The pounding that Lebanon is taking as Israel seeks to work out its differences with Hezbollah is painful to me. I lived in Lebanon for two years, serving as deputy chief of mission, second in command of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and, for many months, as the officer in charge of the embassy between ambassadors in the 1987-1989 period.
In case anyone believes that my time there led me to have any gooey feelings about Hezbollah, or about Lebanon for that matter, I should point out that during those two years Hezbollah held Americans as hostages. The top priority of the American Embassy was to try to obtain the freedom of those hostages. They were sympathetic figures, who had been working in Lebanon as teachers, journalists, and missionaries. In the case of some of them, their wives had remained in Beirut, to be near their husbands in captivity.
During my time, we obtained the freedom of none of them. This, despite the high priority we attached to their release and the dedication of considerable resources to that end. The challenge was magnified by the fact that the embassy was authorized by the Department of State in Washington to have no contacts with Hezbollah personnel. The closest I ever got was when an official of another Lebanese organization, a Druze, now dead, who was in touch with Hezbollah, told me that he could obtain the freedom of one of the hostages if I could get Washington to put up a million dollars.
That was, of course, out of the question, as it should have been. I remember him telling me this in a conversation shortly before Christmas, at twilight in the ruins of the Lebanese parliament, while my bodyguards grew nervous. I had been giving him a pitch on how Hezbollah could improve its image in the United States by releasing one or more of the hostages as a goodwill gesture in advance of the holidays. All the American hostages were finally released alive in 1991.
But I left Lebanon in 1989 still perceiving Hezbollah as mercenary thugs in clerical disguise.
Hezbollah emerged in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In my mind there is little question that if Israel pushes Hezbollah too hard in Lebanon, Iran and the Iraqi Shiite militias will weigh in to help Hezbollah, with a possible result being truly regional war. That must be forestalled by active American and other diplomatic efforts. Now.
Israel is thinking that if it pounds Lebanon hard enough, the Lebanese government, basically flaccid, will order the Lebanese Army to bring Hezbollah under control, thus forcing Hezbollah to cough up the Israeli prisoners and stop shelling northern Israel. The problem with that theory is that the Lebanese government lacks a consensus that would cause it to give such orders and, even if it did, the Lebanese Army lacks the firepower to bring Hezbollah under control.
There is another problem as well: Most Lebanese just plain hate the Israelis. Even Lebanon's Maronite Catholics, the group who feels most threatened by Hezbollah's militant Shiite Islam, deeply resented Israel's invasion and long occupation.
So, basically, the Lebanese would rather get bombed and blockaded than knuckle under to the Israelis.
When they were busy demolishing the country themselves in a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, I used to argue with them that what they should do is stop fighting and just concentrate on making money, which is one of their many talents. It is not so much that they are attached to principle, or to such concepts as Arab identity or identification with the plight of the Palestinians. It is more that they are more prepared to endure events - as they have across the centuries - rather than bear the shame of having given up, to the Israelis, to the Syrians, to the French, or to the Americans.
All of that said, it just makes me feel sick to think of Beirut, Tripoli, the Bekaa Valley, and other parts of the Lebanon I knew, even in wartime, being reduced to rubble once again. When you bomb Beirut, you risk destroying a church where St. Paul prayed.
When I was there the Lebanese themselves published books that showed Beirut before and after the civil war, fine old and new buildings that had been reduced to rubble. The civil war ended in 1991.
Then began the rebuilding period, fueled by money and the virulent capitalist investor mentality that characterizes the Lebanese. They are real merchant-traders: I was there during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; the Lebanese sold supplies to both sides, at a fine profit.
Now it is being knocked down again. None of this is new to the Lebanese. Someone asked me how people in Beirut would cope with the Israelis having knocked out the power stations, cutting off electricity and water. That was the way it was during the civil war; they were used to it; nearly every building had a generator. Knock out the airport, and they'll they take ferry boats to Cyprus and fly from there.
My best Lebanese unflappability story has an audience sitting on chairs in a plaza in front of the blown out National Library, listening to a string quartet play while vigorous shelling continued between Hezbollah and its then current enemy, within easy-listening distance. My own experience was that I noticed the artillery barrages at first, but as I focused on the music, the shelling just sort of faded out of my consciousness.
None of that means that the world shouldn't work very hard to stop the war currently under way, if for no other reason than that it risks metastasizing into a regional Middle East war. But - to the Israelis and everyone else - don't count on the war ending with the Lebanese throwing in the towel. They just don't. The Israelis should know that from previous encounters.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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