Saturday, July 26, 2003

For reasons we need not develop, but which have nothing to do with political censorship, the Daily Star decided not to publish this commentary of mine in the Lebanon section today. I was happy to comply, and, so, am posting it here for anyone who might be interested:

Engaging Hizbullah

In June, the CNN correspondent in Beirut, Brent Sadler, played me an outtake of an interview he had conducted with Information Minister Michel Samaha. In the tape Samaha made a rather confusing claim that once regional circumstances changed, Hizbullah would help in the fight against terrorism.

What, we pondered, could he possibly mean?

Thanks to American journalist Seymour Hersh--who spoke to Samaha for a New Yorker magazine article on US-Syrian relations--we now know. Hersh wrote: “Samaha…told me that Hizbullah has stabilized daily life in southern Lebanon, by controlling and monitoring the sometimes violent activities of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in squalid refugee camps scattered throughout the area. He argued that America was making ‘a foolish mistake’ by not trying to engage Hizbullah. The group…complied with Syria’s insistence that it prevent would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from crossing the border into Israel.”

Before getting to the filling of Samaha’s statement, let’s nibble at the crust: Who told the minister that Hizbullah had any desire to “be engaged” by the United States? Or that this could lead anywhere. The UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, tried doing so, as did the British ambassador to Lebanon. Though both efforts were defensible, it was not clear what they achieved, or that they were preferable to the status quo. “Engagement” is a nice word, but it often means little more than seeing two latent antagonists photographed next to one other.

Then there was Samaha’s innovative, duly copyrighted argument that Hizbullah is a source of stability in the border area, and a force prepared to wrestle with Palestinian militants on their way to fight Israel. Not surprisingly, the minister’s predecessors never used that line, mainly because it’s a pretty tough sell. However, what Samaha did was to conflate two Syrian messages--one on Hizbullah, the other on the Palestinians--transmitted several years ago to an American ambassador by the deputy parliament speaker, Elie Ferzli.

At the time Israel was still occupying southern Lebanon, but the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was beginning to toy with the idea of withdrawal. The Syrian messages, which according to one source came in a single statement, were roughly this: “If Israel withdraws, we might be able to control Hizbullah, but not Palestinian groups in Lebanon, who, after all, wish to liberate their land from Israeli occupation.”

What the Syrians were saying in a nutshell was that if the Israelis left south Lebanon, they would continue to face military pressures from across the border. As it turned out the Syrians had their cake--sort of--and ate it too: Hizbullah pursued its military operations after 2000, albeit in that netherworld known as the Shebaa Farms; and in March-April 2002 unidentified gunmen, widely suspected of belonging to Palestinian groups from the refugee camps, carried out cross-border attacks, including one on March 12 against an Israeli bus in which six Israelis (and the two attackers) were killed.

For obvious reasons, Samaha avoided mentioning that most (if not all) of the March-April 2002 attacks were conducted with Hizbullah’s collaboration--at least if one believes politicians, journalists, and international civil servants in Beirut. Unfortunately, local officials have been so focused on defending Hizbullah against its Western detractors, that they have also drifted over into casting doubt on the aptitude of the Lebanese state. When Samaha says that Hizbullah brings stability to the south, he’s also saying that a militia can do so more effectively that the lavishly-funded Lebanese army.

One wonders whether Hizbullah was that keen to read Samaha portraying it as an efficient guardian of Israel’s borders. The party has indeed turned the tap on and off in the border area, but it also has an image to preserve. To hear the information minister exposing the worms in the party’s woodwork, and all that to make Hizbullah more palatable to readers of the New Yorker and to Americans in general must have been a tough nut for Nasrallah to swallow.

But surely not half as tough as it must have been for the Bush administration, which is currently debating whom to include in a revised list of enemies. One can imagine Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reading what Samaha told Hersh, especially that bit about America’s “foolish mistake” in not engaging Hizbullah. “I’ll engage Hizbullah, all right,” he might grumble; “I’ll engage them with every weapon system we’ve got.”

Who knows, Samaha might even end up a celebrity, like another Arab information minister we won’t soon forget.

PS--Thanks to Nicholas Blanford for correcting the date of the bus attack against northern Israel in March 2002.

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