Lebanon Is More Than Just Orange Fireballs

While the camera may love explosions, it's the subtler aspects of what is happening in Lebanon that we must turn to in order to understand what is going on.

Television loves explosions. It doesn’t get much better for broadcast news than when bombs are falling — the shock and the awe is something that words and photos can’t capture quite as well as video and audio. And Israel, true to form, sure put on a good show Thursday. In the process of taking out Beirut’s main airport, Hezbollah strongholds and the road to Damascus, the Israelis also blew out a fuel tank that sent flames leaping hundreds of feet into the night sky, an image that ended up on the cover of most newspapers this morning. Adding to the horror were the deaths of over 50 civilians in harm’s way.

All this makes it very easy to frame this new conflagration as the next in the seemingly endless series of battles between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. Just look at the tabloid headlines, always a quick way to see the crudest interpretation of events. The New York Daily News has “On the Brink,” while the New York Post just says it outright: “Flames of War.” Even the sober Wall Street Journal declares, “Threat of Wider Mideast War Grows.” On television last night, the word “war” was being thrown around without restraint and, almost as a reflex, the Israeli and Lebanese ambassadors were brought on to offer their own version of Crossfire.

We’re not trying to belittle the import of this news; there can be no doubt that Israel’s surprise bombardment of Lebanon is a big story. The last time Israel went on the offensive against Beirut was in 1982, and it led to a long and bloody war. And the threat of this conflagration engulfing Syria and Iran is indeed real, as the Journal most effectively pointed out. But we worry about the press becoming too distracted by the flames to see what might be an even more important story: the internal power struggle within Lebanon, which may be the real fuel to this fire.

Thankfully, a few reporters and commentators get it. For Hezbollah, the attack that started the violence — an ambush of Israeli soldiers over the border that left eight dead and two kidnapped — was at least as much a way of thumbing its nose at Lebanon’s new democratically elected government as it was declaration of war against Israel. Ever since Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon last year there has been pressure on Hezbollah to disarm. This was their way of making it clear that they have no intention of relinquishing power.

Anthony Shadid, the recent Pulitzer Prize winner of Lebanese origin, makes this part of the story clear in his article today from Beirut: “Lebanese critics as well as allies of Hezbollah insist that the Israeli response was disproportionate. But at the same time, in meetings Thursday, Lebanese officials began to lay the groundwork for an extension of government control to southern Lebanon.” Shadid goes on to quote Nabil de Freige, a parliament member who angrily admits that, “To declare war and to make military action must be a decision made by the state and not by a party. It’s a very simple equation: You have to be a state.”

According to Shadid, the Lebanese government, in spite of the attack from Israel, was inspired yesterday to make a strong statement, asserting its “right and duty to extend its control over all Lebanese territory,” which, according to Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat, “marked a step toward the government reasserting itself.”

For his part, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, who has been often criticized as a booster for globalization (or the newly flattened world, as he sees it) is back in territory where he is both at home and usually spot-on — the Levant, where he was a correspondent in Beirut and Jerusalem for many years. He, too, says today in a column that despite appearances, “we actually have not seen this movie before. Something new is unfolding, and we’d better understand it.”

His point is the same one elucidated by Shadid’s reporting: “This is a power struggle within Lebanon … over who will call the shots in their newly elected ‘democratic’ governments and whether they will be real democracies.”

According to Friedman, what we have in Lebanon is essentially a party that, though elected to be part of a government (where it is represented by two ministers), still “insist[s] on maintaining their own private militias and refuse to assume all the responsibilities of a sovereign government. They refuse to let their governments have control over all weapons. They refuse to be accountable to international law (the Lebanese-Israeli border was ratified by the U.N.), and they refuse to submit to the principle that one party in the cabinet cannot drag a whole country into war.”

None of this changes the overwhelming fact of Israel dropping bombs. That is, rightly, the main headline. But we need to remember that if there is to be any resolution to this burgeoning conflict it will happen from inside Lebanon — either the government will gain control over Hezbollah or vice versa. There is no other way. Understanding that part of it is absolutely critical.

There are realties of war that are simple to write about and describe. How many people died? Where did the bombs fall? What are the leaders saying? Then there are the subtleties that define the true motivations of the belligerents. In this particular conflict, it’s to these subtleties that we must turn if we want any understanding at all of what is going on.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.