Abu Arz (“father of the cedar”) is the symbolic name taken by Etienne Saqr, born in Haifa to Lebanese parents, leader and commander-in-chief of the Guardians of the Cedars. The Guardians of the Cedars were born with the Lebanese civil war, out of the Party of Lebanese Renewal, itself established in 1969 as part of the Christian right. At that time, the Phalangists and the National Liberal Party (Ahrar), which were old established parties, did not want to avow openly some of their own orientations. This might have damaged their relations with other Lebanese political forces and hurt their standing with Arab countries. The more extreme elements, such as the poet Sa‘id ‘Aql, founded the Party of Lebanese Renewal. From 1973 on, their slogans were plastered on the walls of ‘Ayn al-Rummana in Beirut — “No Palestinian will remain on Lebanese soil,” or “A good Palestinian is a dead Palestinian.” The battle was joined.
Limited in numbers but well-trained, the Guardians of the Cedars played an important role in terrorist strategy throughout the wars in Lebanon, from the siege of Tall al-Za‘tar to Sabra and Shatila. They are best known today for the numerous attacks and cold-blooded murders of Palestinian civilians in the Sidon region — an area which they entered after the Israeli invasion. Bashir Gemayel, son of the Phalange and protege of Camille Chamoun, was trained at the Guardians of the Cedars’ “school,” according to Abu Arz. Furthermore, he claimed, “It was here, in this office, that Bashir was named commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Forces when they were formed.”
The ideas of Abu Arz shock us. They are simplistic, racist, full of motley concepts and crude commonplaces, with little concern for nuances or contradictions. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss him as a fringe element, for what this warlord says in crude and undisguised language is often restated elsewhere in more sophisticated form. The basic convictions are the same. I spoke with Abu Arz at the Guardians of the Cedars’ headquarters in Ashrafiyya on July 8, 1983.
In 1973, everyone felt that war would be necessary. The Lebanese army was very weak and didn’t really exist. The Palestinians, on the other hand, had become very strong. They numbered 500,000 in a Lebanese population of 3 million. Since the Lebanese army did not exist, one could predict a war between the Lebanese people and the Palestinians.
In 1973, we began our military training. lt was secret. We trained in the Lebanese mountains and later in Israel. We bought arms on the glutted black market. That’s how we founded our militia. In 1975 we announced the birth of the Guardians of the Cedars, and fought alongside the Phalange and the Ahrar of Chamoun.
It’s been said that the war was between left and right — that’s not true. Between Lebanese and Lebanese — that’s not true. If you go to the heart of the problem, the war was between Lebanese and Palestinians — that is, between Lebanese and non-Lebanese.
The Phalangists say exactly the same thing. Why aren’t you with them instead of forming a separate party and militia?
On a national and Lebanese level, there’s no difference between the Phalangists and us. That said, who was behind the Palestinians in 1975? The Syrians, via Sa‘iqa, which entered Damour.
But it was President Franjiyya who asked Syria to intervene on the side of the Christian forces, including the Phalangists.
In Lebanon, we have some truly mediocre people. One of our big problems is our politicians. Our major problem is ourselves, but no one admits it. Lebanese for 40 years have made Lebanon a very weak country. That’s why the Palestinians and Syrians have dared to do as they liked in Lebanon — because we had destroyed Lebanon. If Lebanon hadn’t been a fertile field, the Palestinians and Syrians would never have done what they did to the country.
So you fight against the Palestinians and Syrians, but also against the traditional political system?
As a priority. It’s something we’ll do in the new Lebanon. Well put the traditional politicians on trial and judge them for their deeds. They are the cause of this war. They bear responsibility for everything because they were in power and look at what a mess they got Lebanon into.
How do you envision the “new Lebanon”?
In order to build the new Lebanon, we must first do away with the traditional school — that is, the pro-Arab school. We are not an Arab country and we have never been, throughout history, an Arab country. Look at the map of Lebanon. It’s a mountainous country. And from Damascus through the rest of the Arab world there is desert, not a single mountain. There’s a big geographical difference between them and us. Then the good Lord endowed us with two mountain chains to separate us doubly from the Arab world. Besides, we are oriented toward the sea. The great Lebanese historians say that the Lebanese always had his face to the sea and his back to the desert. All Lebanese contacts were with the countries of the Mediterranean basin and not with the desert. We are not tied to the Arab world historically or geographically. Furthermore, we do not speak Arabic: We speak Lebanese. Everyone says that we speak Arabic, but that’s not true. Arabic is literary Arabic, but the language we speak in Lebanon is a Lebanese language which comes from Syriac. Syriac comes from Aramaic, the language of Christ. There were three sister languages in the East: Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, in which one finds similar words. The Lebanese language, which comes from Syriac and Aramaic, is therefore close to Arabic. We are not Arabs. Our language is not Arabic, no more so than our geography and our history. We are closer to Europe than to the Arab world in terms of civilization, culture, and anything else you can think of.
But how can you conceive of this withdrawal from the Arab world?
It’s not a withdrawal. As for me, I return to my original identity. Arab Lebanon? Why not Lebanese Lebanon! I am ready to have very cordial relations with Syria on the condition that Syria recognizes Lebanon, that Syria respects the sovereignty of Lebanon.
And the Palestinians?
Since the beginning of the war our slogan has been: “No Palestinian will remain on Lebanese soil.” The Palestinians came to Lebanon and they destroyed my country. I accepted them in my house for more than 30 years. They stabbed me in the back. They destroyed Lebanon. There is no room for any Palestinian in Lebanon — no Palestinian baby, no Palestinian woman. No Palestinian will remain on Lebanese soil. That’s final. They have a problem, so let them go to their Arab brothers since they claim them as brothers. I cannot accept a half million Palestinians in my house. Not only soldiers; I don’t accept civilians either. It’s not just a military problem; it’s also a demographic problem. It’s my house and I’m free to do as I like. I refuse to let anyone come and dictate my policy. For me, it’s final. I am the owner of my house — not the French, nor the Italians, nor the Americans, nor the Syrians, nor the Palestinians. I struggle to cleanse Lebanon of all foreign forces and create my own national force which can control all borders with Syria. I want to dictate my own policy.
And the Israelis?
I want to say this about the Israelis. First, we are not anyone’s agent; we are the agent of Lebanon. Hundreds of martyrs have died in my arms. You cannot be an agent when you are a fighter for your cause. When I talk of Israel, I am not pro-Israeli but pro-Lebanese. I see that Syria has always dreamed of annexing Lebanon. It’s an historical fact. The Palestinians did what they did. Israel has helped us for six or seven years. It’s the only country which has aided us at the military level. That was truly critical for us. Then, in June 1982, thanks to Israel, the Palestinian state — an actual state inside the Lebanese state — did not exist any longer. Thanks to Israel, the cancer which was in the Lebanese body and which posed a mortal danger to us was gone. Only partly, but it is important that we have greater Beirut. The state now exists in west Beirut thanks to Israel. One can’t deny it. Thanks to Israel, the Syrians left Beirut, the south, the Shouf. In my opinion, neither the United States nor France can effect the withdrawal of Syrian and Palestinian troops from the rest of the country. I think they will not leave Lebanon peacefully, through diplomatic means. The Syrians are an Arab people who do not respect diplomacy. They respect force. Only Israel can drive them out.
But doesn’t Israel also only respect force?
The only difference between Israel and the others is that Israel does not want a cubic centimeter of Lebanese water nor a square centimeter of Lebanese territory. Israel wants nothing. If only the Syrians would withdraw from a small region — even a village — to demonstrate their good will! Begin, Sharon and Shamir have all declared several times on television that they will respect the international boundaries of Lebanon. One can lie in private, but on television, in front of millions of viewers, one cannot lie. If only the Syrians would say that! And even if they said it, I wouldn’t believe them. I believe in an alliance between the Lebanese and the Israelis. I have said this openly at a press conference in Jerusalem. I have also called for a mutual defense treaty between Lebanon and Israel. I believe that this is our only salvation now. The only people mobilized against the Palestinians and the Syrians are the Israelis. It’s in Israel’s interest to see a strong Lebanon, along its border, which will keep the Palestinians and Syrians away. We are two minorities. We have the same problems. That’s why I speak of a common cause between Lebanon and Israel, between the two peoples. We are encircled by the same enemies. We have a common past, lt was Lebanese who built the temple of Jerusalem two thousand years ago. We have always had cultural relations with the Jews. Why have this complex?
—Translated by Judith Tucker