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Lebanese-Americans Disagree with U.S. and Israeli Policy Toward Lebanon

August 2, 2006 at 6:25 PM EST
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: As the news out of Lebanon became increasingly grim, Lebanese Christians gathered in a church outside of Chicago. As music and prayer filled the air, it was the hope of Father Robert Rabbat, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Melkite Catholic Church, where the service was held, that some of the anger and bitterness of those attending would be lessened.

FR. ROBERT RABBAT, St. John the Baptist Melkite Catholic Church: I believe if we can pray for wisdom and spread peace, instead of blaming this side or that side, I do believe it would be of great help.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But it was hard for Hani Allam to find peace. He had just learned that his family in Lebanon had fled to the north after their village was hit by Israeli bombs. After the service, he called his sister, as he had done daily since the war began.

HANI ALLAM, Lebanese-American: How are you guys now?

WIFE OF HANI ALLAM: We’re fine, thank God.

HANI ALLAM: I was really concerned after we heard about the bombing. God be with you, and I’ll talk to you very soon, OK? Take care and be safe.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you feel better or worse after you’ve talked to her?

HANI ALLAM: We always feel worse. We always feel that I wish we could do something more for them. I wish we can take the fear. I wish we can bring them over. We just feel we’re tied here.

Fleeing the war zone

Adam Saleh
The actions of the Israeli government, and the Israeli air force, and their defense forces have gone way, way too far, and it's very disproportionate.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A few short weeks ago, the Saleh family had been by their relatives' side in Lebanon. Born in southern Lebanon, Adam Saleh came to the United States in 1985 and is now a U.S. citizen and successful engineer.

The Salehs had taken their two girls to Lebanon for their annual summer vacation. On July 13th, that vacation turned into a nightmare.

ELI SALEH, Lebanese-American: About 6:15-ish in the morning, we woke up to a big boom. And we looked out our window, and we see a huge, black smoke. And we step out on the balcony, and we just stare at it in shock for a couple seconds. Then two more booms go off, and we were scared.

MIRA SALEH, Lebanese-American: Then you hear the airplanes circling the top of the apartments, but, like, you don't know where they -- like, you know where they are, but you're not sure when the bomb's going to go.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Initially, the family decided to stay in Beirut, even though they could see the smoke from the bombs dropped on the Beirut airport, until they got a phone call.

ADAM SALEH, Lebanese-American: I received a phone call from my sister saying that she had just heard a warning issued by the Israeli government that basically the area we live in was going to be a target. We made a decision basically to seek shelter somewhere else and contacted my sister, who lives in a place that's relatively safer in the city a few miles away, and we went there.

We thought that we would be spending the night and come back the next day. And unfortunately, we never returned.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two days later, Saleh found a taxi driver willing to drive the family to Syria. He remains angry about what he saw in Lebanon.

ADAM SALEH: The intensity of bombardment and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas that I personally witnessed has led me to believe that the actions of the Israeli government, and the Israeli air force, and their defense forces have gone way, way too far, and it's very disproportionate.

It's very wrong to kill civilians the way they're being killed. They're unarmed; it should not happen that way.

Grateful for a safe exit

Mohamad Halabi
My first initial reaction was, "I have to do something about my family, my immediate family, my wife and kids."

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As Zeina Halabi kissed her two boys good night, she, too, thought of family she had left behind in Lebanon. Halabi and her sons had been visiting her parents in Beirut when the bombs started falling.

ZEINA HALABI, Lebanese-American: I've never been so scared in my life. I've never been through the civil war like Mohamad had been, but it was -- I started to pray, and I thought that was it, you know, one of the bombs was coming to our site. It was that close.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mohamad Halabi, a Sunni Muslim and successful interior designer, had returned early from the family visit to Lebanon and was horrified by what he was seeing and hearing from news reports.

MOHAMAD HALABI, Lebanese-American: My first initial reaction was, "I have to do something about my family, my immediate family, my wife and kids." But I felt guilty because I kept forgetting that I have also my sister, my brother, their families, cousins. I kept having the nightmares at night, not sleeping the whole night, not eating. So it was an extremely difficult time for me.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Halabi fled to the north with her boys. After a week of frustrating contact with the U.S. embassy, she joined thousands of others with U.S. passports trying to leave Lebanon.

ZEINA HALABI: It took us exactly 12 hours to get through from the door to the seaside where a landing ship unit came and picked us up. My kids were seven and four, and they were somewhat OK, but then, at the end, I started to panic.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Despite their traumatic exit, the Halabis were grateful for U.S. help.

ZEINA HALABI: I'm so happy to be back. My son was excited when he saw the American flag, and I just want to say and give my heartfelt thanks to, you know, the U.S. Navy and the Marines, because without them, really, honestly, we wouldn't be here.

Terrorist or resistance group?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Still, as they watch the continuingviolence in Lebanon, theystrongly disagree with U.S.and Israeli characterizations of Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

ZEINA HALABI: No, absolutely not. I mean, they -- what theydid for Lebanon, you know,freeing the southern part of Lebanonand getting, you know, the Israelis to retreat, that was a great feat. And, inmy eyes, they are a resistance group.

MOHAMAD HALABI: I think our understanding of the word"terrorist" or "terrorist group" is really probablydifferent than the view of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. They are andthey started as a resistance group, regardless of who supported them or gavethem the backing, and the money, and the training.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Saleh agrees that Hezbollah is seen verydifferently in Lebanon thanin the U.S.

ADAM SALEH: Hezbollah is viewed by many, many Lebanese andby the government as a part of the society, and they're represented inparliament, they're represented in government. They have a lot of support; theybelieve what they do has helped in the past liberate much of Lebanon.

Picking the winners and losers

Sam Elakhaoui
They're going to write it down, "This is a victory for us," because it's well-known the Israeli army, how strong it is, how big it is, how such sophisticated weapons they have, and they couldn't finish Hezbollah.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That view isn't much different in Chicago's Lebanese restaurants. Restaurant owner and chef Sam Elakhaoui says so far Hezbollah has scored a victory.

SAM ELAKHAOUI, Lebanese-American: They're going to write it down, "This is a victory for us," because it's well-known the Israeli army, how strong it is, how big it is, how such sophisticated weapons they have, and they couldn't finish Hezbollah. For sure, one day they're going to say, "OK, we'll survive this attack," so it's going to be a victory for them.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Halabi fears a Hezbollah victory will be a hollow one.

MOHAMAD HALABI: Regardless who is winning, Lebanon or the Hezbollah, let's say, in particular, or the government of Israel, everyone is losing, especially the Lebanese people. We lost a country.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Halabi and all the Lebanese-Americans we talked to want to see an immediate cease-fire.

ADAM SALEH: I believe the U.S. policy is wrong for not helping implement a cease-fire, an immediate cease-fire, because more and more people are dying on the side of Lebanon mostly, and also people on the side of Israel are dying. And I think this is wrong. It has to come to an end, because the more people die, the longer I believe the situation will worsen. I believe there should be a cessation of fighting immediately.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Instead, many here are relying on prayer.