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Greetings from Hizbollah country

Southern Lebanon is not the place to come for clarity, of any kind. From the heavily fortified border that divides Lebanon from Israel the air is gauzy with the dust — part sand, part smog, part heat haze — that permanently cloaks the summer sky. Only in winter would it be possible to stand beneath this tattered Hizbollah flag, watched closely by two 10-year-olds who have warned me against taking their photograph, and gaze south, almost as far as the distant West Bank.

To the east it is possible to make out the crest of the Golan Heights, flat beneath the snow-capped Mount of Transfiguration, Jebel ash-Sheikh. The Golani soil is rocky and inhospitable, a swamp of mud during the short and icy winter and a dust bowl for the remaining 10 months of the year.

In an ideal world, it would be possible to walk south from this point. Instead I face a 30-metre long, 10-metre high cement bunker, topped with satellite dishes, video cameras and flanked by razor wire that runs as far as the eye can see on either side. I cannot walk down the hills to Galilee, to Tel Dan, where water springs, impossibly cold, and trickles west to Banias, collecting the runoff from the Golan Heights to form the Jordan River, which in turn flows to the Sea of Galilee, between Jordan’s upraised flank and the West Bank, and finally to the Dead Sea. 

Distances here are so small that were buses running, it would only take around four hours to cover the river’s entire length. The kibbutz below me is less than kilometres away. Syria, about another five. The modest sizes of the Levant nations is compounded further by the poor quality of the land: more than 70 per cent of both Syria and Jordan is considered either unsuitable for cultivation or of extremely poor quality. What is of value is invariably closer to the ocean and the ocean lies to the west, so that on population maps it looks as if both countries are trying to back away from the desert, pressing their torsos up against the beauty of Lebanon and Israel.

Israel is unfeasibly green, a jewel sparkling with the light of a thousand sprinklers, shining off the avocados and cotton of kibbutzes, off the fish farms and orange trees. And off the planned settlements that now extend east from Qiryat Shemonah into what was once Syria but is now Israeli Golan, the two separated by the devastated ghost town of Quneitra and a dusty UN strip of grass.

In contrast, Lebanon looks simply dead. Back over the villages of Kfar Kila and Sarada, little grows high enough to block the sight of cement block villages and Hizbollah flags. An occasional herd of goats grazes across arid ground. The Shi’ite children standing behind me must gaze down at the lush corn and tomato fields as if what lay before them were some kind of hologram.

No visit to Kfar Kila is complete without first visiting the Hizbollah Gift Shop, a corrugated iron shed selling everything from key rings and cassettes of spiritual leader Nasserallah’s speeches, to hair brushes and dolls, not to mention martyrs’ scarves, should one be inspired into performing an impromptu suicide attack on the nearby border. A sign assures me all gifts are genuine gifts from the Hizbollah.

Hizbollah is funded largely by Iran, it’s fellow Shi’ite power base in a sea of Sunni states. Its stated aim is total destruction of Israel, an aim abandoned by the likes of Hamas and the PLO a generation ago. But Hizbollah represents an element within Lebanese society which may never have gained momentum without the brutality of the 1982 Israeli invasion, an element seduced by mindless racism, and fascinated by the idea of violence for its own sake.

While most Palestinian groups would be delighted to sign a peace settlement that saw Israel pull out of the Occupied Territories and move a peacekeeping force into East Jerusalem, for Hizbollah this would be catastrophic. If it stands for anything other than fighting, it is certainly nowhere represented in their information centres.

At the Bekka Valley information centre a polystyrene billboard, written incongruously in English, announces, “Passing Resistance”. Inside, a metal spiral channels red water into a small metal dish. It is, apparently, a river of blood. The walls are adorned with photos of “martyrs” or dead fighters lost against the “occupiers”. Groups of would-be suicide bombers crowd into photographs with the bearded, turbaned Nasser Allah.

But the car park of Khiam Prison is full of something one doesn’t usually associate with Hizbollah or abandoned prisons, tour buses. Tourists from the Gulf, Syria, and Jordan make their way here to witness crimes that seem to have been well advertised in the Arabic press but escaped without notice elsewhere. On arrival, we are invited to watch a video (with English commentary) which variously describes Israelis as being “mischievous”, “impetuous” and the slightly more puzzling “impudent”.

The former Israeli detention centre alongside, run by Hizbollah as a museum prison since 2000, is compact, clean and seems to have been recently painted. Although it is universally acknowledged that prisoners brought here could be detained without trial for years, the cells opened up to convince me of Israeli war crimes reveal precious little, and it is only the commentary of our ex-prisoner guide that suggests that the Israelis were anything other than perfect hosts.

Abdullah claims the suffocating heat meant prisoners begged constantly for water, which was delivered in buckets, laced heavily with toilet cleaner. His voice suggests permanent damage resulted. Smaller cells, probably built for one person, housed five; only two could lie down at any one time. Exercise was unknown, food scarce, and Red Cross visits denied for three years. The accusations are damning, although there is no mention of European prisoners such as Terry Waite and Brian McKeenan held by Islamic Jihad in Beirut during the same period.

Coming north from Sidon, the advertising hoardings appear, offering Tissot watches and Bacardi Rum to Muslim children who will be lucky to hold a job in their short lives. The coast is dishevelled and polluted, though Damour is now fashionable, its long beach spotted with resorts and bars that draw weekend crowds down from Beirut, 20 kilometres to the north. Behind the town, fields of banana and corn give way to apple trees and tobacco as the land rises up into the hills.

The Bekaa Valley is a God forsaken place, a long, flat strip of dust captured between two mountain ranges so high that both still hold traces of snow while the temperature in Chtaura hits 40° C. The hills are deforested, the roadsides littered with plastic and paper. It is here that Hizbollah, who have 13 MPs in the Lebanese parliament, are at their strongest. From here to the border, the Hizbollah flag hangs from power poles and billboards; its symbol, the word Allah forming an upraised hand, holding a machine gun.

From my hotel balcony in Baalbek, I can look out across the gorgeous Roman ruins, through fir trees to snow-capped peaks that are violet against an apricot sunset and wonder that anywhere can look this beautiful in the evening and so desolate at midday.

The road from Israel ends overlooking Pigeon Rocks, the towers of sandstone that dominate Beirut’s western coastline. It’s a popular place for swimmers and joggers, and there are bars that will sell you a beer for US$5 and plenty of places to park the BMW you might have driven around from Hamra or the campus at American University of Beirut. The Palestinians hang out here. It’s the closest strip of coastline to Sabra, and dozens, it seems, of these men have spent time in the west and are keen to talk to any of the few Westerners that pass by.

Ali tells me he’s from Acco, though he’s never been there. But his parents came from there, in what has been West Israel for 50 years. He was born in Sabra, where his parents fled after Partition. He met a Danish woman and moved to Copenhagen, but then she left him and he got sent back.

“Now I drive a taxi,” he shrugs, “A friend’s. Sometimes.”

Perhaps he can go to a free Palestine, I say, hoping to make him feel better, to Ramallah or Hebron.

“Ramallah?” he asks despondently, “Why would I go and live somewhere I’ve never been?”

So instead he stays in a city where he says he is treated like a criminal. So it is surprising that Sabra can appear so full of hope. Only twenty years ago Israeli forces under the command of Ariel Sharon allowed Christian militiamen through his lines in an orchestrated move that gave them access to Sabra. Around 800 civilians were murdered in 2 days of killing. The hatred that is the modern day Hizbollah was born.

On a Thursday morning it throbs and pulses beneath buildings that still bear the scars of a 20-year-old war. It is 36°C in the shade and smelling thickly of petrol, rotting vegetation and old meat. Stalls selling fake anything sprawl across the street. The gutters are awash with something black.

“Mister, mister, hello, Mister, thank you, welcome, hello!” someone shouts from near my waist, and I bend down to talk to Hamed, who is around 12 and running his uncle’s clothing stall. He is selling low quality fake jeans for $5, modelled from Moschinos. “Where are you from Hamed?” I ask him, while my wife sorts through a pile of t-shirts that announce things like “Let’s not extinct animal.”

He shrugs, “Sabra.”

One afternoon I head up to Byblos for a swim, walking down past the castle, part Persian, part-Crusader, that dominates the waterfront. It’s been beautifully restored, in parts, and sits above a tiny fishing harbour and a couple of excellent cafes. It reminds me, though, that war has always come this way, north from Europe and Istanbul, east from Damascus, west from Rome, and most recently, south from Jerusalem. Lebanon is what it has been for 4000 years — a way station, a trading post, a thoroughfare for armies on their way to other places.

The castles have been conquered and rebuilt again so many times it’s hard to tell whether they were originally Persian, Mamaluke or Umayyad.

Few cities conjure the images that Beirut does. For a generation, the name has carried with it images of madness and exploding shells, of masked teenagers waving assault rifles, and bleeding children dying in mounds of rubble. Few cities are as misunderstood in the West. One might be forgiven for thinking, for instance, that Lebanon is Islamic, fiercely hot, extremely poor, crippled by the civil war, and has existed in some form for millennia. As it happens, Lebanon never existed as any kind of state until 1919, its President has always been Christian, one of the most popular sports is skiing, and Beirut is — by a mile — the most sophisticated and expensive city in the region. Which brings us to the paradox that is Beirut, a city not so much a place as a palimpsest upon which history and truth are seemingly constantly built and harshly erased.

Perhaps there should never have been a Lebanon. For 400 years it was little more than a mountain. Christians had trickled into the area for hundreds of years, firstly the followers of the 4th Century Syrian ascetic Maron, attracted to the area by the safety afforded by its intimidating mountains and the lushness of the thin strip of land between them and the sea. Others followed, drifting in from the trading routes to Cyprus, Turkey or the East, the great-great-grand-children of Crusaders left behind when the last bastion fell at nearby Arwad.

The Ottoman empire swallowed Lebanon whole, as it did Syria, Palestine and Jordan. When France received its mandate, it divided the region into five districts, one of which was called Mt Lebanon. They doubled its size (to a giant 10,000 sq kms) until the demographics pleased them, taking in the Anti-Lebanon mountains and drawing in scattered communities of Druze and Shi’ite Muslims. 

When independence was granted after the Second World War, the constitution reflected this diversity: it was determined that the President must always be Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni, the Speaker Shit’ite and the head of the armed forces Druze. Which assumed Christians could maintain such a structure should they ever be greatly outnumbered.

Popular opinion had it that the country would fall apart, that it was a contrivance that could not endure. But it did hold together, at least until external forces upset the delicate balance. Beirut became the banking capital of the Middle East, on the back of an entrepreneurial and highly educated population which in turn funded investment in tobacco, fruit, tourism, and shipping.

Often described as the Paris of the Middle East, it could have been more accurately described as a Havana; a party town, drawing in crowds from two dozen surrounding nations to enjoy the kind of lifestyle forbidden in their own countries. If you were a Moroccan prince or a Saudi businessman, a Cypriot boat captain or a Turkish general, Beirut was the place you came to party. There was jazz and wine and women and gambling, business deals done in quiet bars and political favours granted in seaside cafes and, perhaps most importantly, it was a place where secrets were kept.

Also like Havana, which danced itself to death at the end of the Somoza dictatorship, Beirut seemed to have a giddiness about it, a sense that one must party now, for there may be no tomorrow. The young crowded into the myriad of cafes that lined the Place des Martyrs, lounged on beach chairs along the Corniche, lunched in mountain-top cafes in Beit Mary or watched the world go by from their seaview apartments in Raouche’ or Ain al-Mreisse. In Cairo or Istanbul the working classes might have dreamt of an apartment with real walls and a ceiling, a functional car or a job in an office; in Beirut the dreams were those of Europe — giant apartments hushed with air conditioners, late-model Volvos or BMWs, the international conference circuit of bankers or oil magnates.

And then it stopped, almost overnight. The city that seemed to have escaped the Middle East was dragged back into it, kicking and screaming. The apartments were abandoned, the cars sold. The wise left for New York, Paris and Cyprus.

In the five years that followed the 1967 Six Day war, Palestinian refugees fled Israel, only to find themselves moved on by occasionally brutal force from Jordan and Syria. With nowhere else to go, they spread through the country in such numbers that at one point 80 per cent of the tiny state was considered to be Palestinian-ruled. They were everything Lebanon could not afford; clannish and aggressive, different, and not Christian.

From this point on, Lebanon as a concept ceased to exist. Spasmodic seizures cut off electricity, transport, and communications. Banks closed. The wealthy fled. Lebanon turned on itself. Bonds that had held for generations broke – Shi’ite against Christian, Druze against Sunni, pro-Syrian against Pro-PLO. Fighting broke out amongst almost everyone except the National Army, who were confined to barracks, uncertain which side to take. In their place, more than 90 armed groups battled for control, street gangs with mortars and armour. 

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