THE SCENE BRINGS DOWNtown Jerusalem, in the throes of its endless light rail
construction project, to mind: a major thoroughfare in the middle of a vibrant
Mediterranean city, blocked to traffic on all sides because someone decided to
uproot the existing road in order to pave a new one.
Shopkeepers stand at
the doors of their shops, watching the slow excavation works and arguing
passionately with their colleagues from neighboring businesses. Nearby,
neighbors look down from the verandas of their homes. Representatives of the
“domestic security forces,” in dappled uniforms, berets on their heads and
humming radios in their hands, supervise the scene, their faces grave and
A truck pulls up and dumps boiling tar on the part of the
road that has been uprooted.
There are more people busily watching the
action on the road, voicing their opinions about how it is being done
whether it is needed at all, than there are people who are actually
In the middle of the busy, inside-out street, the lamp posts stand
tall, like islands of stability in the surrounding storm. Pictures of
Berri, eternal chairman of the Lebanese parliament (the highest
to which a Lebanese Shi’ite can aspire) and leader of the secular
movement, rival-partner of the Hizballah fundamentalist Shi’ite
from the tops of poles. Next to them are black flags with the symbol of
reminders that despite the excavation upheaval, this is the end of the
Festival – the traditional Shi’ite mourning period that marks the death
founders of this religious stream.
“Well,” a local resident says with a
chuckle, “at least you know who is paying for the road repairs. That is
is in Lebanon. When Eldad Beck Baalbek, Lebanon ELDAD BECK NEW
souvenir seller in Baalbek offers Hizballah T-shirts at discount rates
elections, the politicians remember they are supposed to do something
So now we are having local elections and the whole country is
being dug up.”
Posters of Berri in the heart of Baalbek, the indisputable
stronghold of Hizballah, might seem surprising, in light of the long
rivalry between the two main Lebanese Shi’ite parties. But they are part
quiet revolution that Lebanon is experiencing, orchestrated by Hizballah
Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. The revolution began when the Israel
Forces withdrew from south Lebanon a decade ago and has been progressing
accelerated rate since the Second Lebanon War four years ago.
tremendous destruction caused by the military adventure of the summer of
Nasrallah is still perceived by large parts of the Lebanese public, in
stripes, as the great winner of the confrontation with Israel and as the
of the “struggle against the occupation.” He is viewed as the leader who
to show that the small, weak and splintered Lebanon could overcome a
fearsome enemy. Pictures of Nasrallah hang in stores and private homes.
the roadsides, giant posters with his bearded and smiling image proclaim
saying, “Oh Mountain, the wind cannot move you.”
The mountain is
Nasrallah, the wind is Israel.
Local residents speak of Nasrallah with
great admiration. They do not call him by his name but by the honorific
NASRALLAH MAY BE IN HIDING, fearful of assassination by Israel,
but he does not confine himself to the boundaries of his own
is not interested in going down in history as yet another sectarian
many of whom have lived and been buried in Lebanon. He wants to become a
national leader and he really wants to change the face of Lebanon.
that end, he extends his hand to one and all and builds alliances. Prior
recently held municipal elections, Hizballah and Amal decided to run on
lists, in order to consolidate the political alliance they formed, based
widespread anti-Syrian popular uprising following the assassination of
prime minister Rafiq Hariri – a movement led by Lebanon’s other
Both of the Lebanese Shi’ite parties are Syrian allies. The
sweeping patriotic wave that led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army
Lebanon five years ago and the end of the Syrian occupation of the Land
Cedar compromised the Shi’ites’ many achievements, especially the
“chasing” Israel out of south Lebanon. The religious Hizballah and the
secular Amal had no choice other than to cooperate to unite the rest of
pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon from all the ethnic groups around them.
so, while the anti-Syrian “March 14 Alliance,” headed by current Prime
Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated prime minister, is slowly losing
because of internal conflicts and finds itself committed to
Damascus, the pro-Syrian “March 8 Alliance,” headed by Hizballah and
maintaining unity. “The alliance between those two movements is the
basis for a
Shi’ite uprising in Lebanon,” the union’s rivals warn.
reaching out not only to his rivals in the Shi’ite camp. He wants to
the entire Lebanese public that the fundamentalist Shi’ite “menace” is
not so bad. Analyzing the results of the last national elections in
year ago, Nasrallah understood he had to do this, because, despite his
movement’s military and political gains over the past decade, its
parliament in Beirut remained unchanged. Nasrallah holds only 12 seats
That is no way to lead a revolution.
BAALBEK POINTS IN THE
direction Nasrallah is heading. Fourteen years ago, on my previous visit
historic city, known for its very well-maintained Roman temples and the
summer international arts festival held among the ruins, it was a gray,
closed and isolated city.
During the 1980s, after the Israeli invasion of
Lebanon in 1982, Iranian Revolutionary Guards settled in Baalbek, under
From here, they began their efforts to change the face of the
Shi’ite community in Lebanon, waging a military campaign against Israel
other Western forces deployed in the torn and bleeding country.
the “City of Sun” as the Romans called it, closed its doors to the world
became one of the leading strongholds of the new movement,
Fourteen years ago, Baalbek was full of Hizballah flags,
posters of the leaders of the Islamic revolution in Iran and venomous
against Israel. Poverty was rampant.
Shops were closed or empty. Women
dressed in black garb that covered their entire bodies.
archaeological site was neglected. Tourists had just started to return
isolated city in the northern Lebanese Bekaa Valley, only 55 kilometers
open and cosmopolitan Beirut.
Fourteen years later, Baalbek, with a
population of approximately 72,000, is a different city. You can feel
on the roads that lead to the city through the Bekaa, the fertile valley
lies between the “Lebanon Mountain” – home of the Lebanese cedars and
and the mountainous chain of the anti-Lebanon, which traces the border
Lebanon and Syria.
Nowadays, advertisements for the city of Zahle, the
Christian capital of the Bekaa, proud of its arak and wine production,
to the posters of Hizballah. In its early days, Hizballah used to send
people out to the bars and clubs in Muslim West Beirut to destroy
beverages. In the mid- 1990s, wine manufacturers in the Bekaa were
to annoy their Shi’ite neighbors and avoided “brazen” displays of their
and business. Today, you can enjoy excellent Lebanese wines from the
winery and pure Zahle arak in Baalbek’s restaurants, and most stores
alcoholic beverages without any restrictions.
Arak reigns victorious over
The mood in Baalbek is very different from the
atmosphere in Dahiya, the neighborhood in southern Beirut where the
command’s nerve center is located. Hermetic security measures have been
around the fortified compound of the Hizballah leadership, near Beirut
There is no free passage.
completely paranoid about spies, agents and saboteurs. Even outside the
compound, Hizballah employs psychological terror. The exposure of
networks operating in Lebanon has enabled the Shi’ite organization to
Hizballah and its allies see “Zionist spies” everywhere
and accuse all their political rivals of being “Israeli agents.” The
in current Lebanese discourse are “Zionist collaborator” and a complete
“boycott” of everything connected with Israel.
Lebanon has legislation
that forbids contact with Israel and Israelis. Lists of people defined
are published on various websites. Newspapers make their pages available
anyone who wants to slander and accuse. Many of the members of the
camp live in constant fear of assassination.
IN LEBANON’S HEYDAY, THE
Baalbek Festival, the first art festival in the Arab world, established
1950s, attracted the best Arab and international artists.
Festival stopped operating during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted
It was renewed in 1996 as a symbol of the rehabilitation of
Lebanon as it rose from its ruins, but was canceled again for two years,
the Second Lebanon War. Even though most of the fighting was in the
Israeli commando force reached a hospital on the outskirts of
Now, preparations between the ruins of the Jupiter Temple and
the almost perfect Temple of Bacchus, god of wine, are again
The Baalbek Festival is scheduled to open this month – unless a
new Middle Eastern drama scuttles the plans again.
“This is Nasrallah’s
main contribution to changing the situation in Lebanon,” a local
explains. “He understood that you have to accommodate people. He is a
pragmatist, not a pure ideologue. He is a politician at heart and that
is why he
knows you have to make compromises.
That is why he does not stress the
religious aspects of Hizballah but talks about national honor and
unity. That is also the reason he has many supporters in the other
“However, his image and the halo attached to him do not reflect
reality. He is not that perfect.
He made many mistakes. One of them was
abducting the Israeli soldiers in 2006, which led to war, destruction
devastation,” the resident says.
As part of the concerted effort to
present Hizballah as an all-national Lebanese movement, Nasrallah
movement’s ties with Iran. Just before the entrance to the city, you can
see a giant poster with the picture of the father of the Islamic
Ayatollah Khomeini. But that is the only visual presence that
sponsors in Tehran.
“A little paradoxically,” admits a local Christian,
“Hizballah adopted the official symbols of Lebanon, including the cedar,
has also served the extreme Christian forces who wanted a completely
Lebanon. But Hizballah understood that its future lay with at least a
superficial integration of the basic Lebanese culture.”
And the Hizballah
leadership also understood that its political goals depend on the
development of its supporters and of the areas under its command. In
years, the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, one of the poorest and most
of the country – despite its fertile agricultural soil, which still
despite government efforts to eliminate the industry – has seen economic
and investment in infrastructures. The road system has been repaired,
it isn’t an election season. New villas are springing up everywhere. The
fidgeting cars have been replaced by big shiny ones. And on the streets
Baalbek, the stores teem with plenty and trade is brisk.
But not everyone
is enjoying the economic boom yet. At the entrance to the historic site
Baalbek, young men without high school educations surround the busloads
tourists who have returned to the city, offering to sell them T-shirts
Hizballah symbol or, alternatively, fake Roman coins. Actually, they are
beggars than vendors. The initial asking prices are high but the young
willing to compromise quickly. They drop the prices to ridiculous lows,
they can bring some money home. Since Western tourists are not very
eager to buy
Hizballah shirts, the price quickly drops to two dollars. “There is a
demand for these shirts only among Arab tourists,” admits Hassan, 16,
one of the
No particular military presence is evident on the streets of
Baalbek, despite frequent talk of a possible war in the summer and the
tension between Israel, Hizballah and Syria over the supply of missiles
Nor is there anything obvious that would reveal
that just a few weeks ago there was a bloody clash on the streets of
between military forces and the main drug gang in the city, members of
During the raid on the neighborhood controlled by the clan,
dozens were injured, including six soldiers. Lebanese newspapers quoted
member of the clan as saying, “They [the soldiers] behaved like a
than the Israelis.”
THE LEBANESE ARMY IS IN A period of renewal and
fortification. The central government is leading a public campaign to
the army as the ultimate forging tool of Lebanese society and the chief
guarantor of its unity. “Hand in hand we will build the Lebanon of
says an army advertisement, appropriating the terms of Hizballah’s
resistance. “The dawn of martyrdom will not fade,” and “With martyrdom
defend and with labor we shall reap,” other advertisements
Despite the stepped-up campaign against the drug dealers and the
official commitment to prevent a leakage of arms to Hizballah, the
military checkpoints throughout Lebanon has dropped considerably since
expulsion of the Syrian army in spring 2005, after Hariri’s
cursory inspection of vehicles takes place at the crossing points
area and another or at the entrances to the major cities. Lebanese
in charge of the task.
The two rival camps in Lebanon are playing the
same card, the card of national unity. The pro-Western camp presents
more nationalist and joins in the struggle against Israel. Hizballah
introductory lesson in openness and tolerance towards all sects.
organization is even taking part in the restoration of Beirut’s old
But this is a tango of wolves, and they are ready to pounce on
each other at any moment.
“Appearances can be misleading,” a local warns.
“The situation here is very unstable and volatile and, at any moment, a
conflagration between the rival camps can break out.
And then there is
the regional context. Will there be a new war this summer? “The Scud
us very worried. It is very hard for us to read Nasrallah. On the one
provokes Israel and declares with the Syrians that in the next round
pay a heavier price. Hizballah also promised to avenge the assassination
military leader Imad Moughniyeh, who died in Syria.
“But does Nasrallah
have an interest in starting a new war?” Either way, initiating a Middle
war has become more complicated today because of the interference of the
international legal system and the threat of the International Court,
hangs over everyone’s head.
“I am not sure that scares the heads of
Hizballah,” the local continues. “Also what are the plans of the Israeli
Can it stand by while Hizballah arms up?” In any case, Syria has
playing a decisive role in Lebanese politics.
Politicians who, until
recently, were considered Damascus’s sworn enemies, such as Druze leader
Jumblatt, are now seeking its friendship. Even Hariri Jr. reconciled
President Bashar Asad, accused of murdering his father.
had no choice. The international circumstances that just five years ago
the “Cedar Revolution,” which opened the way to the expulsion of the
after the murder of Hariri Sr., faded away after various Western leaders
decided, in an effort to pry it away from Iran and thus increase
isolation, that Damascus should be removed from its corner of
In the corridors of various European administrations and
the US, there is still talk about the need to tighten relations with
order to allow it to disassociate from Iran. The fact that Damascus is
declaratively and publicly maintaining its special relationship with
Ahmadinejad’s Iran does not seem to bother the advocates of a policy of
reconciliation with Syria in the least.
And this has led many Lebanese to
reconsider their attitude towards the senior Syrian brother. Who even
the international court established in order to prosecute the murderers
Hariri? After Syria was more or less absolved of responsibility for the
that international body has been busy defending itself against
it is not doing anything.
THE SIGNS OF THE WILD, ANTISemitic incitement
against Israel, once an inseparable part of the city’s landscape, have
almost completely removed from Baalbek. Somebody understood that that
propaganda is counterproductive for a city that draws hundreds of
tourists a year.
However, in conversations with young Lebanese from all
sects, who do not hide their sympathy for Hizballah, it is clear that
glue of national unity is based mainly on feelings of hostility towards
which are often pervasive and absolute. These youths, born after the end
terrible civil war, have also invented convenient historic myths for
“Civil war?” a young student from Beirut, who insisted on
calling Israel “occupied Palestine,” wonders. “There was no civil war in
but a war between foreign forces. The Lebanese made a terrible mistake
chose one side over the other. That war was motivated only by economic
Lebanon is a green spot in the Middle East, water-rich. That
is why there was a war here.”
She does not voice even a single word of
self-criticism for the role of the Lebanese and the disaster that they
But after Hizballah’s “great victory” over Israel, she
does not want to hear about any other wars.
“We’ve had enough war,” she