You've got to admire
the Lebanese. They're rarely fazed by anything. Throughout three decades,
they've been embroiled in a lengthy civil war; they've been occupied by foreign
armies and attacked by a puissant and sophisticated military power. Today, the
country hosts a United Nations force and is devoid of a functioning government.
It is also steeped in
debt and trying to combat rampant inflation even as foreign investors are
scrambling for the exit. Yet, the Lebanese -- at least, the ones I know --
remain calmly optimistic.
character trait was in evidence when I lived in Beirut some years ago. While
staying in a service apartment off Hamra Street, I was woken at 4 a.m. by a
huge "boom" and choking black smoke billowing through the open
window. Gripped by cold fear, I grabbed my passport, credit cards and the cat
-- not necessarily in that order -- and hot-footed it downstairs.
shaken," said the building's owner, impeccably attired in silk pyjamas and
leather slippers, cigar in hand. "What are you doing running around bare
footed?" he asked. "Don't worry about this old building. It's been
shelled dozens of times and it's still standing."
He explained that the
Lebanese have become inured to danger. Perhaps that explains why their papers
rarely indulge in dramatic headlines.
Thus chastised, I
hesitate to overdramatise current events. But just in case you hadn't noticed,
US warships are heading towards Lebanon's coast, ostensibly in support of the
Siniora-led, pro-Western government. Apparently the USS Cole, already in the
vicinity, will shortly be joined by the Nassau battle group.
Chairman of the US
Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen claims this show of naval force is
merely to demonstrate the importance of the eastern Mediterranean to US
interests. "We're engaged" and "We're going to be in the
vicinity," he told reporters.
Prime Minister Fouad
Siniora says they weren't invited and, in any case, will not deploy in Lebanese
parliamentarian Hassan Fadlallah believes Lebanon is facing an American threat
but says such "intimidation will not affect us".
divided over the significance of US ships patrolling the area. There are those
who believe their presence is a ploy to divert people's minds from the carnage
perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.
Others think this is
little more than gunboat diplomacy, designed to force the Lebanese opposition
and its foreign backers to quit putting obstacles in the way of a long overdue
Minister Walid Al Mua'llem seems to have read it that way. "I say to those
Lebanese who are betting on America's . . . muscle flexing off the coast of
Lebanon that this is a losing bet. America cannot impose a solution in Lebanon
as it sees it," he said.
Alternatively, the US
presence could be in answer to the growing number of Russian
intelligence-gathering vessels, aircraft carriers and missile cruisers allegedly
frequenting the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartous.
Another school of
thought says the US ships are there to evacuate Americans from the region but
that only sounds remotely plausible if one partners it with Saudi Arabia's SMS
request to its citizens in Lebanon to leave ASAP, along with Germany's recent
handover of its command of Unifil's naval arm to Italy. Germany would be loath
to get into any battle involving Israelis.
This scenario --
hopefully the least likely -- is the most ominous. Could there really be
another full-scale war in the offing with Israel the main protagonist, this
time backed up by the US?
Many in Israel
believe the 2006 war with Lebanon was ended prematurely and the country left
with unfinished business. Israel's 500-page Winograd report was particularly
scathing about the performance of Israel "Defence" Forces, while
hawks worry that Israel's strategic usefulness to Washington has been eroded by
the last military failure.
thinks there's something in the wind. Its fighters are said to be on high alert
in southern Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently
gave a speech warning Israel that his fighting force was 50,000 strong and
Now that US plans to
launch preemptive strikes on Iran have been thwarted due to lack of evidence
that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons, it may have decided to tackle
Hezbollah and Hamas -- groups funded by Tehran -- head on, albeit with Israel
officially leading the charge.
Israel's war on
Hamas-controlled Gaza -- or as one Israeli minister put it "a
holocaust" -- has already begun as we see from hospitals and morgues
crammed with the bodies of children. Will Israel extend this aggression to
Lebanon with the aim of wiping out Hezbollah once and for all? It can't hope to
fight on two fronts alone . . . but with America's help, who knows?
If I were to ask my
old landlord in Hamra, he would probably smile and continue playing backgammon
with his battle-scarred old friends. They've seen too much; they suffered too
much. They deserve a break. All the Lebanese people deserve a break. God bless
them and keep them safe!
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.