Saturday, July 15, 2006

Report from North of Beirut

The following is from a third letter from my sister-in-law (who is trapped in Lebanon by the Israeli siege) which arrived a little while ago. The two previous letters can be read here and here.

This afternoon, about an hour after I left Beirut to join my colleagues in the North, seven bombs were dropped reaching farther and farther north into the city. We just saw on the news that bombs have hit Junieh, the next city north of Beirut and half way to where my colleagues and I are now. There are also reports of bombs and shells hitting Tripoli, the next city north of where we are. Basically all the assumptions about the rules of the game that Israel would be following here seem to have dissolved. I've just been watching coverage on a local station of emergency workers in Tyre loading corpses in the back of a UN truck. They hold up each body for the camera before loading them in, and more than one have been children. And now we're hearing reports that Hebollah is talking about having the capacity to reach Tel Aviv. This has clearly spiraled completely beyond control.

In the midst of this emerging chaos I spent this afternoon at the pool of the San Stefano Beach Resort in Batroun, about an hour north of Beirut, surrounded by the rich and beautiful Lebanese and American contractors who can afford to set up camp here. All day reports and rumors have been circulating about an American evacuation. Almost all other Western embassies have evacuated. The embassy tells us that they are still working out their plan. There was a moment, relaxing by the pool, when I found myself thinking that it wouldn't be that bad to be stuck here for a few days. Being so close but so removed from conflict is a bizarre feeling – but it's one I recognize from the times I have been in Israel after having spent time in the territories. The difference is that there it is hard to find other people who actually understand what is happening on the other side of the border. Here everyone is acutely aware of what is happening in the rest of the country. A little while ago, walking around the old city of Batroun with a friend (another American woman who came to Beirut Wednesday on a 24 hour trip from Amman, where she left her 9 month old baby) we shared the bizarre feeling of war tourism. Batroun is a calm, quiet old town where the main attraction is an ancient Phoenecian wall and the only indication of people's knowledge of what is going on in the rest of the country is the general weariness on their faces and a few kids looking up in the air for Israeli planes.

When a country is being bombarded it seems incredibly self-centered to take it personally. But from the start on Wednesday, and especially when the bombing started in Beirut on Thursday morning, I have been taking this very personally. I am deeply connected to Israel. I've spent many formative periods of my life there as a child, an adolescent, and an adult. My immediate and extended family has supported Israel from its inception in every conceivable way – we have lived there, contributed to it with physical and intellectual manpower, supported the state politically and lent conscience when we have seen the government diverge from what we believe a Jewish should stand for. To be trapped by an Israeli siege feels like a personal attack, like family turning on me. With my close Lebanese friends – the ones who have lived in New York and Toronto and London and who, the first time they met me, gave me the wink of recognition of my Jewish name – I have a running joke about my secret direct line to the Israeli military. Now of course I'm wishing that this was not a joke, that I could somehow invoke some sense into this situation. But instead I'm just trying to leave.

I got into economic development with the aspiration of somehow contributing to Middle East regional stability and therefore strengthening the viability of Israel's existence in the region, something that despite deep issues with the Zionist project I have always at the core had to support. The link to economic development came as a response to conditions I experienced working in Arab-Israeli coexistence programs in Northern Israel. For a year I worked in an Israeli-Arab village, teaching an Education for Tolerance curriculum in neighboring Arab and Jewish schools and running day-long interactions aimed at creating personal contact and positive impressions between the two sides. Working between the Arab and Jewish communities I was struck by the immense economic gap and felt that trying to resolve conflict through dialogue or any other means was pointless without resolving the gap in resources and opportunities. I felt that the same applied to the two sides within Israel and to the region as a whole, which made me explore economic development in the Arab world and the possibilities for regional economic integration, and ultimately brought me to work in Egypt and Lebanon.

The project I helped design over a year ago here in Lebanon, which is now being implemented with over $7 million of USAID funding and which I spend a quarter of my time supporting, aims to help small- and medium- enterprises and small farmers in the Beqaa Valley and parts of South and North Lebanon to access higher value markets for niche Lebanese agro-food products and eventually to be able to export to Europe and the US. Through a Lebanese-British colleague we had just made a preliminary deal for supplying several products to Whole Foods UK, which would have made an immense difference in the lives of all involved in creating and marketing those products and reduced their reliance on entities like Hezbollah to provide basic services which they could not afford and which the government does not provide. This was of course the rationale for USAID funding such a project in the first place. We were expecting the products to be on UK shelves in a few months. With the air and sea blockade, and destruction of roads into Beirut, who knows when we will get back to the point we were at a few days ago. The infrastructure will take ages to rebuild, and it keeps getting worse. The idea that this confrontation will somehow mobilize Lebanese civilians against Hezbollah is absurd. It's like thinking that the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina would increase support from the American South of the war in Iraq, which diverted the vast majority of US resources which could have been used to respond to the domestic catastrophe. Instead the events of the last few days will simply increase loyalty to Hezbollah by the thousands of people who will now rely even more heavily on their support.

Since I've come to know Lebanon in the last 15 months I've been struck daily by how similar Lebanese are to Israelis, how much Beirut feels like an amalgamation of elements of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. There are moments, running along Mediterranean past aging pot-bellied men playing paddle-ball, stunning women walking and roller-blading in skin-tight clothes, and the seedier element of the small fraction of men who haven't left the country, when I literally forget whether I'm in Beirut or Tel Aviv. The similarity is I think partly due to the Mediterranean temperament and the spirit of people who live through chronic conflict, but the similarities have been intensified over the last several years as Lebanon has started to close the gap economically – even though much of the wealth is concentrated in an elite segment of the population (as illustrated by the responses by different segments of the population to the attacks in the last two days). With this siege the economic gap has already opened back up like the crater of an artillery shell. While Lebanon may not yet be back to where it was 20 years ago in terms of the physical destruction, it has certainly already turned back at least that far in terms of prospects for stability with Israel and the region. It feels like the people on both sides who have been living through this for decades just don't have the energy to start over on a path towards peace which they have always been suspicious of but thought they would give a chance.

Anyway -now mobile and internet are going in and out. The embassy is still figuring out a plan for cyprus but hasn't announced anything. Anyway I'm fine - they won't bomb a resort.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating series. Thank you.