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Watching another rerun

Fatah al-Asswipes
Burning Lebanon

Lebanon is ablaze again. This time, it’s different. This time, it’s the same old story. This time, it’s Arab-on-Arab violence. Sunni-on-Sunni. No, it’s Lebanese against Palestinians. No, it’s al-Qaeda’s influence in Lebanon. It’s Syria’s. It’s a backlash from the Iraq war, which trained some of the fighters involved. It’s a backlash from Israel’s invasion last July, which gave the fighters the opening to slip into Lebanon and set up shop. It’s a sign of the Lebanese government’s impotence. It’s a sign of the PLO’s impotence, the PLO being in charge of those refugee camps where Fatah al-Islam’s militants, in defiance of the PLO, established their fiefdom. It’s a sign of Palestinians’ pathological default setting on violence. And of course it’s Bush’s fault. And Kissinger’s. And Balfour’s. Which is it, really?

What sad fascination to watch savagery so familiar once again explode in variations only somewhat less familiar: The last time the Lebanese army attacked Palestinian camps in earnest goes back to 1973, when the PLO’s militants, smarting from their expulsion from Jordan in 1970, thought they could give Lebanon a taste of their subversiveness. It was 34 years ago this very month that they provoked a brief war by attacking Lebanese army positions in drive-by shootings, triggering a few weeks’ bombings and martial law. I wasn’t yet ten years old, living in Beirut at the time. I remember as distinctly as last night’s performance of Tony Benett on American idol the sight of those old Lebanese air force Harriet jets rising in the sky after dropping their payloads on Palestinian camps, or how each family in the building in turn would take coffee to the troops parked near Damascus Road. The army was only too glad then to have a reason to attack Palestinians. It wanted to do what Jordan and Syria had done: send the message that the PLO couldn’t use the country as a launching pad for attacks on Israel. It worked for a couple of years, but you can always count on the Lebanese never to let diplomacy do what chaos could do worse. So 1973 proved to be a warm-up for the civil war that blasted off in earnest two years later.

There’s repetition in all this. Here’s the Lebanese army again fighting a small militant force inside a Palestinian refugee camp, minus the air force this time, to send the message that, ostensibly, the Lebanese government won’t tolerate militants in Palestinian camps trying to play martyrdom on Lebanon’s back.

The difference this time is that, for now anyway, the majority of the population, if not a good many Palestinians as well, is with the army—the closest thing to an ecumenical, essentially Lebanese institution in the country. The soldiers getting killed are mostly Sunnis, like the militants (and the Palestinian civilians) getting killed. The similarities mean nothing. Shaker el-Absi, the Fatah al-Islam leader, “butchered four soldiers at the weekend, slitting their throats and leaving their severed heads on the road,” according to Robert Fisk—the only journalist, once again, willing to report from the scene for more than a parachuting minute.

Several months ago when Shakir al-Abssi set up his Fatah al-Islam operation inside the Nahr al Bared camp he went on a little PR offensive, inviting a journalism school student to drop out for his sake and take charge of his media image, start up a magazine for the recruiting cause, invite journalists to see what he’s up to. Like Osama bin laden, Shakir al-Abssi likes his press clips. Several journalists took the bait, among them a couple of reporters from the New York Times. “Mr. Abssi's organization,” the Times wrote last March in an American scoop, “is the image of what intelligence officials have warned is the re-emergence of Al Qaeda. Shattered after 2001, the organization founded by Osama bin Laden is now reforming as an alliance of small groups around the world that share a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam but have developed their own independent terror capabilities, these officials have said. If Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who has acknowledged directing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and a string of other terror plots, represents the previous generation of Qaeda leaders, Mr. Abssi and others like him represent the new.” You could sense the Times smelling vindication for the way it reported the story when the camp battle broke out, and every think tank talking head from Brookings to Heritage going, aha! We told you so! What a terrific propagandistic coup, this emergence of tin-pot terrorists for the likes of Rove and Bush to hang their warriors' hats on. Al-Qaeda was going stale.

What sadder fascination to watch and read journalists from al-Jazeera to the Wall Street Journal try to give their interpretation of this latest conflagration, to, quote unquote, try to make sense of it, as if there is anything to be made sense of when senselessness is the preferred and universal fuel. What sense is there, regardless of the legitimate objective of getting those barbaric militants out of the Palestinian camp and out of Lebanon if possible, to attack them with barbarism in turn—to blast off civilians in the refugee camp like so much collateral irrelevance? Once again, those paying the heaviest price are those who have nothing to do with the fight. Who to blame first is silly. The genealogy of responsibility is as long as Abraham’s. No one can be spared, no one should be. But in the immediate vicinity of the mayhem, let’s not be too relative, either: those Datah al-Islam types think nothing of spreading destruction, of using terrorism to their limited advantage—not that the action they’re involved in against the Lebanese army can be termed terrorism (no battle between combatants can be). The consequences of the battle, of course, can be. The Lebanese and Palestinians of Tripoli and Nahr al Bared camp are being terrorized no less than the Lebanese were terrorized by Israel’s invasion last summer. And who are those fanatical Fatah al-Islam types, what are they, if not much more than the latest collection of ideological rags wrapped in perversions of Islam pretending to serve the cause of Palestinian nationalism? They’re minor-league butchers who think a stint of loitering and ganging about Iraq makes them kings in their miserable little camp. “They wanted to fight. They wanted to be martyrs. To liberate Palestine from the Israelis and fight Americans,” Mohammed Mawass told al-Jazeera after showing the cameraman the now-demolished home he and his wife had invested in for decades in order to retire there. “But they’re not here. They want to fight them, they should go there. There were kids and women here.”

Funny how the Wall Street Journal and the Times and others referred to “Arab public opinion” being angry with the Lebanese army for pounding the Palestinian refugee camp. What has Arab public opinion ever done for the Palestinians? Palestinians are forced to live in conditions worse than dogs in their refugee camps, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Jordan. They’re denied citizenship, they’re denied the right to own land, they’re denied, in Lebanon, the right to work in dozens of professions, the right to travel, the right to education, and obviously the right to proper living conditions wherever they please. It’s the same for Palestinians wherever they’re corralled around the Arab world. Why is Arab public opinion not incensed over that? What has Arab public opinion’s anger ever done to effectuate a few changes that might improve the Palestinian civilians’ lot? Forget their stupid and barbaric militants. They’re cut of the same cloth that their Israeli opponents are. Belligerence is to them a way of life. But not so the mass of Palestinian refugees. The Arab regimes, Lebanon among them, reason that giving them full rights is an admission of their permanent exclusion from Israel, where most still talk as if their right of return is a possibility. There’s rational thought there, there’s even international legality behind the reasoning. But meanwhile, what? Three generations of Palestinians treated like subhuman chattel, and Arab public opinion dares suggest that it could get angry at the Lebanese army for pounding that Palestinian camp to rid it of its latest incarnation of throat-slitting savagery?

Naturally, the knee-jerk sort of interpretation on this side of the Atlantic, the kind heard on a local Florida television station, on the kind of newscast where most American perceptions are shaped and diced down to molecular bytes of crude simplicities, it was immediately and briefly framed as al-Qaeda exporting terrorism from Iraq. The logic is that Fatah al-Islam’s supposed leader, Shakir al-Abssi, who is wanted for murder in Jordan (he killed an American diplomat randomly chosen, based on his diplomatic plates, in 2002) and on terrorism charges in Syria, once plotted a thing or two with Abu Musab al-Zarquawi, including the diplomat’s murder. He spent some time in Iraq. Some of the men he’s plotting with now spent some time in Iraq. He returned to Lebanon last Summer, towing some of the men with him. He wants to bring death and destruction to Israel, although why he chose a refugee camp in North Lebanon, at the opposite end of his objectives, suggests he’s either not much of a thinking bulb or Sunni enough to know that south Lebanon is Shiite-Hezbollah territory, where rogue militants aren’t quite welcome: Hezbollah likes its monopoly on that market, while the United Nations’ NATO-led force there would make it difficult for an upstart militant to maneuver to his savagery’s content. But to provincial American media, where the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs and Katie Couric are taken to be real journalists, this latest war in Lebanon is just an al-Qaeda export, and good for the Lebanese army if it just exterminates it.

The saddest fascination with that line of thinking is that it’s not without its twisted logic. The Middle East as President Bush has reconfigured it since unleashing his brainlessness on Mesopotamia is such that the latest of that region’s prophesies have been fulfilled. Iraq was no terror haven four years ago. It is now. Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda four years ago. Nor did Lebanon. It does now. The spread of al-Qaeda looked doomed when even Syria and Iran were willing to join forces with American intelligence four years ago in the so-called war on terror. Not anymore. Syria is back in the rogue camp, although as Fisk writes, “It is too simple to claim that this is Syria's work. Syria may have an interest is watching this destabilisation, even - through its security networks - assisting these groups with logistics. But other organisations might have found common interest; the Iraqi insurgents, for example, even the Taliban, perhaps equally small groups in the Palestinian occupied territories. That’s how these things work in the Middle East, where there is no such thing as responsibility - only a commonality of interests. Perhaps the Americans might have learnt something about this if they had not two years ago insulted the Syrians for allowing fighters into Iraq - at which point, the Syrians halted all military and intelligence co-operation with the US.”

So where are we? As I write this the reports are coming in of a heavy night of fighting around the Palestinian camp in Tripoli, and word of the Lebanese government threatening an all-out attack. Hezbollah in the south has been oddly, tellingly quiet. Aside from Palestinians burning tires there, Hezbollah has let it all unfold on the army’s terms. Of course: It’s not its fight, it’s not about to lose what perverted credibility it won for itself last summer, in the war with Israel, by siding with the militants against the Lebanese army and the mass of the Lebanese public, which dreads a restart of the civil war. That’s where we are: a Lebanon so splintered by cross-purposed allegiances and tactical, but not actual, enmities that the battle in Northern Lebanon gives every side something to win, and every side something to lose. Oddly, it’s what great compromises are made of, even there. The smoke is too thick, the savagery to raw, to distinguish even the glimmer of a compromise. The militants of Fatah al-Islam have suicide belts around their waists: they’re not the sort made for compromise. And as always in the Middle East, there are those, Americans, Syrians, Israelis and Hezbollah among them, who have almost nothing to lose and everything to gain when others are doing the fighting and the dying. The only complete losers are the civilians, and with them what’s left of Lebanon.

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