Surely we should all have known better. It was just too good to last. It seemed to some Americans in Lebanon that nearly all the Lebanese and their political leaders were ready to try to more of less work together for the good of the country. Many even seemed to be getting excited about Christmas. Several of the diverse sects’ zaim’s (leaders) were seen on TV enjoying attending public lightings of Christmas trees, praising the new unity government and some humming their favorite holiday tunes during family visits to places like the crowded Beirut and City Malls.
The new prime minister Saad Hariri admitted that he relished presiding over the ceremony for the lighting of the ‘national’ Christmas Tree in Downtown Beirut this week and was inspired by fond memories of his student days at Georgetown University when he liked to walk over behind the White House and watch the US President pull the switch and see the huge tree light up to a chorus of “ohs” and “ahs” from kids and their relatives.
The ceremony here was almost the same and it seems to this outsider that the Lebanese have way more relatives than we in America do or at least they get together more often. Given all the electricity problems Lebanon’s population has to endure, with daily power black outs ranging from three hours per day in the more posh Hamra district to more than 12 hours of daily cuts in some areas like the Palestinian refugee camps and sometimes no power at all for days up north in Tripoli, Akkar and over east in the Bekaa Valley, some gathered at the huge tree waiting for Saad to pull the switch joked that it would be a real miracle if all those trails of tangled wires actually worked. Just as one Saudi student was overheard explaining to his English girlfriend that even in Wahabist Saudi Arabia, it is ok to wish western visitors ‘Merry Christmas’, the giant tree lit up brilliantly, as Saad pulled the switch and he and the crowd beamed with child-like delight.
The ‘peace on earth good will towards men’ spirit also seemed to permeate politics. By an historic vote of 122 to 1, the new ‘unity’ Parliament voted its confidence in the new ‘unity’ government. The question of Hezbollah arms was generally believed to have finally been put to rest with Article 6 of the Cabinet’s Policy Declaration, which accepted them as necessary and legitimate. Meanwhile, nimble minds discussed various formulae to unite the National Lebanese Resistance military prowess with the Lebanese Army in order for Lebanon to finally have a real defense force able to end 60 years of Israeli attacks. Signs of unity, pride and hope were popping up all over.
President Michel Suleiman returned from candid talks with President Obama where he reportedly gave his hosts a realistic assessment of Lebanon’s politics, explain that Hezbollah was an equal partner in the government and should be engaged with by Washington. Lebanon’s problems, he told his hosts, included the continuing Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory, and its daily violations of UNSCR 1701 as well as serial threats of attack. The Lebanese President also informed President Obama, NSC Director James Jones and US Envoy George Mitchell` that UNSCR 1559, regarding decommissioning militia arms was fulfilled as far as Lebanon was concerned. He implied that it should be scrapped. Suleiman is too smart to believe that any US administration will give Lebanon weapons that will deter Israeli attacks but he asked for some and Washington agreed to meet with Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr next year to talk more about the subject. Congressional sources reported that President Suleiman was shown a lot of respect and appreciation for the positions he took and gave their full support for the national dialogue.
Regarding Hezbollah possessing weapons, one US Senate Foreign Relations Committee source reported that several Congressional analysts she has spoken to agree with the recent statement of MP Mohammad Raad that “Hezbollah agrees that the state must take the responsibility for defending its people but when the state is incapable, it is the duty of every Lebanese to help build a strong and just state that can equip its army to face up to Israeli violations.”
Regarding Suleiman’s visit to Washington, Raad stressed that “everything the President said in Washington should have been said.”
Things seemed to be going well for Lebanon this Christmas season. However, no sooner had the tree lighting crowd dispersed than the atmosphere literally changed and the following days brought sustained heavy rains and flooding with many Lebanese stuck in flooded homes and cars with heavy thunder and lightning. Some are blaming the foul weather on global warming. Others on the return of Jeffrey Feltman, the Assistant Secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, who last month announced from Washington that US officials, are staying away from Lebanon lest they be blamed for trying to interfere in Lebanon’s internal affairs by choosing its new government.
It did appear that the scowling Jeffrey Feltman appeared to ride in on the dark clouds, via the airwaves to frighten little children with his patented threats of old. As though he had never been absent from Lebanon, Jeffrey tried his best to stir up the now quiet Lebanese political pot. First he announced on Al-Jazeera TV on 12/16/09 that “Hezbollah endangers the Lebanese people and does not comply with international resolutions and exerts its power in areas where the government has no control.” Critics quickly countered by asking Feltman about the more than 60 UN resolutions that Israel has ignored, more than half with US diplomatic cover, including the UNSCR 1701. Concerning Hezbollah “exerting power in areas where the government has no control” analysts point out that Hezbollah asserts its power in Parliament and the Cabinet which is exactly the seat of government control.
Then Feltman insisted that the Lebanese army assert the government’s authority over all the country’s territory, adding that Hezbollah exercises power in areas where the government has no control. He also stated that his country respects the independence sovereignty, and non-interference in Lebanese affairs and accepts the right of the Lebanese to freely elect their representatives to the parliament. However, he added,” the US will not have contacts with Hezbollah or any party that does.”
Feltman also dredged up the old, discredited bromide that his country’s animosity with Hezbollah dates back to the 1980s, when, according to him, “Hezbollah killed a number of US citizens in Lebanon”. Some saw this as a desperation smear by Feltman since former CIA agent Robert Baer, who led the three year CIA investigation of that charge, and others who have thoroughly and repeatedly investigated events of the early 1980’s, before Hezbollah was even coherently organized or released its public “Open Letter” in 1985, found no probative evidence to link Hezbollah to acts targeting American civilians or even its military. Various acts were carried out by more than a dozen newly formed secretive militias during this period. The only thing some of these groups had in common was their goal to expel the occupying Israeli forces and those who were alarming, supporting and assisting in their killing of Lebanese civilians.
According to Lebanese human rights ambassador Ali Khalil, “If Feltman has proof of Hezbollah involvement in the killing of Americans nearly 30 years ago let him come clean as hold a news conference and present his evidence. Otherwise he must immediately apologize to Hezbollah and to the people of Lebanon. Feltman should understand that nobody in Lebanon has to engage in wild speculation about the US role in arming Israeli to kill thousands and thousands of Lebanese, for the past 30 years until today. The facts are clear, available and well documented. Where are his?”
Some expected Feltman to also bring up the discredited “Ohmygod, Hezbollah will create an Islamic Republic in Lebanon and Hezbollah believes in the Wilayat al Faqih Guardianship of the Jurists!” scare tactics. Those charges were reserved for Feltman’s friend, the anti-Resistance MP Dori Chamoun, who minutes after Feltman spoke, announced them during an interview with Al Massira magazine, adding that Hezbollah “is politically immature.” When asked by the interviewer what that meant, MP Chamoun declined comment.
In an interview with OTV on 12/16/09, Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun asked Feltman, “How do Hezbollah’s weapons pose a threat to [the US] if we are defending our nation?” Aoun added that he does not trust Washington, because “it has sacrificed us too many times…Hezbollah’s weapons will be kept until Palestinians return [to their country].” Aoun, reiterated that he is against Palestinian naturalization in Lebanon currently being pushed by the US and Israel.
Another reason Jeffrey Feltman has resurfaced is the rumored withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Lebanese village of Ghajar.
Feltman promised almost exactly one year ago that he had a Christmas present for the then Lebanese Prime Minister, Fuad Sinoria. The Christmas present was that Israel would be forced by Washington to withdraw from the Lebanese village of Ghajar before the New Year. There was one catch. Sinioria, a leader of the March 14 US-Saudi team, had to himself figure out how to assure that March 14, the US team got full credit for Israel’s withdrawal from Ghajar and to prevent Hezbollah from getting the credit by the Lebanese public. That, Feltman explained, would ruin the then approaching June election results.
The same applies this Christmas. As it stands now Feltman is concerned because most Lebanese believe that Israel would not leave Ghajar were it not for Hezbollah pressure which is the only reason Israel is still not occupying nearly 600 villages in Lebanon today.
Meanwhile, life in Israeli-occupied Ghajar deteriorates. Najib al-Khatib, spokesman for the population and their municipal council, explained “The services offered to the Northern section of the village on the basis of the Blue Line, will officially remain in Israel’s hands. However, the people are not getting the basic services today, let alone when the village is actually divided into small sections.” In statements to Al-Jazeera.net, Al-Khatib pointed to the refusal of the fire department, ambulances and the phone and electricity companies to enter the Northern section of the village, under the pretext that it was “outside the border,” adding: “Last month, an ambulance refused to enter this section, which entailed the death of four-year old Hayat Jaber.” Moreover, the population in the Northern section cannot bury its dead until after the deceased is brought to the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance of the village to get the authorization of the police. “They are depriving the people of a decent living and preventing us from dying with dignity. Imagine that the family of the deceased has to wait with the corpse in the street for long hours, until the Israeli officer arrives, checks the identity of the deceased and writes the burial authorization.”
Al Khatib reported that UNIFIL wants Israel out before its current commander, Claudio Graziano, departs next month.
Israel could easily be pressured by the White House to leave Ghajar, just as Feltman offered Fuad Siniora last Christmas. But Feltman still has no assurance that Hezbollah will not get the credit when Israel leaves and he must find a solution. And so the Israelis remain in Ghajar, life worsens for the Lebanese under its occupation, and Feltman ponders.
FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at email@example.com