The heat, the heat!

Demonstrations have been taking place all over Lebanon to protest the aggravated power cuts in the middle of a scorching heat wave. Tyres are burning, roads being blocked, people are suffering as if they lived in blockaded Gaza or US-occupied Iraq, and parliament and government do… nothing. That is right, not one emergency session or meaningful statement.

Meanwhile, the M14 politicians are insulting their own voters by trying to implicate the demonstrations are only ‘opposition’ ploys to discredit the government – conveniently forgetting the the ‘opposition’ is actually in the government of national unity, and also forgetting that they are not the ‘majority’ anymore.

The merciless heat and humidity seems to have driven some people crazy in poorer areas of Beirut last night, where a fight over a parking spot between a Hezbollah official and an Ahbash official turned into a night-long firefight involving RPGs and kalashnikovs, resulting in 3 dead (including the Hezbollah official) and untold damage to streets and homes in the area (Ras al-Nabah, Burj Abi Haidar, Basta and Nweiri neighbourhoods).  Ahbash (which literally means ‘the Ethiopians’) is a fundamentalist sunni group which emerged in the eighties under the Syrian occupation, and was (is?) supported by Syria. They are part of the M8 coalition, i.e. allies of Hezbollah, which makes it unlikely that there was a political dimension to the fight. People fight about parking spaces all the time in overcrowded Beirut and the suffocating heat, aggravated by frequent power cuts, in combination with people being grumpy and hungry all day during the fasting month have been causing rising tensions and bad tempers all over the place. All you need to add is the circumstance that virtually everybody in Lebanon has at least a few kalashnikovs and some grenades in their house.

The fighting started during yet another Nasrallah speech, this one addressed to an all-women iftar meal (via a screen of course, mind you), in which he suggested Lebanon take Iran’s lead and build a nuclear power station to solve the problem of the power cuts – which, provocative as it is, is actually the first sensible suggestion from any Lebanese politician to solve the country’s perennial electricity shortage . He also suggested Lebanon’s army could call on Iran for its weapons, seeing as the pitiful leftovers they received from the US are now blocked and likely to be cut off entirely. The international media is dutifully reporting Nasrallah’s call, but bizarrely omitting the fact that president Suleiman has actually already officially requested Iran’s help in arming the LAF two days ago. (Then again, the only source for this report seems to be Iran’s state-owned PressTV). Whether Suleiman just intends to put pressure on US congress to rescind the blocking of military aid to Lebanon or actually pursues a serious change of policy remains to be seen, but the danger to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia in cutting off the military aid was of course always that Lebanon would turn to the other side for support. As usual, the US and Israel are shooting themselves in the foot with full enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, another spy for Israel has been arrested – this time an official of the ministry of telecommunications. It has transpired recently that during the July 2006 war, Israel only attacked antennas and stations of MTC (where no Israeli spies have been found – Alfa seems to have been infested by them), while leaving the Alfa installations intact. That should have rung some bells earlier, no?


Nasrallah has spoken…

… and the Middle East listened. The full two-hour presentation and Q&A session was carried live not only by every Lebanese channel (except, unsurprisingly, Hariri’s own Future TV), it was also carried in full by Al Jazeera and even Al Arabiya. And by Israeli TV, but they ‘stopped [the] live broadcast when al-Manar unveiled footage allegedly intercepted from Israeli surveillance planes of the Lebanese coastline, including the site of the murder of ex-PM Rafik Hariri prior to his 2005 assassination.’ (original source: Al Akhbar newspaper) For more or less complete transcriptions in English of the text see Qifa Nabki or Al Manar.
Nasrallah presented a pretty convincing case – based on Israeli drone surveillance footage, confessions of Israeli collaborators and public statements by Israeli politicians – that Israel had the motive, capability and intention to assassinate Hariri – as well as plenty of documented experience in the assassination of foreign dignitaries abroad of course – and was moreover closely monitoring Hariri’s tracks in the days leading up to his assassination – surveillance images presented live during his speech. The story starts back in the early nineties when Israeli collaborators informed Hariri that Imad Mughniyeh (a main military leader of the resistance, himself assassinated in a ‘mysterious’ car bombing in Damascus in early 2008)  ‘wanted to murder him’. Plenty of circumstantial evidence, no real smoking gun, but probably about as close as anybody ever got – certainly a lot more convincing than anything the STL itself has ever come up with, and that was the whole idea of this press conference: to convince the Arab audience. The entire presentation was riveting and very professionally  produced. And of course, the simple cui bono question has always pointed to Israel and against Syria and Hezbollah, neither of whom stood to gain anything from killing Hariri.
The big revelation militarily speaking – and the one that really hit the Israelis  where it hurts – is that Hezbollah has been able since at least 1997 to intercept and decrypt Israeli drone footage as it was sent to the IDF command centers. Nasrallah obviously relished in recounting the resistance’s ambushing and killing of a team of Israeli navy seal commandos as they landed in Ansariyyeh in 1997, after lying in wait for months on the evidence of Israeli drones’ intensive monitoring of the location. He also relished in revealing Israeli drones and collaborators closely monitoring the moves of Israeli ally Samir Geagea and the seaside home of president Suleyman…

By the way, if you are looking for serious reporting on what was probably the most widely watched media event in the Middle East this year (possibly barring Star Academy), don’t bother with the increasingly biased and irrelevant BBC, who just tuck a measly ten-line excuse for an article (Nasrallah shows Hariri murder ‘evidence’) way down on the frontpage of their website, of course surrounding the word ‘evidence’ with their famed quotation marks – those raised eyebrows invariably reserved for Arabs in the BBC’s Middle East, where Israeli  spokesmen are apparently the only ones whose statements  never need to be ‘independently confirmed ‘… Instead read serious and dependable media such as Al Jazeera (Israel implicated in Hariri murder) or Reuters (Hezbollah says Israel staked out Hariri routes). Or alternatively, you could read the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, which manages to not mention the captured drone images  (shown extensively during the speech) even once. But at least they are clear about whose side they are on…

In related news, the US Knesset – oops, sorry: the US Congress – has moved to block the paltry aid the Lebanese army receives from the US ($100 million, mostly spent on training plus basically a few old Cessna planes, some sniper rifles and a handful of secondhand cars). As one Rep. Cantor put it: ‘Lebanon cannot have it both ways. If it wants to align itself with Hezbollah against the forces of democracy, stability and moderation, there will be consequences.’ In other words: allow the Israelis to walk all over your country and kill you at will or… allow the Israelis to walk all over your country and kill you at will. ‘Forces of democracy, stability and moderation’ indeed… Meanwhile, private donations are reported to be ‘flooding’ into the presidential palace at Baabda to better arm the LAF. If you too want to contribute, call this number to donate (does that sound like a scam or what?)… Unsurprisingly, Iran too has reiterated its willingness to offer assistance but realistically speaking, of course, any significant response would have to come from Russia or China.

Murdoch goes Arabic

While we are all holding our breath here in Lebanon for star media player Hassan Nasrallah’s tonight speech – in which he has promised to reveal ‘hard evidence’ of Israel’s involvement in Hariri’s assassination – a rather less noticed but much more dangerous development has been taking place behind the scenes. A new 24-hour news channel is set to shake up the Middle East mediascape, and behind it is nobody other than Rupert ‘Fox’ Murdoch – destroying media freedom for decades now all over the world – partnering for the occasion with Saudi prince Waleed ‘Rotana’ bin Talal – destroying Arabic music for decades now. Paul Cochrane has investigated the deal and wrote up an excellent article for Arab Media & Society: ‘“However, in the case of the tie-up between Rotana and News Corp., the extent of the harm is much worse, and more pressing. The Arab world is yet to even appreciate the extent of the problem. It’s very unfortunate. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is more than a media company with an eye on profits. It has political and even ideological dimensions that are hardly hidden. By providing it with that opportunity under the guise of technology transfers, or whatever, Rotana has introduced a menacing new factor to scattered Arab media, which already lack true, authentic identity, and will have little chance standing up to a global giant like News Corp. And the latter doesn’t stop at 9 percent ownership of anything; its model is predicated on constant and rapid expansion. It is hard to imagine a good scenario emerging out of this tie-up,” [Ramzi Baroud] added.
Indeed, Prince Alwaleed gave an indication at the announcement of the tie-up that News Corp.’s acquisition is motivated by more than just profit. “This (News Corp) transaction values Rotana at more than $800 million… But the transaction is way, way beyond finance… Rotana does not need to be financed. It has near zero debt,” he said. (…) The channels may be used as tools to stoke tensions between Gulf countries – best exemplified by the spats between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya – and over wider geopolitical issues, such as Iran, Iraq and Yemen. And crucially, will these new channels “objectively” cover stories in their headquarters’ countries?
Both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have been banned in certain countries for reporting uncomfortable truths, yet do not apply the same journalistic ethos when it comes to airing dirty laundry in their home countries. But knowing which stories should run and others to be avoided is a compromise News Corp. knows how to make, having struck a Faustian bargain with China’s censors and state broadcasters to be able to air in the world’s most populous country. Furthermore, Murdoch and Bin Talal are powerful and influential men; men that could stand up to power but more often than not go along with it, and shape the discourse of power. Murdoch after all had a hotline to British Prime Minister Tony Blair during his time in office, and the two talked three times in nine days in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. Ultimately, it is too early to tell what these new ventures will entail, but the region’s news duopoly seems set for a shake up.’

The article is also featured on Paul’s blog Back in Beirut.

The Middle East: it’s all about drinking and dancing!

I am taking this occasion to finally link to two articles I wrote for Executive magazine last year. The first one, ‘Rockin’ the Shop’ is connected to the above story in that it talks about the music industry in the Middle East, specifically contrasting the corporate Rotana Music to Lebanon’s homegrown independent Incognito Records. The second article, ‘Ales of an Industry’, talks about Almaza – the Heineken-owned ‘Lebanese’ national beer – and 961, a recently started microbrewery challenging Heineken’s stranglehold on the Lebanese beer market. As a Belgian, I am of course severely biased in this matter (i.e. the words ‘Dutch’ and ‘beer’ should never go together), and thus pleased to announce that 961’s beer enthusiast in charge, Mazen Hajjar, is proudly inspired by Belgian trappist and white beers. He promised me that 2010 would see the release of his very own Chimay. Almaza, on the other hand, was not so happy about the article, as it reveals that virtually all ingredients of Lebanon’s ‘national symbol’ are actually imported – mainly from the Netherlands – with the only local ingredient being the water…

Pity the tree

And so the tree was cut down after all. Israel and its members of US congress are urging to end the (ridiculously scanty) American support for the LAF, while Dar Al Hayat reports that the IDF threatened to bomb ‘the Lebanese army’s positions along the border’ if they would be prevented from cutting down the tree (a scrub more like). Israeli officials are rambling about the ‘Hezbollization of the LAF’. The Israelis are furthermore trying, through UNIFIL – which has been playing a particularly unsavory role in the whole affair – to obtain the firing or court-martialling of the officer in charge of the shooting, and keep claiming – as does the UN – that although the territory the tree was on is lying north of their self-erected ‘technical fence’, it is ‘Israeli’ because it is south of the blue line. No mention in the international media that the blue line is not an international border, let alone an internationally recognised border, but an armistice line decreed by the UN in 2000 and simply marking the line of the Israeli withdrawal after its 18 year occupation of the south of Lebanon, which is disputed by both Lebanon and Israel in many places. Legally speaking, it is no man’s land in between two countries who have been at war since 1948. Gideon Levy, one of the few sane voices left in the land of zion, describes the Israeli attitude in an article fittingly named ‘Only we’re allowed’ in Haaretz: ‘Those bastards, the Lebanese, changed the rules. Scandalous. Word is, they have a brigade commander who’s determined to protect his country’s sovereignty. Scandalous. The explanation here was that he’s “indoctrinating his troops” – only we’re allowed to do that, of course – and that this was “the spirit of the commander” and that he’s “close to Hezbollah.” The nerve. And now that we’ve recited ad nauseum the explanations of Israel Defense Forces propaganda for what happened Tuesday at the northern border, the facts should also be looked at.
On Tuesday morning, Israel requested “coordination” with UNIFIL to carry out another “exposing” operation on the border fence. UNIFIL asked the IDF to postpone the operation, because its commander is abroad. The IDF didn’t care. UNIFIL won’t stop us. At noon the tree-cutters set out. The Lebanese and UNIFIL soldiers shouted at them to stop. In Lebanon they say their soldiers also fired warning shots in the air. If they did, it didn’t stop the IDF.
The tree branches were cut and blood was shed on both sides of the border. Shed in vain. True, Israel maintains that the area across the fence is its territory, and UNIFIL officially confirmed that yesterday. But a fence is a fence: In Gaza it’s enough to get near the fence for us to shoot to kill. In the West Bank the fence’s route bears no resemblance to the Green Line, and still Palestinians are forbidden from crossing it. In Lebanon we made different rules: the fence is just a fence, we’re allowed to cross it and do whatever we like on the other side, sometimes in sovereign Lebanese territory. We can routinely fly in Lebanese airspace and sometimes invade as well. (…) Three Lebanese killed, including a journalist, are not enough of a response to the killing of our battalion commander. We want more. Lebanon must learn a lesson, and we will teach it. And what about us? We don’t have any lessons to learn. We’ll continue to ignore UNIFIL, ignore the Lebanese Army and its new brigade commander, who has the nerve to think that his job is to protect his country’s sovereignty.’

Meanwhile, more Israeli spies are being arrested in Lebanon, the last one being an ex-army officer who is now a high-ranking official in Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (allied with Hezbollah). Bellemare ( currently in charge of the STL) has been reported telling diplomats at the UN that the tribunal’s coming indictment of Hezbollah members for the assassination of Hariri will be based on ‘inconclusive circumstantial evidence’… US congress has just passed a (non-binding) resolution supporting an Israeli attack on Iran. Seems some parties are really looking forward to starting ‘the big one’, the mother of all wars to end all wars.

Update: I was interviewed by Radio Centraal in Antwerp on the subject of the tree incident. Those of you who understand Dutch/Flemish can listen to the audio on their website here.

Update 2: Ann over at the Pulsemedia blog quotes my above post on the ‘border that is not a border’ issue, and tells me Robert Fisk was the only one to even touch on this issue – which happens to be rather central to understanding or judging the whole incident – in the mainstream western press. Which just goes to show how much you’re not being told if you rely on the mass media for your information… as well as being rather serendipitous in regard to the ‘Pity the Tree’ title…

Update 3: An interview with ex-UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel on the indicdent was published here – he has this to say over the ‘blue line’ issue (but the entire interview is well worth reading, as he is one of very few people who have lived through most of UNIFIL’s history on the inside – emphasis is mine) : ‘‘When [the] UN marked the Blue Line in 2000 to determine the Israeli withdrawal (it was not a border demarcation) with the participation and consent of the two parties, it was discovered that in certain locations, not many, the Israeli security fence erected according to the lay of the land, did not correspond to the Blue Line. During the occupation years, Israel had built fences inside Lebanon, which they had to give up of course. They did not want to put up a new fence in those places. Lebanon did not want to put up a fence along a border that is not officially demarcated. So, UN painted some stones blue to say this is the border, while the fence was up to 200 metres to the south. The paint peeled away in couple of months. The shepherds, farmers, etc. (including myself) always get confused because you instinctively think the fence is the border not a couple of stones with faded blue paint. Israel usually refrained from crossing the fence for safety reasons of course but became more aggressive in keeping intruders away after 2006 when they felt that especially Hizbullah operatives were operating in that what the IDF calls “the enclave.” I have been talking about the perils of this situation for many years, and I think the UN finally got around to starting a project to better mark the Blue Line, with the participation of both sides. I don’t know what happened to the project, but knowing the inevitable bickering of the parties for half a meter here, 2 meters there, it is bound to take a long time.’

The tree incident

The momentous importance of yesterday’s ‘skirmish’ across the blue line is only beginning to sink in.  There are several unexpected aspects to this event. Not only is it the first armed incident on the border to involve Israeli victims since 2006, it is also the first time in living memory – ok, since 2000 at least – that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) actually returned fire and fought the IDF. Another remarkable aspect is that the incident took place only days after the Saudi king, the Qatari emir and the Syrian president, discreetly joined by high functionaries of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments, held a summit in Beirut – and on the exact anniversary of the end of the July war of 2006. It also happened only hours before Hezbollah’s secretary-general Nasrallah was scheduled to deliver a speech to commemorate the ‘divine victory’ of 2006. Hezbollah meanwhile was careful to stay out of sight during and after the incident. All of this points to a carefully prepared and highly coordinated operation – the first meaningful implementation of the doctrine adopted in the statement of intention issued by the national unity government formed after last June’s elections, which asserted that the LAF would stand by the resistance in the defense of Lebanon. Of course, the incident was sparked by an Israeli breach of Lebanese sovereignty (and UNSC 1701), but Israel’s hubris makes incidents like this a daily occurrence anyway – only a few days ago they fired rockets at a Lebanese fishing boat in Lebanese waters, and then went on to shell a UNIFIL post just for fun or target practice. Overflights of war planes are literally a daily occurrence – the LAF regularly shooting at them, but not sorting much effect, woefully undersupplied in effective air defense equipment as it is. Kidnappings of Lebanese shepherds – even goats – by the IDF are equally regular events. So the Israelis make it incredibly easy to provide the Lebanese army with provocations to its heart’s content – confident that the LAF will forever stick to its inferiority complex and allows the Israelis to keep walking all over its soldiers. So this time, they decided to cut a tree situated behind their own ‘security fence’ on Lebanese territory – ‘disputed’ of course, in the best Israeli tradition of landgrabbing on all sides – to replace it with a camera.

But being walked over is exactly what the LAF didn’t do yesterday and it obviously took the overconfident IDF completely by surprise. Their military reaction was ridiculously flailing and uncoordinated – and in the best of IDF traditions of course involved shelling civilian targets and killing a journalist. Israeli reactions on the political level equally showed a total loss of the plot. For lack of demonstrable involvement of the resistance, Netanyahu and co incredibly claimed that the LAF is ‘infiltrated’ by Hezbollah people. Of course Hezbollah has people in the army, just like any other Lebanese organisation and every section of the Lebanese population – sectarian quotas are scrupulously maintained in every state institution. And of course the LAF should defend the country against attacks by hostile elements as best it can, that is after all the purpose of any national army. Since Israel and Lebanon are at war since 1948, there should be no surprise involved here and no explanations of ‘infiltration’ are required to explain anything.

On the Lebanese side, all parties that matter are united in their support of the army and condemnation of the IDF – from president Suleyman to PM Hariri to Nabih Berri’s Amal. Of course, some of the hardline remnants of the rapidly shrinking March 14th block are spouting predictably anti-Hezbollah and pro-Israel statements, but they are left with very little popular support. Geagea and Gemayyel’s eternal misreadings of the situation and consistent refusal to find any common ground have left them quite isolated – they were the only parties not to be invited to last weekend’s Arab mini-summit in Beirut, to mention but one thing (and then childishly went on to say that they were ‘not interested’ anyway). Even Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs Abu Al-Gheith and the Jordanian government immediately condemned the Israeli side – in stark contrast with July 2006, when they and Saudi Arabia started out condemning Hezbollah’s ‘adventurism’. Yesterday, these ‘moderate’ US allies were on the same line as the ‘resistance front’ – Syria, Iran and Hamas.

The message is obvious: from now on, the army and the resistance will cooperate and the Lebanese government, as well as those of most of the Arab regimes, are behind them (the latter at least on the rhetoric level). To drive the message home, the Lebanese army command today authorised troops to fire on any IDF soldier violating Lebanese territory without contacting superiors for advance permission. Hezbollah’s non-intervention was thus a rather brilliant ploy both on the domestic political level and on the international diplomatic scene. Domestically, Hezbollah first does not want to be seen as ‘starting’ a new devastating Israeli attack and secondly is under heavy attack from leaks and/or rumours concerning the Special Tribunal for Lebanon – which is claimed to be on the verge of indicting Hezbollah members for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Nasrallah has recently claimed that the STL is guided by Israeli and US interests bent on implying Hezbollah and consistently neglecting to investigate the Israeli track. Which is of course correct, and the fact that much of the tribunal’s evidence is linked to mobile phone records, while the phone companies turn out to be replete with Israeli spies, will not lend any more credibility to its findings. Neither will its various informants that were later proven to be plants and frauds, nor its shabby and leaky communications methods. In his speech yesterday night, Nasrallah has promised that next Monday, August 9th, he will give another speech to present ‘hard and irrefutable evidence’ that Hariri was executed by the Mossad. In short, with all these accusations flying around and creating serious political tension within Lebanon, Hezbollah does not want to be seen as engaging in fighting the IDF to ‘detract attention’ from its supposed involvement in the assassination.

Internationally, some of the same motives are playing, in addition to the fact that an all-out attack on Lebanon by the IDF ‘provoked’ by the LAF instead of Hezbollah would not go down well with the international community or be an easy sell in the UNSC. Israel fighting Hezbollah is one thing – Israel fighting the LAF will destroy its last shred of credibility and definitely reduce the country to pariah status in the eyes of all the world (excepting the AIPAC-controlled US government of course). Maybe I am reading too much into this, but it seems a devilishly clever ploy and the cooperation of so many traditionally divided and antagonistic parties against the real common enemy is a very hopeful sign indeed. Not to mention the morale boost for the LAF which did very well in the confrontation with an infinitely better armed enemy, killing a lieutenant-colonel and critically wounding another soldier before the IDF resorted to its usual massive-overkill-from-the-safety-of-the-air tactics.

As a Lebanese friend dryly pointed out yesterday, that tree must be feeling really important now…

Then again, maybe I am reading too much into this. Update: 10:05am AFP: Israeli troops cut down the tree that caused deadly clashes on Tuesday.