Eight days in Lebanon

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I spent the last eight days of Israeli-Lebanon war, Aug. 7-14, in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. I had traveled there as part of a peace delegation from the United States. Our aim was to express solidarity with the people of Lebanon.

Many other countries sent peace delegations, too. They came to bear witness to the devastation caused by the Israeli bombardment and to help draw the attention of their respective peoples to the root causes of the war.

About 1,200 Lebanese were killed during the Israeli military offensive, and about 900,000 were displaced from their homes.

In the first week of the devastating Israeli air strikes on civilian targets in Lebanon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the world was witnessing “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

The people we met told us they believed that if the U.S. had not been giving bombs to Israel, this war would not have happened. Yet, as our U.S. delegation met people in the displaced people’s camps, in the streets and in the midst of the ruins of South Beirut, they warmly embraced us and asked us to go home and tell their stories.

Speaking personally, for me it was an amazing experience to not only participate in the U.S. peace delegation, representing United for Peace and Justice, but to also have the opportunity to meet with leaders and members of the Lebanese Communist Party.

As you can imagine, the Communists were in an emergency mode. They were in the thick of responding to the crisis, and it was inspiring to see them work. The party includes Christians, Muslims and atheists.



National unity persists under fire

Although Beirut was under daily bombardment, there was an atmosphere of unity among the people. Residents of South Beirut, as well as displaced people from southern Lebanon seeking shelter in the capital, said in many different ways that they refused to be divided by the U.S. or Israel. Many said they were Lebanese first, not Muslim, Druze or Christian.

The Lebanese communists said that this sentiment reflected two things: the impact of the 15 year civil war, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the 18 years of Israeli occupation, which ended only six years ago. All over the city there were electronic signs counting the number of days since Hariri’s assassination. And buildings damaged during the civil war and Israeli occupation of 1982-2000 are still visible.



The most recent destruction

The level of destruction in Lebanon from the current round of Israeli bombing is staggering.

Some 150,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged, 50,000 of them in Beirut alone. One-quarter of Lebanon’s population was displaced, and 10-15 percent of the population will not be able to return home anytime soon. Ninety bridges were damaged or destroyed and every major highway bombed.

The first wave of bombs hit Beirut International Airport and 50 factories. One of the factories was the largest milk plant in the region, which had the United Nations contract for regional relief efforts. Other factories that were hit included one that produced glass and another that produced prefabricated housing.

Sixty percent of Lebanon’s hospitals stopped functioning, with two of them totaled by the bombing. Hundreds of water purification plants, fuel storage, pumping facilities and other infrastructure assets were destroyed.

Many Lebanese I spoke to said they felt that the world had forsaken them. Many were angry at the Bush administration and its efforts to block a cease-fire.

When people found out they were speaking with someone from the U.S., they would emphasize the need for national unity and the need to resist U.S. and Israeli attempts to divide the Lebanese people. Remarkably, we met displaced people in tent cities and living in the public school buildings who expressed a moving humanitarianism towards the Israeli people, who also suffered due to the war-making of their own government.



Hezbollah’s growth in influence

As the war went on, there was an acknowledged new respect for Hezbollah. Hezbollah was seen as standing up to the U.S.-backed Israeli attacks and violations of international law.

Many news articles in the United States, the UK and Israel reported on the U.S. neoconservative’s plans to disrupt the 15-month-old Lebanese government by trying to isolate and turn people against Hezbollah, and to test the waters for a pre-emptive attack on Iran and possibly Syria.

Hezbollah has a minority position in the government. Just prior to the outbreak of hostilities, “national accord” discussions had been under way between the government and Hezbollah. But the massive Israeli air and land attacks on Lebanon, in which more children were killed and injured than soldiers, created a different dynamic. Many Lebanese said they hadn’t really thought or supported Hezbollah before the war, but that now their opinion had changed.

Opinions reflected a spectrum of reactions, ranging from a newfound admiration including among Christians for Hezbollah to a grudging recognition that in fact the U.S. and Israel were driving people into the arms of the Islamic fundamentalists.

Over the last decade, Hezbollah has become involved politically in communities, electoral politics and the country’s labor federation. The Lebanese Communist Party cooperates with them and other political forces on common points, but they are mindful of the sharp differences in program and analysis.

When Hezbollah was founded, its program called for an Islamic state. But when it began running candidates for office, its election platform did not project that goal.

Many people say Hezbollah’s leaders have changed their tactics but not their basic analysis or their longer-term strategic objectives. But all agree that today, with a national unity government presiding over a devastated country, all political forces must strive to move democracy forward for the good of the Lebanese people.



Resistance more than military

The resistance to Israel’s military aggression was defined both by the Lebanese Communist Party and many nongovernmental organizations in very broad terms, which went beyond military actions.

Full-scale citizen involvement, on a volunteer basis, to meet the needs of the displaced population was called “part of the resistance.” People opening their homes, small businesses donating food and other supplies, and citizens volunteering to stay in southern Lebanon to protect their towns and villages (including communists who did so) — these were all regarded as part of the resistance.

Doctors and medical staff keeping the hospitals and clinics running, and elected officials and others keeping essential human services running — these, too, were called part of the resistance.



Workers step forward

The situation in Beirut reminded me of September 11th in New York City. The government was paralyzed, but the people — starting with the labor movement — responded. And through their efforts the government was compelled to respond to the urgent needs for food, sanitation and medical care.

The Lebanese construction workers union called on their members to volunteer to help in the search and recovery efforts. Construction companies loaned heavy equipment. When the massacre of Lebanese civilians in Qana happened, the union announced on the radio that their members in the area should go there to help. And they did.

Two days later the union’s two-room office was bombed by the Israelis. Many saw this as a direct act of retaliation.

I met with the general secretary of the labor federation, who is also the president of this construction workers union. He said that workers in the beginning of the war were forced by companies to take their vacation. The unemployment rate before the war had hovered around 25 percent, with large numbers of South Asian immigrant “contract workers” working in the lowest-paid, unorganized sectors.

One large French-owned department store announced layoffs, using the war as an excuse, Teachers were laid off. The workers working full time were in the banking industry. There were protests against these attempts to make workers pay for this war disaster.



Communists take initiative

Communists in the labor movement and women’s movements were leading the effort to respond to the crisis. The young communists, the Union of Democratic Youth, were running an encampment of over 600 displaced people, the largest one in Beirut. I spent a day with them meeting with families and talking to them.

The party’s approach was to organize movements for a broad cross-class response, and they also helped initiate an antiwar event that brought together women’s organizations, youth, environmental and humanitarian aid groups.

Headstones to represent the deaths of the past month were set up in Martyrs Square. They had a candlelight vigil and peace rally in downtown Beirut. They mobilized displaced people to come. Over a 1,000 came from all religious backgrounds, sitting with pictures of their loved ones or taping their names to the tombstones.

The action called for a six-point peace program. The six-point program called for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire; an exchange of prisoners; the Lebanese army to go to the south after the Israeli retreat; an expansion of UN peacekeeper forces; negotiations for the return Shaba Farms; and continue the negotiations with Hezbollah on the National Accord which was interrupted by the war.

The rally and the coming together of people around these seven points was the beginning of a movement for the fight for democracy and peace, post-war.



Impact on U.S. peace movement

Although 85 percent of the U.S. people believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, those numbers did not translate to similar opposition to the Israeli attack on Lebanon. Many did not understand the U.S. involvement in the region. Many who have turned against the Iraq war do not know the history of the area. But there was a response to the incredible humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and many joined in world’s opposition to the Bush administration’s blocking of a cease-fire.

The U.S. peace movement has to expose the role of U.S. arms dealing all over the world, but especially to Israel, including and especially in nuclear materials. Israel’s use of U.S.-made cluster bombs set off an investigation by the State Department over a secret agreement for their use. Lebanon faces a continuing crisis over the unexploded ordnances that are continuing to kill and injure civilians, especially children.

The peace movement can expose the negative impact the U.S. policy of arming Israel has on the people of Israel and their struggle for peaceful coexistence in the region. There is much debate among Israelis about their government’s political direction: a fight between right and the far right. But the left and the Communist Party of Israel see the moment as an opportunity to shift the terrain of the debate to the urgent necessity to negotiate a settlement to all the outstanding issues related to Palestine and borders.

We can do more to popularize the situation in Israel and the struggle for peace. During the month long war, over 100 peace demonstrations took place, with two in Tel Aviv of thousands.

Israel just purchased two nuclear-capable submarines that not only fortify their first-strike capability but also ensure a second strike. Israel is suspected of having the sixth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, although “officially” Israel’s nuclear weapons are not recognized.

The actions of the Bush administration in an unstable political situation in the region, coupled with the Iranian government’s provocative actions, could set off a spiral of a dangerous nuclear arms race.

The U.S. peace movement is in some ways at one of those turning point moments when it is possible to broaden the base of the movement and to extend the popular opposition to the Iraq war into a stronger, longer-term impact on U.S. foreign policy as a whole. The peace movement must do more to connect the dots between the Iraq war and the U.S. role in the Middle East. This also includes channeling peace energies into the 2006 elections and legislative arena.

All the revelations of the neoconservatives plotting and driving the Bush administration’s unilateral military actions and a pre-emptive first-strike strategy should become a part of the mobilization to defeat the right in the 2006 elections.

Judith Le Blanc is a vice chair of the Communist Party USA and a national co-chair of United for Peace and Justice.