Day 6 of the siege: Notes on solidarity, Hezbollah, and Israel

Destruction in the Bir el-Abed area of the southern Beirut suburbs after bearing the brunt of an Israeli air strike. Photo taken 16 July 2006. (IRIN/Leila Hatoum)

I am drafting this entry in this unusual diary at 11:30 pm; I have about half an hour before the generator shuts down. Most of Beirut is in the dark. I dare not imagine what the country is like. Today was a relatively calm day, but like most calm days that come immediately after tumultuous days, it was a sinister day of taking stock of damage, pulling bodies from under destroyed buildings, shuttling injured to hospitals that have the capacity to tend to their wounds more adequately. The relative calm allowed journalists to visit the sites of shelling and violence. The images from Tyre, and villages in the south are shocking. Images from Haret Hreyk (the neighborhood in the southern suburb that received the most “focused” shelling) are also astounding. The number of deaths is yet uncertain, it increases by the hour as bodies are pulled from the landscape of destruction. In the southern suburbs, some people may be trapped in underground shelters under the vestiges of their homes and apartment buildings. And yes, there is a problem of space in morgues in the south and the Beqaa, because none of the towns and villages are equipped to handle these numbers of deaths. The IDF has destroyed almost entirely the village of ‘Aytaroun. Some of the surviving wounded are Canadian citizens. Like the eight Canadians who died in the building in Tyre (a building that housed the Red Cross and civil rescue), the Canadian government has had very little regard for them.

Evacuations, Privilege, Solidarity

Today was a particularly strange day for me because I was granted an opportunity to leave tomorrow morning. I hold a Canadian passport; I was born in Toronto when my parents were students there. I left at age two. I have never gone back, for lack of opportunity and occasion, no other reason. I have the choice to sign up for the evacuation, but the European and North American governments have been so despicable, so racist that I don’t want to subject myself to a discrimination of that sort. The Swedes, the Danes and the Germans have evacuated their patriots with blond hair and blue eyes. The immigrants that were given shelter to their countries “out of the kindness” of their governments have been systematically left behind; and the guest workers who stayed to enliven their economies and their babies who adjust the dynamism of their demographies were left behind to fend for shelter under the shells.

But I digress. The point I set out to make is that I refuse to be evacuated as a second tier denizen. I had the opportunity to leave tomorrow by car to Syria, then to Jordan and from there by plane to wherever I am supposed to be right now. For days I have been itching to leave because I want to pursue my professional commitments, meet deadlines and continue with my life. For days I have been battling ambivalence towards this war, estranged from the passions it has roused around me and from engagement in a cause. And yet when the phone call came informing me that I had to be ready at 7:00 am the next morning, I asked for a moment to think. I was torn. The landscape of the human and physical ravages of Israel’s genial strategy at implementing UN Resolution 1559, the depth of destruction, the toll of nearly 250 deaths, more than 800 injured and 400,000 displaced, had bound me to a sense of duty. It was not even patriotism - it was actually the will to defy Israel. They cannot do this and drive me away. They will not drive me away. This is one of the most recurring mistakes that the IDF makes; this is how we see things: they have destroyed this country, they are taking an opportunity to turn it to rubble and to usher us into oblivion. If there is ambivalence vis-a-vis the wisdom of Hezbollah’s capture of the two soldiers, there is unambiguous, unanimous solidarity to stand in the face of Israel’s barbaric arrogance. Some people see more in this war, some people see a moment of where the logic/values of the policies of the Mubaraks, the Abdullahs of the Arab world, i.e. the defeatist, pragmatic corrupt sell-outs will be humiliated as well. And, I am sure, other people see other things as well.

The roads to Damascus are not safe. Its many different ways are shelled everyday. Drivers know what “calculated” risks to take, I am assured, but one never knows. Everyday the way out becomes more difficult. I decided to stay; I don’t know when I will have another opportunity to leave. The first contingent of Britons was evacuated early this evening. There are two ships, but the evacuation will take place over three days. Same for the French and Americans; their evacuations will last for two days. While the evacuations are taking place there was relative quiet. A welcome lull. There was activity in the street, even on the Corniche along the seaside. Refugees from the south, displaced from their homes and provided shelter in public schools strolled in Hamra, looking for a breath of fresh air. A break from the confinement in schools and other makeshift shelters. Imagine the horror, the sad, sad horror: we are on borrowed time and the only reason we are not under threat, under any serious threat is because the passport holders of some of the G8 countries are evacuating safely to safer harbors. With this relative calm, the sense of impending doom becomes almost palpable - time, space, light and movement are subsumed in an eerie stillness. It feels vaporous and fills the air. As it wafts from room to room, from apartment to apartment, as it turns a corner and moves to another neighborhood, every gesture, every act is a little delayed, slowed, surreptitiously lethargic, every thought lingers too long in the unfinished or inchoate state.

This eerie stillness numbs the passage of time and the cognitive perception of things material. Objects seem both familiar and unfamiliar. They are familiar in that they were there the day before and seem not to have moved from their place. They are unfamiliar because they seem to belong to another time, another life. There was another life - I had another life that seems distant and foreign now. The morning is different, noon is different, sunset is different. Another Beirut has emerged. War time Beirut. War time Lebanon. War time mornings, war time noons. Siege time Beirut, siege time morning, siege time sunsets. Everyone else in the world is going about their day as they had planned it or as it was planned for them. The movers and shakers of this world, the fledgling middle classes of the developping world, the 11 million children workers in India, the good-doers and the evil-doers. We are in a different geography of time, of agency; we are besieged, captive, hostage. No chance of Stockholm syndrome this time. Our every move is monitored: every moving vehicle delivering food, fuel, or medicines is monitored, every phone call is listened in on, every email read, every dream snarled at, every desire crushed. Israel has the right to explode it to smithereens. The shelling has not really let, don’t get me wrong. It still goes on but it’s more occasional; there are more “blank spaces” in between now.


These “siege notes” have been receiving a number of reponses from Israelis. I have to say that most are of the annoying sort. First, they always begin by noting that I am intelligent and I get commended for my intelligence like Colin Powell gets commended for his English language speaking skills and you wonder what those making these observations expect from you and the world in the first place. Second, they systematically mistake expression of dissent and critique with Arab regimes and official discourse as some sort of a favorable disposition towards Israel. In other words, there is, falsely, a tautology between regarding Israel as an enemy country and endorsing radical ideologies of Islamic fundamentalism or rabid nationalism. As if being a democrat, an egalitarian and a feminist implied that one could not have even more profound grounds for being critical of Israel and regarding that country as an enemy country that has sponsored and produced nothing but war, violence, wretchedness, misery, banditry and usurpation. And so heartened by my ambivalence towards this war they recommend that more conversations should take place between Israelis and myself. Of course, most propose that I make the effort to seek those Israeli interlocutors out. This extreme form of Habermas-mania, that assumes that deep conflicts can be “talked through” is the sumum of hubris. The experience of the peace process is telling: it is clear that Israelis cannot, cannot, cannot accept Palestinians as human beings whose humanity is of equal value as their own. This is the bottom line. And until that bottom line is changed, there is nothing that a member of a society that builds walls around itself to shut itself off from the world and shut the world from itself can tell me. Punto final.

One of my impromptu (Israeli) commentators warned of my candor, despaired at my position vis-a-vis Israel, and took generously time and space to explain to me that Hezbollah must be crushed because if they were to win, they would destroy Israel and me, because of my values and lifestyle. This view, along with other views salient in western media (particularly American) of Hezbollah betrays ignorance. It is fatal ignorance. The most gross miscalculation Israeli strategists are making is based on the assumption that Hezbollah is a) not a legitimate political entity in this country, b) its base is made up of extremists and c) its “elimination” would leave the Lebanese construct unscathed. In point of fact, pushing the Lebanese population to “rise up” against Hezbollah, or the scenario of a Lebanese implosion is the worst case scenario for all regional “parties”, because the country would then become the jungle of violence and killing that Iraq is today. Because I am a staunch secular democrat, I have never endorsed Hezbollah, but I do not question their legitimacy as a political actor on the Lebanese scene - I believe they are just as much a product of Lebanon’s contemporary history, its war and postwar, as are all other parties. If one were to evaluate the situation in vulgar sectarian terms, when it comes to representing the interests of their constituency, they certainly do a better job than all the political representatives presently and in the past. It would be utter folly (in fact it would be murderous folly) to regard Hezbollah as another radical Islamist terrorist organization, at least in the ideological and idiomatic vein of the American intelligentsia and punditry.

There is something about a stubborness to misunderstand that betrays an intent to see a crisis linger or even escalate in the US. If Americans feel better being misguided idiots, Israelis should know better. If the Israeli intelligentsia wants to play deaf like Americans, the only outcome will be an Iraq scenario, although I reiterate that Lebanon is not Iraq and the Lebanese will not be manipulated into barbaric sectarian horror. We’ve tried that before and it does not work, and we are tired of fighting each other.

Hezbollah is a mature political organization (that has matured organically within the evolution of Lebanese politics) with an Islamist ideology that has learned (very quickly) to co-exist with other political agents in this country, as well as other sects. If Lebanese politics was a representation of short-sighted, petty sectarian calculations, the lived social experience of postwar Lebanon was different. Sectarian segregation was extremely difficult to implement in the conduct of everyday social transactions, in the conduct of business, employment and all other avenues of commonplace life. And that is a capital we all carry within ourselves. There were exceptional moments when the country came together willingly and spontaneously (as with the Israeli attacks in 1993 and 1996). But there are other smaller, less spectacular moments that punctuate the lived experience of the postwar that every single Lebanese can recall when sectarian prejudice was utterly meaningless, experienced as meaningless. When former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, the country seemed divided into two camps; the consensus was overwhelming, however, that we would not revert to fighting one another, to eliminating one another.

If Israel plans to annihilate Hezbollah, it will annihilate Lebanon. Hezbollah and its constituency are not only Lebanese in the perception of all, they are also a key, essential element of contemporary Lebanon. Moreover, the specifics of UN Resolution 1559 may have regional implications, but at heart and in essence they can only be resolved within the Lebanese consensus. Israel cannot take it upon itself to implement that UN resolution. There is, of course, sinister folly that Israel should implement any UN resolution, considering its stellar record of snarling, snickering and shrugging at every single UN resolution that did not suit its sensibilities. Hezbollah are not al-Qaeda, though Israeli and US propaganda will portray them as much. And that is the downfall of public opinion, the tragedy at the root of the consensus that agrees to watching Lebanon burn. In more ways than can be counted, they are different political ideologies, groups and movements. First, they are not suicidal. Second, they are not anti-historical. Third, they are a full-fledged political agent at the center of a dynamic polity. Their ideology is not an ideology of doom; they represent as much petty interests of their constituency as they are imbricated in the fabric of regional politics.

Israel and Channel 2

I was watching Lise Doucet on the BBC interview one of Olmert’s underlings yesterday after his speech. This is the folly of the Israelis, and I believe it will be their downfall, ultimately. He was lamenting that Hezbollah hit the “peaceful” city of Haifa, an Israeli city that he described as exemplar of coexistence between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Haifa! An Israeli city? Haifa? The name is Arabic. The jewel in the crown of Palestinian cities … A peaceful haven of coexistence between Jews, Muslims and Christians? It took decades for Christians and Muslims to appear on the roster of “human beings” in the ledgers of the Israeli government. Decades of struggle, riots, pain and suffering. And they are still second class citizens, and they are still unwelcome, pushed out, day after day, crushed by the Israeli machine. This eloquent underling was making the argument that Hezbollah wanted to destroy the city of “coexistence”. Of course, he does not care that IDF-besieged city of Tyre, the city they are bombing to rubble, the city where the Red Cross and civil rescue headquarters were shelled to the ground, is itself a gorgeous jewel on the Lebanese coast. That it is a genuine city of coexistence amongst Christians, Shi’ites and Sunnis. And the delightful town of Marja’yun is also a city where sects and religions co-exist, and Zahleh … and so on and so forth. But no matter, the Israelis have always done this, and eventually, it catches up with them. In the end, they will realize that their narrative is so far removed from reality they will have to back track. The key to understanding Israeli’s relationship to our humanity lies in a text by David Grossman, one of Israel’s foremost novelists, essayists and writers. He wrote it around the time of the first Intifada. Israel was then beginning to come into reckoning that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was no longer tenable or sound strategy for the well-being of its democracy.

By the second or third of these “siege notes”, the emails reached Israel and Israeli blogs. A journalist from Israel’s Channel 2 contacted me by email and asked for an interview. I was uncomfortable with the idea at first, for fear that my words be distorted and my genuine, candid sentiments quoted to serve arguments I do not endorse. Exposing oneself with transparency has its charm and price. That journalist seems like a nice person, but I have no reason to trust her and she understands my misgivings. My only defense is transparency. She sent me the set of questions below for me to answer so she can air them on TV or use them for some report. I decided to share them with you all.

1. How your day looks like from the morning. What you did today? Did you have coffee? How do you get the news - television? radio? internet?

The routine of our days is totally changed. We now live under a regimen of survival under siege. Those of us still not wounded and not stranded do whatever needs to be done to survive until the next day. Coffee, yes, I have coffee in the morning, and at noon and in the afternoon. Perhaps I have too much coffee. The passage of time is all about monitoring news, checking that everyone’s OK, and figuring out what has to be done to help those in distress. The news is on all the time. All the time, whatever media works. There is a great need for volunteers to tend to the hundreds of thousands displaced now.

2. Can you describe the neighborhood you live in?

So it will be bombed? No thank you. I live in a very, very privileged neighborhood, far from the southern suburbs. After the evacuation of foreign nationals (and bi-nationals) is complete, everyone is expecting doom and if Israelis decide to give us a dose of tough love as they did in the southern suburbs, my life will probably be in serious danger as that of my family and everyone who has decided to stay here.

3. Can you say something about yourself - like what you do for living, if you can say.

I organize cultural events and I am a freelance writer. I used to live in New York City and moved to Beirut Tuesday July 11th. I have no life at the present moment. I try to do a few things over the Internet, but that’s increasingly difficult.

4. Are you Lebanese or Palestinian?

Both, and it gets more complicated as I have Syrian blood too. And Turkish and Bosnian. I am the product of the Ottoman empire, and I say it with pride. I know it ires a lot of people. But I am very proud to claim my lineage. My father was expelled from Jerusalem in 1948, he and his family lived in a gorgeous home in Talbiyeh. I think it is a day care school now. We own property in the Old City Jerusalem as well and the Atlantic Hotel which was bombed by your “valiant” paramilitary pre-national militias in 1946.

5. In Israel, our leaders think that by targeting Hezbollah and other places in Lebanon will make the rest of the local population against them. Is this true?

It is pure folly. But even if it were true, it is a terrible strategy - an imploded Lebanon is a nightmare to all, not only the Lebanese but to everyone. Does Israel want an Iraq at its doorstep? There seems to be a consensus now in Israel over the military campaign. It is because Israelis are not yet asking their leadership and military the smart questions. Do you actually believe it would be possible to eliminate the Shi’a sect from Lebanon, and that it would go down easy in the region? If the Americans are advising you, duck for cover or move. Need I list their record of wisdom and foresight recently? Vietnam, Central America, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq. If you need to listen to imperialists, find less idiotic ones, or at least who have a sense of history. God help us all if Rumsfeld is also in charge of your well-being. This war will bring doom to all. Stop, cut everybody’s losses. Wars can be stopped before the body count is “intolerable” or an entire country has been reduced to rubble.

6. What is the atmosphere in the streets of Beirut, if you can tell?

Beirut is quiet, dormant, huddled. We are caged, but there is tenacious solidarity. You have to understand that we see ourselves under an unwarranted attack from Israel. The capture of two soldiers does not justify Israel’s response. There has been a status quo for the past six years that was well managed. Hezbollah was not in an impasse - the Olmert government was in an impasse. He ran on a campaign to solidify the “new” (illegitimate) borders, finish the wall in the West Bank and finalize the Paleastinian enclave and withdraw to the boundaries of that enclave. The Olmert government did not have the maturity or intelligence to know how to deal with the Hamas government. Your government was guided by arrogance. We - you and us - are here today because your political class is not up to the challenge. I am sorry, but the Hamas government was elected democratically, and there were a myriad ways to deal with them. But this is the stage of your destiny that you have reached - you build walls around yourselves (you, to whom the Massada is a foundational trauma/myth!), and you chase barefoot, illiterate, hungry people with a state-of-the-art military arsenal. And you insist that you are victims, and you insist that you are on the right side of history. All this bulllshit will catch up with you.

7. What is the atmosphere among your friends?

The consensus is solidarity. Our country is under attack. Otherwise, we are an exceedingly plural society; every one has a theory and a point of view, and we co-exist. Humoring one another. What do you do when you are under siege? Do you eat one another, cannibalize on one another, or stand in solidarity to weather the storm?

8. Can you go to work, or do you have to stay home? (Because some of the workers in the north of Israel did not go to work today)

The largest, largest majority do not go to work. However, it is a form of resilience. If the war goes on for longer, life will have to evolve to a different routine. A large part of the work force is impaired from movement. And then there is the random shelling - it’s also dangerous to go out. This has gone on from the first day of the siege. The south is now sinking in a humanitarian crisis. Beirut will soon. (The new regulation by your glorious IDF this morning is to shoot at all moving vehicles larger than SUVs. One was just shelled in Ashrafieh. New danger, new things to look out for.)

9. Whatever crosses your mind.

Let’s not go there … It’s dark now, and I am too traumatized. I just want this to be over. I am waiting for a ceasefire. Are you? Is that too unmanly for your society? What do you need to see before you cease your fire? You want to hear me expire? You take down Hezbollah, I am going down with them. Do you know when Hezbollah was born? 1982. Where were you? Was it an exciting summer for you?

10. I, for example, went to my gym class this morning. I am at home now, listening to the radio on one side, writing mails on the other side. Air-condition is on, since it is extremely hot and humid in Tel Aviv. I live in the center of the city. Later I will go to the office. I think life in my city continues but in a lower volume.

Life as it was, or was previously understood, in my city has stopped. No gym classes, and I am accumulating cellulite, hence my chances of finding a second husband are lessened (can I make the IDF pay for that?). Air-conditioning is dependent on the electricity or a generator working. Power cuts are the rule now and the generator works only on a schedule. I like it when Israelis report their weather; it ought to have some cathartic virtue, because it’s like a reality check - one of the few reminders they are in this region and not in Europe. So yes, without air-conditioning and with power cuts, my semitic curls produce unruly coiffe and I have to admit, I am enduring the siege with bad hair. I am on email, but that’s intermittant between two bouts of “breaking news”.

I hope you will wake up to the nightmare you have dragged us into. I hope you will want to have the fire ceased as soon as possible. I hope you will deem our humanity as valuable as your own.

Best, Rasha.

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Rasha Salti is the Cinema East director at ArteEast, a New York-based non-profit organization established in 2003 to present contemporary Middle-Eastern artists to a wide audience in order to foster more complex understanding of the region’s arts and cultures and promote artistic excellence.