Arab Americans and the Conflict in Lebanon The recent violence in the Middle East, pitting Israeli forces against Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, has prompted many American Jews and Arab Americans to relect on their allegiances. In the second of a series, Arab Americans speak to the issues.
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Arab Americans and the Conflict in Lebanon

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Arab Americans and the Conflict in Lebanon

Arab Americans and the Conflict in Lebanon

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Israel's war with Hezbollah left deep wounds on the ground in Beirut and in Haifa, as well as in the consciousness of Arab and Jewish Americans. Yesterday, we spoke with Jewish Americans about their feelings after the war, whether their positions on the Middle East were changed or re-enforced.

Today we'll talk with two Lebanese Americans to ask where they find themselves on these difficult issues. In wake of the conflict, many in the Middle East declared Hassan Nasrallah a hero and took pride in Hezbollah's effort against the mighty Israeli Defense Forces. Some questioned Hezbollah's risky decision to attack Israel in the first place and the organization's dual role as both a political party and as a state within a state with its own powerful militia.

Much was made of Hezbollah's connections with Iran and Syria. And many Arab Americans felt betrayed as the United States gave Israel a green light to continue a war that killed a thousand Lebanese before the cease-fire took effect.

Later in the program, a historian helps us examine the term Islamofascism. And as the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and many other government buildings in the nation's capital stand largely empty on this last week in August, the question is where's Washington?

But first, Arab Americans after the summer war. And we'd like to hear from Arab Americans from the phones as well. Did the conflict in Lebanon cause you to re-examine your position on the Middle East or reinforce your beliefs? What changed? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail is address is

And we begin with Osama Siblani. He's the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Dearborn-based weekly bilingual newspaper, the Arab American. He joins us from the studios of member station WDET in Detroit.

And good of you to join us today.

Mr. OSAMA SIBLANI (Editor-in-Chief, The Arab American News): Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: I wonder, for you, what changed in the past - what, eight months, eight weeks now? Excuse me.

Mr. SIBLANI: We'll, not very much. I think it was clear that things that happened in Middle East reinforced the ideas in the minds of Arab Americans, in particular Lebanese Americans were totally shocked that this administration have given the green light, supported the destruction of an entire country before the entire world. We were watching on international media, especially on satellites coming from overseas, minute-by-minute the destruction of a country that we came from, and the killing of innocent people and children that are our families and our friends and, you know, people that we left when we came to the United States.

In fact, Neal, 8,000 Arab Americans, Lebanese Americans in particular from this area, were in Lebanon vacationing during the summer when the hostility started on July 12, and they were evacuated and brought here. So those people have left behind families and friends in a country that has been turned into ruins.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Of course, citizens died on both sides of the frontier.

Mr. SIBLANI: Of course.

CONAN: And...

Mr. SIBLANI: But I think, you know, we have to be very, you know, careful when we say, you know, innocent people on both sides. When we look at the - of course, one innocent life is too many, but the numbers on - in Lebanon is, you know, versus the number of those innocents who were killed on the Israeli side, there pale in comparison.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. As you know, the State Department lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization; of course, so does Israel. There was - in the entire U.S. government approach to this conflict it was as if Hezbollah was an illegitimate organization. And is that a characterization that you would agree with?

Mr. SIBLANI: I totally reject such characterization for Hezbollah. Hezbollah, they are Lebanese people who are probably - Hezbollah is probably the largest and the strongest political party in Lebanon in numbers and in areas that cover so many areas of Lebanon. These are Lebanese people who live in villages that have been destroyed.

Hezbollah did not come from Iran, contrary to what the administration and the media in here led the American people to believe. Those are Lebanese people. Those have families, homes. They just, you know, they're just Lebanese, and they are not imported from anywhere outside Lebanon.

CONAN: Much of their money and most of their weaponry, however, was imported from Iran.

Mr. SIBLANI: Well, if I have to give this any credibility, which I do, I must say that all these smart weapons and smart bombs and rockets and F16s and the Apache helicopter that contributed to the destruction of Lebanon and to the siege of the country, and also to the destruction of Palestinians, came from the United States, and actually from - through Michigan from Florida and North Carolina and other areas.

CONAN: Hmm. Interestingly, when we spoke with Jewish Americans yesterday, they said that the conflict had to a large degree consolidated Jewish American opinion on one side, in favor of the conflict from their point of view. And I wonder, has this summer's war consolidated Arab American opinion?

Mr. SIBLANI: I see that Arab Americans are not happy with the administration's behavior in the Middle East. They have not been happy with the foreign policy of our country. For a long time we have been talking about these issues, however, when it comes to the state of Israel and the actions of the Israelis, unfortunately the debate is stifled immediately. And every time you try to object to the Israeli behaviors, they try to level accusations of anti-Semitism and try to stop the debate by intimidation.

And there is no real discussion in America about what's happening in the Middle East. I mean, today, the Israelis - in the last several days, the Israelis killed 20 Palestinians. They have invaded Gaza again. Nobody is talking about this. You don't see any kind of even objection in America to this; even the United Nations Security Council is not meeting to discuss this.

You know, the Arab Americans see and feel with the Palestinians, and see and feel with the Lebanese, and they just not happy and not satisfied. And I think their position and their opinion of our foreign policy have been, you know, re-focused and energized, and I don't think that I can tell you today that they Arab American community is more focused on the changing our foreign policy.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our number, if you'd like to join us, is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

We'll begin with Ali. Ali is calling us from Minneapolis.

ALI (Caller): Hi. Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: Very well

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

ALI: Thank you very much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ALI: I wanted to actually make a brief comment and I want to ask your guest this question. Why do we have to blame anybody for, I mean, not helping us while, as a matter of fact, our own Arab brothers of governments - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan - are happy with the destruction of Lebanon and have not said anything whatsoever? But to the contrary, they actually blame Hezbollah for the conflict.

So when Arabs are divided in this and when we have - when we are betrayed by a regime put in place by the U.S., what do we expect from U.S.? Why do we have to expect anything from U.S. when we are actually betrayed by our own regimes that are put in there not by a popular vote or by people but by Americans themselves?

CONAN: Mr. Siblani.

Mr. SIBLANI: Well, I think we have to start by being first that we are Americans of Arab origin and our country of the United States is in the position uniquely qualified to and uniquely poised to make a difference in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we can't change Arab regime's behaviors even though we have condemned their behaviors several times and their undemocratic regimes. But since we are American voters and we pay taxes in this country and we are part of the American composure, I think we need to work harder (unintelligible) through the system to change policies and to start the debate and bring the American public to share the debate and the depths of the debate without an intimidation.

I do not believe that the Arab American community and the Arab American leaders, myself included, that we will debate the existence of Israel. We have already, you know, declared - and the Arab countries have declared that they are willing to accept the state of Israel to continue to exist side by side with a Palestinian state. The issue is the Palestinian state is not in existence in here, and the Palestinians are being killed on a daily basis and countries like Lebanon have been totally destroyed.

You know, I understand that people - they have selective memory. They say that Hezbollah started this conflict when they captured the Israeli soldiers, but they forget to go back a few months or a couple of years or three to four years to see how many thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese and other Arabs have been jailed in Israel and captured and kidnapped in Israel. Some of them are women who have delivered babies in Israeli jails.

We need to address the core of this issue. We need to start the debate in America. This is where we can make difference, and I invite our cousins in the Jewish community, our brothers and sisters there, to join us in the debate rather than, you know, stifle the debate and intimidate those who criticize the state of Israel and its behavior.

CONAN: Ali, thanks very much for the call.

ALI: Can I ask a follow up?

CONAN: Sure, if you keep it quick.

ALI: Absolutely. I'm just saying is it possible in any way, shape or form to actually start a debate when American public media and America's public opinion is adamantly opposed to Islam because they're spoon fed with, you know, wrong information about Islamic community in general, and the Arabs specifically, in this country? So don't we have to change the media and the public opinion before any real debate can get under way?

CONAN: Mr. Siblani, you're a publisher, I'm on the radio. I guess he's asking the right people.

Mr. SIBLANI: I think we're starting the debate. I think that what's happened in Lebanon is not going to just be shoved under the carpet and be forgotten. I think the American people deserve an explanation and they deserve an explanation of what's happening today in Iraq.

May 17th or May 16th - I don't remember the date exactly when the president stood on the U.S. destroyer with a banner behind him - mission accomplished. Three years, three months later mission is impossible in Iraq. Hundreds and thousands of Americans have been killed. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. The country of Iraq is in ruin today. We're on a verge of, if not in, a civil war status.

The American people deserve explanation, and the only explanation can be provided to the Americans is through an in-depth debate. We are not going to stifle the debate in here. We're not going to muzzle people. We need to start debating these issues, and I think we - I'm very optimistic that the American media will turn around. And NPR is starting the debate already, and already started the debate a long time ago.

CONAN: We'll have to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk with more Arab Americans about the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and how it has changed their opinions about Middle East politics, if it has. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail us,

I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Thirty-four days of war between Israel and Hezbollah challenged some Jewish and Arab Americans to sort through a complicated mix of emotions and allegiances. Yesterday at this time we spoke with American Jews. Today we're talking with Arab Americans about their attitudes toward Israel, Hezbollah, and U.S. policy following the war. Did the conflict challenge old beliefs or bolster them?

Still with us is Osama Siblani. He's a publisher of The Arab American News in Detroit. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255, and the e-mail address is

And joining us now is Bassam Haddad, also Lebanese American. He teaches in the political science department of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and he's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. BASSAM HADDAD (Professor of Political Science, St. Joseph's University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: I understand you were in Beirut when all this started.

Mr. HADDAD: Yes. When all this started, I was in Beirut. I lived right on what is called the Green Line, separating historically Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut - problematic categories as they are - and I was basically able to witness the war both on television and throughout, you know, through the balcony when Israeli jet fighters were pummeling southern Beirut, the Hezbollah stronghold, to the ground.

I was actually on the Green Line. I was able to actually capture some of these fighter jets launching these missiles and the bombs exploding in front of me. The next day I would go down the street and watch tennis-court sized bombs and holes in the streets and buildings, churches, mosques in ruins.

At the same time, when I looked around, the international community was sitting by waiting until a quick defeat is accomplished. And our government, the United States, was willing to give Israel more time to finish a job that it itself would like to be accomplished as well. And that feeling was a very strong feeling to see that the international community and the United Nations and our own government that professes values that are admirable is contradicting all of these values right in front of my own eyes.

CONAN: The goal, I think in terms of the United States government, was if Hezbollah would be seriously damaged or destroyed in this conflict - it's a terrorist organization, good.

Mr. HADDAD: Well, this is why the entire debate on this issue is based on soundbites, and things are very complex. People in Lebanon and people in the United States - Arab Americans - their support for Hezbollah, for instance, is not based on whether you are for Hezbollah or against Hezbollah. Hezbollah serves many functions and is a broad political party that's democratically elected. Some of its functions are not supported by a good number of the Lebanese and a good number of Arab Americans.

CONAN: And not by the Lebanese government.

Mr. HADDAD: Yes. Some of its functions are not, but the most important function that Hezbollah services, which is basically resisting Israeli occupation since the early ‘80s, is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Lebanese, the overwhelming majority of Arab Americans, and the overwhelming majority of the Arab population.

And in that sense, Hezbollah has been able to capitalize on its effort as an evolving organization that started out in the ‘80s but evolved into an organization that - after 1994, the State Department failed(ph) to designate any of its operations as terrorist operations. And this is an evolving organization that we all try to forget that it has evolved.

It has changed. It has now as its most important ally the largest Christian faction in Lebanon, which is the Michel Aoun (unintelligible). An organization like that cannot be dismissed simply because officials in one or another country said it is such and such.

CONAN: Other people would say its most important ally is Iran, the country which helped start it, which funds it and provides it with weapons.

Mr. HADDAD: Iran is an ally of Hezbollah. That is correct. Absolutely. Just like the United States is - just like the United States is the strongest ally of Israel. That is correct.

CONAN: Israel is a nation. Hezbollah is not a nation. It's a state within a state.

Mr. HADDAD: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is the paradox of the situation. Israel is a nation, correct, but it's a nation that occupies land in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine for the past several decades. And that is just as much of a problem for many people in the Middle East, if not the majority of the world population, as the issue that Hezbollah is itself not a state.

CONAN: Let's get some more listeners involved in the conversation. This is Babado(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Washington, D.C.

BABADO (Caller): Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BABADO: All I can say is - I do a lot of counseling with addicted youth, and listening to my brother, I guess - I'm of Lebanese descent as well - but it sounds like addicts: It's people who have an excuse and an answer for every despicable and humiliating thing we do. The fact of the matter is every time I saw a bomb fall in Lebanon or heard about the report, it broke my heart. But it's like watching a - if an addicted person, to carry the analogy, waved a knife or a gun at a police officer and got shot - to only blame the police is ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is - and I have an uncle who lost - he owns real estate all over Beirut. He lost like a 100-unit apartment building. But to hear him explain it, Hezbollah set up rockets with about a hundred different rockets within a couple of hundred meters of his building. And people would come by on scooters; they would set off the rockets. And there's not a single rocket that Hezbollah was shooting south that wasn't intended to kill Israeli civilians. And to hear Osama - I'm sorry, I forgot his last name - but to hear your guest say but far more Lebanese civilians were killed than Israeli civilians - it's only for lack of good aim.

Hezbollah was only trying to kill innocent people, and they sent thousands of rockets. But to continue the story, they're sending them from people's neighborhoods, people who don't want them there - Lebanese, Christians and Shiites who have nothing to do with the rockets except that they're in their neighborhoods. They're on their front lawn. The Hezbollah - they're such pusillanimous, horrible people that they would ride by and invite the retaliation to innocent people. And the Israelis are looking at thousands of missiles coming into their country every single day and they're trying to fire back...

CONAN: I think we got the point. I wanted to give Mr. Siblani, who may suffer the...

BABADO: Okay, just one more point is that - let's say what's going on. Because if the Israelis are allowed to say that they're allowed to be wherever they want because thousands of years ago they got something in the Bible, it's as hard a pill to swallow as to have your guests here say, well, the Israelis are occupying Arab land.

Israelis haven't been in Lebanon for over six years and the missiles come and the missiles come. Let us stand up for ourselves, but let us be humiliated by our brothers who do such disgusting things in our name. Let's have the guts to be humiliated and to apologize and to say Hezbollah is only a terror organization. If the KKK gives charity, it's still a despicable organization. Hezbollah's despicable. I am humiliated by them, and I invite your guest to share my humiliation. They are - it's a culture of death and murder.

CONAN: Thank you very much. I wanted to give Mr. Siblani a chance to reply. His first name is more memorable than his last, but please, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIBLANI: Well I am glad that we had, you know, some contribution from the Israeli point of view in here, because I don't believe that he has any cousins or any relatives in Lebanon. Scooters launching rockets? Scooters? Who believes this?

You know, again, I was not there and apparently he was not there, so I don't want to answer, you know, all these allegations that Hezbollah is launching rockets from, you know, civilian neighborhood. I wanted to reemphasize on the position that Haddad said and the points that he addressed eloquently - that the Hezbollah people are not Hezbollah, Hezbollah people are Lebanese people. They live in Lebanon. Their ancestors lived and died in Lebanon, and their kids are going to grow up in Lebanon. And therefore they care about Lebanon and its infrastructure and the, you know, freedom in Lebanon and the security of Lebanon.

I do not believe that we should sit in here and teach the Lebanese how to become better Lebanese and give them lectures about their country and the way that they should behave in their country.

I wanted to address something that you said, Neal, about, you know, us supporting a government in Israel and Iran supporting Hezbollah. I invite the United States government to support the Lebanese government, to give weapons, equal weapons, to the Lebanese army to defend its territory, to give them the F-16, the Apache helicopters, and to give to the Palestinians the Apache helicopters, the rockets; or to bring peace in the region and guarantee this peace.

We just can't prevent people from defending themselves if we do not offer alternatives for them to live in peace and justice in the area. We just can't continue to blame Iran for giving weapons to Hezbollah, or Hezbollah receiving weapons from Iran, while their country is occupied and they need to liberate it. Let us offer here in the United States something to the Arabs and bring them to the table and have them negotiate. I mean here we are, you know...

CONAN: It's interesting...

Mr. SIBLANI: …Israel is destroying an entire country and we are making excuses for it.

CONAN: Yeah. You used the, you know, the phrase continues to occupy the country. There's a tiny area of disputed land, the Shebaa Farms area, which, according to the United Nations is in Syria, and according to the Syrians is Lebanese, and according to the Lebanese is Lebanese. It's occupied by the Israelis, who also consider it - but this is a tiny sliver of land. Does it justify the last actions of this war and all the deaths that followed as a result?

Mr. SIBLANI: If you let one square inch of your territory be occupied by a nation, you are subjected to a total occupation. We know that. I mean America is expert on responding to anyone who takes care of - or jeopardize or terrorize one single citizen, American citizen. We need to treat people equally.

People have the right to challenge, you know, their occupier, whether it's square inch or it's square mile or the entire country. I do not believe that we should take it lightly that the Israelis have been occupying 40 square kilometers of Lebanese land.

Shebaa Farms is not a tiny - it's a 40 square kilometers. For Lebanon's size, it's a huge area.

CONAN: Let me ask both of you, is it possible to oppose Hezbollah and still be Lebanese or Lebanese-American?

Mr. SIBLANI: Sure, why not? There are Shia Lebanese who...

CONAN: Well, why don't let Mr. Haddad give an answer. Please, Mr. Haddad.

Mr. HADDAD: If I may address the interesting diatribe of the caller who curiously pronounces the name Hezbollah as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does. He...

CONAN: Let's not impugn our listeners. He said he was who he was. Let's just accept that, all right?

Mr. HADDAD: No. I'm just - I said curiously. I'm trying to say that there are a number of things that I think must be addressed not in defense of anyone, but basically understanding some of the politics and some of the events. It's true that Israel pulled out of Lebanon in 2000. But there is the Shebaa Farms sliver of land that is in dispute, disputed.

But Israel never stopped invading Lebanese airspace and Lebanese sovereignty for the past six years in which more than 11,000 times the U.N. has recorded that the U.S. invaded Lebanese airspace...

CONAN: Israel you meant, yeah.

Mr. HADDAD: Sorry. Israel invaded Lebanese airspace. The other issue is that since Israel pulled out - also not recorded by any organization, including Israel - Hezbollah has not killed any Israeli civilians. In other words, the security that took place after 2000 is real, and Hezbollah was not a threat during that period. So there was - there's no quarrel about that.

I do share the caller's shame, but I'm curiously different in terms of who I am ashamed of. I am personally, as an Arab-American, and as a human being before I be Lebanese or American - as a human being, I am truly ashamed and disappointed with the actions of our government when it was the only government on earth that vetoed the cease-fire that was killing dozens and hundreds of civilians in Lebanon, and civilians in Israel as well. It is the only country in the world that vetoed a cease-fire that most countries supported and wanted an end to the death of mostly civilians.

The other point is it's important to look at Hezbollah in a way that differs from the way we look at other groups that we malign. The reason Hezbollah is popular in Lebanon in the Arab world and much of the larger world actually is precisely because it's different from al-Qaida.

It's precisely because it is democratically elected. It's precisely because it has a social welfare component. It's precisely because its largest ally in Lebanon is a Christian faction that is the largest Christian faction in Lebanon.

These facts should make all of us reconsider on the basis on which our policy in Lebanon with respect to Hezbollah is based on, whether we are for or against Hezbollah. The issue is not whether Hezbollah is good or bad, the issue is understanding what this party represents.

CONAN: We're talking with Arab Americans today about how the war changed their feelings, their emotions and their position on the Middle East.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on. This is Lena(ph). Lena calling from San Jose in New Mexico.

LENA (Caller): I'm calling Santa Fe, New Mexico.

CONAN: Yes, go ahead.

LENA: Hi. I just wanted to say that my view of this whole war, it just really solidified my personal commitment and stand for peace as the alpha and the omega of this solution I mean for this problem, this and all problems. You know, I also wanted to state that it hasn't impacted my desire and dream for the state of Palestine and the return - complete return for the state of Palestine, and that that is not a dichotomy. That I can still hope my dreams and desires, but I can approach them through peace.

And, you know, your speaker had said - I mean your guest speaker had said that it's through the debate that we will come to a solution. And I agree, but I think the correct word is consultation. And that if we all consult about this issue, the Palestinian/Israeli issue, we're really going to see that it distills down to a conversation about colonialism and if we as a people choose to believe and support this colonial act in this world or don't we.

And this is really what it distills down to, this Palestinian/Israeli situation. Do we as a people accept colonialism, and if we do, then we have to accept the state of Israel and future situations such as the state of Israel or don't we. And, you know, and then if we don't, we need to address the injustices and return it and return things back to their original state and return - I mean the Native American situation here is still not resolved. The black issue is still not resolved...

CONAN: Why don't we deal with one pot of trouble at a time, Lena, if you will. We just have a little bit left. I'd like to give both of my guests a chance to respond to your - is this ultimately about the existence of the state of Israel, Bassam Haddad?

Mr. HADDAD: I don't think so. I don't think many of the proclamations that we hear in the Middle East are really about precisely that. I think they're about how the state of Israel exists in the Middle East. If it exists as a democracy for everyone and basically ends its occupation, which is the reason for its insecurity, not the other way around, I think we'll have a different situation in the Middle East.

CONAN: And, Osama Siblani, I'm going to give you the last 30 seconds.

Mr. SIBLANI: The Arabs have already accepted the existence of Israel to coexist with the Palestinian state. The problem is where is the Palestinian state, the viability of a Palestinian state? This is still yet to be determined. And the issue should not be whether Israel should exist; the issue will be because it exists and we have accepted this, the issue is whether the Palestinian state is going to exist and where it's going to exist.

CONAN: Osama Siblani, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. SIBLANI: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Osama Siblani is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the weekly bilingual newspaper, The Arab American. He joined us from the studios of our member station in Detroit, WDET. And, Bassam Haddad, here in Studio 3A, thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. HADDAD: Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: Bassam Haddad teaches in the political science department of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

When we come back from a short break, a new buzzword emerges in the war on terror: islamofascism. What does it mean? And where is Washington?

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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