Creating people's geographies
Tuesday, 1 August, 2006
BEIRUT: When Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s gentle, US-backed prime minister, plucks up the courage to snub Condoleezza Rice, it is clear that anger at American support for Israel’s onslaught has boiled over in Beirut.
Siniora, a pro-Western politician thrust into the job after last year’s assassination of former premier Rafik al-Hariri, leads a coalition government that the US hoped would drag Lebanon out of Syria’s orbit and into its own.
But on Sunday the Sunni Muslim prime minister, enraged by an Israeli air strike that killed scores of civilians, including at least 37 children, told the US Secretary of State she was unwelcome in Beirut unless she came with an immediate ceasefire.
Remarkably, he later thanked Hezbollah, long a political thorn in his side, for its sacrifices to protect Lebanon.
George Joffe, lecturer at the Cambridge Centre for International Studies, said Siniora’s decision not to meet Rice was a turning point in the conflict – and for Lebanon.
“For him now to turn around to those (Americans) who were in effect his guarantors against the Syrians and say he will not talk to them until they agree to an immediate ceasefire seems to say an awful lot about the change of opinion in Lebanon.
“For Lebanese, whether they are Christian, Sunni or Shia that is a very significant set of events,” Joffe said.
After Hariri’s killing, Lebanese protests and US-led pressure forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon in April 2005. Next on Washington’s agenda for “freedom and democracy” in Lebanon was the disarming of Hezbollah.
Now, with a whirlwind of destruction engulfing Lebanon, the US insists it is no use halting the Israeli offensive unless Hezbollah guerrillas, backed by Syria and Iran, are driven from the border and prevented from menacing Israel.
Its attitude – and its refusal to talk to Israel’s foes – has caused fury in Lebanon and across the Arab world.
“Washington is feeling the pain of its own self-inflicted diplomatic castration, as a consequence of siding so strongly with Israel,” Rami Khouri wrote in Beirut’s Daily Star.
Siniora has been pleading for a ceasefire first, and then negotiations, ever since Hezbollah touched off the conflict by seizing two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.
Many Lebanese, including the prime minister, were upset by a Hezbollah ploy that embroiled Lebanon in an unwelcome war.
But Israeli bombing, which has killed up to 750 people, displaced 750,000 and destroyed countless roads, bridges and other installations, has forged unusual unity among politicians whose disputes had paralysed Lebanon’s government for months.
Anger at what Beirut sees as US encouragement for the Israeli assault has, at least for now, papered over divisions between Siniora’s anti-Syrian partners and Lebanese allies of Damascus who had bitterly contested moves to disarm Hezbollah.
The war has strengthened the hand of Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and turned his Shi’ite ally, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, into a pivotal contact point with Siniora.
“We are in a strong position and I thank the Sayyed for his efforts,” Siniora said on Sunday, hailing “all who sacrifice their lives for Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty”.
Keen to silence its domestic critics, Nasrallah had sought to reassure the Lebanese that its battlefield “victory” against Israel would not change the fragile balance in Lebanon.
“Victory will be for all of Lebanon, all its religious communities, regions, movements… for any honourable Arab, Muslim and Christian who stood against the aggression,” he said.
Hizbollah also contributed to the sense of unity by allowing the cabinet, in which it has two loyalists, to endorse Siniora’s proposals for a ceasefire and deployment of an international force in south Lebanon, the group’s Shi’ite heartland.
But Hizbollah, the only faction to keep its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war, on the grounds it needed them to fight Israeli occupation, has vowed to keep them.
In today’s climate of hostility to US-Israeli policies, with Israeli troops again on Lebanese soil, few in Lebanon will ask Hizbollah to give up the rockets which it is still firing across the border despite 20 days of Israeli bombardment.
That might only change in the context of a deal that binds Israel to give up the disputed Shebaa Farms border area, free Lebanese detainees and respect Lebanese air space and waters. – Reuters