On the surface, it all makes sense. A group of radical Islamists fighting the Lebanese army shoot on amid the ruins of Nahr el-Bared refugee camp. Nahr el-Bared means “the cold river”, but there is no river. They are shelled by the Lebanese army. In fact, Lebanese Gazelle helicopters machine-gunned them yesterday. Another chapter in the war on terror.
In reality, it is another tragedy in that same conflict (though let’s delete the word “terror”). The Gazelles have no rockets – courtesy of the United States, because Israel fears they will be used against its own forces.
The Belgians even offered Leopard tanks – again vetoed by the United States – in case the Lebanese used them against the Israelis. So the Lebanese are armed sufficiently to fight Palestinians, but not enough to fight their enemies on their southern frontier.
Are the Fatah al-Islam gunmen supported by Syria? Probably yes. But a familiar pattern was emerging yesterday. The International Red Cross was asking “all the parties” for a ceasefire, the phrase used so promiscuously during the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon, as if the Palestinian gunmen were combatants in a civil conflict, rather than the murderers of 20 Lebanese soldiers more than two weeks ago. Yesterday the BBC was adding to the normality of war, by referring to the “maze of concrete buildings and narrow alleyways” of Nahr el-Bared, as if refugee camps in the Middle East were made of anything else.
So can the Lebanese army really fight America’s war in the north of this country? Though composed of Shias, Sunnis, Druze and Christians, it has held together. But it was not created to fight the West’s wars in the Middle East. Just over a week ago a secret meeting was held in the south of this country in which intelligence officers from the French, Italian and Spanish governments – based in their embassies in Beirut – sat down and talked to senior officials of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement, Israel’s greatest enemies in Lebanon.
They were assured – as they hoped they would be – by Hizbollah that their soldiers in the enlarged peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon would be protected from al-Qa’ida and their friends in Fatah al-Islam. They were also told that if Israel attacked Lebanon again this summer, there would be a far fiercer war than the 34-day conflict last June and July. North of the Litani River – and amid the conflict in northern Lebanon this has gone unreported – the Hizbollah is building new roads and bunkers in preparation for the next battle with Israel.
Because the refugee camps of the north are so isolated, and because Beirut survives, despite the nightly bombings by (as usual) unknown suspects, this country still presents a picture of peace and comparative normality.
But it is in grave peril, and – as in Afghanistan and Iraq – we are continuing to ignore this.
Further reading: “The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East” by Robert Fisk, HarperCollins