Sunday, October 30, 2005

Observing the Conflict

As diplomats were struggling to break the logjam on a ceasefire for Lebanon, The Observer invited four young people - two Lebanese and two British Jews, one of whom has recently settled in Israel - to share their views on the crisis. The following are extensive extracts from their nearly two hour conversation on Sunday August 13, 2006

Fayez Khouri, 32, was born in Beirut but has lived in London since the age of 10, when his family moved to escape years of civil war there. He works as a lawyer.

Francesca Segal, 26, was born and raised in London. She is a freelance journalist and writer who is also completing a PhD in psychology at UCL. Her family has many relations in Israel, including elderly Hungarian-born survivors of the Holocaust.

Karma El-Fadl, 28, was born in London, where her family had moved to escape the civil war in Lebanon, but they moved to Jordan when she was five, and then back to Beirut, where she has spent the last 10 years. She moved back to London last year to complete an MBA.

Calev Ben-Dor, 26, was born and raised in London, but moved to Israel six months ago, where he is about to start work at a nonpartisan political think-tank in Tel Aviv. He was back in London to visit his family and attend a friend's wedding.

They had never met one another before, but in an alcove in a London hotel, they spoke for nearly two hours with only a handful of interventions from The Observer's Ned Temko;

Francesca Segal: When you were speaking about talking to your friends in Beirut, what's the feeling about the Hizbollah presence in Lebanon?

Fayez Khouri: Look, Hizbollah was able to prove itself as a very important force in driving Israel out of the south of Lebanon [in 2000]. After that, Hizbollah became - it is my honest opinion - a thorn in our sides. Because we don't share exactly their values, at least me and my friends don't, and I think many people in Lebanon don't. But now the situation is different. How can you not support a force which you perceive as defending your country? Against an aggression. I have nothing in common with Hizbollah, OK? I'm a Christian, so the religion is completely different. But as Karma was saying, the Israeli bombardment of our country is so far and so wide that the only force defending is Hizbollah.

Francesca Segal: But do you not see it as having been initiated by Hizbollah, that there wouldn't be an incursion if Hizbollah weren't there? Otherwise, I don't believe this would be happening. If it were the other way round and Hizbollah were in the north and it was the Lebanese controlling the south, then the border tensions, I don't believe would exist.

Karma El-Fadl: Hizbollah wouldn't be in the north, because the only reason Hizbollah was created in 1982 was because Israel invaded part of Lebanon.

Calev Ben-Dor: From an Israeli perspective, they withdrew from literally every inch of Lebanese soil. And what was filled in the void was not Lebanese soldiers. And of all of Israel's neighbours, the relationship with Lebanon is very interesting. Because there aren't really any territorial disputes, there aren't really any ideological disputes. I think the Israelis and the Lebanese are relatively Western-oriented compared to the rest of the Middle East.

Fayez Khouri: That's very true.

Calev Ben-Dor: And so theoretically, there shouldn't be any reason for a battle. But from an Israeli perspective, what Israelis see is: we withdrew from every inch and instead of the Lebanese army, being a state, and being a force in the south, what filled the void was - whether it's a terrorist, militant or guerrilla, or maybe all three of those organisations - Hizbollah, which had tens of thousands of missiles pointing at Haifa, or threatening a third of the Israeli population. It's an organisation you can't compromise with, because it's quite totalitarian and fundamentalist and wants to see Israel destroyed. When you were talking about the feelings and the thoughts in Lebanon, what was so strange is they're very similar. We're not out of fuel. We're not out of electricity. But everything else is very similar. People get killed, and you think, I know someone in Haifa, or I know someone who has just been called up to the reserves, and when ten people get killed, I think maybe my cousin was there. The thing is, wars are not good for anyone. And it's destroying a huge amount of your country and quite a large proportion of mine. The real question is where does it go. And you say that since it started, Hizbollah support has gone up?

Karma El-Fadl: Support, not as being affiliated with Hizbollah, but as sympathising with them as being the only group or body that is defending Lebanon… Hizbollah has declared, Nasrallah has gotten on TV and said the he is pro a ceasefire once Israel stops bombarding Lebanon. But if you look at the scale, the threat to Israel is now more or less confined, up to now, all the way up to Haifa, yeah? And it's all limited to Hizbollah Katyusha rockets - 2,000 men with 10,000 Katyusha rockets - and Israel is going over a whole 10,000 square km of a tiny country with air, missiles, big bombs. We have nothing to defend ourselves. Look at the Lebanese army. What is it? We have three tanks?

Francesca Segal: But the thing is that Hizbollah are actually setting out to kill civilians.
Karma El-Fadl: Where is Israel bombing? It's not bombing homes? Bridges with people on them? It's not bombing innocent people who are fleeing?

Calev Ben-Dor: I've grown up here, I'm British educated. I'm Western value-oriented. I don't like seeing destruction. I don't like seeing people killed, I certainly don't like seeing civilians killed. I think we all agree on that. But what gets me is that I don't know any Western government that has ever succeeded in fighting a war, fighting against a disparate group who are hiding among civilians, without hitting civilians at the same time. Now I don't think that necessarily justifies it, but how do you do it? Once Israel has decided to fight Hizbollah, which it feels is threatening its whole northern area, a third of the country, how can it do it?

Fayez Khouri: Don't do it. This is not the way to deal with Hizbollah.

Calev Ben-Dor: You've had six years to disarm them.

Fayez Khouri: No, the Syrians were there for five of those years. We've had one year, and the Lebanese government started a national dialogue to disarm Hizbollah. And we were getting places. It takes time. In Lebanon, the history of our civil war meant that we can't do this quickly. We cannot start fighting Hizbollah to create another civil war.


Calev Ben-Dor: What you seem to be suggesting that Israel should have done is nothing.
Karma El-Fadl: Not nothing - nothing violent. But not nothing. If land is no longer occupied, if they go back and enforce the 1949 peace agreement, and Israel leaves what is has taken, then Hizbollah's presence is no longer justified.

Francesca Segal: But if you can see it from Israel's perspective, that they feel behind Hizbollah the looming presence of Iran pointing potentially nuclear weapons at a state they intend to destroy.

Fayez Khouri: Why are you guys being so paranoid?

Calev Ben-Dor: If you had our history, you'd also be paranoid.

Karma El-Fadl: I think your history is part of our history.

Calev Ben-Dor: I just don't want a terrorist organisation on my doorstep pointing 10,000 rockets at me, that's all.

Fayez Khouri: We don't agree with Hizbollah, that's my point. But this is not the way to get rid of them. You said something very clever, that you don't want a terrorist organisation on your northern border. Two things to that: we don't want an organization that is armed, separate from the Lebanese army, in our country either. The second thing is don't you think we can call Israel a terrorist country after everything that has happened to us now? You don't want a terrorist organization on your northern border? We don't want a terrorist country on our southern border. Israel exists, and we are happy with Israel existing.

Karma El-Fadl: I mean all this year, in the MBA, of my closest friends, three of them were Israelis and they're back there and we talk on MSN. I mean we're individuals. Fine, our governments don't agree, the parties have problems. But there is a way that we as human beings, who are smart, have brains, to tackle this issue. But not by force.


Calev Ben-Dor: Does Hizbollah operate in civilian areas, have rockets in civilian areas?

Fayez Khouri: Of course. Where do you want them to be, in the middle of fields where they can be hit by Israeli warplanes? But we're talking about old people who are trying to leave their homes.

Francesca Segal: There are old and sick people trapped in their homes in Haifa as well.

Calev Ben-Dor: Someone hits Haifa, someone hits a city, a jointly Jewish-Arab city where people get on, with a third of the Israeli population, Israel's response is going to be pretty big. Every single other country in the world: you hit Birmingham with Katyusha rockets... What I'm hearing from you so far is that everything that has happened so far is our fault. What's your responsibility? What's the Lebanese government's responsibility?

Fayez Khouri: We have lots of responsibilities. We are so divided in our country, 18 religious sects in a country of 4 million people and they don't work together. And that's why we're having a civil war problem and that's why we couldn't disarm Hizbollah as fast as everyone wanted us to. I agree with you. That's a big problem. I agree with you. But guys, a country which could have been very much on side of Israel in the future, not now definitely, has now turned completely against Israel.


Francesca Segal: Israel has said from the very beginning that all the territory they've gone into now, they want it to be taken by an international force. They just want security. We don't want Lebanon. We don't want Israeli forces in Beirut.

Fayez Kouri: No, we don't either.

Francesca Segal: Of course, nobody does.

Calev Ben-Dor: We do want one thing, though - a guerrilla organisation to stop being on our border. What's a 'proportionate response' to a third of your country being under threat? That's what I don't get - an organization that wants to destroy us.

Fayez: Let the Lebanese Army go down to the south.

Calev Ben-Dor: I've been waiting!

Fayez Khouri: It's happening.

Calev Ben-Dor: Great. I really hope so. Because you know, they weren't queuing up to do it before this war started.

Fayez Khouri: Of course not. They were trying to do it in another way... Our common ground is that we can't go on like this. Hopefully, it will force us to reach a compromise which is suitable for everybody and which eradicates any extremism that exists within our society. But what is happening now is not helping at all.


Calev Ben-Dor: I think many of your premises I don't agree with, and there are many of them that I agree with, we just have different ways of viewing them. The only thing I ask is whether you agree with it or not, that you understand where we're coming from. On our side, it's a tiny country surrounded by many Arab countries, many of which want to destroy us. And I don't mind, I understand you have your narrative. The question is whether you understand ours. You said something about our being paranoid. Maybe we are. But you know what? I don't know whether my grandchildren are going to live in Israel, because I don't know whether Israel is going to be around, I genuinely don't know whether Israel is going to survive. When you have that insecurity, many things follow on from that. Maybe we won't agree, but I would like to think you understand. There's clearly a lot of pain because of the destruction, and its difficult to maintain personal relationships, but what we're doing makes a certain amount of sense from where we're standing, and you're not standing in the same place.

Francesca Segal: It was interesting you said: why are you guys so paranoid? I think it's really important understanding one another's perspective. Perhaps it is paranoia, and there is nothing behind it, but you have to see that in Israel there is a very real belief that with the Iranian stance this is a very really beginning of a second Holocaust. Perhaps you're right it's only paranoia, but it's a very real belief among some people.

Karma El-Fadl: It's not just about paranoia. It's always depicting yourself as a victim. You're not always a victim.

Fayez Khouri: But it's interesting that this is what they feel. And it's up to us, I think, to show them that we feel the same, exactly the same way. We feel that Israel, because of what's happening now and also because of things before. We would be doing what you guys do in Tel Aviv, at the beach, preparing to go out, and then coming home late and going to sleep and when the sun is rising, this is punctuated by Israeli jets flying over and doing these sonic booms and we'd say to ourselves, you know maybe we're not supposed to have fun. You guys say the whole paranoia thing, and we say the whole paranoia thing, and I think if we understand each other's reasons why, and actually dispel that - that you guys shouldn't be paranoid and we shouldn't be paranoid, we're getting somewhere. But after what's happening in Lebanon right now, the paranoia is on full alert.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, I wouldnt call it Paranoia to be honest. It is not like we have a disease of fearing things which are not even there.

Iran and Hezbollah call for the destruction of Israel every other day of the week.

Michael Sprung