Robert Fisk: Were it not for the French, Hezbollah would all be Syrians fighting on their own government’s side inside their own country

And you thought the Middle East was a difficult place to understand. Try living here

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Borders are becoming a bit odd in the Middle East. They always have been, of course. Ever since Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot – the latter a former French consul in Beirut, by the way, who cost a lot of brave Lebanese their lives by his carelessness in sealing their anti-Ottoman letters behind an embassy wall – divvied up the Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, etc, one lot of Arabs (or their grandchildren) found themselves living as hated refugees not many miles from their original homes, cursed and spat at and sometimes killed by another lot of Arabs who turned out to be – much to their own surprise, in some cases – Lebanese or Syrians.

Then we come to the question of a state called Israel which exists in a land that was called Palestine, 22 per cent of which – and the percentage is growing smaller by the day – is supposed to be called “Palestine”. Well, maybe.

Which brings me to the point. For last week, the Strategic Affairs Minister – is there any other nation on earth which has such a ministry, I ask myself? – of Israel, warned Lebanon that it must prevent Hezbollah (Iranian-armed, Syrian-supported, you know the usual and true clichés) from attacking Israel in reprisal for Israel’s attack on a weapons convoy – an attack which, as is often the case, Israel didn’t actually admit to having carried out.

So let’s get this straight. And I start with a weird quotation from the Reuters news agency. “Israel warned Lebanon Friday to prevent a Hezbollah [sic] retaliation for an alleged [sic] Israeli air strike on a site used by the party on [sic] the Syrian border.”  What? Reuters editors had hit a factual problem, of course. The Israelis didn’t actually admit that they had bombed the weapons inside Lebanon, so the agency had to fudge the strike which Israel had not admitted to staging – Israel’s confirmation being needed for any statement of fact in the Middle East – while at the same time referring to the air strike which hundreds of Lebanese in the Bekaa Valley had actually witnessed as “alleged”.  Oddly, even Hezbollah didn’t admit this in the beginning. No problem, I suppose, if the air raid had been staged inside the Syrian border – like another three such attacks, also unconfirmed by the Israelis. 

But let’s get back to Yuval Steinitz – the aforesaid Israeli minister – who claimed that “it is self-evident that we see Lebanon as responsible for any attack on Israel from the territory of Lebanon”. Israel, according to the same Reuters report, has promised to destroy “thousands” of residential buildings that it claims Hezbollah uses as bases. This is even more odd. For many years – and I have been a witness to five of these wars, although Israel claims only to have fought three of them – I have seen thousands and thousands of “residential” buildings blown to bits by Israel which were not Hezbollah bases. So is Mr Steinitz actually being more restrained than his predecessors? Is he saying that Israel may attack only those residential buildings that Hezbollah is using – and not any other residential buildings that may be in the area? If, of course, Hezbollah retaliates for the Israeli air raid that may – or may not – have happened? And just to finish with the crazed editors at Reuters, the agency report has one more wonderful line which I must share with you.  “Israel is technically at war with Lebanon and Syria.” Well, blow me down!

A picture taken from the Lebanese village of Adaysseh shows Israeli soldiers patrolling along the Israeli-Lebanese border on January 20, 2014. (Getty ImageS)
So back to borders. There were, many decades ago, several villages in Lebanon which the French handed over to the Brits – when the Brits ran “Palestine” and the French controlled Lebanon and Syria (Lebanon being a part of Syria until the French chopped it off as a useful ally for future years). A lot of Lebanese, born into the Ottoman Empire, therefore woke up one morning and found they were no longer Lebanese – but Palestinian. And when the Israelis arrived in Galilee and did a spot of ethnic cleansing (see the work of that fine Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, among others), some of these former Lebanese – but now Palestinian – folk were murdered. The rest were thrown out of Israel (formerly Palestine) and into Lebanon – where most of them were born – as refugee Palestinians.  A few years ago, they were actually given Lebanese passports – so they knew at last that they were no longer Palestinians.

There can’t be many still alive, although – if they had driven a few miles north of their present homes in Lebanon last week – they might have witnessed the air raid on Lebanon which was only “alleged” to have happened, thus observing an attack by a country which expelled them from “Palestine” to a country they had actually been born in, an air assault which may not have actually happened because the country they were not born in did not claim that it had actually attacked the country of which they are now (again) citizens.

And you, Readers, thought the Middle East was a difficult place to understand. Try living here. 

Well, let’s get back to Syria for a moment.  As you know, there’s been a civil war going on there for more than two years. Hezbollah is fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s government – a heinous offence in the  eyes of the Western governments which allowed France to chop Lebanon off from Syria after the First World War. Had the French not done so, of course, Hezbollah would all be Syrians fighting on their own government’s side inside their own country and would thus not have offended us by crossing the border which we Westerners created against the wishes of their grandfathers. And in which case, the Israelis would not have to warn Lebanon about Hezbollah reprisals for an air raid which might – or might not – have been made on Lebanon by Israel but which would – if we hadn’t created Lebanon – have been the fourth attack of its kind by Israel on Syria, always supposing that Israel “acknowledged” that it had attacked Syria in the first place.

Over to you, folks!

The good guys and the bad guys are interchangeable

Dictators go on forever. Let’s start with Abdelaziz Bouteflika who plans to stand for his fourth presidency of Algeria. Jolly good, too. The latest edition of Jeune Afrique – which you absolutely must read if you want to understand the Maghreb – carries a fascinating interview with a much younger man who calls himself “Nabil”, who was, so he says, a member of the revolutionary Islamists who fought the regime during the 1990s war.

Under a government amnesty, he ate “couscous” with his intelligence officer enemies, persuaded his former comrades to surrender – but then discovered that some of them were billionaires.

Funny how wars end with the good guys becoming the bad guys (or vice-versa, depending on your point of view).

“Nabil”, I have to add, ended his struggle with “empty pockets”.

Bouteflika, they say in Algiers, doesn’t know which day of the week it is. Which would you prefer?

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