Dan Connell, a contributing editor to this magazine, is executive director of Grassroots International, a relief agency working in Lebanon and the Horn of Africa. Jim Paul spoke with him in New York on June 17, 1985.
What were your impressions of Beirut?
I was in Beirut for a week at the end of May, my first visit since the spring of ’83. Then, there was still a good deal of fear. The security apparatus was being built up under the Gemayel regime. Despite the US presence and the identification by most Lebanese and Palestinians of the US with the Israeli invasion and with the repressive apparatus in Lebanon, it was easy to travel as an American. There was a clear distinction between the American government and the American people, and there were attempts to make contacts with progressives in the US. All that was missing on this trip.
The political atmosphere had changed, the mood of the people had changed, and the ambience of the city itself was quite different. The Marines are gone, the Gemayel regime has no control over west Beirut. The strongest sense is one of chaos, and much discouragement on the part of many, many people. It’s always been a bit anarchic with traffic jams everywhere and horns honking. Now you found young men leaning their arms out the windows and shooting automatic rifles into the air instead of honking the horn. Car accidents might take place in the street, people will jump out of the cars and pull guns on each other. A lot of young men with no political background, no military training and no discipline were running around with guns.
What does Beirut look like?
The airport was a shell of itself. An island of order, with security forces, yet virtually abandoned except for the passengers moving in and out and a skeletal staff. Once you leave the airport area you begin to experience Beirut. The tremendous wave of reconstruction in 1983 has ground to a halt. People simply don’t get out to do anything. I rode in past Sabra and Shatila camps. You could see that a lot of the houses destroyed in the 1982 war had been built back up again. By the time I left, many had been destroyed again in the fighting with Amal.
The Hamra district, thriving even during the worst days of the 1982 invasion, was almost inactive. The crowds were much thinner. Traffic seemed to be moving a bit faster than usual—the kind of thing that happens when you expect war to break out. There is a quietness about the city, a somberness about faces that suggested a much higher level of despair than I remember even in 1982.
Is physical destruction quite evident?
Destruction from exchanges of artillery fire is very different from 1982. During the Israeli siege, bombings would take down entire eight or ten-story apartment buildings. What’s happening now is a randomness—shells landing in unexpected places. So the physical destruction is less total, but more widespread.
With the economic collapse, one would imagine that the Lebanese bourgeoisie would promote a government of national unity, across confessional lines.
The logic is there, and there have been efforts to reimpose order. First was the attempt to pull together to allow Bashir Gemayel to unify Lebanon. There was the push to try to get a government of national unity in 1983 and into early 1984. From almost every quarter, you hear now it is time for the Syrians to come in. A widely shared scenario had the Syrians insisting on pre-conditions. One, they would need to be invited by all of the major sects and factions. Two, they need an OK from the US and tacitly from Israel, determining their sphere of influence. Three, they need the agreement of the Gulf states to pay the bills.
What they seem to be looking for is an agreement to subdue the militias and private armies, for them to go back into their barracks. They want a good deal of say over the choice of foreign minister, defense minister and information minister. Within that context, they would preside over a consolidated, informal sectarian division of Lebanon. Lebanon would exist in a collection of semi-autonomous districts and sub-districts, not even whole confessional formations. But each district or sub-district would be more or less confessionally and politically homogenous. They would run their own affairs within Lebanon as formally one country. There was also talk of a presidential council with representatives from the six major sects that would share Gemayel’s power. What people are talking about now is a respite from the war, a chance to reconstruct, a chance to rebuild the social base and to put off for perhaps years the real move to restructure political power.
Did Syria exacerbate the recent fighting to promote its own involvement?
I spoke to a Palestinian leader the night before the Amal attacks, and he predicted that within the next two to three days there would be attacks on the camps in Beirut. It did seem to many that the Syrians could be encouraging a certain level of violence in order to set the stage for “peace.”
The Syrians had two problems to work out; distancing the Phalange Party from Israel, and eradicating Arafat’s support in Lebanon. One was already happening with the retreat by Samir Geagea from the hills around Sidon, and the move of the Lebanese Forces to shunt him aside for Elie Hobeika. The second stage was stopping Fatah from coming back into the camps.
From the level of the fighting, it does seem there was a fairly effective armed presence in the camps, especially in Burj al-Burajnah.
Partly that’s the geography of the camp. Sabra was much easier to attack. It’s a small, concentrated camp in the city; you simply cross a street and you’re in it. There were arms left over from before. What the Syrians and Amal miscalculated, was that they were not simply attacking supporters of Arafat. The people who paid the price of those attacks were women and children by the hundreds, people of all political persuasions in the camps. It was a brutal and deadly barrage, and it was followed by bloodletting that harkens back to what the Phalange did in 1982 in Sabra and Shatila. It sparked almost immediate unification of the Palestinian forces. They all banded together to defend their people, so the resistance was much more than anticipated. Amal clearly thought that they could clean this up in a very short time. They had a lot of firepower on their side. But they did not have the training, the discipline, the military wherewithal to really finish it off.
Why did Amal carry out this brutal attack on the camps?
I suspect that they had some encouragement from the Syrians, but there is still the legacy of hostility toward an independent Palestinian presence that goes back to the pre-1982 period, based on the experience in the south.
There’s also the Israeli factor. Israel’s “iron fist” policy did terrorize the Shi‘as in the south. The fear of reprisals, if the Palestinians were allowed to move there, became real. There was a good deal of speculation in Beirut that various figures from Amal in the south were negotiating with Israel around the issue of a Palestinian presence there.
Did that include Berri himself?
No. It mostly centered around Daoud Daoud. When those rumours reached Beirut, there was a backlash against Amal by a lot of the Lebanese nationalist forces, so Berri was then making speeches threatening armed actions against Israel. Most people thought this was to deflect the criticism. Whether there was any formal agreement or not, it seems likely that Amal would have been concerned about the reemergence of an independent Palestinian military presence anywhere from Beirut to the south, because they would have been held accountable by Israel.
What do you think this recent fighting has done to the political equation in Lebanon?
The momentum for the Syrian option is building. At the same time, it has broken up some of their support within the Palestinian movement. It has opened some divisions between the Progressive Socialist Party and Amal and the others. It’s potentially brought Libya into conflict with Syria at the tactical level. It will not likely turn around the general momentum of the Syrian role in Lebanon, but I think it’s weakened them a bit. They were on a roll up until then; they hadn’t had to do much of anything. They simply reaped the benefit of Israel’s mistakes and bad policies of the Phalange. It is typical of Lebanon that when an external force begins to intervene more actively, then it runs into trouble. This may be Syria’s destiny.
So far we’ve spoken about Amal and the Phalange.
I’m not sure about the Druze, but the Sunnis are one of the losers in this situation. They have been under considerable attack. They are disorganized; they don’t have much of a force. The only area where they still seem to have significant control is in Sidon, a kind of island in Lebanon. But it’s a city in which there are also Sunnis and Shi‘as and Christians, where Lebanese and Palestinians had been getting along before the Geagea shelling. Shortly after that, there was, at least on the surface, a reconciliation again. Visiting Sidon, I was immediately struck by a completely different mood. Sidon is much more active. It’s festooned with ribbons proclaiming Ramadan. Shops and markets are functioning; Palestinians come and go. You see little armed presence. But Sidon is squeezed between the Amal-dominated south and the Beirut situation, so it’s unclear what its future will be.
What is your sense of the role of the left?
The left had the primary role in initiating and even carrying out much of the national resistance in the south, the Communist Party of Lebanon and the Organization for Communist Action in Lebanon. Amal successfully took the credit for these armed actions, especially with the external media. Most people that I talked to estimated that the left had been responsible for as much as 50 percent of the armed actions in the south. After that, Palestinian groups would have had perhaps 30 percent of these actions and then perhaps 20 percent were carried out by members of Amal, even down to the recent period.
That’s very different from what’s been reported.
Amal was much more successful in publicity, and it also fit the Western image of this as a Khomeini-inspired Shi‘i war with Israel, which of course it wasn’t. It was a Lebanese nationalist response to the occupation. The Communist Party of Lebanon had a couple of villages that they actually held in the south until recently. They may still. They’re limited in the role they can play in the situation now. They have no formal relations with Amal, and Amal is playing a very big role in the Beirut area.
There are differences between the two communist parties in Lebanon also over the Syrian role and relations with the Palestinians. The Communist Party of Lebanon has been more pro-Syrian, and they have distanced themselves from the Palestinians. The Organization of Communist Action has had a more critical position towards the Syrians, criticizing their interference within the Palestinian movement, and has also tried to be more generally supportive of the Palestinians in Lebanon.
What other elements are there in the left?
The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) of Walid Jumblatt, a social democratic party, has been growing. With the setbacks for the Sunnis, you’ve had a lot more Sunnis joining the PSP party and militia. It’s moving back in the direction of a multi-sectarian party.
The Nasserites around Mustafa Sa‘d in the Sidon area could be put with the left; their party is attempting to move beyond a sectarian base and to address relations between the Palestinians and Lebanese as well as to overcome the sectarian tendencies among Lebanese. And you’ve got the Syrian Socialist Nationalists, a small but real factor on the Lebanese scene, with more support in the north.
Apart from the Syrian option, what other possibilities do you see ahead?
I think you’re going to see a period of Syrian domination, a period of physical reconstruction within the limits set by a heightened confessionalization. After the security situation, the economic crisis is the most serious one facing Lebanon. There’s over 50 percent unemployment; among Palestinians it’s as high as 90 percent. Social services have broken down. The economy is in a near state of collapse. So many movements have been able to rise and fall so quickly because they’ve been able to secure outside support to become a kind of instant military force. This has really corrupted the social-political development of Lebanon. Now the people are in great need, they are suffering tremendously, tens of thousands are displaced. The movements have to address those needs. What they’ve had so far is crude patronage. You find it in the medical sphere: build big hospitals so that people have a place to go that looks like what the rich or the members of another confession may have. You don’t find the excruciatingly difficult and tedious work of organizing people at the village and neighborhood level and providing the kind of security that comes from self-organization rather than the temporary presence of an external military force. That kind of organizing will be limited under this new situation, but it will have to develop. Ultimately, the diverse peoples of Lebanon will have to see tangible results for investing in a Lebanon at all, if there is to be a Lebanon. So far the movements have not been successful at accomplishing that.