of Lebanon, Mossad and the IDF recommended Kuntar’s release in 2004 but it was vetoed by Sharon because of Ron Arad. Hezbollah has more than once sent bones to Israel trying to learn what became of Arad. Israel refuses to give Hezbollah Arad’s DNA to aid their search. Mossad has admitted that Hezbollah has no knowledge of Arad who apparently disappeared from a shed during an Israeli bombing attack and no one seems to have seen him. Local villages have been questioned but Arad’s case remains a mystery. Hezbollah seems to want it solved as much as Israel.

When Samir Kuntar was taken off the 2004 prisoner list, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah stated that it was a foolish act on the part of Israel’s because Hezbollah would just have to take more captives to gain his and others freedom. That of course was what the July 12, 2006 operation was all about, but Israel broke the ‘rules of the game’ and decided to devastate Lebanon.

Now the price will be much higher. Hezbollah and Hamas have adopted the Israeli paradigm of “nothing without a price”. In the Israeli system each prisoner has a price. If they exchange Israeli Arabs, the price is relatively low. With Sephardic Jews Israel will pay more. The history of the Israeli prisoner exchanges shows that they pay the highest price for Ashkenazi Jews, all of which the current group happen to be.

Despite Israel ‘s protestations, the record of Israeli prisoner exchanges also shows that Israel ‘s government prefers to raid the hideout of their captive solders and end the matter. Three times this has led to the Israeli captive being killed but at least the issue is settled. Shalit is in real danger from this sort of IDF macho raid despite the Israel lobby shunting his family all over the World to generate sympathy. They would benefit more from talking to their government.

It is quite unlikely that there will be any prisoner exchange while Olmert is in power. His promise to return the captured soldiers by destroying Lebanon failed. Israeli society will always blame him for that fiasco plus if Olmert pays the high price for the current exchange the Israeli public will not accept it. The next Israeli government will pay the price and blame it on Olmert. Such is the system.

Recommendations

I. Hamas and Hezbollah to release Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev, all of whom are apparently in good health and are being well treated. (Mr. Shalit evidently has a non-life threatening aggravated pre-existing condition which causes him periodic discomfort). Their release would occur exactly two hours after Israel releases the approximately 11,000 Muslim, Christian, and Arab prisoners it is now holding in 25 prisons, most of whom are political prisoners or victims of arbitrary arrests.

A maximum of two hours ‘verification period’ is recommended by the Researchers given the history of Israel “shorting” the prisoner exchanges when those delivered on the Israeli prisoner buses turned out in some cases not to be those originally agreed upon and were fewer in number.

If Israeli PM Olmert’s June 26, 2007 pledge made at Sharm al- Sheik to release unconditionally 250 prisoners as a confidence building gesture to Palestinian official Makmud Abbas is honored, then Israel would release those remaining in its prisons or approximately 3,500 for each of the three Israelis.

II. The United States government should transfer to Lebanon, rather than to Israel , two years worth of military and economic aid which the House Appropriations committee recently voted for Israel at the rate of 2.4 billion per year, to be deducted from what Israel is expecting over the next ten years.

This 4.8 billion aid amount would just about cover the cost of rebuilding much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, housing, schools, medical facilities, bridges, roads, coastal oil pollution, businesses, and agriculture destroyed by Israel during its most recent attack on Lebanon . The Study found that if f Israel is obliged to pay a price by having its US aid reduced by the amount of physical damage caused by attacking its neighbors, it may well consider more carefully the consequences before it bombs Lebanon or Palestine next time.

This US action would help restore some of its lost respect. As Senator Lugar advised an empty Senate Chamber the other night, US prestige in the region may well be irreparably damaged. This is equally true in Lebanon whose population was stunned and enraged by the thirty three days of Israeli carpet bombing of their families with American weapons as the White House continued to egg on Israel as part of a grotesque notions of “birth pangs of the new Middle East ” and ” sustainable ceasefire”.

The Lebanese also remember the US support and encouragement for Israel’s 22 year occupation (1978-2000) of South Lebanon , and they still talk about the 1983 shelling of the USS New Jersey. In addition, the Bush Administration is widely believed, among American Middle East analysts to have been involved in giving its Lebanese allies the gift of al-Qaeda type groups from whom Lebanon is increasingly seeing the consequences. As the highly respected senior cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah has stated, the American government appears to be committed to maintaining a state of unrest and civil conflict in Lebanon.

III. Israel to deliver to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) all relevant maps from the period 1978-2006 relative to land mines and cluster bombs, plus firing logs for all artillery, rockets, and bombs during the July 2006 War. This grave humanitarian issue continues to be a matter of life and death for children and their families in south Lebanon. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon emphasized in his 6/28/07 Report on Lebanon “an additional fifty new cluster bomblet strike locations have been identified by the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre during the past 90 days.

As of 31 May 2007, 904 cluster bomblet strike locations have been recorded, contaminating an area of up to 36.6 million square meters. Nearly one year since Israel fired into Lebanon 4.8 million cluster bomblets, 96 % of which were American, during a 33 day firing frenzy, only 15% of the sub-surface of the 36.6 million square meters have been cleared, and just 117,872 of more than one million unexploded cluster munitions have been neutralized.

Regarding the urgent need for the land mine and cluster bomb maps, the Secretary General noted: “Since the cessation of hostilities came into effect,( 8/14/06) a total of 203 civilians have been injured (180) or killed (23) as a result of cluster munitions. I regret to have to report that, despite a number of attempts by UN senior officials to obtain information regarding the firing data of cluster munitions utilized during last summer’s conflict, Israel has yet to provide this critical data. I call on the Government of Israel once again to provide this information to the United Nations.”

IV. Israel would cease all violations of Lebanese airspace and territorial waters which, according to UNIFIL exceeds 18,000 since 1978, when the UN began keeping records.

According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon,’s just released Report: “UNIFIL has reported a significant increase in Israeli air violations, through jet and unmanned aerial vehicle overflights of Lebanese territory. These violations occur on an almost daily basis frequently numbering between 15 and 20, and have even reached 32 overflights in a single day. The Government of Lebanon continues to protest the overflights as a serious violation of Lebanese sovereignty and of resolution 1701 (2006) Israeli overflights not only constitute repeated violations of that and other relevant Security Council resolutions and also undermine the credibility of both UNIFIL and the LAF in the eyes of the local population, and negatively affect efforts to stabilize the situation on the ground.” Sec-Gen Ki-Moon added, “I regret, that the Israeli military continues with almost daily flights over Lebanese territory and, once again, call upon the Government of Israel to cease the air violations.

On a related issue, the UN Report states that: On 28 May, the [Israeli military] violated the Blue Line by approximately 60 meters in the vicinity of UN position 4-31 with a tank and earthworks machinery. Israel also continues to occupy the Lebanese village of Ghajar in violation of UNSCR 1701.

Some in Israel and the Israeli dominated US Congress may consider that the above recommendations are unfair or unrealistic. However the Recommendations are based on Findings of Fact established by the researchers conducting the study, and applying methodology long used by the Congressional Research Service of the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Why would Israel accept such an agreement? Especially given the racist views of so many leaders in Israel who over the years have vilified Arabs and Muslims as ‘cockroaches, thugs, and animals and are worth nothing? (The 2006 statement of MK Rabbi Levi comes to mind: “One Jewish fingernail is worth more than one million Arabs”).

Among several reasons are the following:

Firstly, as Israeli commentators have frequently stated, no Israeli government can withstand the social, political and military pressures within Israel to conduct a prisoner exchange in order to repatriate imprisoned Israelis. This is especially true regarding soldiers

Secondly, Israeli intelligence agencies are well aware that the Salafist groups invited into Lebanon, (which they initially approved) whether inspired, goal sharing, or affiliated with Al Qaeda are also eyeing the prisoners Israel holds. The prisoners are a ‘bloodstream’ issue for most Muslims and Arabs, perhaps second only to liberating Palestine.

According to some local Lebanese political analysts, of whom there is no shortage, Sunni Al Qaeda is feeling upstaged by Shia Hezbollah’s given the latter’s recent confirmation to the Europeans that the south is a “friendly environment” for the international forces and that Hezbollah looks at their military role positively because they preserve security and because they help economically because of the stability that they engender.

The June, 2006 attack on UNIFIL didn’t arouse any political discussions between the international forces and Hezbollah because they knew that Hezbollah didn’t have anything to do with it or with the launching of the Katyusha missiles on Israel from Khiam on the 17th of June which is corroborated by the fact that none of the international reactions to the two incidents included any public or implied criticism of Hezbollah even though Washington and the March 14 forces to, as usual, accuse Syria.

Hezbollah has risen to the position of an actual partner in the protection of the UNIFIL forces. While Hezbollah can’t offer a complete guarantee because of the size of the area, it will continue to cooperate with protecting the UNIFIL forces. The Salafists resent Hezbollah’s good relations with the UN and the Lebanese Army. According to confessions given by Salafi detainees more than a month ago to the Lebanese security services, members of Al-Qaeda reconnoitered the Lebanese south more than once, with special emphasis on UNIFIL units, their movements, and patrols in order to attack them.

Al Qaeda’s ‘Justice Campaign’

Based on conversations with Salafist activists, including Oabat Al-Ansar, based in the Ain al-Helwe Palestinian refugee camp, widely believed here in Khiam to be behind the June 17 Katyusha missile attack, the Al Qaeda inspired plan is simple but deadly. The Salafists as part of their compliance with instructions from the late Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi and the number two man in Al-Qaeda, Aiman al-Zawahiri, to attack UNILFIL and the Zionists, they intend to free Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners by operating worldwide. They are also eager to demonstrate their reach to carry out what is called their Hamlet Sodek (Justice Campaign). These groups, and whoever else is involved will simply target Zionists (read Jews) in any place they are found until Israel overturns the draconian sentences it imposes (which would never be imposed on Jews even guilty of capital offenses) and releases all political prisoners. Targeting Zionists, as it was explained to this observer, means taking Jewish hostages or just killing the victims, depending on the circumstances.

“We will teach them a lesson. The Zionists will learn our reach. And when we have inflicted on them enough justice for their crimes-one Zionist for each prisoner they are holding-the Zionists will open their prisons. You will see it happen”.

Israeli leaders might consider dealing straight with Hezbollah and Hamas this time and also carefully ponder P M Siniori’s ‘clean sweep’ proposal. The alternatives are not pretty and the horizon is open.

FRANKLIN LAMB’s just released book, The Price We Pay: A Quarter Century of Israel’s Use of American Weapons in Lebanon is available at Amazon.com.uk. His volume, Hezbollah: a Brief Guide for Beginners is due out in early summer, 2007. He can be reached at fplamb@gmail.com

 

 

 

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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