DESPAIR OR HOPE?

In this excerpt from Tragedy in South Lebanon: The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006 I discuss the importance of looking at both sides. Too often, especially in the Western media, we hear only one side of a conflict. It takes two parties to create a conflict, therefore, there are always two sides.

Israel’s paranoia and sense of insecurity is, to some extent, justified. Given the less than desirable outcome of its with Hezbollah in 2006, the real or perceived threats from Syria and an emerging Iran, it is understandable from an Israeli point of view that the State of Israel would feel the need to attempt once again to redefine its military deterrence, to definitively crush Hezbollah and establish a permanent presence in South Lebanon.

The people of South Lebanon, for their part, feel incredibly burdened by the constant threat emanating from Israel on the other side of their border. They still reel from the injustices inflicted on them by Israel’s twenty-two year occupation when they saw their lives, their freedoms and basic human rights trampled on without so much as a yawn from the international community. In 2000, when the Israeli public finally demanded that their troops come home, the Lebanese knew that it was not because of the immorality of brutally occupying two hundred thousand of their people. The protests, led mostly by women, focused exclusively on the blood of Israeli soldiers spilled in Lebanon in vain. Nothing would have been more important, of course, to an Israeli mother, sister or wife than their loved ones’ lives, just as nothing is more important to a Lebanese mother, sister or wife from South Lebanon than the lives of their loved ones who steadfastly defend their villages.

The Israeli government casually talks of establishing a security zone in South Lebanon as though no one lives there. Such talks by their leaders leads the average Israeli to believe that South Lebanon is a land of bloodthirsty Shiite terrorists, intent on destroying Israel, and so it is justifiable to ethnically cleanse the area to safeguard Israel’s northern border. It is a modern-day version of Chaim Weizmann’s “a land without people for a people with land” theme all over again.

The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war produced no clear winner. Lebanon is a bitterly divided between the March 18 pro-Hariri-Saudi Arabia camp and the March 8th Hezbollah-Christian coalition. Israel fares no better with its hollow extreme-right leadership itching for another war. I saw this first hand when I was in Beirut last month. Every single day Israel threatened to bomb Lebanon back to the stone-age. There was no provocation from Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese board, yet Israel presumed the right to threaten to re-define, yet again, its military deterrence and destroy Hezbollah.

These sad truths stated, how difficult would it really be to promote peace as an option to war and make it work? This question prompted me to revisit something I wrote in my memoir A Beirut Heart about a real possibility of peace in the Middle East, if only its leaders would oblige. The particular scene takes place in 1976. Civil war is raging in Beirut and my family and I had just escaped on an apple boat to Syria. Upon landing in the seaport of Lattakia, my husband Michel was unexpectedly detained. During his interrogation his Syrian guards questioned him not about the supposed charges against him but about Israel. They wanted to know about Israeli technology and what kind of products they made, whether or not America supplied Israel with all its weapons or if the Israelis manufactured their own. Did Israel really have the best hospitals in the Middle East? The mother of one soldier needed open heart surgery. “How wonderful it would be,” he said, “if I could get into my car and drive my mother to Israel for treatment.”

Even after living the past thirty-one years in tranquil Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I still reflect on and appreciate how wonderful peace could be, if allowed to happen. Given that this is a very remote possibility, all I can do is write about the horrors of war so that our collective national memory can never say “We didn’t know.” I can bring to light the voices of the ordinary people in Bint Jbeil, in Beirut, in Gaza and the West Bank, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, who scream, “Stop these horrors. We want to live in peace.”

Israel has invaded South Lebanon four times. Hezbollah was a natural outgrowth of Israel’s twenty-two year illegal occupation. These details are too often left out of the discourse in American journalism. My third book Tragedy in South Lebanon gives a thorough historical overview of the relationship between the two countries. The book also includes a Timeline from Ancient Times to the Present plus a cast of characters, places and events which help the reader better understand the history of the region.

This book is available for purchase here.

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UNABLE TO GO BACK HOME

In this excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War the children and I have packed our bags and are ready to leave for the airport to return to Beirut. The telephone rings and our plans are suddenly altered.

On the morning of September 1, 1983, I arose early, too excited to stay in bed. Our bags were packed and the children and I were going home, scheduled to fly Middle East Airlines that evening from JFK back to Beirut through Paris.

Around noon Michel called. Instantly I knew from the sound of his voice that something was wrong, that perhaps someone had died.

“You can’t come home, Cathy,” he said. “It’s started again.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, sinking slowly into the armchair near the telephone, as my legs turned to rubber. I knew what he was going to say.

“The war, it’s started again.”

“We just spoke two days ago and everything was fine. What happened?”

“The Israelis abruptly pulled out of the Chouf Mountains and the whole thing flared up again. It is unbelievable. This is the worst it has ever been. The bombing has been going on now for two straight days. There’s no end in sight.”

“I’m going to call the airline to see if…”

“Cathy, listen to me. They’ve canceled all flights. Its planes are grounded. You’ve only been gone two months and already you’ve forgotten? When bombs are falling, planes don’t fly in and out of here.”

I tried to sound reasonable. “Then what should we do?”

“From the looks of things, you’ll have to stay there,” he said. “Maybe you should put the children in school. Call my brother. See what he suggests.”

“This is all too much. I can’t think right now. I’ll have to call you back.”

I had no time to collect my thoughts; no time to sound like an adult in front of my teenage children. They could tell from the tone of my voice that something had gone terribly wrong. A large double window looked out on woods and green grass with patches of red salvia, yellow roses and purple veronica. I wanted to be down there. I wanted to go for a long walk, maybe even walk away to some distant place, anywhere so I would not have to be in this room at this moment and say what I had to say.

My children understood the part about remaining in America temporarily, but they objected to the rest.

“No!” Naim shouted. “I know what you’re going to say. It has something to do with starting school here, right? Don’t say another word. We are not going to school here.”

“It could be weeks, maybe months before we can…”

Naim cut me off. “So what?” he cried, his voice cracking.

Suddenly, like the time she shot out of the murky river after falling overboard from the canoe, Nayla cried out, “Oh please, Mommy, please don’t make me go to school here.”

The terror in her voice was like a knife cutting into my heart and I sobbed. And the young boy who had spoken so offhandedly about bombs tearing up roads behind him, about Palmyra and the underground prison his father almost landed in, and about the dead bodies in the street, was crying too.

I had no time to grapple with the intricacies of an indefinite stay in the States. I had to decide as quickly as possible on a course of action. I knew two things: we could not live with my parents in their small apartment, and the school year had already begun.

We moved to Boston to be near Michel’s brother, Jacques and his family. While there Michel sent me a sketch of himself. The white paper was blank, except for a small square cage in the far right-hand bottom corner of the page. ‘Me’ was printed next to it. In my mind I saw him constantly. He was crossing the Ministry of Justice intersection on his way to the hospital when his car stalled, and a sniper killed him. Or he was walking our dog. Foxy, when the bombs began to fall, and both of them were hit and lay bleeding in the street. Or he was upset and yelling at a militiaman blocking the road and the man walked over to his car, pulled him out and beat him senseless. There was no limit to the ways I saw my husband die.

Our lifeline to him was every Saturday morning. The three of us gathered around the phone. All eyes were on me as I dialed his number. My hands shook as I waited for him to answer, to say hello to reassure us that he was well. We cried when we heard his voice.

This book is available for purchase here.

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SHATILA REFUGEE CAMP, BEIRUT, LEBANON

The Palestinian/Israeli crisis is not specific to Israel/Palestine. The refugee crisis and the Occupation affects hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who linger in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Parts of this piece are taken from my book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides.

I write from Beirut where I am visiting the Shatila Refugee Camp, site of the 1982 massacre of some 2,500 Palestinian civilians. While Shatila is some distance from Palestine and is not under Israeli occupation, its plight is no less stark. Under deplorable, overcrowded conditions in cinder-block units, piled helter-skelter, one atop another with no heating, proper windows or doors to ward off the frigid rainy winters; with an inadequate sewage system, staggeringly high unemployment, one free medical clinic, no hospital and insufficient primary and secondary schools to cope with the ever-growing population—the residents, some of whom have lived there since 1948, are generous, warmhearted, feisty and tenacious. They work tirelessly for the overall good of the camp and are an example of discipline and determination.

The residents of Shatila know the names of their home villages in what is now Israel. On May 15th they marked the 67th year of their exile in what Palestinians call the Nakba—the Catastrophe.

I lived in Beirut from 1969 to 1984. When the Lebanese war began in April 1975, my neighborhood, on the Green Line, was shelled by Palestinian-led forces. Their snipers fired on my children. In 1982, I witnessed the Israeli invasion and saturation bombing of Beirut and stood silent during those infamous September days when Christian militiamen entered Shatila Refugee Camp to slaughter Palestinian civilians. Our apartment was but a few blocks from the camp. Some of those militiamen were neighbors. That massacre marked the beginning of my political epiphany, the day I began to recognize a people both manipulated and abandoned by their leaders, a people who still live in squalid conditions both inside Sabra in Beirut and under Israeli occupation in Palestine. Since that time I have authored four books. My memoir A Beirut Heart shares my experiences during my time in Lebanon.

Through my writing and activism, I became acquainted with Interfaith Peace Builders, a Washington, D.C. based NGO which leads delegations to Israel-Palestine to meet with peace activists from both sides. Their delegations provide an in-depth look at the situation on the ground which helps each delegate come away not only as eye-witnesses but as first-hand experts. I have co-led three of their delegations and accompanied an IFPB delegation to the Gaza Strip in 2012.

I was invited to sit on IFPB’s Board of Directors four years ago, and will assume the responsibility of Chair in June. It is a privilege and an honor to be part of an organization, unique in the movement, that offers its delegates not only the opportunity to witness first-hand the Occupation, but that also supports their peace building efforts in their own communities by coaching them in writing editorials, giving radio and television interviews, scheduling speaking engagements, and more. As Interfaith Peace Builders approaches its 15th year, the impact of our work grows exponentially. In 2015 we took our 1000th delegate and celebrated 50 delegations. IFPB inspires new activists and contributes to the growing global movement for peace with justice. Help us continue to grow so that we may someday, together with the residents of Shatila and Palestinians everywhere, share a future of hope and peace.

This book is available for purchase here.

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