Ramlet el Baida, Beirut.
It is hard to believe that it has already been three years since July 13 and 15, 2006, when American MK 82 and MK 83, 500 and 1,000 pound bombs, and four US TOW missiles, gifted to Israel, destroyed Lebanon’s oil storage facility at Jiyeh, 30 kilometers south of Beirut.
The attack at Jiyeh was one of more than 12,000 Israeli air force bombing missions during the 33 day attack on Lebanon, as its navy fired 2,500 missiles as its Army fired over 100,000 shells. Large parts of the Lebanese civilian infrastructure were destroyed, including 400 miles of roads, 73 bridges, and dozens of other civilian targets bombed such as Beirut’s Rafic Hariri Airport, ports, water and sewage treatment plants, electrical facilities, 25 fuel stations, 900 commercial structures, up to 350 schools and two hospitals. More than 15,000 homes were destroyed and an additional 130,000 damaged.
The intentional environmental disaster at Jiyeh was the worst of its kind in Lebanese history with more than 15,000 pounds of thick oil soaking Lebanon’s beaches turning some into tar pits. According to the World Bank, the bombing of the oil storage tanks produced a 50,000 sq meter “carpet” of oil sunken below the sea just off the coast of Sidon which Greenpeace claims will require decades if not centuries to recover. Efforts by UN Sec.-General Key ban Moon to collect close to a billion dollars from Israel to reimburse Lebanon for clean up and restoration costs remains stymied today by a US veto threat of any Security Council resolution that attempts to hold Israel responsible.
Why clean a Lebanese beach?
The Washington DC-Beirut based Sabra Shatila Foundation as well as American, European, and Lebanese co-sponsors, decided, as part of next month’s 27th Anniversary commemoration of the 1982 Massacre at Beirut’s Sabra Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, to clean nearby Ramlet el Baida Beach and develop a continuing program to keep it clean. As one of the very few free Lebanese beaches, Ramlet el Baida is used daily by Palestinian refugees, poor Syrians, Lebanese, and the nearly enslaved foreign ‘guest’ workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Sudan, Bangladesh and other countries.
To its great credit, and in support of the Free Gaza Campaign’s (freegaza.org) efforts to break the siege of Gaza, Beirut’s Municipality agreed with SSF that Beirut’s main beach would be renamed “Free Gaza Beach” for 24 hours and that Ramlet el Baida would be forever ‘twinned’ with Palestine’s Gaza Beach.
Since the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Beirut’s beaches suffer from an inordinate amount of trash, some quite heavy. According to two Lebanese environmental NGO’s, Cedars for Care, and Big Blue, part of the garbage is from the huge sea-edge mountain of trash 45 kilometers south in Saidon. The eastern Mediterranean coast current runs approximately south to north and so as Saidon’s trash mountain rubbish washes out to sea, which it does daily, some of it ends up on Lebanon’s northern beaches. The further north one goes along Lebanon’s beaches, the more washed up trash one observes. When Lebanon resolves to recycle Saidon Trash Mountain, her beaches will be in much better shape for all to enjoy.
Some conspiracy theorists claim, without compelling proof, that the large number of plastic hypodermic needles on Lebanese beaches are from Israel’s sea dumped medical waste and relatively large heroin addict population, among the highest in the world on a per capita basis, according to the World Health Organization and UNODC (UN Office of Drugs and Crime).
Beach cleanup volunteers were asked to be particularly careful in handling needles, especially with Hebrew markings, or to leave them in place and report to their “team leaders”.
Most studies of the growing drug use to Lebanon’s south indicate that drug abuse is spread among all social strata in Israel. The most abused drugs among Israel’s growing West Bank settlement population are anti-anxiety and anti-depressant ‘cocktails’ as well as cannabis, heroin and synthetic ‘downers,’ with heroin becoming more prominent in recent years. In 2006 Israeli authorities again reported a rise in the consumption of cocaine and a sharp increase in the use of LSD and amphetamines. In addition, Israel authorities are concerned about the widespread abuse of tranquilizers; attributed to “the pressure of living surrounded by enemies” The drug-related crimes are reported to represent 75% of the total crimes committed in Israel. (See Isralowitz R; Reznik A; Spear SE; Brecht ML; Rawson RA. Título: Severity of heroin use in Israel. April, 2007).
Pollution from Israel is not new in Lebanon. Southern villagers have long experienced and resisted Israeli efforts to pollute their farm lands, steal fertile top soil, steal water, sabotage Lebanese crops, weaken the economy and attempt to eliminate commercial competition and ‘ put the Lebanese on a diet’ to paraphrase former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert.
On August 2, shortly after 8 am hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese volunteers assembled on “Free Gaza Beach” to fill trash bags of trash from the 1.5 mile beach. Hezbollah pledged to send Madhi scouts and has since offered more beach cleaning help in the future.
As the sun rose rapidly from Syria to the East, temperatures quickly climbed to 35 degrees. Palestinian Refugees Camp volunteers and supporters from Hezbollah, the USA, Iran, Europe, England, Canada, and Lebanon, fanned out across the beach in teams of 15-20 each.
One precocious 12 year-old Hezbollah Girl Guide from Haret Hreik in Dahiyeh, didactically inquired of her American companion from California, “Just how people expect the tiny baby turtles who, Enshallah, will hatch next month and try to crawl to the sea to grow up, can possibly climb over all the beach garbage?”
From the, skinniest tyke, with a determination that inspired some beefy battle hardened elders, they scoured the hot sand and plucked trash.
Some participated in a discussion led by a Syrian teacher who stood in front of a display of the Lebanese, American, Iranian, Palestine, Hezbollah, and various NGO flags. They considered the question of how these flags belonged to their people and not just to their governments. And why it is quite appropriate on such an occasions to fly them next to other, despite differences among their governments. “Flags represent people, not just governments, flying them does not mean we accept the policies or military actions of governments du jour”, the teacher advised.
They kids learned more about the environment of the Mediterranean, its fragility and the need for helping its many species in danger from man’s abuse.
As the volunteers from various confessions and countries co-mingled, some asked fellow beachcombers questions including the “why do you guys hate us?” one and the “are you guys really terrorists and Islamophobes, you seem sort of nice?” one.
These questions and many others were heard here even among adults, as more and more visiting Americans and Europeans value the chance to engage in dialogue and gain reliable information, as well as understanding and insights unavailable in many media outlets.
No help from Uncle Sam this time
The US Embassy was asked if USAID might donate water or ice cream for the kids cleaning Beirut’s beach. USAID apologized and told the Sabra Shatila Foundation representative, Ms. Nancy from Cape Cod Massachusetts, that after 3 days careful study of the subject that USAID “regrettably does not have the budget to provide water (cost? maybe $ 50) for Palestinian and Lebanese children who will be cleaning Ramlet el Baida beach on August second”. During a follow up call by one of the American Boy Scouts who looked forward to joining fellow scouts from Muslim Sunni Jarrah Scouts and the Muslim Shia Madhi Scouts of Hezbollah “that ice cream is a luxury these days and not in the USAID budget. However we are able to supply an American flag for display if you would like”.
Bless its heart; the American Embassy in Beirut did indeed present a fine large American flag which flew proudly on the beach next to the flags of Hezbollah, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Norwegian People’s Aid, and Big Blue and Cedars for Care, Lebanese environmental groups.
As the thirsty camp kids contemplated “water, water everywhere and ne’er a drop to drink”, and trudged east to west, with the rising Lebanese morning sun on their backs, picking up trash, God shined his grace upon them and with the help of cash donations from American citizens from Florida, Washington State and New York and a Palestinian scholar in Oxford, England, 600 bottles of Lebanon’s finest ice cold pure mountain water, Sohat by name, as well as delicious Lebanese Cortina ice cream, and “Keep our Beaches Clean!” T-Shirts and Baseball caps appeared just in the nick of time.
In defense of USAID’s apparent stinginess it should be conceded that the Agency is not without its own issues. Giving anything to a Palestinian these days requires lot of analysis. One can imagine the hullabaloo in the Israeli occupied US Congress if USAID had provided water for this particular mixture of beach cleaning kids. Which member of Congress would be the first to complain of aiding potential future terrorists? A Congressional investigation might be demanded by close to 20% of its Members beefing up the AIPAC campaign to destroy President Obama’s Middle East initiatives in Palestine.
To excuse USAID further, in its 8/5/09 edition, the Washington Post suggests that decision making at “the main U.S. foreign aid agency(USAID) is in limbo, entering its seventh month without a permanent director despite pledges by the Obama administration to expand development assistance and improve its effectiveness in poor countries.
Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have stressed the importance of helping foreign countries with environmental problems. “Increasingly, it’s a painful contrast between their rhetoric and the reality of having no leadership at USAID”, said Carol Lancaster, interim dean of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, who served as deputy administrator of the aid agency under President Bill Clinton.
Lancaster claims that USAID assistance oversees doubled, to $13.2 billion in 2008 and the agency has become a conduit for money flowing to contractors, who have limited supervision from the agency.
Reverend David Beckmann, president of the aid group Bread for the World, describing the plethora of political claims attached to USAID helping grassroots projects such as beach cleaning. The development program, he said, “is a mess. In the USAID budget, every dollar has three purposes: help build an Air Force base, support the University of Mississippi, and get some country to support our projects.
According to Reverend Beckmann, “The waste of billions of U.S. reconstruction dollars in Iraq and the growing role of development in the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan have given new urgency to long-running debates about reforming the USAID system.”
Sometimes cheery in outlook, the Sabra Shatila Foundation US Embassy contact noted that “after we finish our Iraq and Afghanistan work, and depending on what happens with the US economy, we may have more funding available for projects such as Lebanon’s environment. Next time gives us more notice and we will see what we can do.” No hard feelings.
The beach project was good event. Some volunteers called or emailed the Sabra Shatila Foundation this week and reported” we want to do more stuff”.
Slowly, slowly maybe mutual understanding in the Middle East is deepening.
One example. Last year, a former American Ambassador, part of a delegation from a Washington DC based US delegation who had served in the region at the time of Hezbollah’s birth, explained that he had changed his views of the Party of God. “Lamb, he said, “if the average American could come here to observe what is going on in Lebanon today and the ‘human face’ of Hezbollah, I am sure 85% of them would support the Lebanese Resistance and its work.”
Another former US Ambassador recently told a gathering of Americans in Beirut, relaxing with a drink or two following a long day of briefings: “Not only is Hezbollah the most secular of the Lebanese groups in my opinion, Hezbollah is as American as Apple Pie! We are very similar in many ways how we think and analyze problems.” He continued, “Our peoples are much alike. It’s no less than a goddamned shame that our government is currently at odds because if we worked together, with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, we could solve many Middle East problems from Iraq, Afghanistan to Palestine. We should also calm down about the Iran is seeking nuclear weapons b——-! That’s a red herring if ever I saw one! Hell I don’t claim to know what the Iranians are doing but if I was Iran facing that bunch running Israel I would sure get me a couple for self defense if I could! And while I am on this subject, when and if Iran gets a nuclear bomb, Israel is likely finished. Not because Iran will use it, but because its deterrence will stop Israel from threatening the region and you will see and international resistance bloom like Mao’s thousand flowers!”
Then the retired American Ambassador, who had served in China in the late 1970’s, downed his third scotch on the rocks and fixed his gaze on a Lebanese woman who entered the Hamra bar and smiled at him.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at email@example.com.