It was 4:30 PM when my students’ cell phones began receiving SMS messages. We had fifteen minutes left of class. They told me that Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel had been assassinated. One of my students fled the room in tears. I could hear students amassing outside in front of the AUB student union building just outside our window. The mood was tense. Students began with their theories of who was responsible: Mossad, Syria, the CIA. The usual suspects. The story was, of course, confirmed as I listened to the news reports in the office. Just a few hours before in front of AUB’s student union there was a display of national unity as people celebrated Lebanon’s Flag Day. The following day would be Lebanon’s Independence Day.
Today is a national day of mourning in Lebanon and Thanksgiving in the U.S. All night long, into the wee hours of the night horns honked as they paraded through the streets of Beirut with a melody that sounded just like the horns in Amman, Jordan when people took to the streets after three hotels were bombed last year. While people from the March 14th coalition mourn Gemayel’s untimely death carrying signs reading “1701” or holding martyr posters of Gemayel and Hariri, I read through newspaper reports detailing the assassination and summarizing Gemayel’s short life and his family history. From Lebanon’s The Daily Star to the U.S.’ The New York Times discussing Gemayel’s family and its Phalange party seems to have been sanitized. While there is mention of conflicts with Palestinian militias during the Lebanese Civil War there is no mention of the 1982 massacres of the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila for which the Phalange party, Israel’s Ariel Sharon, and Pierre Gemayel’s grandfather of the same name are responsible. In the U.S. the emphasis on Gemayel seems to be his Christianity as if this redeems him, even elevates him from his Muslim Lebanese compatriots. In the U.S. all of a sudden the democratically-elected government is given rhetorical support even as the cabinet has been rendered intractable due to resignations and assassinations.
In Beirut the mood feels tense and has for the past week as members of the March 8th coalition resigned their posts in the government. Expectations of mass demonstrations in the streets were at the forefront of people’s minds here. And yet the mood in the South of Lebanon is quite different. In the small villages of Sila’a, Houla, and Markaba not far from the border with 1948 Palestine, the focus seems far less on fears of the government crumbling, but on rebuilding homes, schools, hospitals, and lives. In the South at least two children die almost every day from cluster bombs that the Israeli Occupation Forces riddled the landscape with in their last few days of their war on Hezbollah. One child even brought a found cluster bomb to his school for show and tell; thankfully, the school was evacuated by his teacher before it exploded or anyone was injured. The largely Alawiite village of Ghajar remains occupied by Israelis and is trapped by a border that has been moved north and that is surrounded by land mines and UNIFIL soldiers.
It is not just the different focal points in peoples lives that seem to separate people from Beirut and South Lebanon. For all the calls of unity in the newspapers and streets today by the March 14th forces I wonder what type of unity they mean. Do they mean unity with people in South Lebanon? Do they mean helping people there rebuild their lives financially as well as emotionally, physically, mentally? Do they mean protecting people from the daily Israeli Occupation Forces violation of UN Resolution 1701 when it flies into Lebanese air space? Do they mean including Palestinians living in Lebanon into this fold of unity in the way that Armenians were included when they fled their nakba? While I respect those mourning the loss of Gemayel as well as the calls for unity it seems to me that such rhetoric is not entirely inclusive of all who live in the borders of Lebanon. Instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop and instead of calling for unity an expression of that unity could be realized by people from the North and from Beirut making an effort to build solidarity with people in the South in a way that builds a long-term commitment across regional and sectarian borders as well as long-term human relationships.
Dr. Marcy Newman is Visiting Professor at the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut. She works with Civilian Resistance in Lebanon. You can follow her activities at her blog.