I returned home to Beirut this week to find my landlord, Mustafa, welding an armoured door on to the entrance of his ground-floor flat. “There are many thieves nowadays, Mr Robert,” he pleaded with me. “They will come to my house first – they will not reach your apartment.”
Well, I don’t really want an armoured door on my home. But have things deteriorated this far in Beirut? I pondered what to say to Mustafa. Truly, I could not repeat the latest mantra of the late Tony Blair – south of the Lebanese border and talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that he had “a sense of possibilities”.
All of us in Lebanon have a “sense of possibilities” right now – and they are all bad. The Lebanese army – still fighting its way into the Palestinian Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in the north of the country more than a month after the minister of defence announced total victory over the army’s “Fatah al-Islam” opponents – is about the only institution still working in this country. Yesterday morning’s Beirut newspapers carried front-page pictures of Lebanese soldiers aboard an armoured personnel carrier, all making “victory” signs to photographers.
But victory over whom? Day after day, we’ve been watching the US air force C-130s arriving at Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport – named after the man whose assassination on 14 February detonated the latest tragedy of Lebanon – with their cargoes of weapons for the Lebanese army. Would that they had arrived a year ago, many Lebanese say, when Israel was destroying much of Lebanon. But of course, a year ago, the American air force C-130s were arriving in Israel with weapons to be used against Lebanon, including cluster munitions which have contaminated 36.6 million square metres of Lebanon.
The United Nations (my favourite donkey, which always clip-clops into the killing fields when the United States get stuck) reports that 23 Lebanese civilians have been killed by these wretched weapons since last year’s war, and 203 wounded. In a truly pitiful remark, the UN Secretary-General stated last month: “I regret to have to report that, despite a number of attempts by UN senior officials to obtain information regarding the firing data of cluster munitions utilised (sic) during last summer’s conflict, Israel has yet to provide this critical data.” To which my reaction is: why not ask Washington for the information? Surely a UN official could take the Amtrak out of New York and pick up the figures from the Pentagon?
But it is all much worse than this. The Lebanese army has been reporting to the UN a whole series of violations of its country’s sovereignty, from Israelis – whose daily over-flights are in total contravention of UN resolutions – to new Palestinian militant bases inside Lebanese territory.
Take, for example, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and “Fatah Intifada”, two institutions much loved of Damascus. According to the Lebanese authorities, the PFLP-GC has set up camps in Jubayla and Ain al-Bayda – its 100 guerrillas in these locations dressed in uniforms that look suspiciously like those of the Lebanese army itself – while in Ossaya, the PFLP-GC has installed eight rocket launchers (of 12 and 40 barrels) pointing towards Rayak air base, from which the Lebanese air force has been flying Kiowa helicopters to the Nahr el-Bared siege. Other Palestinian units have been reinforcing positions at Wadi al-Asswad, Balta, Helwa and Deir al-Achayer, with at least 500 men and anti-tank artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Under UN resolutions, Palestinians outside the refugee camps should have been totally disarmed.
The UN’s reports to New York are of the deepest pessimism. The Blue Line – the so-called frontier between Lebanon and Israel which does not include the Shebaa farms area, occupied by Israel but originally belonging to Lebanon – is “tense and fragile”. Hizbollah – which provoked last year’s war by capturing two Israeli soldiers on the Israeli side of the border – continues to monitor the UN peacekeeping army’s activities, “including through the taking of photographs and filming”.
Needless to say, the Syrians – whose strong-boned hand is seen behind so many acts of Lebanese mayhem – have protested their innocence, and even asked for European technology to assist them in preventing arms smuggling from Lebanon into Syria. Let me repeat this: from Lebanon into Syria. Yet another UN report states that arms continue to flow in the other direction and that tribal and family ties between the authorities in Lebanon and Syria make arms smuggling easy. So much for the French decision – back in the aftermath of the First World War – to chop Lebanon off from Syria and make it a separate country.
And now the latest UN report on the enquiry into Hariri’s assassination talks of the “deterioration in the political and security environment”. The UN cops have now produced confidential reports of 2,400 pages into Hariri’s murder and other bombings in Lebanon. The crime scene investigation alone – the roadway outside the derelict Saint Georges hotel on which Hariri and 21 others were blown to pieces – has itself produced 10,000 pages of information.
The UN believes that the man who claimed in a videotape that he was to kill himself in the suicide bombing – Ahmad Abu Adass – was murdered before the assassination and that another man, apparently non-Lebanese (from his teeth, the UN investigators concluded he was born in a more arid country than Lebanon), drove the Mitsubishi truck containing the 1,800kg of explosives that killed Hariri. The UN knows that he was aged 20 to 25, that he had short dark hair, that he lived in “an urban environment” for the first 10 years of his earthly life and in the country for the rest.
And the UN has discovered much, much more. But the news is all bad. Across the Middle East, it is all bad. From the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to the hell-disaster in Iraq, from the mini-civil war in the Pakistani north-west frontier to the chaos of Gaza and the occupied West Bank. This is not a time for a “sense of possibilities”. My landlord is right. Weld the iron door to the entrance of our homes.