Beirut remembers Sharon

From massacre survivors to Christian allies, Lebanese speak out about the man who invaded their country.

Published January 12, 2006 12:01PM (EST)

For most Arabs and Muslims, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon epitomizes the cruel side of Israeli policies, from his leadership of the infamous Qibya massacre to his harsh tactics in putting down a Palestinian insurgency in Gaza (which gave him his nickname, "The bulldozer"), to his crushing response to the second Palestinian intifada of 2001. As he battles for his life after a massive stroke, reaction across the region has been marked by anger and jubilation, but also fear of an unsettled future and even grudging respect for his powerful leadership of Israel.

In Israel's northern neighbor Lebanon, probably more than in any other Arab country, reactions to Sharon's critical illness range across the spectrum -- from hatred almost too deep to be expressed to open admiration. This gamut of emotions reflects the political, ethnic and religious complexity of this small country -- and, of course, Sharon's personal role in Lebanon's history. He masterminded Israel's disastrous invasion 23 years ago.

Some Lebanese, Christian and Muslim alike, welcomed Israel's invasion for their own motives -- only to turn against Israel after they found themselves shot at, besieged and occupied for almost 20 years. Some of Israel's sworn enemies have come to rely on the specter of Sharon to stay relevant. Still others see the struggle as hurting the nation's economic prospects in the name of liberating a bunch of Palestinians no one likes anyway.

The most notorious episode in Sharon's career, for which many still regard him as a war criminal, took place in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila on the outskirts of Beirut on Sept. 16-18, 1982. Enraged by the assassination of Israel's puppet, Maronite Christian leader Bashir Gemayel, Israel's Phalangist militia allies, in plain sight of Israeli troops, entered the mostly unarmed camps and began a three-day slaughter, killing between 800 and 2,000 men, women and children (the final figures were never established). While it was never proven that Sharon himself knew that the militia was planning the massacre, according to the authoritative account by Israeli journalists Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, Israeli officials knew the massacre was taking place and did little to stop it. An Israeli investigation found Sharon, who was defense minister at the time, bore "personal responsibility" and demanded he resign. Sharon refused. Although he was forced out of his defense post, he remained in the cabinet, and completed his rehabilitation when he was elected prime minister in 2001.

I went into the Shatila camp to talk to Palestinian survivors of the massacre about Sharon and his condition. I meet 43-year-old Hamad Shamus sitting in a garden used as a memorial to the victims, the outside walls covered in pictures of piles of bodies and screaming women. It's a grim memorial, but Shamus' memories are worse. "They put all of us against the wall by our home and shot us," he says with little emotion. "Me, my father, my brother and a family of Lebanese Shiite [Muslims] from next door. I was shot three times." He points to the side of his head, his right hip and left leg, on which he still limps.

"My father and brother were dead [immediately]. One Lebanese man with us lived for an hour before he gave up and died. I lay there for three days listening to them kill the others. I prayed to God for myself and for my family. I don't know how I lived."

Shamus rises and limps to the front of the memorial where huge pictures depict the piles of dead left to rot in the September sun. He points to one picture of a woman wailing and waving her arms. "That is Milana Boutros al-Ha." He points to one of the bodies behind her. "That is my father, and that leg," he points again, "is that of my brother."

Shamus says he is watching Sharon's medical condition closely and prays for his recovery in the name of justice. "I want to see him recover so that we can charge him with crimes," he says. "But it seems maybe God has decided to charge him instead."

Abu Mohammed, 55, smokes a water pipe in Shatila and looks down the street he helped defend during the massacre. In the wake of Gemayel's murder, he sensed something bad could be coming and hid his family with his brother. He then returned to his home as the Phalangists and their Israeli advisors were entering the camp.

"They called to me to come to them. I ran," he says. He ran half a kilometer to the nearby football stadium, which the PLO had used as a weapons depot before its withdrawal, and with five other men found assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. They then began to defend their block of homes from the marauding bands of militiamen.

"It was our right to resist; we are not terrorists. It was easier to kill the unarmed so they left us alone. But one of my neighbors worried that the Israelis would send jets to bomb us, so he insisted on walking out of the camp with a white flag to tell them we were just civilians defending our homes. They shot him in the street.

"Like all Palestinians we pray he does not die," Abu Mohammed says of Sharon. "If he is going to be dead then he will not suffer like he caused the Palestinian people."

"He is the King Kong of massacres," interrupts Abu Khalil, 46, another survivor of those terrible three days. "I wanted him to die until I heard he would be handicapped. Now I pray for him to suffer as a cripple as he crippled the people of Sabra and Shatila. But his death will mean nothing because the Israelis will just replace him with someone just as bad."

Abu Mohammed agrees with the Kahan Commission on one key point: He knows Sharon himself didn't do the killings. "Sharon did not massacre us himself, he sent people working for him to do it," he says.

"We cannot forget what he did to us and we will never forgive," adds Abu Khalil. "That Jew just did too much to us to forgive him. I wish he would live so we could see him tried in The Hague for a war crime."

Just east of Sabra and Shatila sits the Beirut suburb of Sin el-Fil, where the flag of the post-Phalangist political party, the Lebanese Forces -- a cedar tree surrounded by a circle and flanked by a broken cross symbolizing the oppression of Lebanese Christians -- flies on nearly every street. Posters of the slain leader Bashir Gemayel can be seen on each block alongside his successor, Samir Geagea, recently released from prison after serving more than 15 years for murder and for planning to overthrow the government.

This is the Beirut heartland of the Kataeb or Phalange, militant Christians who will quickly inform you that Lebanon is not an Arab nation, but a "Phoenician" land that speaks both Arabic and French. The civil war might be over -- for now  but the once banned flags are flying, and with the release of Geagea, people are starting to murmur about a Maronite revival.

"I like Sharon. He is strong and he knows how to deal with the Palestinians," says Paul, a resident who prefers his last name not be used out of fear of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that led the resistance to the Israeli occupation and is a mortal enemy of the Kataeb. "Go to the border and look at the Arab Shiite villages on our side and the Israeli villages on their side. We look like shit. We wish they had won and stayed."

"When Sharon came, we fought alongside them against our Arab enemies and the Palestinians," says Dany Chammoun, 35. Dany gave me the name of a famous, long-dead Maronite fighter from the civil war era. He's probably lying about his name but his story rings true.

He says he began as a boy gunman at 14 years old, fighting alongside the Israelis in East Beirut against the Palestinians and their Druze and Sunni Muslim allies. "They were here to use us, but we were using them to get rid of our enemies," he says.

When the Palestinians left, he fought more battles against the Druze and Sunni and finally the Lebanese army, led by then-Army Chief of Staff Michel Aoun. "But in 1990, the Israelis and the Americans betrayed us and let Syria occupy us for 15 more years, just so Israel could have peace," he says.

As he aged, Dany started to see things in less sectarian terms. "I never fought Hezbollah or the Shiite, although Christians in the south did (as part of an Israeli proxy force, the South Lebanese Army). So I don't have a problem with them. And [Hezbollah] freed south Lebanon from Israeli occupation, so I respect that, because no one wants to live under occupation, just as we didn't want to live under Palestinian or Syrian occupation."

But the current political crisis with Hezbollah-- a strong supporter of Syria's occupation of Lebanon, which ended in April -- has Dany worried. "The young Christians here do not remember the war; they think it is all glory in the name of Geagea and in the name of Christ. They see Hezbollah with weapons and ask me, 'Why do they have weapons and we do not?' This is dangerous."

Other Maronites point to the rise of satellite television like al-Jazeera, on which they have watched the recent intifada in Gaza and on the West Bank. Some of them express some sympathy for the Palestinians in those places, but never for the ones in Lebanon -- and never for the PLO.

"Hating the Palestinian [refugees] is the one thing all Lebanese agree on," jokes Paul, and he's pretty much right. Many Lebanese have never forgiven the PLO for using southern Lebanon as a base of operations for its guerrilla war against Israel. Gunmen under Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party literally turned south Lebanon into "Fatahland," a statelet built around the idea of liberation and armed struggle.

And for all their claims of wanting to liberate al-Quds (Jerusalem) from the Zionists, neither Amal nor Hezbollah cares much for the Palestinians. For starters, Amal and Hezbollah are Shiite, and the Palestinians are mostly Sunni. They have repeatedly fought little wars among themselves. Palestinian camps tend to be located in the poorer neighborhoods and villages, so Shiite and Sunni are forced to live on top of each other in poverty. Small ideological and religious differences tend to get magnified in such an environment.

The Shiite have a complicated history with Sharon and the Israelis. When Israel first invaded, many Shiites welcomed the invasion because it liberated them from the Palestinians. "We welcomed the Israelis to the south," says Nizar, a Lebanese Shiite who asked me not to use his family name out of fear of being heard saying anything nice about the so-called Zionist enemy to the south, as many refer to Israel here. "But then we saw how they acted and decided to resist them," he adds, echoing a sentiment I have heard many times about the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

When news broke of Sharon's critical illness, Shiite neighborhoods broke out in spontaneous celebration. Members of Amal and Hezbollah, Shiite militias that have fought the Israelis, handed out sweets and candies to celebrate.

But shared hatred of Sharon is not enough to prevent cracks from appearing in the Shiite community. Watching Hezbollah stick by Syria in the name of preventing Sharon and his hated Israel Defense Forces from returning is souring even some people among its Shiite base. My good friend Mohammed, a Shiite whose father was killed by the IDF in the Israeli invasion, says Hezbollah's strategy of tying the Syrian occupation to resistance against the Israelis is turning people against it.

"We all hate the Israelis, but we hate the Palestinians almost as much, and the Syrians more," he says. "Hezbollah has been stupid to make this [crisis] about Sharon and the Jews. We're tired of occupation and the only winner from the war was the Syrians. Four years ago, if the Israelis and Sharon came back here, I would have been a fighter, a shaheed [martyr]. But today, I wouldn't fight. Who cares? Better to be occupied by them than the fucking Syrians. We'd make money if there was peace with Israel; the Syrians only stole and Hezbollah helped them."

"Thanks for liberating the south, guys," he says rhetorically of Hezbollah, laughing and waving his hand. "But you have a job -- complaining about Sharon and the Jews. What do we have for it? Syria? Thanks."

Mohammad's words remind me of a reporting trip I once took to the far south of Lebanon. Along the border there are shops that sell T-shirts celebrating "the Islamic Resistance of Lebanon" with Hezbollah's logo, Arabic writing shaped like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, with a fist jutting out holding an AK-47. You can also buy coffee mugs, flags and baseball caps. Arab tourists and Palestinian expatriates love to visit and throw rocks over the barbed wire fence at the Israeli bunkers just meters away, a symbolic act the late Palestinian-American writer Edward Said made famous.

As I walked along the sand path of the still "hot" military border, I stopped in a cafe literally alongside the border itself. The store was adorned with flags, T-shirts and other mementos of the victorious struggle against Zionism.

The shopkeeper asked me where I was from and upon hearing I was American, he leaned over and asked, "Do you think the Israelis will come back?" I sighed and told him no, as I have in countless paranoid conversations with militants in the past. Israel learned its lesson here; you don't have much to worry about.

He look disappointed and whispered, "I wish they would. I am Shiite, but business was so much better when the border was open."

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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