ONLINE ONLY: Beirut: Blood Holiday

Lebanon’s celebration of a brutal killer’s release illustrates the extent – and the limitations – of Hizbullah’s power

Dispatches History Islam Lebanon Middle East War on Terror

Last Wednesday’s pageantry in Beirut celebrating the return of Samir Kuntar marked a black day for Lebanon. It is hardly the first time an Arab terror outfit has held a street party for murderers – sweets were handed out in plenty of Arab capitals on 9/11. Still, it was surprising to see the participation of many members of Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 movement, like Prime Minister Fouad Siniora who has become a significant US ally over the last three years. Now, Lebanon’s friends in the international community, especially in Washington, who backed March 14’s struggle and looked to it as a model alternative to the bin Laden version of the Middle East, must re-evaluate their continued support.

Still, not all Lebanese took part in the festival for a child-murderer.

“The celebrations caught me by surprise,” says Jana, a 26-year-old Shia woman raised in the Hezbollah cantons of south Beirut. “I don’t understand how we are celebrating the achievements of such a person. It is Lebanese schizophrenia. Anyone who attacks us we call a criminal, but when one of ours does the same, we call that person a hero. We don’t apply the same standards to ourselves as we do to the Israelis.”

Much of Lebanon was ashamed to see fellow countrymen cheering the return of Kuntar, and few observed the national “holiday.” In the largely Christian eastern sector of Beirut, Ashrafiyeh, stores stayed open. It was the same in Sunni areas of West Beirut, where merchants were openly disdainful of the Sunni Prime Minister’s decision to honor the resistance.

“I assure you there are even lots of Shia who are depressed about the celebrations,” says Jana. “They’re certainly not in the majority, but you won’t hear them at all because they would be identified as traitors. What kind of support is there for them if even the government is welcoming the prisoners?”

Wadih, a 40-year-old Christian businessman agrees. “Yes, it’s shameful. But if Israel is satisfied with it, then at the end of the day I’m ok with it. The Israelis made the deal. Why should I be more royalist than the king?” “The Israeli political class has their own socio-political justification to reason away releasing a murderer for two corpses,” says Tony Badran, a US-based Lebanese political analyst. “So our political class can reason it away, too. But I am not reasoning it away. I hate everything it represents. It’s a festival of violence where everyone has to come pay homage.”

The Lebanese political class – from the Maronite Patriarch Boutros Sfeir to anti-Hezbollah Christian leaders like Samir Geagea and Amine Gemayel – has all described Israel’s release of the prisoners as a “positive” development. “They say it is ‘positive,'” explains Tony, “not because Kuntar is back but because they want to use it to shut the door on Hezbollah’s weapons. This strips them of one of their justifications to hold on to their arms – fighting for the liberation of Lebanese prisoners. Kuntar was the last of them so that file is now closed.”

But of course Hezbollah will not willingly abandon its arms under any circumstances. And the events of the last week are merely a distraction on the road to what many believe is an inevitable renewal of civil war in Lebanon. Hezbollah can have their civil war as they showed in May by overrunning Beirut. But as their opponents showed them in the Shouf Mountains and the north of Lebanon, they cannot win that civil war. No one will win it.

The question then is, why did so many of the Lebanese politicians who may eventually make war against Hezbollah feel compelled to celebrate with them.

“You can’t underestimate how important the Israeli conflict is for Arabs and Muslims,” says Wadih. “It is part of the inferiority complex. Despite all the conflicts among the Arabs themselves, this still comes first. And because of the place it occupies in the Arab mind, there is a sacred line you need to follow to satisfy the popular demand, whether you believe it or not. It is a sickness, to be sure. How else can you explain that a murderer is received as a hero?”

The Lebanese are fully aware of the nature of Kuntar’s crimes. While some are truly appalled, the fact is that bludgeoning the head of a four-year-old child is hardly anomalous in the context of a military strategy that for over half a century has intentionally targeted civilians. After all, it is not as though Kuntar crossed the boundaries of decency so carefully articulated by Yasser Arafat, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Ladin. So, if the leaders of Lebanon’s pro-democracy gathering will not denounce Kuntar’s crimes or Hezbollah’s celebration it is not merely because they lack courage. Rather, it is because even the Sunnis, as much as they despise the “Party of God”, are so steeped in the same bloody history that they cannot imagine another course. What is unique about Hezbollah’s coming out party for Kuntar is that it illustrates how the culture of death (“Death to Israel, Death to America.”) may end by consuming itself. As Hezbollah proved in its blitzkrieg of Beirut in May, Lebanese lives, Arab lives, Muslim lives are also of little account if they stand against the “Islamic resistance”. Moreover, the Kuntar episode shows that the Shiite militia has little regard for even Shiites. After all, insofar as freeing Kuntar was Nasrallah’s casus belli for the July 2006 war [it was to force Kuntar’s release that Hezbollah raided Israel and kidnapped two soldiers] the Lebanese Shiite community “martyred” 1200 of its own in order to vouchsafe Nasrallah’s “faithful promise”. Twelve hundred for one is a bargain suicidal in both its math and its ethics.

Self destruction is arguably the inevitable destination for a group that, as Martin Kramer details here, made its world debut with suicide operations during the Lebanese civil wars.

The first car-bomb “martyrdom operation” was November 11, 1982 when a Hezbollah fighter killed seventy-four Israeli soldiers and fourteen others. Then came a series of spectacular attacks, culminating in the1983 US Marine Barracks bombing at the Beirut airport. Amal, another Shiite organization, understood that Hezbollah’s martyrdom operations were winning them prestige and power in the Shiite community, and tried to match is rival.

As the two Shiite organizations competed for martyrs, they started sending out their young men on ill-conceived operations that failed to kill any of the enemy and achieved only the deaths of the martyrs themselves. That is, they were suicides.

Shiite clerics tried to qualify the religious sanction they’d granted the operations. There was Hezbollah’s one-time spiritual adviser Hussein Fadlallah:

“We believe that self-martyring operations should only be carried out if they can bring about a political or military change in proportion to the passions that incite a person to make of his body an explosive bomb.”

But it was already too late, for it is impossible to prevent the suicide of a society like the one Hezbollah has imposed on the Shia of Lebanon. Nasrallah forecasts the end of Israel, comparing the Zionist entity to a frail spider’s web, destined to be swept away. The winds of history are capricious, but what neither Arab bluster, nor Islamic martyrdom nor the “steadfastness” of “resistance” can obscure is that the house Hezbollah built is on the precipice of extinction, by its own handicraft.

Hezbollah seems ascendant, but not so strong that the Israelis would not welcome a Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, for they believe it would be easy to deter the “Party of God”. However, that is precisely why Hezbollah will not take over, because it needs to operate behind the cover of the state, a human shield of more than 3.5 million people.

In other words, the Islamic Resistance is surrounded by enemies – one across the border, another at its back, and yet a third made up of the Middle East Majority, a Sunni sea threatening to engulf them as the Shia have feared for almost 1400 years. The situation is unsustainable, and thus as time is calculated in the region, the days of the death cult are numbered.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz Prime Minister Olmert’s office has produced a video about Kuntar “as part of a campaign to tarnish the image of the Lebanese guerilla group in light of the victory celebrations.”

But who is unclear about Hezbollah at this point? Unless it is Ehud Olmert himself, who last week in Paris at the Mediterranean Summit sought a little face time with prospective “peace partner” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Israeli Prime Minister who wants to illustrate the culture of death in Lebanon is pursuing peace with the state that equips the culture of death with weapons. Indeed, Israel has warned against regime change in Damascus because it fears a Sunni Islamist government next door – while it cuts deals with Shiite Islamists in Lebanon and is then aghast at their level of brutality.

Everyone else already knew about Hezbollah. The Arabs knew. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Sunni strongman Saad Hariri, both congratulated the Islamic resistance for freeing the prisoners – and this after Hezbollah tortured and executed their co-religionists just two months ago.

Maybe the campaign is directed toward the West. But the apologists in the academy and editorial rooms and foreign bureaus angling for professional advancement – i.e. access to Nasrallah and his captains – know. The same is true of the left-wing fellow travelers of the “resistance” who, unknown to some of their earnest colleagues, understand perfectly well that the Islamists do not share their “progressive” ideals. The tenured Nietzscheans and Foucauldians who seek a return to the blood, the magic, the violence, they certainly know. Those who know what Hezbollah is, know; and those who seem not to know, know even better.