Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

"Israel's fascist ally takes a hit," November 27, 2006.

Most of our listeners probably remember that several years ago there was a movement to try Ariel Sharon as a war criminal. A few may even remember Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp located in 1948 next to Sabra, a poor neighborhood in the southern outskirts of West Beirut where Sharon's alleged war crimes were committed.

There was nothing "alleged" or uncertain about the massacre itself. It was real enough, on about the same scale as Srebrenica.

At first, the Israeli government accused its critics of "a blood libel against the Jewish state and its government."

But when some 300,000 Israelis--approximately 10 percent of the total population at the time--took to the streets of Tel Aviv to demand an accounting, the govenment changed its tune and convened a commission of inquiry under former Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Kahan.

The Kahan inquiry found that Sharon, who was serving as Menachem Begin's Defense Minister, had been "indirectly responsible" for the massacre, and he was forced to step down.

Despite the inquiry, a great deal about events at Sabra and Shatila remains in dispute. The Kahan Commission may have underestimated the casualties at 800.

The Commission may have let Sharon off the hook too easily; hence the move to try him in an international court.

But the Commission got it right on one point. No one disputes the finding that the massacre was the "direct responsibility of Phalangists."

The Phalange is a right-wing Lebanese political party first established as a youth movement in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel, also known as Shaykh Pierre. Gemayel was so inspired by the Nazi youth movement after his visit to the Berlin Olympic games that he used it as a model for his party which he named the Phalange after Generalissimo Franco's Spanish fascists.

The period from 1975 to 1990 in Lebanon was a time of civil war between groups in competing alliances with neighboring countries. Early in that period, the Phalangists built a military branch, which by 1976 was led by Bachir Gemayel, Shaykh Pierre's younger son.

Lebanese Maronite Christians, led by the Phalangist party and militia, were allied off and on with Syria and at other times with Israel, which provided them with arms and training to fight against the PLO faction.

The party reached the pinnacle of its power when the charismatic Bachir was elected President of the Republic by the National Assembly on August 23, 1982.

But this glory was to be short-lived. Bachir Gemayel was assassinated three weeks later on September 14 when a bomb was detonated in his headquarters. Two days after that, on September 16 at around 6 p.m., the massacre began in Sabra and Shatila and continued for two days and nights.

The militia finally left the camps at 8:00 a.m. on September 18. The first foreign journalists allowed into the camps at 9:00 a.m. found hundreds of bodies scattered about the camp, many of them mutilated. The first official news of the massacre was broadcast around noon.

No one was ever prosecuted. More to the point, Elie Hobeika, the Phalangist military commander in direct command of the Maronite forces at the time of the massacre was not only never prosecuted; he served as a cabinet minister for 8 years after the end of the war in 1990.

Hobeika was killed by a bomb in Beirut in 2002. There was speculation at the time of his death that he was preparing to testify in the Belgian war-crimes tribunal investigating the massacre, though this has been disputed.

The number of casualties in Sabra and Shatila is also disputed. Responsible estimates range from 800 to 3500 dead. Regardless of the figure, clearly the Phalange and its military have thousands, maybe tens of thousands of deadly enemies among the survivors.

After the assassination of Bachir Gemayel, the presidency was assumed by his older brother Amine who--it is no coincidence--is also the father of Pierre Gemayel, Lebanon's 34-year-old Industry Minister who was assassinated in a hail of machine gun fire this Tuesday (November 21, 2006).

Father and former president Amine Gemayel was quick to blame the Syrians for his son's death as was Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri whose assassination last year is the subject of a major UN investigation. President Bush immediately added his voice to the chorus, and this has become the prevailing view.

A word about Lebanese politics and demographics.

Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy within a framework of confessionalism. Confessionalism is a system of government that distributes political and institutional power proportionally among religious communities. Posts in government and seats in the legislature are apportioned amongst religious groups according to the relative demographic weight of those groups in society. Seats in the Parliament and at the Cabinet table are parcelled out the same way.

* The President must be a Maronite Christian;
* The Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim, and
* The Speaker of the Parliament, a Shi'a Muslim.

In Lebanon, this confessional system is based on 1932 census data which showed the Maronite Christians to have a substantial majority of the population, which it no longer holds.

Yet CBC main channel news does not mention the important item of political information that Shi'a Muslims are now the largest religious group in Lebanon.

Debate about the confessional system has been at the center of Lebanese politics for decades. Those religious groups favored by the current formula have wanted to keep it; those who saw themselves at a disadvantage sought either to revise it or to abolish it entirely.

Hezbollah wants an adjustment in the proportion of seats given to the Muslim parties. The Government of Lebanon continues to refuse to undertake a new census.

Our media portrays this fundamental democratic controversy as an attempt to prevent an investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005. But the intentions on both sides are almost certainly longer term than that and are grounded in the familiar democratic principle of proportional representation.

According to Al Jazeera, Hezbollah officials said the group would take no action in the coming days to allow emotions to cool, but they accused the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority of capitalising on Gemayel's murder for political ends.

Hussein Khalil, political adviser to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said: "We were on the verge of taking to the streets. The government coalition was in an unenviable position and was in a very big impasse. They needed blood to serve for them as kind of oxygen to give them a new life."

Both the Amal Movement and Hizbullah, the two parties representing Shia Muslims, withdrew their ministers from the Cabinet earlier this month, protesting the pro-Syrian March 14 Forces' refusal to form a national unity government.

The Daily Star reports that Justice Minister Charles Rizk said Sunday in an interview with local radio station Voice of Lebanon that he "believes the fight over the tribunal is not the primary reason behind the political crisis that Lebanon is witnessing. There are more profound reasons for this crisis."

He added that during previous meetings he heard Nasrallah say "more than once that Hizbullah welcomes the formation of the international tribunal on the condition that the tribunal be based on clear rules."

On Tuesday, Syria re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq. Syria cut off diplomatic ties with Iraq in 1982, accusing Iraq of inciting riots by the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Damascus also sided with Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Trade ties were restored in 1997.

It would be naieve to exclude Syria and Hezbollah from the list of suspects. But given their relatively high standing after the war this summer and their recent diplomatic and nonviolent emphasis in recent weeks, the motives for them to undertake an assassination do not look strong unless you ignore what they have to say altogether. Any impartial investigation would have to include the US, and Israel as suspects.

The US, for its part, is a remote and active foreign player in Lebanon and may be keen to quash any intiative in the direction of negotiations with Syria.

Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria from Oklahoma University, underlined that U.S. president George W. Bush blamed Syria and Iran for the murder. “It would be difficult for Washington and Damascus to establish diplomatic relations,” he said.

Turkish daily Zaman questions why Syria would have committed such a violent act at a time when its administration was seeking rapprochement opportunities with the United

Likely the Bush administration will resist a widely anticipated recommendation by the Iraq Study Group (co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton) to end Syria's isolation and engage it in an effort to stabilize Iraq, a prospect that is anathema to Israeli hawks and their American neoconservative allies.

Israel's alliance with the Phalange was always shaky, especially as the fight against the PLO in Lebanon was coming to an end in 1982. It had been the Phalange that invited Syrian intervention in 1975, and elements of the Phalange began to move in the direction of an alliance with Syria again as the war came to an end. Some Israeli's have claimed that at the time of Sabra and Shatila, Phalange commander Elie Hobeika was already maintaining contacts with Syria, suggesting that he may have orchestrated the massacres as a political provocation against his Israeli allies. He openly switched allegiance to Syria at a later date.

More recently, there was a widespread expectation often repeated by the press, that Israel's invasion in July of this year after the capture of two Israeli soldiers would produce a "backlash" against Hezbollah. It never happened.

Would Israel be willing to sacrifice one of its fascist Lebanese Christian allies in an effort to kickstart that backlash?
Maybe not.

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