TOPICS > Politics

Gaza Conflict Reverberates on Beirut Streets

January 12, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Beirut, once known as the Paris of the Middle East, has more recently seen decades of civil war and conflict -- and the growing power of Hezbollah as a political party. Jeffrey Brown reports from the Lebanese capital on reaction to the Gaza conflict there.
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JEFFREY BROWN: In Beirut, even on a beautiful winter weekend, signs of violence from the recent past are everywhere. The bullet-scarred remains of what was once a Holiday Inn stand as a grim monument to the brutal 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and involved Muslim and Christian factions, Palestinian refugees, and interventions by both Syria and Israel.

Nearby, the bombed-out block once home to the Saint George Hotel, where a huge bomb blast killed prime minister Rafik Hariri and many others in 2005. Syrian agents are suspected in the assassination. A U.N. investigation is ongoing.

In another area of the city, vacant holes in the ground where Israeli jets bombed in 2006 after border skirmishes with Hezbollah spread into a 34-day war that left some 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.

Now Beirut is watching and reacting to the fighting in nearby Gaza.

Before the civil war and before all the fighting here, Beirut was long known as the Paris of the Middle East, a place of culture and openness. And you can still feel some of that even this morning on a walk through parts of the city and here on the famous Corniche, overlooking the Mediterranean.

But Beirut is also the home to Hezbollah, the Party of God, which has grown from a small movement born in the early 1980s into an important political and social force, with a stronghold here in the southern suburbs of the city.

RAMI KHOURI, Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Relations: Beirut is an amazing place, because you have the most dynamic, creative, vibrant culture in the Arab world. At the same time, you have the destruction of war all around you. You have ethnic tensions, religious tensions. The two contrasts are really quite striking.

Support for Hezbollah

Hossan Salem
You cannot help but cry when you see what is happening. Israel is killing women and children.

JEFFREY BROWN: Journalist and writer Rami Khouri heads the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy at the historic American University of Beirut. He says the contrasts make this a good place to try to understand the wider implications of what's happening in Gaza, where Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni Islamic organization, is fighting Israel, just as the Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah has in the past.

Khouri states it this way:

RAMI KHOURI: The average person is caught between two options that are not always very attractive. At the one hand, you have these Islamist nationalist resistance movements that are militant, that are tough, that are fighting back, but that don't necessarily offer a model of the world that everybody wants to join.

And, on the other hand, you have these governments, the modern Arab security state governments, that are non-democratic, largely corrupt, often inefficient. They haven't been able to give their people either security or prosperity or a decent democratic life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even in Hezbollah neighborhoods, contrasts can be stark. But security is tight, and there's no question as to who's in charge. We had to gain permission from Hezbollah to bring our camera into the street.

Here, the anger and pain over Gaza is palpable.

HOSSAN SALEM (through translator): You cannot help but cry when you see what is happening. Israel is killing women and children.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the U.S. government, Hezbollah is a terrorist group doing the bidding of Iran. Here, it's a political party with a large and growing membership in parliament, a religious and media organization with its own satellite TV channel, and a social welfare agency. Signs here proclaim the party's role in rebuilding structures destroyed during the 2006 war.

And that war is again very much on the minds of people here, as when I asked this 21-year-old schoolteacher why she supports Hezbollah.

WOMAN: No, I support Hezbollah because, when Israeli was killing us and invading our land, no one stands in the face of it. But only Hezbollah stand by itself. It stands in resistant,  and you saw what happened in 2006. We won, not Israel.

IBRAHIM MOUSAWI, EDITOR, AL INTIQAD WEEKLY: Egypt and other countries, they don't have their own plans for their own people or for their countries. They only follow what the Americans want them to do and what the Westerners want them to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ibrahim Mousawi, editor of a Hezbollah political newspaper, says events in Gaza once again show the impotence of Arab governments.

IBRAHIM MOUSAWI: When the aggression and the massacring and the slaughter is there, and there are people, resistance fighters, who are fighting against this occupation, and governments are crippled just looking, and not being able to condemn or even to give humanitarian aid, then this is going to deepen the gap between the people and their government.

Hopes for a stable Lebanon

Walid Jumblatt
Political Leader
We hope, one day, that will be -- we'll have a strong, stable Lebanon, but I don't see it in the near future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just an hour from Beirut, but in some ways worlds away, one of Lebanon's longtime prominent politicians, Walid Jumblatt, agrees that the gap between state and street is growing, but fears its consequences.

WALID JUMBLATT, Political Leader: It will just weaken the moderates, the so-called moderates.

JEFFREY BROWN: And lead to what?

WALID JUMBLATT: Lead to more violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: From this castle high in the Chouf Mountains, Jumblatt's family has ruled over the nation's Druze clan, a Muslim sect, and been involved in often violent Lebanese politics for some 300 years.

WALID JUMBLATT: This is my father killed with his two bodyguards in 1977 by the Syrians. This is my grandfather. He was also assassinated.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it's a dangerous occupation to your family?

WALID JUMBLATT: Tradition in the family to be killed.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Grim jokes aside, Jumblatt thinks the times are again very dangerous. He's now part of the governing coalition in Lebanon, opponents of Hezbollah, and a vocal critic of outside intervention from Iran and Syria.

He let us watch his regular Saturday meeting with villagers, who come to seek advice and aid from their leader, a "Godfather"-like scene. Here, too, security is tight.

WALID JUMBLATT: We are living in a terribly violent world, with so many -- so many unexpected events.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, it's interesting, as an outsider, to come here, and you see life going on, and people are happy in restaurants. It's an unusual duality here.

WALID JUMBLATT: Sometimes, unfortunately, people get used to it, get used to it, because, I mean, the will of life is stronger than the will of, how should I say, the will of death. We got used to it. We just got used to it. We have to -- we have to accept our destiny. We hope, one day, that will be -- we'll have a strong, stable Lebanon, but I don't see it in the near future.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don't see it in the near future?

WALID JUMBLATT: Unfortunately not, because of what's happening in -- in Gaza now. Well, ultimately, it will lead to consequences, bad consequences, to the so-called, as I told you, moderates like me, like others in Egypt, like in the Arab world. Moderates will be -- will -- will be washed away.

A multi-sectarian society

Michael Young
Opinion Editor, The Daily Star
What Hezbollah has gained within its own community [...] it has lost in the last year-and-a-half in terms of the other communities. Everyone today knows that, if you push the party too hard, it will turn its weapons against its fellow Lebanese.

JEFFREY BROWN: So far, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has blasted Israel and Egypt in fiery speeches in several large demonstrations, but taken no military action to help Hamas.

That, some opponents of Hezbollah argue, suggests that the party is weaker than many people think.

Lebanese political journalist Michael Young is opinion editor at The Daily Star, Beirut's English-language newspaper. He says many people here still blame Hezbollah for dragging the country into the devastating 2006 war with Israel, and for not disarming, as other factions here have.

MICHAEL YOUNG, Opinion Editor, The Daily Star: And we have to understand something. It's that Lebanon is a multi-sectarian society.

What Hezbollah has gained within its own community, in many ways, it has lost in the last year-and-a-half in terms of the other communities. Everyone today knows that, if you push the party too hard, it will turn its weapons against its fellow Lebanese. And, while that can certainly be a source of strength in a very brutal way, one of the reasons why Nasrallah hesitates to -- again, to open the southern front against Israel today is that he's not quite sure what is behind him, if he does that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even so, says Rami Khouri, groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have achieved a status of parallel governments in the region, and now and in the future must be taken seriously as such.

RAMI KHOURI: You have these forces at play, the governments and these parallel governments or parallel states. But they're both legitimate. It's not as if one is illegitimate. The government is legitimate and the opposition groups are legitimate. They both understand that.

They're also relatively equally matched, in terms of popular support, and they have got to find a way to coexist. And this is, I think, the next great challenge in the Arab world. We will probably see it in Gaza. We have seen it here in Lebanon.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the streets of Beirut these days, the immediate impact of Gaza is playing out on a daily basis, and will continue as long as the fighting intensifies, while longer-term consequences are up for grabs.