Divided Lebanon Wary of Hezbollah 'Victory'
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. The secretary-general of the United Nations says he's optimistic he'll find the 15,000 troops he needs to beef up the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Kofi Annan is attending a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels, where a number of countries are expected to make firm commitments to the U.N. force. But while the cease-fire is holding in southern Lebanon, domestic tensions within the country are on the rise.
INSKEEP: Hezbollah claimed victory in its war with Israel, and that has raised fears among Lebanon's other leading groups, Sunni Muslims, Druzes(ph) and Christian communities. Some hope the Lebanese government will assert its authority now. Trouble is that's always been a weak institution where power is shared by no less than 17 distinct sectarian groups.
NPR's Ivan Watson reports.
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IVAN WATSON reporting:
Thick black waves roll up onto the beach in Beirut, splashing against sand that's been stained by a huge oil spill. Israeli airstrikes against a Lebanese oil refinery created an oil slick that has polluted some 80 miles of Mediterranean coastline, leaving the filthy beaches deserted at the height of the tourist season.
But the pollution has not stopped locals from flocking to Beirut's seaside esplanade every night.
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WATSON: Music blares from parked cars as children ride bikes, adults smoke water pipes, and young couples make-out under the stars. It's hard to believe that less than two weeks ago bombs were falling on Beirut.
Mr. TIMIR GOCSHEL (Former U.N. Official): All my life in Lebanon, I've been through too many wars here - internal, external, mixture, whatever you want. It's amazing how quickly the people can bounce back.
WATSON: Timir Gocshel(ph) is a former United Nations official who has lived in Lebanon for more than 20 years. He sips double espressos in a trendy coffee shop in a Beirut neighborhood which escaped bombardment during the latest war. Now that the immediate Israeli threat has receded somewhat, Gocshel predicts a domestic political confrontation between the Shiite Muslim movement, Hezbollah, and the country's other sectarian political groups.
Mr. GOCSHEL: They do feel that Hezbollah's unchecked power and this additional strength they have acquired from this war could be used against their communities, and this is all very typical of sectarian feelings in the country.
WATSON: Just a few miles south of here, the urban landscape turns apocalyptic. Entire blocks of high-rise apartments have been leveled by days and nights of Israeli bombing. Hezbollah's main headquarters, in the heart of these predominantly Shiite suburbs, was destroyed, as were some 15,000 homes, according to U.N. estimates. It is here that a crowd gathered recently for the funeral of nine Hezbollah fighters killed in battle against the Israelis.
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WATSON: A Hezbollah anthem played as guerillas dressed in black uniforms and purple berets escorted the coffins alongside women wearing long black chadors. A woman named Rawaida Hamud(ph) carried a portrait of her 20-year-old cousin.
Ms. RAWAIDA HAMUD: (Through translator) (Unintelligible) he died for fighting for his country, and he was running like a tiger just to save his country.
WATSON: Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12th triggered this war, and its core constituency, the Shiite Muslims, bore the brunt of the conflict. They include people like this calligrapher from South Beirut named Akmad Nasrallah(ph). He accuses the U.S. of supplying Israel with the weapons used to destroy his apartment, which housed his family of seven.
Mr. AKMAD NASRALLAH: My flat has been destroyed completely by the missiles of United States. We think that, we suspect that, that the United States has destroyed our country. This is a democracy that was Mr. Bush (indiscernible).
WATSON: Hezbollah is now helping thousands of people like Nasrallah by distributing compensation packages of $12,000 in cash so that they can rent new apartments. A Hezbollah militant counted out stacks of hundred dollar bills for Nasrallah and handed him the money. Happy, Nasrallah said...
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: Happy, Nasrallah said he would not miss his old apartment.
Mr. NASRALLAH: It was a good one, but never mind, never mind, never mind. It will never be sad.
WATSON: Hezbollah's quick, well-organized reconstruction effort has only underscored the inefficiency and disorganization of the Lebanese government, which has yet to take any major steps towards rebuilding the country.
But Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has tried to assert his government's authority by deploying thousands of soldiers to Hezbollah strongholds in the south near the Israeli border.
At a press conference, a top Hezbollah official named Sheik Nabil Kaouk welcomed the Lebanese troops, but he vowed Hezbollah will never give up its weapons.
Mr. SHEIK NABIL KAOUK (Hezbollah Official): (Through translator) Victory for resistance; victory for this victorious people.
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WATSON: Prime Minister Siniora has made it clear he would like to see Hezbollah disarmed, but he appears unable to challenge the Shiite movement. Timir Gocshel says observers should not be surprised at the weakness of the Lebanese government. He says France, the country's former colonial ruler, designed it that way.
Mr. GOCSHEL: The people who drew up the plans for Lebanon didn't want the central state to have strong order like an army and a police who could tell those sectarian groups and militias or who could keep them, you know, under control. They didn't want that. They didn't want the state to regulate the life in the country.
WATSON: The Lebanese system allots political positions according to religious group. The country's president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and a Shiite Muslim gets the post of speaker of parliament even though they are the largest sectarian group in the country.
That has long been a source of frustration for the Shi'a, says Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Mr. PAUL SALEM (Director, Carnegie Middle East Center): Yeah, and the Shiite community in general has not been entirely happy. Many perhaps feel they don't have enough share of power.
WATSON: Hezbollah's stature in the wake of the war has alarmed members of Lebanon's other sectarian groups.
Ms. GISELLE KHOURY (Journalist): I'm also afraid from the power of Hezbollah.
WATSON: Giselle Khoury is a Christian-Lebanese journalist and the widow of slain reporter Samir Kassir. He was killed in a car bombing last year at the height of the so-called Cedar Revolution, a mass protest movement spearheaded by Lebanon's Christians and Sunni Muslims that eventually forced Syria to end its long military occupation of Lebanon.
Giselle Khoury says she is not sure whether Hezbollah's vision of Lebanon leaves room for what she describes as secular, pro-Western, democratic values.
Ms. KHOURY: This is a country; we want her with democracy, with, like I told you, modern the country.
WATSON: Some critics of Hezbollah have accused the Shiite movement of following the orders of its patrons: Syria and Iran. Druze parliament member Wael Abu-Faour(ph) says Lebanon is again becoming the battleground in a regional war.
Mr. WAEL ABU-FAOUR (Druze Parliament Member, Lebanon): Everyone is using Lebanon as a battlefield. It's a war by proxy. Yes. The Iranian want to protect their nuclear project. The Israelis want to demonstrate again that they are the stronger. And the Americans want to, let's say, war with Iran.
WATSON: The continuing Israeli blockade of Lebanon's ports and the mass exodus of foreigners and Lebanese has crippled the economy here. For every Hezbollah supporter who celebrates the movement's self-proclaimed victory over Israel, there seems to be another Lebanese who's talking about leaving the country once and for all.
Parliament member Wael Abu-Faour says this latest war may prove to be too much, even for the famously resilient Lebanese.
Mr. ABU-FAOUR: It's over. We can rebuild the country. We can rebuild the bridges, the houses, everything. But how can we rebuild the confidence in Lebanon?
WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News.
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