Saturday, June 30, 2007
On 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was 38 minutes into its journey when it was blown up at 31,000 feet. The explosion was so powerful that the nose of the aircraft was torn clean off. Within three seconds of the bomb detonating, the cockpit, fuselage and No. 3 engine were falling separately out of the sky. It happened so quickly that no distress call was sent out and no oxygen masks deployed. With the cockpit gone, the fuselage depressurised instantly and the passengers in the rear section of the aircraft found themselves staring out into the Scottish night air. Anyone or anything not strapped down was whipped out of the plane; the change in air pressure made the passengers’ lungs expand to four times their normal volume and everyone lost consciousness. As the fuselage plummeted and the air pressure began to return to normal, some passengers came round, including the captain. A few survived all the way down, until they hit the ground. Rescuers found them clutching crucifixes, or holding hands, still strapped into their seats.
The fuselage of the plane landed on a row of family houses in the small Scottish town of Lockerbie. The impact was so powerful that the British Geological Survey registered a seismic event measuring 1.6 on the Richter scale. The wing section of the Boeing 747, loaded with enough fuel for a transatlantic flight, hit the ground at more than 500 miles an hour and exploded in a fireball that lit the sky. The cockpit, with the first-class section still attached, landed beside a church in the village of Tundergarth.
Over the next few days rescuers made a fingertip search of the crash site: 243 passengers, 16 crew members and 11 people on the ground had been killed. Bodies and debris were strewn along an 81-mile corridor of Scottish countryside. Ten thousand pieces of debris were retrieved; each was meticulously logged. Among the items recovered were the remains of a Samsonite suitcase, which investigators later established had been used to transport the bomb. The suitcase had contained clothes, clothes that were subsequently traced to the shop of a Maltese man called Tony Gauci. Gauci later became a key prosecution witness. Fragments of a circuit board and a Toshiba radio were also recovered and identified as parts of the bomb.
Twelve years later, on 31 January 2001, a panel of three Scottish judges convicted a former Libyan intelligence officer for mass murder at Lockerbie. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was tried at a specially convened court on a former US air force base near the Dutch town of Zeist. Under a special international arrangement, the court, which sat without a jury, was temporarily declared sovereign territory of the United Kingdom, under the jurisdiction of Scottish law.
Al-Megrahi is still the only person to have been found guilty in connection with the attack. He was sentenced to 27 years in jail. His co-accused, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, a fellow Libyan intelligence officer, was acquitted. Al-Megrahi was initially told that he would spend at least twenty years in prison, but the Crown, which was prosecuting, protested that this sentence was unduly lenient and petitioned the judges for a longer one. In 2003 the judges reconvened to rule that he must serve no less than 27 years before the parole board would consider his eligibility for release. Al-Megrahi’s defence team had already lodged an appeal against the conviction, but in March 2002 the guilty verdict was upheld.
From the outset the Lockerbie disaster has been marked by superlatives. The bombing was the deadliest terror attack on American civilians until 11 September 2001. It sparked Britain’s biggest ever criminal inquiry, led by its smallest police force, Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary. It spelled the end of Pan Am, which never recovered from the damage to its reputation. The trial at Camp Zeist was the longest and – at a cost of £75 million – the most expensive in Scottish legal history. The appeal hearing was the first Scottish trial to be broadcast live on both television and the internet.
Lawyers, politicians, diplomats and relatives of Lockerbie victims now believe that the former Libyan intelligence officer is innocent. Robert Black QC, an emeritus professor of Scottish law at Edinburgh University, was one of the architects of the original trial in Holland. He has closely followed developments since the disaster happened and in 2000 devised the non-jury trial system for the al-Megrahi case.
Even before the trial he was so sure the evidence against al-Megrahi would not stand up in court that he is on record as saying that a conviction would be impossible. When I asked how he feels about this remark now, Black replied: ‘I am still absolutely convinced that I am right. No reasonable tribunal, on the evidence heard at the original trial, should or could have convicted him and it is an absolute disgrace and outrage what the Scottish court did.’
Al-Megrahi lost his appeal in 2002, but under Scottish law he is entitled to a further legal review, to be conducted by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC), an independent public body made up of senior police officers and lawyers. Its job is to re-examine cases where a miscarriage of justice may have occurred: it handles cases after the appeal process has been exhausted, and if it finds evidence that a miscarriage of justice may have taken place it refers the case to the High Court to be heard again. Al-Megrahi applied to the SCCRC for a review of his case in 2003 and the commission has been reinspecting evidence from the trial for the last four years. It will submit its findings at the end of June. It looks likely that the SCCRC will find that there is enough evidence to refer al-Megrahi’s case back to the appeal court. The Crown Office has already begun reinforcing its Lockerbie legal team in anticipation of a referral.
If al-Megrahi is granted a second appeal, it will, like the original trial, be held before a panel of Scottish judges, without a jury. This time the trial will take place in Scotland, and if the glacial pace of proceedings in the past is anything to go by, it will probably not be heard before the summer of 2008. Al-Megrahi’s defence team would be ready to launch an appeal in a matter of weeks, but the prosecution would be likely to delay the hearing for as long as possible. If an appeal takes place, al-Megrahi’s defence team will produce important evidence that was not available at the time of the first appeal, evidence that seems likely not only to exonerate al-Megrahi but to do so by pointing the finger of blame at the real perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing and revealing some inconvenient truths.
Even the judge who presided over the Lockerbie investigation and issued the 1991 arrest warrants for the two Libyans has cast doubt on the prosecution’s case. In an interview with the Sunday Times in October 2005, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, Scotland’s larger-than-life lord advocate from 1989 to 1992, questioned the reliability of the shopkeeper Tony Gauci, the prosecution’s star witness. ‘Gauci was not quite the full shilling. I think even his family would say [that he] was an apple short of a picnic. He was quite a tricky guy, I don’t think he was deliberately lying but if you asked him the same question three times he would just get irritated and refuse to answer.’ Lord Fraser made it clear that this did not mean he thought al-Megrahi was innocent. But he had presented Gauci as a reliable witness; he went on to become the heart of the prosecution’s case. Now he was casting doubt on the man who identified al-Megrahi.
Since al-Megrahi’s last appeal, many thousands of pages of reports, detailing freight and baggage movements in and out of Frankfurt airport, have been handed over to the defence. Largely in German and many handwritten, the papers were translated by the Crown at the taxpayer’s expense, but the Crown refused to share the translations with the defence and left it no time to commission its own. The Privy Council’s judicial committee, made up of law lords and senior judges, has declared that the Crown’s refusal to disclose this evidence is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. More damaging still, an unnamed senior British police officer – known to be a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS), which implies that his rank is assistant chief constable or higher – has testfied to al-Megrahi’s defence team that crucial evidence at the trial was fabricated. If the SCCRC finds that the prosecution played foul, the Crown may decide it would be better not to continue with its case, allowing al-Megrahi to be freed immediately.
This anonymous senior officer’s testimony chimes with the well-trodden theory that the American government had a hand in fixing the trial. Hans Köchler, the UN observer at Camp Zeist, reported at the time that the trial was politically charged and the verdict ‘totally incomprehensible’.
In his report Köchler wrote that he found the presence of US Justice Department representatives in the court ‘highly problematic’, because it gave the impression that they were ‘“supervisors” handling vital matters of the prosecution strategy and deciding . . . which documents . . . were to be released in open court and what parts of information contained in a certain document were to be withheld.’ ‘The alternative theory of the defence,’ he went on, ‘was never seriously investigated. Amid shrouds of secrecy and national security considerations, that avenue was never seriously pursued – although it was officially declared as being of major importance for the defence case. This is totally incomprehensible to any rational observer.’ The prosecution, Köchler noted, dismissed evidence on the grounds that it was not relevant; but now that that evidence has finally – partially – been released, it turns out to be very relevant indeed: to the defence.
Whatever happens, al-Megrahi may not have to wait long. As soon as a further appeal is scheduled, he can make an application to be released from custody: the convicted Lockerbie bomber, who was supposed to serve no fewer than 27 years in a Scottish jail, might well be free this summer. Whether al-Megrahi is freed pending his appeal – and what conditions would be applied if he were – depends largely on whether his defence team can convince the judge that he is not a flight risk. This may be hard to do. The judge might decide that if he left the country, he might choose to stay in Libya rather than come back next year for another round in court. If al-Megrahi is exonerated, many tricky questions will resurface, not least what to do about the $2.7 billion compensation paid by Libya to the relatives of the victims of the bombing. And then, of course, there is the question of who really bombed Flight 103.
In the first three years following the bombing, before a shred of evidence had been produced to incriminate Libya, the Dumfries and Galloway police, the FBI and several other intelligence services around the world all shared the belief that the Lockerbie bombers belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC), a Palestinian rejectionist organisation backed by Iran. The PFLP-GC is headed by Ahmed Jibril, a former Syrian army captain; its headquarters are in Damascus and it is closely allied with the Syrian president and other senior Syrian officials. In the 1970s and 1980s the PFLP-GC carried out a number of raids against Israel, including a novel hang-glider assault launched from inside Lebanon. Lawyers, intelligence services and diplomats around the world continue to suspect that Jibril – who has even boasted that he is responsible – was behind Lockerbie.
The case against Jibril and his gang is well established. It runs like this: in July 1988, five months before the Lockerbie bombing, a US naval commander aboard USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian airbus, apparently mistaking it for an attacker. On board Iran Air Flight 655 were 270 pilgrims en route to Mecca. Ayatollah Khomeini vowed the skies would ‘rain blood’ in revenge and offered a $10 million reward to anyone who ‘obtained justice’ for Iran. The suggestion is that the PFLP-GC was commissioned to undertake a retaliatory bombing.
We know at least that two months before Lockerbie, a PFLP-GC cell was active in the Frankfurt and Neuss areas of West Germany. On 26 October 1998, German police arrested 17 terrorist suspects who, surveillance showed, had cased Frankfurt airport and browsed Pan Am flight timetables. Four Semtex-based explosive devices were confiscated; a fifth is known to have gone missing. They were concealed inside Toshiba radios very similar to the one found at Lockerbie a few weeks later. One of the gang, a Palestinian known as Abu Talb, was later found to have a calendar in his flat in Sweden with the date of 21 December circled. New evidence, now in the hands of al-Megrahi’s defence, proves for the first time that Abu Talb was in Malta when the Lockerbie bombing took place. The Maltese man whose testimony convicted al-Megrahi has also identified Abu Talb. During al-Megrahi’s trial Abu Talb had a strange role. As part of a defence available in Scottish law, known as ‘incrimination’, Abu Talb was named as someone who – rather than the accused – might have carried out the bombing. At the time he was serving a life sentence in Sweden for the bombing of a synagogue, but he was summoned to Camp Zeist to give evidence. He ended up testifying as a prosecution witness, denying that he had anything to do with Lockerbie. In exchange for his testimony, he received lifelong immunity from prosecution.
Other evidence has emerged showing that the bomb could have been placed on the plane at Frankfurt airport, a possibility that the prosecution in al-Megrahi’s trial consistently ruled out (their case depended on the suitcase containing the bomb having been transferred from a connecting flight from Malta). Most significantly, German federal police have provided financial records showing that on 23 December 1988, two days after the bombing, the Iranian government deposited £5.9 million into a Swiss bank account that belonged to the arrested members of the PFLP-GC.
The decision to steer the investigation away from the PFLP-GC and in the direction of Libya came in the run-up to the first Gulf War, as America was looking to rally a coalition to liberate Kuwait and was calling for support from Iran and Syria. Syria subsequently joined the UN forces. Quietly, the evidence incriminating Jibril, so painstakingly sifted from the debris, was binned.
Those who continued to press the case against the PFLP-GC seemed to fall foul of American law. When a New York corporate investigative company asked to look into the bombing on behalf of Pan Am found the PFLP-GC responsible, the federal government promptly indicted the company’s president, Juval Aviv, for mail fraud. Lester Coleman, a former Defense Intelligence Agency operative who was researching a book about the PFLP-GC and Lockerbie, was charged by the FBI with ‘falsely procuring a passport’. William Casey, a lobbyist who made similar allegations in 1995, found his bank accounts frozen and federal agents searching through his trash. Even so, documents leaked from the US Defense Intelligence Agency in 1995, two years after the Libyans were first identified as the prime suspects, still blamed the PFLP-GC.
Suspicions and conspiracy theories have swirled around Lockerbie from the beginning. Some of them are fairly outlandish. In Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse (2005), Brigid Keenan, the wife of the British diplomat Alan Waddams, reported that over dinner in Gambia, a former Interpol agent told her and her husband that the bombing had been a revenge attack by Iran, in retaliation for the downed airliner (though she didn’t say how he knew this). The Interpol agent claimed the cargo had not been checked because the plane was carrying drugs as part of a deal over American hostages held by Hizbullah in Beirut. Militant groups were being allowed to smuggle heroin into the US in exchange for information; the bomb had gone on board when the PFLP-GC found a loophole in this drug-running operation.
At least four US intelligence officers, including the CIA’s deputy station chief in Beirut, were on the Flight 103 passenger list. In the days following the bombing, CIA agents scoured the Scottish countryside, some reportedly dressed in Pan Am overalls. Mary Boylan, then a constable with Lothian and Borders police, has said that senior police officers told her not to make an official record of the CIA badge she recovered from the wreckage, asking her instead to hand it over to a senior colleague. Her testimony, too, is now in the hands of the SCCRC. Jim Wilson, a farmer from the village of Tundergarth, reported shortly after the bombing that he had found in his field a suitcase packed with a powdery substance that looked ‘like drugs’. He last saw the suitcase when he handed it over to the police, he said; he was never asked about it again.
In December 1998, Susan Lindauer, a US congressional aide, submitted a sworn deposition to the court in which she claimed that Richard Fuisz, a CIA agent, had given her a guarantee that he knew who was behind the Lockerbie bombing. Lindauer’s affidavit describes a conversation in Fuisz’s ‘business office’ in Chantilly, Virginia, in which he said he knew for sure the perpetrators were based in Syria. ‘Dr Fuisz has told me that he can identify who orchestrated and executed the bombing. Dr Fuisz has said that he can confirm absolutely that no Libyan national was involved in planning or executing the bombing of Pan Am 103, either in any technical or advisory capacity whatsoever.’ ‘If the government would let me, I could identify the men behind this attack,’ Lindauer says Fuisz told her. Lindauer has since been accused by the US government of being an Iraqi agent; her case is pending. But her earlier deposition has been submitted to the SCCRC. It can’t count for much, however, since Fuisz himself is not able to comment. In October 1994, a month after Lindauer spoke to him, Fuisz was gagged by a Washington court. The US government ruled that under state secrecy laws he faced ten years in prison if he spoke about the Lockerbie bombing. UN observers have since criticised this apparent restraint of a key witness.
When Libya handed al-Megrahi over for trial, sanctions on Libya authorised by the Security Council were suspended and diplomatic relations with Britain restored. Tony Blair claims the Libyan detente was one of his most important foreign policy victories, and last month, as the long shadow began to fall across his premiership, Blair swung by Tripoli to meet again with Libya’s leader. Gaddafi has always contested that al-Megrahi is not the Lockerbie bomber and that he should be allowed to return home. Maybe the two leaders touched on the prickly topic of what should be done about the compensation paid by Libya, in the event al-Megrahi is exonerated. When al-Megrahi was handed over for trial, Libya declared that it would accept responsibility for his actions. But it never accepted guilt. This distinction was spelled out clearly in Libyan letters to the UN Security Council. In a BBC radio interview in 2004, the Libyan prime minister, Shukri Ghanem, underlined once again that compensation had been paid because this was the ‘price for peace’ and to secure the lifting of sanctions. When asked if Libya did not accept guilt, he said: ‘I agree with that.’
If the court that convicted al-Megrahi now reverses its decision, then Libya would clearly have a case for demanding its money back. Since recovering the compensation from the relatives would be unthinkable, it is more likely Libya would pursue those responsible for the miscarriage of justice. ‘What they might try to do,’ Black suggests, ‘is to recoup the money from the British and American governments, who after all are responsible for the initial farce and the wrongful conviction in the first place. They paid that money on the basis of a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by the British courts.’ Al-Megrahi’s acquittal on appeal would not ipso facto make a compelling case for Libya to have its money back: even if guilt can’t be proved beyond reasonable doubt – the test of the criminal burden of proof – it could still be shown that it was more likely than not (which is the burden applied to civil cases such as compensation cases). If Libya paid the money for purely political reasons then, one could argue, it might have to live with that decision. When I asked the Foreign Office whether Britain would consider reimbursing Libya in the event of al-Megrahi’s exoneration, a spokesman declined to comment.
If al-Megrahi is acquitted, he will also have the right to sue for wrongful conviction. He could claim compensation to the tune of several tens of thousands of pounds. The Crown Office, which is headed by the Scottish lord advocate, is responsible for what happened, which means that al-Megrahi would sue the Scottish Executive. The lord advocate is now one of the ‘Scottish ministers’, whereas previously he – now she – was one of the law officers of the UK Government. The Scottish Executive might refuse to pay, blaming Westminster. Westminster, meanwhile, would argue that Lockerbie is and always has been a Crown Office matter and that the UK government has no say. A political storm is on its way, especially now that the SNP is in charge in Scotland.
Since the case against al-Megrahi was so weak, it is hard to understand how the judges who presided over the trial could have got it so wrong. Black has a view:
It has been suggested to me, very often by Libyans, that political pressure was placed upon the judges. I don’t think for a minute that political pressure of that nature was placed on the judges. What happened, I think, was that it was internal politics in Scotland. Prosecutions in Scotland are brought by the lord advocate. Until just a few years ago, one of the other functions of the lord advocate in Scotland was that he appointed all Scottish judges. I think what influenced these judges was that they thought that if both of the Libyans accused are found not guilty, this will be the most fiendish embarrassment to the lord advocate.
The appointment system for judges has changed since the trial, but another controversial aspect of the al-Megrahi case may also be re-examined: the policies on disclosure. Compared to almost any other similar criminal justice system, Scotland does not have a proper system of disclosure of information. In England and Wales, the Crown has to disclose all material to the defence, according to rules set out in statute. In Scotland the Crown is allowed to modify or withhold evidence if it considers that withholding is in the ‘public interest’. At least the Scottish criminal justice system doesn’t have the death penalty.
Hugh Miles has lived in Libya, Egypt and Yemen. He works in London.
Posted by lmurx at 7:55 PM
Wretched of the Earth
By Nicholas D. Kristof
by William T. Vollmann
Ecco, 450 pp., $29.95
edited by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, Roland Bénabou, and Dilip Mookherjee
Oxford University Press, 443 pp., $35.00 (paper)
No interview haunts me more than a conversation with a Cambodian peasant, Nhem Yen, in 1996. She was forty years old, though she looked much older, and was living with her family in a clearing in the Cambodian jungle. The area was notorious for malaria, but the family members were ambitious and industrious and figured that it was worth the risk to make more money by cutting wood for sale.
Nhem Yen's eldest daughter, who was twenty-four and pregnant with her second child, promptly caught malaria. There was no money to get med-ical treatment (effective drugs would have cost less than $10), and so she died a day after giving birth. That left Nhem Yen looking after five children of her own and two grandchildren.
The family had one mosquito net that could accommodate about three people. Such nets are quite effective against malaria, but they cost $5—and Nhem Yen could not afford to buy any more. So every night, she agonized over which of the children to put under the net and which to leave out.
"It's very hard to choose," Nhem Yen told me. "But we have no money to buy another mosquito net. We have no choice."
That is the real face of poverty: it is not so much the pain of hunger or the humiliation of rags, but the impossible choices you face. If you can only afford school fees for some of your children, which do you send? If you must choose between medical treatment for Dad, the breadwinner, or for Daughter, the A student, which is it? Do you use your savings to provide a good dowry so Eldest Daughter can get a decent husband, or do you settle for the drunkard who will beat her and instead invest the savings in a food cart that may help provide an income to send the younger ones to school?
One measure of the ubiquity of these tradeoffs is that today, as every day, 30,000 children will die of hunger, disease, and other consequences of poverty, according to UNICEF. In many cases, those will be daughters, because parents (particularly in South Asia) don't have the resources to keep all their children alive, so they put a finger on the scales on the side of their sons. In India alone, among children aged one to five, girls are 50 percent more likely to die than boys—meaning that 130,000 Indian girls are mortally discriminated against each year.
Poverty both in the US and around the world remains a central fact of twenty-first-century life; a majority of the world lives on less than $2 a day, one common measure of who is poor. Yet we manage, pretty successfully, to ignore it and insulate ourselves even from poverty in our own country. When it pops out from behind the screen after an episode like the Watts riots of 1965 or the New Orleans hurricane of 2005, then we express horror and indignation and vow change, and finally shrug and move on. Meanwhile, the world's five hundred wealthiest people have the same income as the world's poorest 416 million.
These days, however, something interesting is stirring in the world of poverty. People like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have made it almost as prestigious for philanthropists to underwrite vaccinations as to underwrite the ballet. Bono and Angelina Jolie have made Africa almost sexy. And several Democratic presidential candidates have real expertise and interest in the issue, particularly domestically: Barack Obama worked as a grassroots antipoverty organizer in Chicago; Hillary Rodham Clinton has long labored on child poverty; and John Edwards has spent the last few years assiduously studying poverty and speaking out about it. On the Republican side, Sam Brownback is also very serious about poverty and related issues, including prison conditions and recidivism.
So we now have a wealth of interest in poverty. A fruit of that, or perhaps a beneficiary of it, is William Vollmann's new work, bluntly titled Poor People. Vollmann is a terrific reporter and writer who won a National Book Award in 2005 for his novel Europe Central. He also comes across as an exceptionally nice guy, not only handing out money to people right and left but also allowing homeless people to squat next to his house in California. He gets a little testy when they use the area as a public toilet, but he still earnestly takes his daughter with him to chat with the homeless and has her shake their hands to show respect. Then he takes her inside to scrub that hand.
Vollmann's book is difficult to describe. It's not a systematic examination of poverty, and it's certainly not a treatise on how to respond to poverty —he barely discusses possible solutions. Mostly, it's a pointillist description of poor people he has encountered and interviewed extensively in Thailand, Russia, China, and elsewhere. Vollmann asks them questions like "do you consider yourself poor?" Or "why are poor people poor?" Or "are men and women equally poor?" Or "why are you poor?" Or "why are some people rich and some poor?"
The problem is that the answers often aren't very interesting, persuasive, or authoritative. It's useful to ask poor people about poverty, but after wading through three hundred pages of their equally impoverished answers, unleavened by some larger context or theme, I think Vollmann would have been better off spending some of his time asking such questions of a panel of Ivy League professors. (Granted, I'm being unfair in asking for a book that Vollmann apparently didn't want to write.)
Vollmann has written something that is perhaps closer to travel literature than poverty literature. His book is a bit like one of Paul Theroux's— but a compassionate, warm Theroux— with its finely drawn characters who are interesting in themselves but whose comments don't suggest some larger truth. The first person Vollmann sketches is a Thai woman named Sunee, a drunkard and probably a former "entertainer" in Japan. She has a daughter to whom Vollmann sometimes gives money (which Sunee periodically confiscates). Sunee rings true to me, as do all the other figures in the book. But the interview with her doesn't illuminate the challenge of poverty or suggest how to resolve it.
The most moving evocations of poverty have been fictional: Zola's Germinal, or Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Those novels have heroic characters, and you want to reach into your pocket and solve their problems by handing them a pile of cash. But in the real world, many tales of poverty are less moving and more nuanced, with a dash of self-destructiveness thrown in. It may not be entirely Sunee's fault that she is a drunkard, but it does make you less likely to react sympathetically when you read of her decline. In that sense, Vollmann's work is a useful reminder that poverty is often a shortage of more than cash. The optimistic efforts of the antipoverty campaigns of the 1960s and of many foreign aid programs didn't work out as well as hoped partly because they ended up treating poverty essentially as a redistribution issue—and it's far more than that.
The best nonfiction book on American poverty I have ever read is Jason DeParle's brilliant American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare. It's a close-up look at three poor women and the impact of the effort to end welfare "as we know it." It's far too rich and complex a work to offer simple solutions, but in the end it suggests that there are real benefits to pushing some families out of welfare into work—but that those benefits are modest and still leave little hope of resolving the challenges of poverty. Still, DeParle (a colleague at The New York Times) does examine at the end of his book some programs to combat poverty and suggests that in the 1990s we began to learn what works and what doesn't in alleviating its worst forms in the United States.
There is, I think, a liberal squeamishness about confronting the reality that one important element that sustains poverty is culture: a self-destructive pathology that arises from poverty and then entraps the poor in it for generation after generation. The culture varies with the society, and it is different for Dalits (or Untouchables) in India and for villagers in Congo and for the homeless in the US. Often, though, this culture involves elements of hopelessness, substance abuse, underinvestment in education, self-fulfilling expectations of failure, and squandered resources.
Less vivid but more insightful in depicting poverty is a recent scholarly article in The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo have written a fascinating—and troubling—examination called "The Economic Lives of the Poor," based on surveys of people living on less than $2 a day in thirteen countries. The surveys found the respondents to be undernourished, with 55 percent of poor adults in Udaipur, India, suffering from anemia (which also limits their ability to work and earn money). The poor also invest negligible sums in education (about 2 percent of their income), even though more investment in schooling might offer their children a way out of the cycle.
Yet it's much too simple to conclude that their lack of spending on adequate food and education is solely because they don't have the money. Part of it is the way they spend money—7 percent of their spending went for sugar. As the authors write:
A common image of the extremely poor is that they do not get to make many real choices....Yet among the non-food items that the poor spend significant amounts of money on, alcohol and tobacco show up prominently. The extremely poor in rural areas spent 4.1 percent of their budget on tobacco and alcohol in Papua New Guinea, 5.0 percent in Udaipur, India; 6.0 percent in Indonesia and 8.1 percent in Mexico....
Perhaps more surprisingly, it is apparent that spending on festivals is an important part of the budget for many extremely poor households. In Udaipur, over the course of the previous year, more than 99 percent of the extremely poor households spent money on a wedding, a funeral, or a religious festival. The median household spent 10 percent of its annual budget on festivals. In South Africa, 90 percent of the households living under $1 per day spent money on festivals. In Pakistan, Indonesia, and Cote d'Ivoire, more than 50 percent did likewise.
Festivals are one way for the poorest and most degraded families to gain dignity for a day. But the best single investment to gain long-term dignity is education, and that's the way to break the cycle. As the authors of this article note, one reason for the underinvestment in education is that illiterate parents can't judge what investments in education will pay off.
The pattern of misallocation of resources is confirmed by what I've seen in poor countries. It's routine to visit a family with a severely malnourished child (with consequences for the child's cognition if it survives), and find out that the family has some meager savings—but Dad is off drinking them up at a nearby bar. And this is dispiriting for a man to admit, but it's typically that way: abundant research shows that in poor families, women invest money in food, children, and small businesses—and men squander funds on cigarettes, alcohol, video halls, and prostitution.
We should be clear: one smart way to fight poverty is to empower women (by educating girls, by giving daughters legal rights to inheritance, by promoting banking institutions that give women control over the accounts). Once mothers control family spending rather than fathers, family resources are invested more productively, and some families can rise out of poverty very quickly. This makes the fight for gender equality in the developing world not only a moral imperative but also an economic one. Aid groups recognize this and are adjusting their strategies. For example, Helene Gayle, the new head of CARE, is making empowerment of women—including microfinance—a major strategy because of its implications for fighting poverty.
Whether in the US or abroad, I always find grassroots antipoverty workers much more useful than "experts" in Washington. At the local level you see all the frustrations and complexities of overcoming pathologies of misplaced priorities, drugs, alcohol, broken families, violence, and vast webs of self-destructive behavior —including simply acquiescence.
One of the great canards of modern life is that the poor are particularly grasping, always demanding entitlements. In fact, one of the problems in combating poverty is the opposite: the poor are far too willing to acquiesce. Vollmann writes that one of the characteristics of poverty is its invisibility —and he's right, because by and large the poor have been conditioned to retreat to the margins.
When I was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I spent my days in shelters with poor people who had lost everything while spending my nights with the family of a well-to-do doctor whose lovely home had been barely damaged (because it was well built and in a neighborhood located above the flood line). That's always the pattern. In a Bangladeshi cyclone, the hovels of the poor are swept away so that poor families lose their children and everything they ever owned—while the wealthy sit tight in concrete homes on higher land. In the Kobe earthquake in Japan in 1995, it was the poor who were crushed to death when their old houses collapsed; one rich family I visited at the epicenter had suffered little harm other than the destruction of its wine collection.
Even when middle-class or wealthy families were displaced in, say, New Orleans, they mostly figured out how to get what they needed. For a start, they demanded it. Loudly. Insistently. But the people stuck in the shelters, black and white, were typically not only poorer but also less demanding, less assertive, less skilled in negotiating their way through the system. Poor families in the shelters were neglected precisely because they were suffering so patiently. After that experience, I caught myself thinking that the problem is not that the poor riot, but that they don't riot enough.
The complexities of poverty have major implications for health care reform. A leader in emphasizing this is Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund, a passionate advocate for medical care for the poor, who also was my guide in New Orleans. I had thought that the obstacle for poor people—and the reason they die as a result of deficient health care —was that they couldn't afford it. But that's only one factor.
What we've seen over and over is that even if there is a free clinic, the poor family may depend on a single mother who doesn't have a car or driver's license and so can't get there. Or she can't afford the gas. Or her car doesn't have insurance. Or she doesn't understand how serious the symptoms are. Or she is working at a low-level job where she can't just ask for time off to take a child to the clinic. Or she doesn't speak English. Or she's illegal and is worried that INS agents may look at the clinic's records. Or she's got three other small children and can't leave two at home while she takes her sick child on a series of bus rides to the clinic. Or...the possibilities are endless. The point is that making medical care accessible to the poor requires much more than making it free.
Poverty is connected, of course, to race. But in recent years we've learned that it's not exactly race, because blacks from the West Indies and newly arrived immigrants from Africa have often thrived in the US while traditional African-American descendants of slaves are more likely to be stuck in the whirlpool of poverty.
There is, I think, a parallel with the minority of Japan, the burakumin, sometimes called the Untouchables of Japan. The burakumin are not a racial minority but an occupational one: they are the descendants of those who worked with leather, with dead bodies, or with dead animals. But they were no less shunned and discriminated against than American blacks, and when I lived in Japan I sometimes heard Japanese friends tell me that the burakumin "are not real Japanese." A few decades ago, burakumin were rarely invited into ordinary people's homes, they could never work in restaurants, they had little hope of marrying a non-burakumin, and they were almost universally ostracized. Even today, parents sometimes hire private detective agencies to research the backgrounds of their children's fiancés to make sure that burakumin blood does not creep into the family.
The upshot was that burakumin felt excluded from the Japanese social compact, and they fell disproportionately into alcohol, drugs, divorce, and crime. The yakuza, Japan's criminal network, is overwhelmingly composed of burakumin and another ostracized minority, ethnic Koreans. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that when a society excludes a group and treats it as second-class citizens, then the result can be not only poverty as such but also self-destructive cycles of culture and behavior that make escape from poverty all the more difficult.
Yet the story of global poverty is, in spite of what most people think, in some ways a surprisingly successful one. We focus on those who are still poor, but in the last quarter-century far more people have been pulled out of poverty than ever before in the history of the world. Largely that's because of the economic success of Asia, and it should give pause to critics of globalization. In fact, it's precisely because of globalization that hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, and Malaysians are moving into the middle class.
Another new book on the subject, Understanding Poverty, a collection of essays by scholars, has both the depth and the data that Vollmann's book lacks. It's the kind of book that you can put down, but it's a serious examination of where we stand and what we need to do. An excellent opening chapter by the three editors—Abhijit Banerjee, Roland Bénabou, and Dilip Mookherjee—notes that in the period from the early 1980s to 2001,
poverty rates fell by almost half: approximately 400 million people crossed the $1 threshold during this time [$1 a day is often used as a measure of extreme poverty; $2 a day is also often used]. This amounts to a fairly dramatic reduction in poverty. There is thus no basis for views, often expressed by protesters against globalization and privatization, that these trends have coincided with a rise in global poverty. Most of the poverty reduction happened in Asia, and particularly in China, which has experienced growing integration into the world economy and a rise in market forces.
It's also worth noting that the part of the world that has most withstood the forces of globalization (or simply been ignored) is Africa, where the number of poor people doubled.
The common perception of rising global inequality is true in a sense— but this is largely because entire nations have prospered while others have not; it is not because of rising inequality within poor countries. The gap between the world's wealthiest and poorest people is overwhelmingly accounted for by inequities from one country to another. In contrast, most nations appear to have reduced inequality within their borders (although this is not true of the US).
The decline of poverty is not some gimmick or statistical ploy. Anybody who has traveled regularly in Asia has seen it. My wife, Sheryl WuDunn, is Chinese-American, and when we first visited her ancestral village in 1987, it was dirt poor and consisted mostly of illiterate peasants with fantastically crooked teeth (China then apparently had one orthodontist in the entire country). Now it has a paved road, the children go to school and aspire to college, the adults have cell phones and television sets, and people are starting to look plump. And the children's teeth are straight.
The same transformation is evident across China, and in South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and elsewhere. It is now taking place in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Africa has been left out, but even Africa has some countries with exceptionally strong economic performance, like Botswana, Rwanda, Mozambique, and Mauritius.
After the fall of communism, there was a period when the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were spiraling down into penury. A few countries, like Moldova, Belarus, and Turkmenistan, are still wretched. But Russia, in large part thanks to its mineral resources, is booming. So are other parts of the former empire like Georgia, Armenia, and especially the Baltic Republics. Estonia is one of the most dynamic countries in Europe. Even in the US, for all the despair about poverty, the mid- and late-1990s saw remarkable drops in poverty rates. (The progress stopped in 2000.)
So we should approach poverty with real hope. The last fifty years have shown that these problems have solutions—and that's why it's a bit frustrating that Vollmann is strictly a tour guide of the slums, without pointing more directly to the policies that will help.
There's no magic bullet, but health interventions have been very successful. The US spent $32 million to fight smallpox over ten years, achieving eradication in 1977. Now we save that sum every two and a half months in reduced spending on vaccines and health care. Total savings have been $17 billion, plus 45 million lives around the world, and as an investment that $32 million has yielded a return of 45 percent per year. That's why we need similar campaigns against other diseases, including malaria, elephantiasis, and of course AIDS.
Education has also proved an excellent investment, and we now know that the most cost-effective way to keep children in school isn't to ban child labor, to pass laws requiring school attendance, or even to build schools. Rather, it's to bribe parents with cash grants for keeping kids in school. Understanding Poverty cites improvements in school attendance rates of 20 percentage points by such programs. A large-scale Indonesian program to spread primary education in the 1970s is estimated to have paid returns equivalent to 10 percent per year. Likewise, microfinance was justly recognized as an outstanding antipoverty tool by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and its founder, Muhammad Yunus. Partly that's because microfinance often targets women, raising their status within societies and giving them more control over the family spending.
In the US as well, we have a clearer sense of what policies work. Large-scale income distribution programs, such as welfare and public housing, weren't very successful, and that fed a cynicism and resignation about anti-poverty efforts. But in more recent years we've learned that in the US education is a critical path out of poverty. Early childhood education and intense schooling and tutoring make all the difference. Job training helps. After-school programs help. The earned-income tax credit raises incomes of poor families. These approaches aren't easy or cheap, but they work—and these costs of empowering poor people are cheaper than the alternative of incarcerating them in large numbers.
The upshot is that we now have a much richer understanding of poverty than we did at the time of the launch of the War on Poverty, and a much better hope of success if we try again. We know that it's not just about more equitable distribution of assets, but that there are also crucial cultural issues to be addressed. We also have a better understanding of the tactics and policies that work, both in the US and in poor countries abroad.
The remaining question is whether we have the will. Perhaps books like Vollmann's may at least remind us of the poor, removing them for a moment from invisibility, and help replace our current resignation with policies that would make a considerable difference. We are not going to eradicate poverty in our lifetimes, but we could make a much bigger dent in it—and that's important if you're one of the poor. As Albert Camus said in 1948: "Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children."
In the meantime, today another 30,000 children will die of the consequences of poverty. And as dusk falls in Africa and Asia, aching parents will struggle to decide which of their children to put under the mosquito net and which to expose to malaria.
 Viking, 2004; reviewed in these pages by Christopher Jencks, December 15, 2005.
 See The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2007). The article can be found at http:// econ-www.mit.edu/faculty/download_ pdf.php?id=1346.
 For a discussion of how women's empowerment and microfinance programs are being used to address public health issues in rural African villages, see Helen Epstein and Julia Kim, "AIDS and the Power of Women," The New York Review, February 15, 2007.
Posted by lmurx at 7:24 PM
Our Second Biggest Mistake in the Middle East
Hamas: Unwritten Chapters by Azzam Tamimi · Hurst, 344 pp, £14.95
Where Now for Palestine: The Demise of the Two-State Solution ed. Jamil Hilal · Zed, 260 pp, £17.99
Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict by Sara Roy · Pluto, 379 pp, £16.99
‘The situation in Gaza is dangerous, and the danger is that Hamas will take over and turn Gaza into “Hamastan” – into a kingdom of thugs, murderers, terrorists, poverty and despair.’ This was the reaction of Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defence minister, to Hamas’s seizure of a number of key security institutions in Gaza in the days leading up to 14 June, when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Fatah, dismissed the unity government. But, despite what much of the media says, this is not a ‘civil war’, and Hamas is not made up of ‘gangs beyond the control of their leaders’. Hamas’s action was conducted with the aim of removing the influence of just one of Fatah’s security forces in Gaza, the militia controlled by Muhammad Dahlan, Abbas’s national security adviser. Hamas has insisted that this has not been a conflict with Fatah in general, and it was notable that neither the Palestinian security forces – effectively the Palestinian ‘army’ – nor the police in Gaza were targets of the recent violence.
The origins of the Hamas action in Gaza lie in the reaction of the international community, and of Fatah, to Hamas’s overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections of January 2006. Fatah, Yasir Arafat’s movement, saw itself as the founder of the Palestinian Authority; it believed it was the natural party of government; and it had fought a long battle with Arab neighbours to establish itself as synonymous with the PLO, and therefore, implicitly, as the ‘sole representative of the Palestinian people’. Some within Fatah were unable to come to terms with their loss of power, or to reconcile themselves to the claim that, on the basis of the election result, an Islamist party best represented the views of the Palestinian people. At this crucial juncture, the International Quartet intervened: they pressed President Abbas not to yield to Hamas, to hang onto power; and they promised to support him if he did so.
Not only was Abbas not to yield security control to the government and its Interior Ministry, as the constitution provided, but the International Quartet also demanded that he claw back powers from the new government and embody them in the presidency: financial responsibilities would be removed from the Ministry of Finance; the salaries of government officials would be paid by the president’s office; all key policy decisions would be enacted by presidential decree. The government was to be rendered powerless. As Azzam Tamimi notes in Hamas: Unwritten Chapters, the Hamas government had no police force at its disposal, and no authority over frontier crossings.
At the same time, the West imposed financial sanctions on the government and isolated it politically, insisting on conducting business and channelling funding exclusively through Abbas. In short, instead of helping Fatah through the transition and facilitating Palestinian unity – and taking advantage of a real chance to include Hamas, Islamism’s moderates, in the political process – the international community pursued an aggressive policy of internal division that established the conditions for the recent violence in Gaza. Europeans may wring their hands at what they see on their TVs, but European policy, acting in concert with the US, bears a large measure of responsibility for what has happened.
The US and some European countries, including Britain, also chose to finance, train and arm the security apparatus led by Muhammad Dahlan, whom many Palestinians suspected – rightly – was being groomed as the ‘strong man’ who would eventually assume the presidency and restore Fatah to power. The ultimate aim was to build a Fatah militia around Dahlan that could confront Hamas militarily – and win. American officials hoped in the meantime to place Fatah in a position to depose Hamas from power – in other words, to promote a soft coup d’état against the government. A strategy document prepared by one of the US-led coalition of ‘moderate’ Arab states which was circulating among Palestinians in March 2007 said that the US objective was to have Abbas dismiss the Hamas government in August. The International Quartet endorsed these plans in principle. The support the US and Europe give to Fatah is considerable and arrives by a variety of routes: through NGOs and development agencies; through Fatah reform initiatives; through youth development programmes; through information and media projects; and – most significantly – through a large programme aimed at recruiting, training, equipping and financing Fatah security cadres, Dahlan’s chief among them. In addition, every NGO contract has a clause inserted into it by USAID requiring the organisation to pledge that it ‘will not engage in activity with groups deemed as terrorists’.
In the scathing final report he wrote before resigning in May as UN Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Alvaro de Soto said: ‘The US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, so much so that, a week before Mecca’ – where the two factions met in February and under the auspices of King Abdullah agreed a unity government – ‘the US envoy declared twice in an envoys’ meeting in Washington how much “I like this violence,” referring to the near civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured, because “it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.”’ It was this situation that pushed Hamas into pre-emptive action. With Fatah refusing to delegate constitutional authority over the security services, and with the build-up of the Dahlan militia, the military arm of Hamas moved to seize all the key assets associated with Dahlan and his colleagues in Gaza. Having achieved complete control, the elected government is now finally in a position to provide security in Gaza.
There is a price, of course; but it has nothing to do with damage to the so-called ‘prospects for peace’. There was no peace process. And, in the view of most Palestinians, there is little prospect of one. On the contrary, the leadership of Hamas – like their colleagues in Hizbullah – are preparing for the long hot summer of regional conflict that inevitably lies ahead. The real cost of Hamas’s military putsch against the Dahlan militia is the weakening of that significant faction within Fatah which, for some time, has been uncomfortable with Dahlan’s and Fatah’s co-option by US and Israeli interests, and has – until now – advocated real co-operation between Fatah and Hamas. But now that Fatah has been humiliated the grass-roots are unlikely to be in a mood to support anyone who argues for a working partnership with Hamas. It is one thing to be perceived by fellow Palestinians as a Western proxy: to be regarded as a failed Western proxy is far worse.
It is too early to judge, but it is possible that the Hamas putsch will come to be seen by Muslims beyond Palestine as an event as significant as the outcome of the Israeli-Hizbullah war last July. The next few weeks may see the beginnings of efforts at mediation on the part of other Arab states, in an attempt to form a fresh unity government in Palestine. If this happens, the issue of security has already been decided: Hamas has settled the facts on the ground. The Americans and Europeans, however, can be expected to continue to resist any transformation of the political dispensation. What they want, and remain wedded to, is a reversion to the status quo ante of Oslo, however discredited its processes now are. But in attempting to ensure Fatah’s continued hold on power, they risk schism, renewed violence, and a fracturing of the Palestinian body politic for years to come.
A peace process with Israel, were that ever to become a reality, cannot be built on Palestinian division and internal conflict. The action of previous US envoys – such as General Zinni and George Tenet – served only to increase these divisions. The lesson has not been learned. President Abbas’s dismissal of the government on 14 June and his declaration of an emergency government – both decrees of questionable legality – brought an end to what remained of Palestinian unity. And did so at a moment when Hamas, in common with moderate Islamist movements throughout the region, is trying to deal with the radicalising of its constituency and a widespread questioning of the value of electoral participation.
The West could not have chosen a worse time to try to make Fatah a proxy dependent on Western financial subsidy and Israeli ‘concessions’ to make up for the popular support it patently lacks. The largest Hebrew newspaper, Yediot Aharnot, noted on 14 June that ‘in Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and Ramallah, the people of the Fatah al-Aqsa Brigades are in control, much thanks to the Israeli General Security Services who have jailed anyone vaguely smelling of Hamas.’ European policy-makers – to judge by their public statements – are largely oblivious to the rising tension in the region. Instability is feeding instability; and the American and European imposition of a bank freeze that left the Palestinian government unable to gain access to its funds – including those from Muslim countries – will trigger new and potentially dangerous disturbances in the region.
Western commentators – prompted by Fatah loyalists – are still inclined to see the 2006 election result as no more than a severe rap on the knuckles for the hitherto dominant Fatah on the part of an electorate angered by its corruption and mismanagement. Since 1993, Palestinians have been living under a one-party system: patronage, jobs and government have been in the gift of Fatah, and it is to its members that these benefits have been distributed. The election outcome, however, was not primarily a judgment on Fatah’s corruption, even if this was a significant factor. I recall a leader in a refugee camp in Lebanon saying: ‘You will see . . . what this victory for Hamas represents is the final rupture of the Palestinians’ faith in the international community. We no longer believe that the Americans or the Europeans ultimately can be counted on to do the right thing by us. We know that we must rely only on ourselves now.’ Hamas had recognised for some time that the Palestinian constituency that voted Fatah a monopoly of power and of armed force in 1993, following the Oslo Accords, no longer existed. Hardly any Palestinians now believe that Palestinian ‘good behaviour’ – as promised to Israel by Fatah – will induce the US to ignore its domestic Israel lobby and exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from the lands occupied in 1967. ‘Hamas had predicted all along that Israel would not fulfil its bargain,’ Tamimi writes, ‘and that it was using peacemaking in order to expropriate more land.’
Palestinians have seen their putative state in the West Bank salami-sliced away by settlements, army posts, military zones, fences and Israeli-only roads that cut the territory into enclaves in which 2.5 million Palestinians are confined, their movements heavily curtailed. A map of the West Bank recently published by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that the Israeli system of settlements and protective infrastructure has rendered 40 per cent of the West Bank off-limits to Palestinians. Palestinians have seen the US and Europe do nothing about this. The US and the EU argued that Palestinian violence was the problem; but the Palestinians noted that in periods of quiet more rather than less of their land fell to the Israeli salami-slicer – yet still the international community remained silent. Any optimism from Oslo had long faded by 2006, when the Palestinians voted in Hamas. There is no longer a significant ‘peace camp’ that believes in gradual progress towards a Palestinian state.
Against this background of disenchantment, the contributors to Jamil Hilal’s Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution point either towards a binational state in Israel/Palestine, or to a further chapter of armed resistance, or both. Ziad Abu Amr argues that the ‘Palestinian Authority is becoming a façade hiding an actual Israeli occupation, and a tool to help Israel regulate its occupation policies.’ Jamil Hilal argues that ‘Israel’s policy has amounted to a systematic negation of the basic conditions necessary for a viable and sovereign Palestinian state,’ and Ilan Pappe, looking for the roots of Israeli policy, concludes that ‘occupation proceeds from the same ideological infrastructure on which the 1948 ethnic cleansing was erected.’ None of these contributors thinks that the psychological and political conditions for a two-state solution any longer prevail. The adoption of demands for a new Israeli constitution by Adalah, a human rights organisation based in Israel, is a further signal of radicalisation. ‘The Democratic Constitution’ – a discussion document that has generated widespread interest among Palestinian citizens of Israel, and outrage in some parts of the Israeli press – calls for a constitution that conforms to democratic principles, is bilingual and multicultural, and which, above all, enshrines the right to complete equality of all residents and citizens, thereby making Israel no longer an exclusively Jewish state, or even a state that affords special privileges to Jewish citizens.
One reason for Fatah’s election defeat was its failure to recognise that the Bush administration was different from the Clinton administration. Fatah persisted in its assumption that, at bottom, the Bush administration shared its vision of a Palestinian state based on Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. The leadership continued to assume that if they pleased the US they would eventually be rewarded by pressure on Israel to concede a viable Palestinian state. It has long been obvious to most Palestinians, including many in Fatah, that the vision Bush shared was not Fatah’s, but that of Tel Aviv, and it sees Israel remaining in the West Bank for ever.
Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, an institute funded by foreign governments to conduct opinion surveys in Palestine, conducted three crucial polls that affected perceptions in Washington in the early parts of June, September and December 2005. They all showed Fatah leading Hamas by a comfortable margin. In June, Shikaki showed Fatah ahead by 44 per cent to Hamas’s 33 per cent; in September Fatah’s share had gone up to 47 per cent as against Hamas’s 30; by December, one month before the election, he gave Fatah 50 per cent and Hamas 32. In the election, however, Hamas won 74 parliamentary seats and Fatah 45 in a 132-seat chamber. Hamas’s own assessment of November 2005 anticipated that they would win between 70 and 80 seats.
It is difficult to know whether it was the European and American refusal, on the basis of these polls, to acknowledge that Palestinian perceptions had changed which influenced the actions of certain Fatah leaders after the election. Or whether Europe’s friends in Fatah, such as Dahlan, with his claim to be able to deal with Hamas, persuaded Europeans to shut their eyes to the revolution in Palestinian sentiment. Dahlan, Al-Ahram Weekly recently reported,
tacitly admits that he has been behind much of the lawlessness and security chaos in Gaza: ‘I just deploy two jeeps, and people would say Gaza is on fire . . . Hamas is now the weakest Palestinian faction. They are whining and complaining. Well, they will have to suffer yet more until they are damned to the seventh ancestor.’
Whatever the cause, Europeans embarked on one of their greatest policy mistakes in the region – second only to their support for the invasion of Iraq – with their dogged determination to isolate Hamas and attempt to return Fatah to power.
Hamas had argued during the election campaign that Fatah’s promise to Israel of an end to violence would bring Fatah only Israeli contempt for what it would perceive as Palestinian ‘weakness’. As Hamas sees it, a just solution will emerge only when Israel comes to ‘respect’ its adversaries; meanwhile Fatah’s pleading to be Israel’s peace partner is indirectly contributing to Israel’s hegemonic ambitions. Hamas therefore argues for continued resistance, and for a reversal of the Arafat doctrine, which held that Palestinian institutions should not be established until a state had been achieved. It believes that good governance now, and the unity it will bring, is the path to a Palestinian state. With its record of effective and corruption-free local government, it has been keen to put this into practice at the national level: it may now have its chance in Gaza.
The problem for Hamas is that its constituency – the rank and file – and the wider Islamist movement have now embarked on a period of introspection. What is apparent – and this can be ascertained on any number of Islamist websites – is that the mainstream Islamist strategy of pursuing an electoral path to reform is now being questioned. This will have an impact well beyond Palestine – most obviously in Egypt and Jordan. Three events have triggered this reassessment: the sanctions imposed on the Hamas government; last summer’s US-backed war to destroy Hizbullah in Lebanon; and the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which raises not a peep of protest from Europeans. Continued Western hostility towards all Islamists, however moderate their policies, has also frustrated the grass-roots.
At a conference held in Beirut in April, the senior Hamas official present, Usamah Hamadan, was strongly criticised by Fathi Yakan, the leader of Jamaat Islamiyah in Lebanon, for having embarked on the electoral route in the first place. Yakan pointed to the failure – experienced by all Islamists without exception – of those who have participated in their national parliaments. No MP or deputy, from Islamabad to Cairo, or anywhere in between, has succeeded in bringing any significant change to their society. At the same time, young Egyptians in the Muslim Brotherhood have been debating whether their eighty-year-old movement has lost its way. Commentators have been arguing that for it to sit in parliament – while its leaders are being interned, its economic base is being attacked, and legislation is being passed aimed at excluding movements with a religious basis from elections – undermines its credibility and invites derision. The movement, it’s suggested, is too big, rigid and ungainly, and needs to be rethought – and perhaps broken up.
At issue in these discussions is whether moderate Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah will manage to retain their influence over this process of radicalisation; and whether they will survive as a cohesive, disciplined political bloc. Sunni Islamist movements are increasingly concerned at the spread of small Salafist groups that verge on the nihilistic in their disdain for political ideology and in their belief that to set fire to the remnants of colonial power is in itself enough to raise the revolutionary consciousness they hope for. Salafist groups are beginning to make inroads in Gaza, as they have already done in Iraq, Lebanon and North Africa.
What will happen is far from clear. A return to the violent vanguardism of the 1960s and 1970s, detached from popular legitimacy and support, seems unlikely. More plausibly, moderate movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah will encourage popular resistance while also striving to maintain their political presence. Hamas’s armed resistance in Gaza to what they perceive as a Western campaign to depose them is an example of the way an Islamist movement can satisfy a radicalised constituency increasingly angry at American interference in their societies in the interest of what Hassan Nasrallah has termed the ‘Western project’.
One indication of what voters now want can be gauged from Nasrallah’s speeches. ‘In our region,’ he said in Beirut in March, ‘we witness the serious threat . . . presented by the US administration to achieve its scheme for the control of our resources, countries, decisions and destiny . . . Today we no longer hear talk about elections and democracy . . . They discovered that, if free and honest elections were to take place in the Muslim world, patriots who are hostile to US policy and who refuse to succumb to US hegemony will win in every country whether they are Islamists or not due to the general mood in the Islamic world.’ In other words, the test will be whether individuals and states acquiesce to US policy, or ‘refuse to succumb’.
The activities of the US are fundamental to the present crisis. Iraq continues to radiate instability and is exacerbating tensions between the Shia and Sunni everywhere. US and EU policy in Palestine and Lebanon is driving internal tension and polarisation, and the risk of conflict involving Iran and possibly Syria overshadows everything else in the region. In all, the Americans and Europeans are engaged in six internal conflicts in Muslim societies – in Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – in each case providing finance and weapons for one faction to use against another. As I write, Hizbullah is preparing for the possibility of renewed conflict with Israel, and Syria and Iran have also reached the conclusion that conflict is a real and imminent prospect, and are actively preparing for it.
When all parties begin to see conflict as inevitable, then the ‘inevitable’ becomes self-fulfilling. Americans are fond of comparing the situation in the region to the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism; but perhaps Europe in 1914 is a better metaphor: the situation is such that some small, unexpected autonomous event might trigger a sequence of events that even the great powers of the region could find it beyond their ability to control. In the past, after all, a car accident (in the case of the first intifada) and a cinema fire (triggering the Iranian revolution) have unleashed consequences that no one could have foreseen.
Israel, too, seems oblivious to its position. It believes that the Palestinian conflict can be sustained, and it continues to enjoy a growing economy and a healthy tourist trade. Israelis have arrived at a modus vivendi with their peculiar circumstances: life can go on, they sanguinely presume. In Failing Peace, which charts the psychological and human costs of occupation and prolonged violence, Sara Roy warns that
prior to Oslo there was a belief among Israelis that peace and occupation were incompatible but this has changed. In recent years more and more Israelis are benefiting from the occupation. Their lives, for example, have been facilitated by the vast settlement road network built in the West Bank and by an improved economy . . . hence, Israelis no longer feel uncomfortable with the occupation at a time when the occupation has grown more repressive and perverse. This contradiction is dangerous and unsustainable.
Roy’s warning is timely. Over the middle term it is possible to predict that a greater number of Palestinian citizens of Israel will become radicalised, as well as members of the Palestinian population as a whole. Israel’s ‘moderate’ friends among Arab leaders may disappear. It may also encounter Islamists not only in the Palestinian government, but at the Jordanian and Egyptian frontiers; and conflict with Iran, were it to occur, might finish up by sweeping away many of the region’s landmarks.
This prospect may not disturb the slumbers of the Europeans, who will dismiss it as alarmist, even if their record of reading events in the area has been less than inspired. But these are the scenarios that are being taken seriously by thoughtful Islamists in the region. We should hope – that may be all we can now do – that moderate Islamist movements manage to navigate these turbulent times, in spite of European attempts to prevent Islamism, which is clearly now the dominant regional current, from reshaping Middle Eastern societies. These attempts are opening space, not for the moderate pro-Western secularists whom Europeans seek to empower, but for those who believe that to build a new society you must first burn down the old one.
Alastair Crooke, who helped facilitate a number of ceasefires in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between 2001 and 2003, was a member of the Mitchell Commission on the causes of the second intifada and a special adviser to Javier Solana.
By Max Rodenbeck
Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East
by Nicholas Blanford
I.B. Tauris, 236 pp., $27.95
Hezbollah: A Short History
by Augustus Richard Norton
Princeton University Press, 187 pp., $16.95
Hizbullah: The Story from Within
by Naim Qassem
Saqi Books, 284 pp., $42.50
Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam Among Palestinians in Lebanon
by Bernard Rougier, translated from the French by Pascale Ghazaleh
Harvard University Press, 333 pp., $28.95
"This country is like a cake. On the top it is cream. Underneath it is fire." So a Hezbollah spokesman told me last June, speaking in the shabby Beirut apartment that served as the party's press office until an avalanche of Israeli ordnance leveled the building, along with the surrounding neighborhood, in the war that flared a few weeks later. Intimated as a bit of finger-wagging local wisdom, the clumsy metaphor seemed hackneyed at the time.
Yet it is true that while Lebanon whets appetites with its gorgeous landscapes, clement weather, energetic people, and wonderful food, trying to consume too much of it tends to bring on heartburn. Just ask the Ottoman Turks, the imperialist French, the US Marine Corps, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, or any number of Lebanese would-be overlords. The country's infernally complex ingredients seem chemically incapable of melding into a digestible dish.
This wedge of Mediterranean littoral may be densely crowded, yet close neighbors manage to live in very different worlds. A Beirut socialite's calendar this past season might, for instance, have taken in the abundance of pink cheeks daringly displayed at the annual catwalk for fancy lingerie on the ski slopes of Faraya, or the opening at Surface, a chic gallery in Christian East Beirut, of a startling exhibition by two young women artists titled "Erotika." Another must would have been the funeral of Alia Solh, the eldest daughter of Riad Solh, the first prime minister of Lebanon after it gained independence in 1943. One of five glamorous sisters who married well during the halcyon years before the 1975–1990 civil war, her obsequies, at the Solh mansion in Sunni West Beirut, drew a crush of luminaries from as far afield as New York, Paris, Riyadh, and Rabat, including Walid bin Talal, the billionaire Saudi prince, and Moulay Hisham, a cousin of the Moroccan king known for his liberal views.
Of course, should one not be part of Beirut's hedonistic and dauntingly branché elite, the calendar might have looked rather different. Bombed out of your cramped walk-up in the Shia southern suburbs during last summer's war, you may have moved into the sprawling tent city at Riad Solh Square in downtown Beirut. Erected in December by Hezbollah and its allies to shame the "collaborationist" government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora into quitting, the squalid encampment remains defiantly in place. You may have marched in the fervid, self-flagellating Ashura parades that on January 30 commemorated the martyrdom of the Shia hero-figure Hussein, or attended the angry funerals of the more recent Shia "martyrs" who were gunned down—not far from the Solh mansion—by suspected Sunni snipers during sectarian clashes earlier that month. (Or if you were Sunni, you might have joined the equally emotive memorial for two Sunni youths held in May, after they were kidnapped and executed in apparent vengeance.) But perhaps, if you have the misfortune to be one of 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees, you merely sit, jobless and anyhow barred, under Lebanese law, from most decent trades, in a cinderblock shack in one of the country's archipelago of little Gazas, dreaming of jihad.
It is easy enough to counterpoint the opulence and squalor, hope and despair that remain such close bedfellows here. It is far harder to untangle the network of shifting allegiances that make up the spider's-web-in-a-kaleidoscope of Lebanese politics. Differences between the eighteen sects that are formally recognized in the Lebanese constitution, which reserves political offices proportionally for representatives of different religious communities, form only part of the puzzle. Other elements include clan loyalties, class, historic alliances, ideological currents, the grievances of refugees from throughout the region, money interests, guns, and foreign intrigue involving everyone from the Vatican to the CIA and Mossad to the rival Shiite seminaries at Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran.
Scholarly attempts to clear this thicket are fraught with risks, starting with the fact that there is scarcely an overarching narrative on which enough Lebanese can agree to establish commonly accepted truths. Rather like in modern Italy, but more so, this is a place where achieving any sort of closure on important national traumas, such as the "Events" of 1975–1990—known to the rest of the world as the civil war—has proved dismayingly elusive. Historical happenings that elsewhere would be simple signposts on a recognized road become instead prisms, used to construct mutually negating paths.
Take the assassination of Riad Solh. Lebanese schoolbooks describe the Sunni leader at the time of Lebanon's independence from France in 1943 as a national hero. It is true that the National Pact of that year, a founding document of the new nation, owed much to a practical meeting of minds between Solh, by inclination a pan-Arab nationalist, and Bishara Khoury, a Maronite Catholic leader who advocated a more Mediterranean-oriented, Christian-flavored Lebanese republic. Their alliance was institutionalized by the fixing of a 6–5 Christian–Muslim ratio of parliamentary seats, and a division of key powers between a Maronite president (Khoury was the first) and a Sunni prime minister. Other sects, it was understood, would have their share at every rank in government, including the cabinet, under a system known as muhasasa, or apportionment.
That deal brought three decades of uneasy calm and rapidly rising prosperity as Lebanon—an island of relative democratic liberty amid a sea of coup-prone dictatorships—attracted capital and talent from across the region. Yet the ideological seam of Arabism versus Lebanese particularism eventually pulled apart. From the beginning, too, the distribution of powers among Sunnis and Christians chafed what was then the country's third-largest confessional group, the largely rural and marginalized Shia, for whom the topmost allotted post was speaker of parliament. It also annoyed the fourth-largest sect, the Greek Orthodox. Many were attracted to the quixotic vision of Antoun Saadeh, who founded a radically secular and socialist party that sought to incorporate Lebanon within a Greater Syria, along with Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Kuwait.
Following the failure of Saadeh's comically inept coup plot in 1949, he was tried for treason and shot. As Ghassan Tueni, the debonair, still-prolific, and politically active publisher of the Beirut daily An-Nahar, warned at the time, "They have made of him a great giant, stronger than Saadeh ever was, and have made him a martyr." Two years later, one of Saadeh's followers created another martyr by killing Riad Solh in revenge. To this day, members of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (which, ironically, was banned in Syria until last year) regard Saadeh as a hero and Solh as a villain.
Lebanon's political landscape is thickly littered with such controversial martyr-figures. One of them is Ghassan Tueni's own son, Gebran, whose car was blown off a mountain road by a powerful bomb in December 2005. Passionately opposed to Syrian interference in Lebanon, Gebran Tueni made a rousing call for national unity before a million-strong rally on March 14, 2005. It was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the so-called Cedar Revolution that convulsed Lebanon that spring, forcing Syria to end its three decade-long "peacekeeping" presence. Yet many Shias prefer to recall that Tueni once described Hezbollah's followers as mindless sheep.
Similarly, the passing of Pierre Gemayel, a young, right-wing cabinet minister and vocal critic of Syrian influence, who was gunned down on a Beirut street last November, was widely mourned, if only because the ill-fated Gemayel clan of Maronite Catholics has produced more than its share of martyrs. (His uncle was also assassinated.) But in some quarters of Beirut it was said that vengeance had been claimed for Gemayel's unwise public boast that while Muslims may have the quantity, "we" Christians have the quality.
Such examples may imply that Lebanon's troubles are simply sectarian. Yet the very precariousness of the balance, with Sunnis, Shias, and Christians each representing around a third of the population, plus memories of the civil war with its 150,000 dead, tend to dampen cross-religious strife. The most vicious political sniping often takes place within sectarian groups. Hezbollah's sharpest critics are, in fact, dissident Shias. And consider the comments made following Pierre Gemayel's death by Suleiman Frangieh, the current don of a rival, pro-Syrian Maronite clan. First insinuating that Gemayel was probably murdered by yet another right-wing Maronite party, the Lebanese Forces, Frangieh reportedly jeered at a visit paid by several widows of slain Christian politicians—including Gemayel's—to the eighty-seven-year-old Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir. Don't they have a man among them to send, he jibed, adding that the cleric probably got a hard-on.
Of all the modern martyrs to Lebanese politics, few achieved the stature and scale of influence, either in life or death, of the Sunni millionaire Rafik Hariri. Five times elected prime minister, Hariri stamped a personal style and vision on Lebanese society in the years following the end of the civil war in 1990. His efforts to rebuild the country justly earned him the title of Mr. Lebanon bestowed by Nicholas Blanford, a longtime correspondent in Beirut who has written a brisk portrait of the man's travails and legacy. The killing of Hariri, along with twenty-two others, in a huge blast on Valentine's Day 2005, stunned even the drama-inured Lebanese. Shattering fifteen years of relative calm, it provoked a wave of revulsion that was to radically alter the face of the country.
The son of a poor Sunni orange farmer, Hariri won a scholarship to the Arab University in Beirut and eventually, like so many Lebanese, sought his fortune abroad. Canny, hard-working, and disarmingly frank, he cashed in mightily on Saudi Arabia's 1970s oil boom, building a giant construction firm on a reputation for efficiency that drew him extremely close to the Saudi ruling family. In one oft-cited incident, he is said to have impressed a royal Saudi client by wheeling in jet aircraft engines to quick-dry the cement at one short-order palace. He was to leave to his heirs a globe-spanning business whose assets have been valued conservatively at more than $8 billion.
During the bleakest civil war years, Hariri spent prodigiously on his home country, clearing rubble-strewn roads, sending some 35,000 poor Lebanese students through college, and financing repeated attempts to staunch the bloodletting by brokering hostage releases and talks between rival militias. Finally, in 1989, Hariri's powerful Saudi patrons cajoled Lebanese politicians to attend a conclave at Taif, a mountain resort near Mecca, and effectively locked them in a room until they succumbed to a deal. The resulting Taif Accord updated the 1943 National Pact, reducing the powers of the Maronite presidency in favor of the Sunni premiership and Shia parliamentary speaker, and allotting parliamentary seats on a 1–1 Muslim–Christian ratio. Wartime militias were to be disbanded, but the principle of muhasasa was maintained.
This was hardly to everyone's liking. But the deal was backed by Gulf Arab money as well as by Syrian troops occupying the country (who had first entered Lebanon in 1976 to prop up flagging Maronite forces, then lingered until all the rival militias were exhausted); and it was supported by the understanding that Hezbollah would be allowed to continue harassing Israel (whose army had invaded in 1982 to wipe out the PLO, then lingered in occupation of the mostly Shia-populated South). With those advantages, the Taif Accord eventually stuck and Hariri himself became its political godfather, the deal-maker whose cheery persona, deep pockets, and diplomatic savvy held the place together.
First elected as prime minister in 1992, he held the job for most of the next thirteen years. Hariri's achievements were undeniable. At the civil war's end, Blanford writes, "the gaunt, pock-marked skeletons of [downtown Beirut's] once-graceful buildings looked as though they were suffering from some vile stone-eating leprosy." Ten years later such scars had been all but erased. The gutted city center, incorporated as a real estate development in which Hariri himself was the prime shareholder, had been recreated as a postmodern pastiche of tastefully restored and sparkling new buildings.
This and other big baubles came at a very high cost, not only in money as the national debt soared—from $1.5 billion when Hariri entered office in 1992 to $18 billion six years later—but in political capital as Hariri furiously bargained, compromised, and bribed to keep his detractors at bay. As Blanford quotes one Hariri admirer as saying, "He was a corrupter, rather than corrupt." Warlords, army officers, and Hariri cronies received choice slices of the pie: they were offered ministries to expand their powers of patronage, or granted lucrative business monopolies. Syrian officials were carefully cultivated with such gifts as choice properties or scholarships for their children. Syria's infiltration of the police and judiciary went unchecked, as did its arming of loyal Palestinian factions, and its backing of Hezbollah as a useful thorn in Israel's side.
By most accounts Hariri was unhappy with all this, but worked with the tools at hand. "Some of the people in my cabinet are criminals and should be in jail, but I can't do anything about it," he told Augustus Richard Norton, an American professor who has written an admirably concise and balanced primer on Hezbollah. Hariri's gamble was that with regional peace seeming likely with the Oslo process in the 1990s, a revived Lebanese economy could grow itself out of debt. Healthier revenues would strengthen the historically feeble central government. The combination of reduced international tensions and a more workable Lebanese state would obviate any excuse for Syria to linger, or for Hezbollah to maintain its unique status as an openly armed sectarian militia.
It seemed almost to be working, until the year 2000 brought a series of setbacks. Peace talks between both Israel and Syria and Israel and the Palestinians collapsed. Israel unilaterally withdrew from its "security zone" in southern Lebanon, leaving Hezbollah's guerrilla fighters to bask in glory. President Hafez al-Assad of Syria, a wily and brutal but patient and predictable operator, died, passing rule to his son Bashar, whose younger circle resented Hariri as too rich, too manipulative, and too friendly with Westerners such as the French president, Jacques Chirac (whose political career Hariri had supported since the 1980s by investing in ailing French companies and helping them secure contracts in Saudi Arabia). Then, when the new administration in Washington took office in 2001, it dismissed Middle Eastern peacemaking as a waste of time, adopting a belligerent tone toward Syria that pushed Damascus into a tighter embrace of Hezbollah and of the party's primary backer, Iran.
Lebanon's enforced calm began to look shaky. Out of latent nationalism, or pique at being cut out of spoils, critics of Syrian interference who had been quiescent after Taif began agitating for Syrian withdrawal. With Israel gone, taboos about questioning the need for Hezbollah's "resistance" militia lifted, even as Syria and Iran began supplying it with thousands of rockets. Syria's allies in Lebanon, led by President Emile Lahoud, a former general widely disparaged for his perpetual tan and rank loyalty to the Assads, grew increasingly obstructive of Hariri's growth-oriented policies. The economy slowed, foiling Hariri's hopes for debt relief even as his public began to blame him for rising prices, heavier taxes, and the widening gulf between rich and poor.
These tensions grew following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. To some, the demise of Saddam's regime happily augured a similar fate for Syria's Baathists, or at least a forced retrenchment that could free Lebanon from their clammy hold. Many of Hariri's political allies began, quietly, to align with America and with France, which saw Lebanon, with its Francophone traditions, as both a natural zone of influence and a means for coordinating policies with America following France's break over Iraq. Lebanon became one of the few places in the Middle East where the Bush administration's promotion of a "freedom agenda" gained wide public traction.
But other Lebanese factions, equally nationalist in their own eyes, drew starkly opposite lessons from the fall of Baghdad. Fused with pan-Arabist and Islamist versions of history, America's military intrusion onto Arab-Muslim soil furnished perfect evidence of a continued Western plot—of which Israel had already formed one chapter —aimed at weakening and exploiting the region. The imperative was to stop this from happening, by checking America's ambitions in Iraq, by supporting Syria, which had always posed as a bastion of Arabism, by retaining a deterrent against Israel, and by punishing would-be collaborators.
By late 2004, a confrontation seemed imminent. In early September France and America, perceiving a chance to prise Lebanon out of Syria's sphere, secured a Security Council resolution that demanded both the disarming of Hezbollah and the prompt holding of presidential elections to replace the unctuous Lahoud. Suspecting Hariri of having secretly lobbied for the resolution, Bashar al-Assad had called him to Damascus several days before the resolution was adopted and, a tearful Hariri told friends, threatened to "break Lebanon over his head" if he obstructed Lahoud's return to office. Rallying allies in Beirut, Syria forced a constitutional amendment through the parliament to extend Lahoud's term by three years, which passed the day after the UN resolution was adopted. Some MPs later explained that they, too, had received blunt threats. A further warning came in the form of a car bomb that badly injured Marwan Hammade, a Druze cabinet minister and close friend of Hariri's.
Shaken, Hariri voted reluctantly for Lahoud's extension in office. But soon after, finding Syria's allies blocking him at every turn, he resigned. By late 2004 Hariri found himself increasingly pulled toward outright opposition to Syria. With elections looming in the spring of 2005, his still-powerful political machine, bolstered by Western backing and amplified by his generous bankrolling of the press, turned its energy toward forging a broad alliance uniting Syria's increasingly numerous and outspoken enemies. In January 2005, Hariri told Syria's proconsul in Lebanon, General Rustum Ghazale, that he would choose his own candidates, rather than accepting Syrian nominations as in the past.
His death by a car bomb came a month later. Rather than thwarting the opposition alliance, the spectacular assassination speeded its success, uniting Hariri's Sunni constituency in outrage with the traditionally anti-Syrian Christians. Within a month, huge street demonstrations had shamed the pro-Syrian cabinet into resigning. Within another month, Syria had been forced to withdraw the last of its troops. Elections in the summer of 2005 produced a sweeping win for the Hariri machine, led now by his son Saad, in alliance with large Druze and Christian blocs. The cabinet it eventually formed, with Fouad Siniora, an economist and long-time Hariri henchman, as prime minister, comprised a careful balance, including representatives of Hezbollah and even associates of the widely loathed president.
By the end of that summer, the Syrian-installed heads of Lebanon's police and intelligence branches languished in prison, having been fingered by an ongoing UN probe into the Hariri assassination. For the first time in Lebanese memory, it looked as if justice might actually be served for a political crime. More than that, the ever-so-elusive hope of a regenerated, confessionally equitable, and truly independent Lebanon seemed suddenly possible.
Yet even at this moment of apparent triumph, dangerous cracks were appearing. Hariri's political heirs, now known as the March 14th alliance, sorely lacked a leader of his caliber. In haste to complete Syria's exclusion, they dismissed calls for electoral reform, running the vote under a Syrian-tailored system that Christians complained diluted their voice. They also alienated supporters by allying tactically with pro-Syrian Hezbollah, simply in order to thwart an emergent Christian block, known as the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which had formed around the figure of General Michel Aoun.
As commander of the rump national army toward the end of the civil war in the 1980s, Aoun had mounted a reckless challenge to Syria's then-tightening grip. The messy finale of his defeat, in 1990, saw some of the most destructive fighting of the war. Aoun fled into exile in France, returning, like Napoleon from Elba, during the spring of 2005. Exploiting his aura of resistance to Syria, as well as widespread suspicion among Christians of the Hariri camp, Aoun quickly gained a broad base of Christian support.
Underestimating his strength, the March 14th group declined to bring Aoun into the coalition. Even after his FPM won an estimated 60 percent of the Christian vote, Aoun's insistence on his "right" to a hefty quota of cabinet seats pushed the Hariri coalition to keep him at arm's length. Aoun now lost no opportunity to attack the government. He even swore to block moves to unseat President Lahoud, unless he were guaranteed the post for himself.
More immediately disturbing, March 14th leaders continued to be stalked by sporadic murder attempts. Car bombs killed Samir Kassir, a popular writer, and George Hawi, a former Communist Party leader, in June 2005. Minister of Defense Elias Murr survived another in July, and May Chidiac, a prominent television anchor, another in September. Gebran Tueni and Pierre Gemayel were not so lucky. All, incidentally, were Christians, Gemayel the son of a former Maronite president. Periodic pipe-bombings of Christian neighborhoods also served to keep tensions high.
Meanwhile, the UN investigation into Hariri's death began to alarm Syria, as progress reports noted the Assad regime's clear motive for doing away with Mr. Lebanon, and cited "converging evidence" of high-level complicity between Syrian intelligence officers, their Lebanese counterparts, and a network of radical Islamists known to have ties with Syria. At the request of the Lebanese government, the probe was extended to include later assassinations, with the clear implication that these were all related to a central purpose, the most obvious one being to stop Lebanon slipping out of Syria's orbit.
But the hardest crack to repair, and the easiest for Syria to exploit, grew out of Hezbollah, and particularly the party's adamant insistence on retaining its growing stock of arms. The Security Council demanded disarmament of all "militias," and most Lebanese would have liked to see Hezbollah tamed. But in a speech in May 2005 the party's soft-spoken and charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, ominously declared that he would "cut off any hand that reaches out to our weapons."
The Shia party's fierce attachment to the notion of perpetual "resistance" sprang partly from its origins in the darkest years of the civil war, when the impoverished Shia suffered more than other sects both because they had no militia, at first, to protect them, and also because they happened to lie in the path of Israel's frequent forays into South Lebanon. There was a strong ideological element, too, as Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's icy second-in-command and chief intellectual, makes clear in Hizbullah: The Story from Within, his own history of the group.
Qassem exalts the culture of martyrdom in almost fetishistic terms, citing a willingness to die as the ultimate weapon of the weak against the strong. Resistance to Israeli and Western plots to control the region, he declares, should be consecrated as "the foundation block for a society of forbearance that prides itself on its achievements and sacrifices, strengthening such resistance further and responding to it."
This is, in fact, the kind of Spartan society that Hezbollah has created in the zones under its control, which include large swathes of southern Lebanon, the eastern Bekaa Valley, and Beirut's densely populated southern suburbs. Built around a tight network of party-provided services, including television and radio, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other charities, it is an almost exclusively Shia world. The only element that provides wider appeal, for fellow Arabs and Muslims, is Hezbollah's determination to fight Israel to the bitter end. Hence, again, the attachment to arms, and the impetus to continue attacking Israel even after its abandonment of Lebanese territory.
It is for this reason, too, that Iran remains so closely linked to the protégé that it helped create in the 1980s. As a revolutionary regime that seeks to universalize its ideology, Shia Iran has used Hezbollah's appeal as a successful fighting force to enhance its own legitimacy among Sunnis, who make up 85 percent of the world's Muslims. With the government in Tehran apparently captured by hard-line ideologues following the election victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2005, and with Iran facing growing hostility from the West, the usefulness of Hezbollah has only grown.
The facts that Iran and Syria have been allies since the early 1980s and that both supply Hezbollah with arms are obvious reasons for the group to align itself, in local Lebanese politics, with pro-Syrian forces. But there is a broader rationale, as Qassem argues. Lebanon can never be neutral, he asserts. Its geography and politics impose two alternatives, allegiance either to Syria or to Israel. "It is natural of us to choose the former," he concludes.
Other Lebanese would dispute this Manichaean worldview. But as events were to make clear, Hezbollah had yet another reason to be touchy about its weapons. The militia had accumulated such a vast arsenal of rockets and sophisticated anti-tank gear, and built such an elaborate infrastructure of tunnels, shelters, and concealed positions, that it would, its leaders thought, have been a shame not to test these against the Zionist enemy.
Hezbollah could be confident that the Lebanese army, many of whose officers and men were in any case sympathetic to the party, was in no position to take on its better-armed, -trained and -motivated guerrillas. But Hezbollah, surprised by the anti-Syrian passion ignited by Hariri's killing, began to look politically and even culturally isolated. To other Lebanese, the aura of pride that surrounded the party after Israel's cut-and-run departure back in 2000 had worn off. Even among those who still identified Lebanon's fate with Syria's, there were many, especially Sunni Muslims, who questioned whether Hezbollah was simply a pawn in a bigger game between America and Iran, whose sacrifice would hurt the Lebanese.
But as pressure gathered to find some sort of compromise, with some suggesting the militia be redesignated a part of the army, Hezbollah played a political trump card. In February 2006 it forged a pact with General Aoun and his FPM. This marriage of convenience made even many of the general's own supporters gasp. Here, suddenly, was the loudest champion of Lebanon's independence, and a Christian to boot, joining forces with an Islamist ally of Syria and Iran. But the deal has proved oddly resilient, bolstered, grumble many Lebanese, chiefly by Hezbollah's support for Aoun's presidential ambitions in the upcoming presidential elections this fall.
It survived even last summer's war. Despite the fact that Hezbollah provoked the fighting with a raid that captured two Israeli soldiers, Israel's wildly disproportionate revenge rallied even many Christians to the party's defense. By the war's end, Prime Minister Siniora's government, which could do little more than appeal to its Western friends to intervene, and whose calls were ignored by a Bush administration intent on having Hezbollah clobbered, was seen by many Lebanese, and not just by Shias who bore the brunt of the destruction, as virtually a collaborationist regime. Hezbollah's forces were, of course, badly mauled in the war, and forced by the peace to withdraw from Israel's border. But the party had, in effect, relegitimized its guerrilla force, and subsequently gained points by mounting far more effective efforts at reconstruction than the state.
The intervening months have reinforced a seemingly intractable polarization between two powerful factions, each claiming to represent the will of the people. On one side stands the Western-backed Siniora government, holding most of the institutions of state and a slim parliamentary majority. On the other is the Hezbollah-led opposition, grouping a range of pro-Syrian parties with General Aoun's movement and President Lahoud. In sectarian terms, the division splits Christian Lebanon in half, and aligns the vast majority of Sunnis and Druze (who make up 5 percent of the population) against the vast majority of Shias.
Since November 2006, the opposition has denied the legitimacy of the Siniora government, on the grounds that the resignation of all the Shia members of Siniora's cabinet renders it in breach of muhasasa. The Shia speaker of parliament has refused to summon the legislature until such time as Siniora creates a "national unity" cabinet giving the opposition enough seats to veto legislation. This has blocked movement on key issues, most notably Lebanon's ratification of a UN plan to set up an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri and other assassinations. The government charges that this blocking is precisely Syria's objective; it dismisses the "national unity" idea as simply another way to achieve the same goal. This has blocked movement on issues ranging from electoral reform to improving conditions for Palestinian refugees. It was the Lebanese parliament's inability to ratify UN plans to create an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination that led to the Security Council's resolution on May 30, ordering the court to be set up. Stopping the tribunal is, in fact, the main aim of Syria and its proxies, the March 14th movement contends.
During the winter, Hezbollah and its allies sought to force a way through this logjam by means of mass protests. Highly organized as always, the party set up a tent city in front of Siniora's office. But when a day of strikes and civil disobedience in January quickly degenerated into ugly sectarian clashes, the opposition relented. Siniora's government has, in fact, proved tougher than its opponents expected. By most accounts it has actually won defectors, particularly from the Aoun camp, as ordinary Lebanese became weary of the uncertainty that now risks wrecking yet another summer tourist season. Yet neither side is strong enough to impose its will.
With President Lahoud's mandate expiring in the fall, Lebanese fear a constitutional vacuum, and perhaps even an eruption of general strife, unless a compromise candidate is found. Under the Lebanese system, presidents are chosen by parliament, not through a general election, and must be Maronite Christians. General Aoun could choose to jump camps, in the hope of being backed by the March 14th "pro Democracy" movement. Such a move would leave Hezbollah dangerously isolated. But the ruling group, and indeed many ordinary Lebanese, are wary of the general's maverick tendencies. Settling on an alternative may prove very tricky.
It was in this grim setting that the latest dramatic events erupted, this time in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli on Lebanon's northern border with Syria, where fighting in late May between the Lebanese army and a radical Sunni cult in the camp killed scores and wounded hundreds. The flare-up, the bloodiest internal strife since the civil war, was not unexpected. As Bernard Rougier points out in Everyday Jihad, his thorough and disturbing account of the spread of Salafist jihadism among Lebanon's persecuted Palestinians, the squalid camps are a perfect breeding ground for radical ideas.
Control of the country's twelve camps was once in the hands of the PLO. After the forced departure of Yasser Arafat in 1984, most fell under the sway of Syrian military intelligence, which Rougier asserts did much to fragment them politically and isolate them economically by sponsoring Lebanese laws that, among other things, ban Palestinians from owning property or holding white-collar jobs. Once much admired, the educational standard of the camps collapsed. As secular parties failed to bring improvements to their lives, or to their prospects for return to Palestine, youths abandoned them in favor of the more desperate, more encompassing, and currently more telegenic ideal of a pan-Islamic jihad.
Syria's withdrawal in 2005 created a dangerous security vacuum in the camps, which are barred to Lebanese forces under a 1969 agreement. Many Lebanese suspect that Syria, which is known to have sponsored jihadists in Iraq, continued to fund and arm operatives, setting them loose as saboteurs with the long-term aim of reasserting their own role as Lebanon's power broker. But with the global spread of jihadism, it was perhaps natural that foreign militants would gravitate toward Lebanon's camps as a haven and recruiting ground.
The emergence of the jihadist organization Fatah al-Islam at the Nahr al-Bared camp appears to have resulted from a mix of Syrian plotting and internal factors. Its leader arrived in Lebanon last year, armed with plenty of cash, after being released from a Syrian jail. Most of his several hundred followers came not from the camp but from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Syria, and elsewhere, often via the jihad-field of Iraq, yet another consequence of the Iraq war. Camp residents resented the intrusion and largely disliked the newcomers' rigid puritanism, but according to many accounts, they also admired the fighters for their zeal and experience fighting in Iraq.
It was a matter of time before the mix of Lebanon's own tense internal situation and such pockets of jihadism would explode. At the time of writing it was not clear if the battle would strengthen or weaken the Siniora government. Initially it united Lebanese, including Hezbollah, which may agree with the Salafists' aim of liberating Palestine but knows they regard Shias as heretics, and prefers itself to "own" the Palestinian issue in Lebanon.
But as civilian casualties rose, so did the chorus of counteraccusations between Lebanese factions. Hezbollah announced its opposition to the army raiding the camp, raising suspicions that it wanted neither to see the precedent of a militia being disarmed, nor to see the state gaining in stature. The government would have liked to exert its role as the legitimate defender of Lebanon, but with many civilians still trapped in the camp, the likelihood of a bloodbath raises the prospect of unrest spreading to other Palestinian camps. The only thing clear about this new conundrum, now piled atop so many others, was that for all its own fractious internal squabbles, Lebanon ultimately remains hostage to the regional ur-conflict over Palestine.
—May 31, 2007
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