Icarus: is Lebanon’s Golden Resilience Weakening?

A millennia ago, the Middle East and its great cities such as Baghdad and Damascus were at the forefront of innovations that came to define the modern world. With their foundations rooted in learning, tolerance and trade, the Arab Caliphates pioneered numerous crucial inventions ranging from algebra to surgery. Nowadays, it seems that little remains of this romanticism. Instead, the Arab states have descended into a modern tragedy: endless waves of unrest, fighting for democracy and the desperate wish for peace are met with war, empty promises and the failure to generate wealth.

Smoke rises from shelling by the Israeli army towards the Lebanese Kfar Shouba hills near the Lebanese-Israeli border, southern Lebanon

This does not necessarily apply to Lebanon. Or at least so it seemed. Fifteen years of civil war resulted in a 30-year Syrian occupation of most of the country, as well as Israeli control over its Southern part until 2000. Since then, Lebanon managed to stabilise itself in a semi-democratic state with comparative political freedom, tolerance and wealth. Its people are educated and businesses have found ways to avoid governmental uncertainty, corruption and electricity blackouts. Lebanon’s free market economy and strong laissez-faire commercial tradition mean that where the state fails to provide services, entrepreneurs fill the gap. In parallel, Beirut flourished into a social hub for the less conservative Muslims of the region to enjoy their perceived Western idea of lavish extravaganzas and parties.

Nonetheless, Lebanon seems to have been flying too close to the sun: the central government is unstable. It is a country, like many in the region, which has a characteristic sectarian mélange of Sunni, Shia and Christian interests; with their own virtues and their vices. Religion continues to divide the nation’s interests and keep it from achieving its overarching goals of stability, democracy and social freedom. Lebanese Sunnis supported their Syrian co-believers against the Assad regime, whilst their Shia counterparts support Mr Assad’s rule, some of them endorsing the Hezbollah’s joining the war in aid to the Syrian president.

Between October 4th and 6th, the Shia Islamist militant group clashed with the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, which operates in Syria and Lebanon. A day later, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters detonated a bomb on the ceasefire line at the border with Israel, wounding two Israeli soldiers and receiving artillery fire in response. Lebanese bystanders stated witnessing approximately 30 shells falling in the vicinity of the artillery.. After the Israel-Hezbollah ceasefire in 2006 they attempted to keep the border calm amid chaos across the region,. The explosion was thus much unexpected

Despite the 2006 ceasefire, Hezbollah has authored, and subsequently denied, several rocket attacks against Israel in years since. According to experts at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the Hezbollah assuming of responsibility of the attack sends a clear message that the group is seeking “to re-establish the rules of the game” and “to warn Israel not to exploit what it may see as Hezbollah’s weakness”. Hezbollah explained that the attack was carried out by the “Hassan Ali Haidar unit”, named after a group member killed on September 5th by an Israeli listening device he attempted to dismantle.

The continuum of vengeful deaths lies at the heart of much of the region’s conflicts. Many do not only fight for their country, but their brothers, their friends, and their families. Islam places the utmost importance on family relationships and the protection of home and community. Too many have fallen victim to their dangerous environment and have had to flee, seeking help with little to offer in return. The idea of no secure alternative home and the loss of those loved ones play a significant role in the emotional side of war and unrest.

That said, Lebanon’s future is one tethered by its history and endangered by its neighbours. The Arab state has gone through its own phases of hopeful, yet fruitless revolt. The Cedar Revolution of 2005 brought approximately a quarter of the country’s population to the streets, toppling the government in power and forcing President Bashar Assad to withdraw his “peacekeepers”. Yet, less than a decade later, Syrian-backed parties dominated Lebanese politics once again. A total of over 1 million Syrian refugees have fled across the border since the beginning of the 2011 Syrian Conflict, and continue to be met by resentment by their host. Out of the country’s 1108 municipalities, 45 have imposed curfews on refugees, according to Human Rights Watch.

The relationship between the three neighbouring nations is complex. Most Lebanese would love to see the end of Syrian involvement in their national affairs, however they grudgingly turn to Syria for protection and patronage against al-Qaeda divisions. Al Manar, a Hezbollah channel, stated that the militant group detonated the explosive device in Shebaa Farms, an area Syria claims ownership of, but that Lebanon considers occupied by Israel. Israel captured the area in the 1967 war and later annexed both regions in a move not recognised by the United Nations. Prof. Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University considered the attack as a message to deter Israel and not as an indication of future violent confrontation with a clear goal. “This was a pinpoint attack, and Israel responded in a pinpoint fashion. This is not the opening of a new front,” he told the New York Times.

Perhaps of most significance is the sharp decline in support and popularity for Hezbollah in the Arab world. Its defence of Lebanon against Israel in the 2006 war was welcomed by many other Muslim states until the group’s goals ceased to be the defence of its country’s people but the elimination of its country’s enemies. However development and gender-related progress are slowly being implemented way in the Middle East. For instance, the United Arab Emirates announced in September that Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri would lead the airstrike against ISIS as the first female fighter pilot, despite Saudi pressures and influences in the UAE.

It is this almost paradoxical nature of Lebanon that balances the surrounding chaos and the potential for great development to the path toward democracy; even though the tacit pact underpinning the country’s mostly genteel and intermittent resilience is yet to be examined.

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