Across the Border

Loubna El Amine

Samir Ayoub pulled his sister out of the burning car where her three daughters, Remas, Taleen and Layan, aged fourteen, twelve and ten, together with their grandmother, burned to death. The family had been driving to Beirut from their house in Blida, a village close to Lebanon’s border with Israel. They had gone back to pick up additional belongings for what now promised to be a long stay in Beirut. An Israeli airstrike hit their car as they drove through the village of Aynata. Ayoub, a local journalist, was driving ahead.

People from the south of Lebanon have fled north since the war on Gaza started. Many have family in the southern suburbs of Beirut but those areas were attacked by Israel in July 2006. Some people from Beirut are now renting apartments in the north of the country.

The leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, spoke on Friday, 3 November, to clarify whether the organisation would escalate and expand the war on Israel’s northern border. It was the first time he’d spoken in public since Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October. Nasrallah expressed restraint. The speech was mostly viewed as both anticlimatic and a source of relief. He did however announce the principle of ‘a civilian for a civilian’. Hizbullah responded to the killing of the three girls and their grandmother with a barrage of rockets on the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Shmona.

On Newshour on the BBC World Service before Nasrallah’s speech, a Middle East researcher was asked about public opinion in Lebanon regarding the possibility of war. He talked about wariness, resentment against Hizbullah and ‘signs of unhappiness’ even among Shi’as, the group’s traditional supporters. It isn’t difficult to believe that people do not want a war waged either from or on their country.

Signs of wariness have been expressed since the July war of 2006, when Hizbullah killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others, and Israel responded with airstrikes, a ground invasion, the destruction of a power station, a naval blockade and the bombing of Beirut airport. More than a thousand people were killed.

An online petition asking for Lebanon not to be dragged into the current war has received nine thousand signatures. Lebanon has been in crisis since 2019, when the economy started its extraordinary collapse, made worse by the Covid pandemic and the Beirut port blast of August 2020. On the evening news the other night, there was a report assessing whether the failing medical system could withstand a war with Israel.

There are around 200,000 Palestinian refugees still in Lebanon. They have no right to citizenship and are not permitted to work in many sectors of the economy. They are mostly confined to refugee camps. In August, there was fighting between rival factions in the biggest camp, Ain al-Hilweh, near Sidon.

And yet wariness about war in Lebanon does not take away from most people’s fundamental commitment to the Palestinian cause. Lebanon, like other Arab countries, got its independence, having revolted against the French mandate, just as the Palestinians were being forced off their land by Zionist militias, with support from Western powers. The sense that the anti-colonial liberation struggle in this part of the world was never fully completed is foundational to many of us who grew up there – disagree as we otherwise may about Lebanese politics and the role played in them by the West.

That originary injustice by the West, mixed with Islamophobia and racism towards Arabs, lingers. The feeling of injustice is only aggravated by the West’s inability to condemn Israel or to acknowledge Palestinian suffering. It is also aggravated by the insistent reduction of the Palestinian cause to questions about Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran and authoritarian Arab regimes.

My parents bought a small piece of land in the south after the area was liberated from Israeli occupation in 2000. The first storey of the house had been built by July 2006 and escaped destruction. The second storey was built the following year. They planted mulberry, pomelo, apple, olive and jasmine trees. This summer, their six grandchildren splashed in paddling pools in the backyard, fed the chickens, and ran to the gate at the sound of the ice cream truck.

Official history textbooks in Lebanon stop in 1943 because people cannot agree on one version of the history that followed. They do not agree on the causes of the civil war from 1975 to 1990, or on what role various foreign forces, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation, played in it. But there is widespread agreement about the atrocities committed by Israel, including in Lebanon. There is also widespread agreement that the Palestinians have been denied freedom and the right to a dignified life in their homeland.