The disaster of Lebanon. I recall another vicious blast that demonstrated the fragility and cynicism of its ethnic and political patchwork.

5 August 2020 By Paul Martin

Lebanon is, literally, reeling from its latest blast.

The actual cause was a small fire that then ignited a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate stored in the country’s main port for more than six years. It had been confiscated from a ship that had docked on its way to take supplies of the volatile material.

Beirut port in flames. Taken from Twitter.

The underlying cause of this disaster, however, is exposed. It demonstrates the abject failure of trying to run a multi-ethnic country in a region riven by ethnic divisions.

In Lebanon itself, there had been decades of civil war in the Seventies and Eighties between what had once been the majority Christians and the two very different Islamic communities, Sunni and Shia.

I had seen one very graphic example there of what can only be called the insanity of ethnic conflict. In 1981 I was reporting on the war between Israeli forces, who were allied to the Christian Phalangists, against hardline Palestinian forces who had been holding Lebanon hostage and had been building up their military apparatus to attack that country’s southern neighbour.

I was being driven in a car provided by the Palestinian Red Crescent (and heading for an interview with the organisation’s head, Fathi Arafat, brother of the Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat), when a huge blast hit the building next to us. The car careered to a halt.

A six-storey building was now a pile of rubble. We heard some low moaning sounds, as all four of us in the car picked our way through the devastation. My foot kicked something and to my horror, I described the scene into my tape-recorder. “Lying here is a small child, eyes open and looking as if he’s sleeping. Except, except — he’s dead.”

Just then gunmen began to fire down the street. We dashed into a nearby building which was still intact, apart from the fact that its shop windows on the ground floor had all been blasted out.

We assumed the building must have been hit by an incoming missile — probably from an Israeli warship (of which there were several outside in the Mediterranean Sea off Beirut).

In fact others who had fled into the building’s cellar told us the actual story: one faction had demanded to take over the (now-destroyed) building alongside. There had been an argument as another faction said it was theirs to control. The then destroyed it with explosives, the people in the cellar told me.

(Incidentally, the destruction of the building was also chronicled in a book by the New York Times correspondent in the city, who owned an apartment in the block. “My own apartment was destroyed last summer when two groups of refugees got into an argument over who would get control of the building. The group that lost blew it up, killing 19 people inside,” wrote Thomas Friedman. By ‘refugees he implied two different Palestinian factions.)


Another aspect of the self-destruction of Lebanon much more recently was Hizbullah’s take-over of most of southern Lebanon. The radical Shia movement in 2006 also rashly kidnapped three soldiers who were patrolling inside Israel’s border, then fired barrages of rockets into Israel — largely to show its bristling military strength and therefore advance its hegemony over other militias inside Lebanon. That effort had led to wars in 1981 and 2006.

Sure enough, Hizbullah became the dominant force in the Lebanese government, which still technically adheres to an agreement to split the top few jobs between the Christians, the Sunnis and the Shia.

The country has suffered from the regional events too – with Hizbullah providing military backing to the mass-murdering regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

I was in Lebanon last a few months ago, and here is what I wrote:

By Paul Martin at a barricade south of Beirut

It was like a scene from The Great Escape. Except that the motor-bike rider, after several tyre-spinning attempts to scramble over the barricades, succeeded – unlike Steve McQueen.

Others followed.

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