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Lebanon Is an Old, Complex Conflict

The most important news story in the world right now is taking place in several dozen square kilometers of land between the ancient cities of Tyre and Haifa. In this patch of soil, already saturated with the blood of generations, the Israeli military is wrestling with the militia of Hezbollah, the Shiite religious organization that runs southern Lebanon.

Contrary to the oversimplifications of President Bush, this is a monumentally complicated struggle, fraught with intrigues and histories on all sides. To help me understand matters better, I got in touch with someone who knows Lebanon from the inside. I called my friend and former colleague at The Ledger, Pierre Tristam, who is now a columnist and editorial writer for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and a blogger par excellence.

(Most of what Tristam told me, and much more, can be found on his insightful and entertaining blog, "Candide's Notebooks" [www.pierretristam.com], which I highly recommend.)

Tristam is Lebanese by birth, and his family lived in Beirut until the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s drove them out. He was 13 when he left his native land.

For a long time, Lebanon was ruled by Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians, he told me. The Shiites, who lived in the south, had little political or social status. Hezbollah, in those days, didn't exist. It was the product of the vacuum left by the chaos of the civil war and ascendant Shi'a religious identity, projected by the revolution in Iran of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

"It gave them an identity they didn't previously have. They said, `Now we matter,' " Tristam said.

Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon helped cement the organization. Hezbollah used the age-old strategy of guns and butter.

"They managed to turn the Israeli occupation to their advantage by playing the role of resisters," he said. "Just like the Cubans and the Taliban, they tried to buy people's affections by providing services."

Tristam is not a fan of Hezbollah, which means "Party of God" in Arabic but which he called "Party of Goons" in a recent column. His family is Maronite and was part of the secular, cosmopolitan culture that once made Lebanon a favorite destination for European tourists, celebrities and businessmen. He recounted his last trip there in early 2000 and the shock he received at visiting southern Lebanon, which more closely resembled one of the neighboring "I went as far south as Tyre and Baalbek. And I said to myself, `This isn't Lebanon.' It felt like a different place. There were pictures of Khomeini and

(Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah. There were inflammatory billboards. And there was a road sign that said `Compliments of the Republic of Iran,' " he said.

Most Lebanese feel a similar antipathy, he said, especially after Hezbollah tried to thwart the "Cedar Revolution" of 2005 that ousted Syrian troops from the country.

"In Lebanese eyes, they lost a huge amount of points. They were seen as a big blockage on the way to a truly free Lebanon."

The most recent crisis was provoked by Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers, an act Tristam called "inexplicable except as a provocation." But he also has harsh words for Israel's airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians and inflicted considerable damage on Lebanon's infrastructure in the north. In one posting on his blog, he called the attacks "indistinguishable from war crimes," and they are making things worse, in his view.

Many Lebanese see the bombing of the Beirut airport, for example, as a way for Israel to steal the tourist trade away from Lebanon -- a cynical perspective, he admits, but a perception nonetheless. In any event, Tristam is not optimistic about the immediate future.

"The Israelis say they're going to destroy Hezbollah, but it's more likely they've strengthened their hand, at least as an identity group. And in the Middle East," he added, "an identity group is the last thing you want to strengthen."

© 2006 The Ledger /Reproduced with permission

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