Amid Precision Wreckage, Questions and Recriminations

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Aug. 22—The cease-fire that brought the conflict between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah to a halt last week is holding—for now—and Beirut’s neighborhoods, though still eerily quiet and free from traffic, are no longer reverberating to the sound of Israeli bombing raids.

Of course, I can’t speak firsthand about the sound of the bombing raids. I came to Beirut last Monday afternoon, the first day of this U.N.-brokered cease-fire, traveling by taxi from Damascus with my friend Andrew. The trip from Damascus to Beirut is usually a two- or three-hour trip, crossing at Masnaa, on Lebanon’s eastern border. But the roads and bridges that make this crossing possible had been destroyed beyond easy repair, so like everyone else we took the long way round, circling up past the Syrian city of Homs and down into Lebanon from the north.

Driving into Lebanon these days, the visitor quickly becomes a connoisseur of Israeli bridge-destruction techniques. We passed bridges that had been punctured by a single circular hole, no bigger than the footprint of a Volvo sedan (local boys told us excitedly about the unlucky “resistance leader” who had been crossing one bridge at that exact spot when an Israeli drone found him); others were so thoroughly blown apart that they were scarcely recognizable as bridges—just twin snarls of reinforcing rod, twisted by fire, hanging on either side of a scorched ravine.

Crossing either style of bombed bridge is impossible, so we lined up alongside hundreds of other cars waiting to cross each river at its driest point. When our turn came, we would bump slowly down into a trickling riverbed and back up again into someone’s backyard, silently apologizing to these farmers whose orchards had suddenly become thoroughfares now that their property was the new path of least resistance across the Lebanese landscape. Near one river, a group of old men sat under a trio of locust trees on plastic lawn chairs, smoking and seeming to enjoy the spectacle.

Our taxi driver kept the radio tuned to a national call-in show throughout the trip. I struggled with the Arabic but, hour after hour, the topic remained the same: the effects of war and displacement, the horrors encountered by refugees returning to their homes after the cease-fire, angry or anguished voices crackling onto the air from different corners of Lebanon, taking comfort in the sharing of their stories.

It’s a meager comfort, perhaps, because now that the shelling has stopped, most of the Lebanese that I’ve spoken to are nearly as angry with Hezbollah as they are with the Israelis, and they feel hopeless about their government’s ability to disarm the militia and thus sustain the cease-fire.

“Why did these idiots have to go and start a war with Israel?” a new Lebanese acquaintance, Patrick, asked me as we walked along a street in Hamra, near the American University of Beirut’s lush campus. “I really didn’t have much hope for all that talk of Lebanese national unity last year, but I never thought it would come to this—another war.

“I feel like I’m in a hijacked plane, a plane hijacked by my own brothers,” Patrick continued. “And the police are all grouped outside the plane and they’re on megaphones, shouting that they’re holding me responsible for my brothers’ actions.”

“I mean, Hezbollah is only supported by maybe 30 percent of the population, but how on earth is the Lebanese Army supposed to disarm it?” Patrick asked. “Have you seen the Lebanese Army lately? They’ve got World War II–era guns and Vietnam-era flak jackets. They look like they’ve gone missing from the Battle of Stalingrad.”

The cease-fire, most people here seem to agree, feels alarmingly brittle. And yet the Lebanese have set to work putting their lives, and their country, back together again. Hezbollah’s “Jihad for Reconstruction” teams are out in bombed areas with bulldozers and teams of civil engineers, distributing cash to the homeless. The communal refugee shelters in Damascus that I visited 10 days ago—large extended families, in some cases whole Bekaa Valley villages transplanted, en masse, to unfamiliar institutional settings—are practically empty now, and throughout the whole of this past week Lebanon’s broken roads have been jammed with people returning home.

Of course, tens of thousands of Lebanese have found that they don’t have homes to return to. The day before yesterday, Andrew and I drove around Haret Hreik, the predominantly Shiite southern Beirut suburb that Andrew jokingly refers to as “Hezbollah central,” and which has seen, unsurprisingly, some of the worst of the Israeli air attacks.

A French aid worker that I spoke to in Damascus last week told me that Beirut’s southern suburbs now looked like Dresden after its infamous burning during the Second World War. The devastation that we saw in Haret Hreik and its environs was terrible, to be sure, but I don’t think that the incendiary-bomb analogy is quite fair either.

I’ve been very skeptical about Israel’s defense of its “precision-bombing” techniques, but several times Andrew and I passed a single building utterly destroyed, collapsed in on itself like a house of cards, only to notice that the buildings abutting it were unscathed—windows unbroken, flowers still blooming gaily on the balconies.

Did the Israelis have enough intelligence information to determine beyond a doubt that these particular buildings, among hundreds of nearly identical, cheaply constructed concrete apartment buildings, were the ones containing Hezbollah hideouts or caches of weapons? Only time will tell, I suppose. What is certain, for now, is that in their efforts to root out Hezbollah, the Israelis have killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians, in proportions a whole order of magnitude higher than the casualties sustained on the Israeli side.

There are banners and posters all over Beirut proclaiming this fact. On one banner, four or five stories high and plastered down the side of an apartment building, there’s a photograph of a baby, perhaps a bit less than a year old, with his hand blown off, the stump swathed in bandages. There’s a blue pacifier in the child’s mouth, and his damp curls and eyelashes glisten as if he had just cried himself into exhausted sleep. The legend on the banner reads, in an ironic jab at the Israelis’ claims of precision, “Extremely Accurate Targets,” and then, in screaming capitals, “DIVINE VICTORY.”

This is a pun in Arabic: The last name of Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, is a contraction of the words nasr (victory) and Allah (God). And whatever their private feelings about Hezbollah as a political party—which less than a third of the Lebanese support, according to most estimates (indeed, a Dutch journalist who has lived in Tehran for several years told me yesterday that most Iranians can’t stand Hezbollah, and hate that so much of their money is going to Lebanon when they’re a poor country, too)—the sight of so many killed and injured civilians has united the vast majority of Lebanese against the Israelis and their American backers.

Several months ago, my friend Wendy and I went to see a new Lebanese film called Bosta, about a Lebanese dabke dance troupe—a delightfully silly musical with some deeper themes about Lebanon’s history of communal violence, the sense of deep shame that came from that history of mutual violence and betrayal, and the potential for redemption, particularly among the younger generation of Lebanese, engendered by the so-called Cedar Revolution and its aspirations for democracy and reconciliation. I looked for a DVD of that film this past weekend, but now I’m not so sure I’d like to see it again. Already that film, less than a year old, seems like an artifact of a hopeful, innocent and very long-ago era.

Though I don’t agree with him about much of anything, I fear that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was right when he said in his speech last week that America’s aspirations for democracy in the Middle East have collapsed. Unfortunately, the United States’ reputation in this region has been so profoundly damaged that many of our erstwhile allies, the region’s pro-democracy reformers, say that they now feel undermined and betrayed.

Rather than supporting Arab countries as they built up the kinds of solid institutions and civil societies that could sustain democracy—and without which concepts like freedom and democracy are meaningless—the U.S. has focused on cracking regimes and delivering short, sharp shocks to fragile states.

These efforts at short-order democracy haven’t worked, but as an American living in the region, I have to believe that we and our allies can learn from our mistakes, and that some of these hopes for stability, prosperity and democracy in the region may still be salvageable.