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Reporter's Notebook: The conflicts never end

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-24

For journalists of a certain generation, the physical carnage in Lebanon and northern Israel brings back haunting memories of conflicts that once seemed certain to go on forever.

The fratricide of 1975-1990 that the Lebanese called their civil war certainly did not seem to suggest an end. Maronite Christians battled Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Palestinians - who came to Lebanon as refugees in earlier years - were driven by their manipulative leader Yasser Arafat into participating in a conflict where they had few domestic issues to champion.

The civil war was made more complicated by the arrival of Syrians, who were first approached by the Maronites to assist them, and who then switched loyalties to the Muslims. In the event, the Syrians took over the entire country, making Lebanon's government a handmaiden to their relentless agenda of confronting Israel.

That conflict did not seem to suggest an end.

There was the conflict of 1982, when Israeli forces pushed to the north from southern Lebanon in hot pursuit of Palestinian radicals. They secured the cooperation of Phalange militias, some of whom had earlier been bitter enemies of the Jewish state. Those militias butchered hundreds of Palestinians in the teeming refugee camps of southern Beirut.

That conflict, too, did not seem to suggest an end, notwithstanding the vast outcry of protest from the international community.

It would be 18 years before Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon. The Hezbollah, which was formed in 1982 to ratchet up resistance to Israel, subsequently claimed that it drove out the Jews. But such hyperbole was to be expected in a region where chimera is often taken for political reality. It was political and military weariness that far more credibly explained Israel's withdrawal.

Conflicts do end, of course, no matter how protracted they seem. In 1982, Israel demonstrated its compliance with a United Nations resolution and abandoned southern Lebanon - which Hezbollah promptly occupied, setting the stage for almost continuous hostility that steadily escalated until it erupted two weeks ago.

The deadly 15-year civil war ended, too, after the Saudis brokered an accord at the resort town of Taif in Saudi Arabia in October 1989. Signatories included members of the 128-person Lebanese parliament. Everyone agreed that, among other things, there would be a phasing out of the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

It would be another 16 years before the Syrians left. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri in February 2005 - which Syrian officials allegedly masterminded - was the catalytic event that forced out 30,000 Syrian troops, and countless secret police, which'd been lodged in Lebanese for nearly 30 years.

But do these terrible blood conflicts in the Middle East truly end? Or does the resolution of one conflict usher in a period of a false peace and the promise of prosperity - until the next conflict erupts.

It certainly seems that way in Lebanon, an artificial nation that the British and French created in 1920 after the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I, and the European imperialists set out to establish a new system of Arab states.

Almost alone in the long parade of politicians of many persuasions who have traversed the Lebanese stage since then, Rafik Hariri recognized that accelerated economic development, not rehabilitated sectarian politics, would hold the artificial nation together. Mobilizing the private sector through his Hariri Foundation, he invited the assistance of the California-based multinational engineering and construction company, Bechtel.

Billions of dollars were raised and spent on reconstruction. Journalists of a certain generation, who'd known Beirut before the devastating civil war, and during it, were astonished how quickly the capital city on the Mediterranean was rebuilt.

But, of course, it was all very deceptive. Underneath that canopy of enterprise and energy lay an artificial nation quite susceptible to the sectarian politics of yore, and the fundamentalist politics of the present.

Hezbollah was never really a signatory to the reconstruction of Lebanon; it harbored its own agenda of establishing an Islamic state, and it pursued the politics of confrontation with Israel.

And Hezbollah certainly validated the gnawing anxiety of those who care for Lebanon that, in this beautiful, haunted nation at least, although the hostilities of a particular period may subside, the conflicts never truly end in the Levant.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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