Sunday, November 26, 2006

Lebanon In Crisis?

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel is the latest of several violent tragedies to befall Lebanon and, although Americans are understandably occupied thinking about the escalating sectarian violence in Iraq, anyone interested in the prospects of a more peaceful and just middle each should be watching Lebanon closely. There is much to be hopeful about in Lebanon: the country is shared by large groups of Christians and Muslims (both Sunni and Shia), and the Lebanese government has succeeding in disarming almost all the rogue militias held over from the country's long and destructive civil war (Hezbollah is a glaring exception, but more on that later). 2005 also saw major progress for democracy in Lebanon, as long-simmering resentment of Syrian interference in Lebanese politics reached a climax following the assassination of another prominent anti-Syrian leader, Rafik Hariri. Public outrage in Lebanon lead to the Syrian military's complete withdrawal and the election of a moderate, pluralistic, and democratic government.

This year has not been so good. Israel's war in the summer really wasn't good for Lebanon or Israel. The stated objectives of Israel, which were to return their kidnapped soldiers and to eliminate Hezbollah's ability to make war, were not achieved. According to Hezbollah, Israel is now negotiating a possible prisoner transfer (which the terrorist organization originally wanted), and the last day of rocket attacks before the cease-fire which ended the summer war was actually the most intense. The war did, however, do a lot of damage to Lebanon in general, with major losses in infrastructure (including roads, airports, and power plants) as well as over 900 civilian casualties. All in all, the war was a public relations win for Hezbollah, which capitalized on resentment against Israel among refugees displaced by the war, using money funneled from Iran and Syria to give handouts to poor Lebanese who had lost their homes. Of course, there's no doubt that Hezbollah is a violent but savvy terrorist group, and their altruism has an ulterior motive: shoring up support for their opposition political bloc in Lebanon's elections. Hezbollah is hoping to turn nationalist sentiment, which drove the current anti-Syrian government into power, to their favor (despite the group's foreign backing) in the wake of the government's seeming impotence as the war between Israel and Hezbollah raged across Lebanese soil.

Now, another popular anti-Syrian politician, this time also a prominent Christian leader, has been assassinated by unknown assailants. Ironically, though, his death might once again galvanize populist opposition to foreign interference in Lebanese affairs, as moderate Christians and Muslims try to live together in peace and preserve independent, democratic elections in their country. As we speak, Lebanese business owners are striking in solidarity with the government, and leaders from across the ruling bloc are united in the condemnation of the attack and their call for political calm (even Syria has joined the condemnation, although suspicion certainly falls on militants connected with Damascus). One certainly hopes the situation stabilizes, and hopefully the response to the slaying will once again unite the Lebanese in support of a moderate and inclusive government. At the same time, the international community should be assisting Lebanon's legitimate government. As the tragic war this summer showed, a foreign incursion into Lebanon aimed at rooting out Hezbollah is doubtful to succeed. With the support of the international community, however, the government can hopefully begin disarming Hezbollah as it has done with other armed militias and asserting its mandate over the southern part of the country. At that point, Hezbollah will basically be relegated to being one of many political parties in Lebanon, and its popularity would hopefully dwindle as Lebanon continues to assert its political independence.

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