The Missile War

An Iranian Zelzal missile being test-fired

A sobering thought from veteran reporter David Hirst, whose latest book details the tumultuous history of Lebanon and the modern Middle East.

In the final chapter of Beware of Small States he warns that the next Arab-Israeli war could engulf the entire region, involving Syria, Iran and Hamas in what he calls a “Hizbullah-style ‘missile war’ writ large”.

Tensions in the region are simmering away. The Israeli cabinet has reportedly met to discuss the possibility of a Hezbollah coup in Lebanon following explosive reports that the Special Tribunal established to investigate the murder of the country’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, will indict members of the Iranian-sponsored Shia militia.

Anywhere one looks – be it towards the ailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process or the Iranian nuclear impasse – there seems to be little in the way of moderation.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the only thing which could lead to a final peace settlement in the region is a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories seized during the Six Day War and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

But speaking to the people who will have to accept this new reality in their midst, one wonders whether many Arabs will ever be able to accommodate Israel.

Take Lina, an educated, middle-aged English teacher from Damascus. Sitting down in her violet woollen cardigan, with matching eye-liner and resting a brown leather handbag on her knees, she looks the picture of what some Western politicians might call Arab moderation.

How does she hope a Middle East peace might be achieved?

“I think we need to get rid of Israel and drive the people out,” she says.

Asked what would happen to the Israelis she admits she does not know, then laughs and says: “Maybe we should send them back to Europe.”

She is not being entirely disingenuous. For Lina, and many people like her, there can never be a rapprochement with the Jewish State.

Speak to many Syrians they often take a long-term view of the current situation in Palestine – this region has seen its fair share of imperial imposters over the centuries, they think. They came and went, and Israel will be no different.

There will be many in the West who hope their analysis of history does not prove to be correct.


Sabra and Shatila: A reluctant walk down memory lane

Sabra and Shatila. Pic by MB on

The Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila are only a few kilometres from the polish of downtown Beirut, but they might as well be in a different country.

To walk down the frenetic main street is a physically disorientating experience.

Everywhere you look there is filth and rubbish. Blood from the butcher’s courses across the grubby pavements; stray goats nibble at black bin bags heaped in 6ft piles by the road; muddy paths leading to crumbling hovels wind off deep into the camp, and scooter after scooter screeches down the road through a teeming bustle of the downbeat and dejected.

Parts of the camp lack even basic services

It was here in September 1982 that a Christian militia allied to the Israeli army carried out a two-day massacre and slaughtered anywhere between 800 to 3,500 defenceless Palestinian refugees.

At the height of the Lebanese civil war, after Israel had invaded Lebanon in a bid to stamp out the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and establish a Christian vassal state north of their border, Phalangist militiamen went on the rampage through the camps despite the full knowledge of some of the Israeli high command about what was taking place. The names of Sabra and Shatila have lived in infamy ever since.

The camps themselves sprung up as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but have now become a permanent feature of the Lebanese capital featuring all the things you might see in any other Arab town.

The market selling plump tomatoes and courgettes sits under the shadow of a large mosque with a towering minaret, while lines of hungry men jostle at the shwarma stall and others have their beards trimmed at the nearby barber.

But walking through the camp it is impossible to keep track of the number of men who have fallen victim to the impenetrable Shatila Stare – that lost-for-good look which speaks of a wretched inner hopelessness.

Amid all the filth and the car fumes, a group of children play happily on a rusty, miniature roundabout on the side of camp’s main street. Grinning and squawking, for them it is the only way to play they have ever known.

Another, very pretty girl of maybe eight or nine years of age stands by a rack of cauliflowers in the market. As a child in the West she would have a wealth of opportunities in a life away from the garbage-filled gutter.

In Lebanon she has become a prisoner.

Disabled and Arab – a double barrier?

The Syrian Arab Army Band perform at the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony.

It is hard getting to the Olympics when your team lives under occupation.

According to members of the Palestinian delegation to this year’s Middle East Special Olympics in Damascus, some of the squad met for the first time only when they arrived in Syria.

Because a number live in the Gaza Strip and others are based in the occupied West Bank, they have been separated all their lives by restrictions on travel between the two territories.

The Palestinians were among the 23 squads invited to the 7th SOMENA (Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa) Regional Games taking place in Damascus this week.

Among the others who attended a fever-pitch Opening Ceremony in the 10,000-seater Tishreen Stadium over the weekend were Iran (not traditionally a “Middle Eastern” nation, but that seems to have been overlooked), UAE (whose squad looked somewhat incongruous parading around the stadium in their distinctly un-athletic jalabiyas and headscarves), and Somalia (who had a total of four athletes during the opening – because people in Somalia “don’t care much about the disabled”, according to one volunteer)

Attitudes towards the disabled in Syria and across the Middle East have long fallen short of what might be called “Western standards”.

Speak to many Syrians and they will tell you how disabled youngsters are often given the “Mrs Rochester” treatment – hidden away inside the house out of a sense of shame or embarrassment. This is backed up by a UNESCO Education for All report last year, which highlighted “negative attitudes towards the disabled” across the Middle East as having an effect on the self-confidence of children with learning disabilities.

But organisers of this year’s Special Olympics want to change all that. One of the Syrian athletes, a swimmer with Down’s Syndrome called Alaa al-Zaybak has even become something of a national poster boy, starring in a TV series about the disabled during Ramadan and being billed as a star by the Syrian newspapers.

There is a long way to go, but these Olympics seem to be doing their bit in the fight against hidebound ignorance.

The waiting game

Posters in a Syrian refugee camp of the assassinated Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Rahr’s eyes briefly mist over as he stares at the bare, white wall in front of him.

“Every nation, even the strong ones, eventually become weak,” he says.

The 25-year-old is one of more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees now living in Syria.

His father was just two when the family fled their home in the West Bank town of Ramallah after the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Now, under UN rules which grant refugee status to any descendants of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, he has become one of Syria’s many men-in-waiting.

“We will have a nation,” insists Rahr, a chemist who makes drugs for vetinary surgeries.

“Israel will be defeated when the Arab nations join together.”

It sounds like the kind of discredited Arab nationalist rhetoric once espoused by the Egyptian demagogue Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Rahr talks of the Palestinians eventually achieving istaqlaal, or independence, and overcoming the oppression of the Israeli occupation.

Yet one wonders how many Palestinians here would choose to go back if they had the opportunity. The majority were born in Syria and have never touched foot on the soil they want to call home.

Although, as in other Arab countries, Palestinians here are not eligible for citizenship (a result of a pan-Arab 1965 agreement to preserve the identity of refugees), they are granted full access to government services, possess travel documents, have the same educational rights as Syrian citizens and can work as government employees.

In contrast, refugees in Lebanon were only granted the right to work last month – and even then they are barred from professional jobs like law and medicine and are forbidden from buying property.

One Palestinian friend said he would be surprised if many refugees ever did take up their right of return.

“They are brought up to think like this,” he once said. “It’s what they are supposed to say. But why would you go back to an undeveloped Palestinian state when you have a successful life in Syria?”

Just ask Rahr. He is a patient man, and takes a long-term view of the Palestinian waiting game.

“Look at America. They were once strong, and now they are becoming weak. Soon Israel will be defeated.”