This article, by the Lebanese novelist and literary critic, Elias Khoury, appeared in the Beirut daily, al-Safir, on February 18, 1985, immediately following what Israel has termed the first stage of its withdrawal from Lebanon. Khoury highlights the contradictions of the current situation in the region: while the invasion dealt the Palestinian national movement a serious setback, this same invasion created the basis for a major Israeli defeat and the victory of the Lebanese national resistance. Khoury does not discuss internal Israeli factors in the withdrawal — primarily the economy and the political opposition to continued occupation of Lebanon — and therefore somewhat overemphasizes the importance of the Lebanese armed struggle as a factor in and of itself. But his essay nonetheless serves as an eloquent reminder that despite the present balance of forces in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the underlying social dynamics of that conflict are highly volatile and can alter that balance under certain conditions. — J.B.

The Israeli withdrawal from Sidon and its surroundings is not an ordinary event. For the first time in the history of the conflict, Israel has withdrawn unconditionally from Arab land, its army in defeat. Sidon today enters our history as the first city liberated from the Israeli occupation… It is our first victory through mass armed struggle.

Those who remember the occupying soldiers on their tanks as they assaulted the cities, villages and camps can scarcely believe their eyes today, as the “undefeated army” is transformed into the likes of a militia, its soldiers standing terrified while blows strike them from all sides. In only two and a half years, despite the massacres they organized and the atmosphere of surrender [in Lebanese political circles], the Israelis find themselves torn by fear, and the south is a shining emblem of resistance which cannot be broken.

The lessons of Sidon and the south are the lessons of national resistance. From liberated Sidon, which paid for its freedom with agony and martyrdom, begins the true challenge, the challenge to ourselves, to understand the lessons of the national resistance so that they are not distorted nor their accomplishments erased.

From the experience of Sidon and the south comes a reconsideration of the struggle. The national resistance proved that resistance and the rejection of deals and bargaining is the path to liberation. Liberation is not an international arrangement, but the imposition of a new balance of power and the creation of an internal problem for the enemy, forcing him to withdraw.

Israel did not withdraw from Sidon because it is a peaceful state. All of us remember what Israel wanted, from the “Triangle of Peace” [Lebanon, Israel and Egypt] to the May [1983] agreement, the Sa‘d Haddad/Lahd army, the militias, the “National Guard” [in Sidon], and so on. The Israelis came to transform Lebanon into a dependent state and to end the Palestinian struggle. But after two and a half years, they are withdrawing from their vale of tears. Lebanon is not their dependency, and they must confront the Palestinians daily in the West Bank.

The national resistance and the popular environment which embraced it transformed the south into a region of daily confrontation. Israel found itself unable to become a regional colonial power in the traditional sense. Our resistance, our steadfastness, our sufferings, Ansar [prison camp] and hundreds of martyrs caused Israel to fail. Thus, the land which Israel wanted to make a symbol of the resistance’s burial became a symbol of resistance. When we lost everything, when they destroyed everything — we at that moment faced our true future. We discovered that Israel is not so awesome, and that the human will is able to change many equations.

Now we see new realities which we must study closely in order to complete the battle of liberation. Our emergence from Israeli occupation can be an entry to freedom and democracy in Lebanon and a part of the battle for the liberation of Palestine.

The first reality is Israel’s failure to exploit sects. On the eve of the occupation, when darkness covered everthing, Israel tried to play with sectarian contradictions. But Israel was smaller than the game. The Maronites paid the price of the Israel-Phalange alliance with massacres and tragedies unprecedented in their history. As for the Druzes and the Shi‘is, they proved to Israel that it could not exploit them. After a relatively short period, Israel lost the sect-minorities, and found itself unable to play the old colonial game.

The second reality is Israel’s inability to occupy wide areas. Israel believed it could impose a long, direct or indirect occupation on Lebanon. It counted on Lebanon’s internal fragmentation, on its alliances and on its “Orientalist” understanding of minorities. But then Israel faced a test it could not pass. It concocted the problem of the Shuf, through the entry of its forces there, then planned and is still planning massacres in the south. But there is a big difference between Israel’s withdrawal from the Shuf [1983] and its withdrawal from the south. It withdrew from the Shuf in order to bring about a massacre after realizing its inability to control Beirut. But Israel is withdrawing from the south fearful of defeat, realizing its own inability to control the south.

The third reality is that Sidon and the south are, on the Lebanese level, the first region which fought the occupier and wrested its freedom. So Lebanon, which they persuaded us was a country based on deals and arrangements, has for the first time engaged in the struggle for freedom and self-definition… The two-and-a-half year confrontation is not just a passing episode in our history, but marks the beginning of our people’s forging of their own history and future. True, the symptoms of internal fragmentation are still there, but it is also true that the resistance in the south was not basically sectarian. It was a popular resistance. Hence this resistance is able to begin spreading beyond the sects which predominate in it, and transform itself into a movement to establish a new society.

Fourthly, the disappearance of the agents of and collaborators with the occupation marks an important event. Our ruling class persuaded us that Lebanon represented the interests of opposing states. Collaboration was an everyday matter. Even collaboration with Israel became possible for a time, and Sharon, Arens, Lubrani, Kimche and others visited here and dined in restaurants here. But now this has ended. The people have seized their destiny and are bringing the agents to account.

The fifth fact, and perhaps the most important, is that Lebanon’s Arab identity is confirmed. The invasion showed that Lebanon’s relationship to its Arab surroundings is not ephemeral but basic. Despite its omnipotent military machine, the occupation was able only to make this issue more certain. The Arab identity of Lebanon does not mean that Lebanon is a living mirror of the Arab situation, but that it is a mirror reflecting its most advanced aspect. Lebanon is the only open front of confrontation [with Israel].

Thus the struggle to liberate Palestine returns to occupy the first place. The Israeli operation aimed to destroy the Palestinians and to subdue the Lebanese. With the failure of this suppression arises the challenge of finding a new framework for joint action in one cause, Palestine, which must have a central place in any Lebanese national democratic program.

The greatest question the occupation confronted us with is: who are we? Are we just a group of sects and tribes? The question has always been there, but the crisis of the [Arab] nationalist movement exposed it, and the occupation transformed it into a question critical to our existence.

The answer is not easy. Arabism and the Islamic and leftist trends were the three radical movements which met, and not just by chance, in the confrontation with the occupation, and which fired the spark of the national resistance. These trends discovered their crisis with the occupation, and found that the resistance is the beginning of the answer. But the answer is not ready-made, and the crisis [of identity] permeates everything — the crisis of democracy in the Arab world, the American hegemony over Egypt, the Palestinian crisis, and so on.

We first discovered who we are vis-à-vis the enemy, and so in a negative way. Then we discovered that this “we” is pluralistic, and its plurality is the condition of its unity. This “we” faces today sectarian danger, the danger of little conflicts. But this “we” has at least proven its worthiness, and has announced the need to define a new culture capable of forming the framework for continuing the confrontation.

By occupying Lebanon, they wanted to swallow the West Bank and Gaza, subdue Lebanon and intimidate Syria. But after two and a half years, they found that the battle for liberation did not stop, and now there will never be peace, whether in the Galilee or elsewhere. They have been forced to learn that they are in a land which rejects them, and that they are not any more important than the previous invaders of whom nothing remains but ruins crumbling into dust.

Sidon, ‘Ain al-Hilweh and the villages are only the beginning.

Translated by James A. Reilly

How to cite this article:

Elias Khoury "“Sidon, ‘Ain al-Hilweh and the villages are only the beginning”," Middle East Report 131 (March/ April 1985).

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