What Started All That Violence in Lebanon?

The outbreak of skirmishes in Beirut last week had deep ethnic and religion roots, but the proximate cause was basically the cutting of a phone cord. Deborah Amos has covered the Middle East for NPR and was in Lebanon's capitol when the fighting broke out.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

The outbreak of violence in Lebanon last week had deep ethnic and religious roots. That's the underpinning of all outbreaks of violence in Lebanon. But the approximate cause - I remember that phrase from high school - was a little weird. Basically, it was cutting a phone cord. The ruling Lebanese coalition moved to shut down the communications network of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. This sparked Sunni-Shia fighting.

But now, the Sunni prime minister is changing course on that. The cabinet agrees with him, and they're backtracking on some of the measures that enraged Hezbollah. Deborah Amos has covered the Middle East for NPR. She was in Beirut when the fighting broke out, and joins us now on the line from Damascus, Syria. Hello, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS: Hey there.

PESCA: How are you?

AMOS: I'm good. And I was in the middle of the fighting. I was staying in a hotel on what became a little contested piece of real estate. So I was in the middle of firing. Never felt that I was in danger because it seemed to be quite - it was well done, shall we say? But nevertheless, it was loud.

PESCA: What do you mean, it was well done? Who was orchestrating everything to perfection?

AMOS: I was in a neighborhood that was a predominately Sunni part of west Beirut, and I was between two different places. One, there was a Future Party, that's the major party in the government coalition office, a little storefront, a bakery most of the time, except you see guys with guns in there, and then up the street from me was Saad Hariri's house fortress, and he is the leading member of the Future Party. So those were two places that the Hezbollah militia wanted to take over to prove their point.

PESCA: Mm hm.

AMOS: Now, I have to say that they were very disciplined fighters. There was a moment that we had an up close and personal moment with them, when they come down to our basement to see who we were, and they had their guns placed at their sides. And they came back later, a half hour later, and apologized for scaring us.

PESCA: And the army kind of was there but didn't really intervene? What did the army do during the fighting?

AMOS: The army stood aside. What you have to understand about the Lebanese army is it's the Lebanese people dressed up in uniforms.

PESCA: Right.

AMOS: So this is a country that is split down the middle in a political fight, and so, if the army were to intervene, then the army would split along the same lines that you saw, of the two sides fighting. So Michel Suleiman, who's the head of the army, said that they were not going to be a part of this, and they were not. I saw them in many places watching the fighting.

Now, once Hezbollah had taken over west Beirut, and the point was not to take it over and run it, the point was to take it over and show that they could, they handed it over to the army. So you would see tanks rolling down the business section of the city as Hezbollah moved away. So, as fast as they came in, they came out again. The last thing that has yet to be decided, of course, is the airport. Hezbollah is still having a sit-in at the airport and is not letting the Lebanese go out on airplanes.

PESCA: Well, the way you describe it, and it's not as if this was without bloodshed, dozens of people did die in Lebanon and in the mountains to the north, but it does seem a little bit like that old quote, is it Bismarck or Clausewitz who says that diplomacy is war by other means. It seems like they were using war to get to this diplomatic point, which is let us have our communications back. Were you surprised that that worked?

AMOS: Well, this is a country that is in deep trouble, and they have been in this political fight for 18 months, so you're absolutely right to use that quote because that's what it was. It was diplomacy by military means. As I said before, the idea wasn't to take over the country. This wasn't a coup. It felt like one, but it wasn't.

And you know, it never was the case where the communications were cut. This is a fiber-optic line. It's a private fiber-optic line. What Hezbollah says, we need this to fight the Israelis, so you can't touch it. And we've always said you can't touch our weapons, and you agree with us. So why are you bothering us about this phone line?

Now, once they showed they military power on the ground, then the pro-western pro-American government had to back down. They were humiliated. There's no doubt about that. But let me tell you this, Hezbollah lost ground, as well. In the wider Arab world, people are not happy that they took over west Beirut, and here's the thing that really really was annoying, not just to Arabs outside, but Lebanese and even those Hezbollah supporters.

One of the first things they did is they cut off the television station for Saad Hariri, head of the Future Party, one of the leading politicians in the pro-western government. They cut if off the air, took it off the air, and even pro-Hezbollah newspapers said that's a bad thing. We don't do that. Lebanon is a very media-savvy country. Everybody has their own TV station. In fact, as Hezbollah swept through west Beirut, they had videographers with them who were doing their own filming of the fighting. So people didn't like that.

PESCA: That's so fascinating, as is something that I think that you observed, just a difference in how the violence was conducted, or the conduct of the militants this time around. Stuff that you've never seen before in that area.

AMOS: Yeah, I'll tell you something. You know, part of the reason that I was in Beirut is I'm doing some research on how the Iraq war is playing out in other places in the region, and I got a little bit more than I had bargained for. But, when I was leaving Lebanon, I was coming across a by-road to get to the Syrian border to make the cross. And before you got to the border post, there were young armed men, these were Sunni Muslims.

Let's remember that the Hezbollah people are the Shiite Muslims, that they are allies. Sunni Muslims who come out on the road, taken a bulldozer, used a big dirt berm, and, as they drove up, they poked their heads in our car and said, excuse me, Sunni or Shiite? I have never seen this is Lebanon before. This is sectarianism on, as they say, on steroids. This is a kind of behavior that you see in Iraq. It's very dangerous in Lebanon. It's very hard to turn that off.

PESCA: So is that your theory...

AMOS: They were menacing...

PESCA: That's my question, is that your theory that the feelings of Iraq are leaching into other places in the region? Is this a consequence of Iraq?

AMOS: That's been happening for a while. That is definitely been happening for a while. Now, Lebanon is a very sectarian country. People are aware of what they are. But these are people who go to college together. They party together. In some cases, they drink together, and to have this identity and in such an ugly and militant manner was for me, very disturbing to see because it is very reminiscent of Iraq, and I have never seen it that way.

The sectarian identity is at a high-water mark in Lebanon. Part of that is because you have no government to speak of for the last 18 months, so if you are a Sunni or a Shiite or a Druze or the 17 other things that you can be in Lebanon, you have to go to the head of your sect to get things that you want so that they, in some ways, replace the government. That's part of the reason this last week has really exacerbated it.

PESCA: And we have to thank you. Deb Amos, who has covered the Middle East for NPR, who is joining us from Damascus. Thanks very much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you!

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Thanks, Deb. Next on the show, an update on the earthquake in China, rescue and recovery efforts there. This is the BPP from NPR News.

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