Seymour Hersch from the New Yorker

Paul Lipitiz – Hebrew University, Jerusalem (Sociology)


In 1982, while serving in the Israeli Army, I was an uninvited guest in Lebanon. It was a remarkable experience and encouraged me to closely follow the events of that sad country.

Our unit was based near the southern Shiite city of Nabatiye. I became friends with a lovely local Shiite family which owned a small grocery store near our base. We had many long conversations about the dilemmas facing Lebanon and how it might be possible to move forward to a more peaceful environment. On my return from a weekend leave in Israel, the family expressed much concern about my wellbeing and they were upset by the possibility of our transport having been attacked by the Lebanese to or from home.

I also had contact with a delightful Maronite intelligence officer who maintained that, with the complex religious internal make-up of Lebanon, and the involvement of foreign forces, there would never be peace.

The challenges facing this country of some 4 million people are mind boggling. I, like many Israelis, are petrified by a repeat of the earlier Israeli involvement from 1982 to 1990. On the other hand, if the present round of fighting ends with no clear and concrete gains, and ongoing Hezbollah attacks on our civilian population, then we will find ourselves in never-ending conflict. We are reminded of the saying “where fools rush in” and yet, “to just wander out” has no value.
Permit me to attempt to clarify the realities of contemporary Lebanon and to make some tentative suggestions on how to move forward to a better future.


1)      Lebanon  resembles Yugoslavia- a country where group identity surpasses national loyalty. Modern nationalism demands a collective acceptance of certain rules of the game and if local needs are placed above collective gains, a nation state has little chance of survival.

2)      Some 60% of all Lebanese are sometimes defined as “Muslim”. However, this figure includes Sunnis, Shiites and Druze- three very different components. Each has its own history and memory, its own anger and hopes. Within each section there are significant tensions and it is rare for any group to unite for an extended period of time.

3)      Many of the Shiites (some 32% of the population) are fervent supporters of Hezbollah, or Amal. They clearly see themselves not merely as Lebanese, but rather as participants in the global Islamic fundamentalist movement against Israel, Jews, the West, Christians and Arab governments. They are supported by Shiite Iran and Alawi-dominated Syria [an offshoot of the Twelver Shia]

4)      About 40% are Christians ­ divided into some 12 sub-factions. The Maronite Christian President Emile Lahud has become a symbol of division, having extended his presidency over the accepted 6 year period, and is clearly pro-Syrian.

5)      Frequent  assassinations have seriously damaged the structure of the country. The most renowned is the tragic killing of the Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, probably by Syria. In addition, some 20 other central figures have been assassinated, most of them with Syrian involvement. The Hariri assassination triggered strong anti-Syrian feelings in Lebanon and forced it to withdraw its armed forces. However, effective intelligence units remain.

6)      Syria’s role in Lebanon has been a major factor in the latter’s internal turmoil. While it claims to have been invited into Lebanon, it has exploited its position in a most destructive manner. Syria gained both in terms of prestige and financially. Marginalized by events in the Middle East, it showed its professed power by dominating that small country and by ensuring employment for some 1 million Syrians (Middle East Quarterly Fall 2005).

7)      Iran, a major threat to the western world, gains immeasurably by the crises of Lebanon. This is the arena where Iranian power can be effectively displayed and every Hezbollah victory is perceived as an Iranian achievement. President Ahmadinejad craves for turmoil as a means to show the world that he is as central in the global arena as George Bush. He is committed to returning Islamic pride and honor to 1.3 billion Muslims.

8)      The wider Arab world finds itself in a Catch -22 situation. While many of them have little love for Israel, a perceived Hezbollah victory would have negative consequences for the established leadership. The growth of fundamentalism threatens Arab governments and could cause serious regional instability, with problematic consequences for the global community.

9)      Israel, a sovereign state, cannot allow its soldiers to be kidnapped and citizens threatened. A major explanation for the present crisis is the perception by the Arabs of a weak Israel. If Israel “showed restraint” every time the Palestinians attacked Sderot and Ashkelon, they were convinced that a Hezbollah victory would be easy. However, no country in the world can allow the aggressive actions of an external body to go unchallenged. There are numerous examples of this. Towards the end of the Second World War the Allies smashed German cities and the United States used 2 nuclear bombs against Japan. President Kennedy’s actions against Cuba during and after the missile crisis, were accepted at being defensive and permissible.


1)      In the Middle East, perception is often more important than reality. This tragic war cannot end with Israel being seen as weak. This may extend the conflict, but it has vital implications for the future. Any Israeli failures will encourage Iranian action, and one cannot ignore the dangers of Iran’s long distance missiles, not only as a threat to Israel, but also to Europe.

2)      The demand for the withdrawal of the Hezbollah to the Litani River does not solve the problem. However, if there is a demilitarized zone, it at least increases Israel’s ability to defend itself.

3)      An international armed force in southern Lebanon is vital. However it has to have real teeth, with a crystal clear mandate that if it does not fully carry out its mission, Israel will be legally permitted to defend itself militarily. This point is complicated by the justified Israeli suspicion of international peace-keeping activities in general and Kofi Annan in particular. The failure of the U.N. to implement the Security Council Resolution 1559 to dismantle militias does not bode well for the Middle East or the world. If the Lebanese Government manages to take over full sovereign control, that would clearly even be a more advantageous.

4)      In the final analysis, 58 years of Israeli history prove more than anything else-the need for a strong Israel. A stable country is to the advantage of its citizens and the region. It is in the front line in the global battle against Islamic fundamentalism (which has only just started its long destructive path). Israel must do everything to leave Lebanon soon, while at the same time retaining the right and ability to defend itself at every stage.

Today, the picture is truly bleak. The road to peace is long and tortuous. I wonder when, and if, I’ll have the chance to meet that Shiite family in Nabatiye and my Maronite friend.

Paul Liptz



July 27, 2006