BOOK: “Beware of Small States” by David Hirst 9Jul10 July 17, 2010

David Hirst interviewed by Robin Yassin-Kassab  -  The Electronic Intifada -  9 July 2010

Veteran Middle East correspondent David Hirst, author of the seminal work on the Palestinian plight The Gun and the Olive Branch, has a new release: Beware of Small States, an equally important book on Lebanon’s complex tragedy. The Electronic Intifada contributor Robin Yassin-Kassab interviewed Hirst on his work and views.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: You did your national service in Cyprus and Egypt just before the 1956 Suez War. What effect did your first experience of the Middle East have on you? Why did you end up spending your life in the Middle East, particularly in its more violent corners? Have kidnappings and bannings discouraged you?

David Hirst: Yes, I was one of the last generation of British 18-year-olds obliged to do two years of military service. Politically speaking, it had virtually no effect on me; I was an immature youth from a thoroughly apolitical middle class background, and knew next to nothing about international affairs, and hardly knew, for example, the difference between Arabs and Israelis. But — unusually for a mere private soldier — I sought and secured permission to use a fortnight’s leave to travel round Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. I enjoyed the experience. After three years at Oxford, I could not think of a career to embark on. Remembering the American University of Beirut, I wrote and asked them if there were any kind of introductory course about the Middle East that I could follow there. There was. With a vague idea of staying there for a couple of years or so, I found myself drifting into journalism, and, taking to it, I ended up staying fifty.

I grew deeply interested in the politics of the region; I also like to think that — having come to the area entirely devoid of preconceptions, or anything more than the most rudimentary knowledge, tabula rasa as it were — the opinions and interpretations I developed about the Arab-Israeli conflict were always as near as possible spontaneously personal and first-hand ones; I quickly learned that, as such, they were all too apt to clash with what one might call the prevailing Western orthododoxy of the time. I stayed because I felt personally at home in the region, because my work was so professionally interesting, and my newspaper — unusually — never asked me to go anywhere else. As for the dangers, I definitely didn’t relish them, but unless they had become overwhelming and personal — i.e, for example, if I knew, as I did for a while, that there was a plan to kidnap me — I would never have left the region because of them.

RYK: The subtitle of your 1977 book The Gun and the Olive Branch is “The Roots of Violence in the Middle East.” Would you agree that yours was one of the first books (of those widely-available in the Anglo-Saxon world) to contextualize Palestinian violence against the backdrop of Zionist violence and Palestinian dispossession? What was the response to your book back then?

DH: I guess so. But that this should have been so is basically a measure of just how far that Western orthodoxy about the nature and moralities of the Arab-Israeli conflict parted company with historic truth and essential fairness. It is not as if my book discovered or vouchsafed anything really new. All the research had been done for me by earlier scholars. But it seems that I was at that time one of the few Westerners to put the history together in the form of a straightforward narrative setting Palestinian violence against Zionist/Israeli violence, a narrative whose basic conclusion was that the Zionists essentially pioneered the violence in pursuit of their political purposes — at their most dramatic and premeditated the ethnic cleansing of the territory they coveted — whereas Palestinian violence and terror has been essentially reactive.

RYK: Why has the West, in media and cultural production as well as in its geostrategy, tended to be partial to the Zionist narrative of the Middle East?

DH: For all the well-known reasons that have been rehearsed a thousand times. Biblico-Christian sentiment, Western guilt complex, admiration for the rugged, idealistic early Zionist settlers and their achievement in “making the desert bloom” and all that, highly effective Jewish/Zionist propaganda and influence within the corridors of Western power. On the geostrategic level, I don’t agree with the idea that Israel has been a valuable asset or ally in the service of an “imperial” or “neo-imperial” America. Quite the contrary, nothing has been historically more damaging than Israel itself to America’s interests, legitimate or otherwise, and its image in the region.

It is basically a measure of the quite extraordinary, disproportionate influence of the “friends of Israel” — AIPAC and company — that they get American politicians to buy the thesis that Israel deserves the support that the US lavishes on it not only because it shares Western “values” (which it increasingly doesn’t), or it is “the only democracy in the Middle East” (which it increasingly isn’t), but because it is to the strategic and political benefit of the US itself. This is not to say that Israel cannot in certain circumstances render services to the US — a classic example would be Israel’s readiness to rescue King Hussein in Black September 1970 — but that begs the question: who created the circumstances in which such a service was necessary in the first place? And the essential, underlying, perennial answer is that Israel itself, and its behavior towards the Arab region in which it implanted itself, is the principal cause of these kinds of crises and emergencies; and that they constitute threats to US interests because, in its deference to all things Israeli, it allows its interests get inextricably mixed up with those of its proteges. Even before Israel came into being the Zionists and their friends felt the need to promote a “strategic” argument for the creation of a Jewish state — that it would protect the British imperial life-line to the East — that was as spurious as its American descendant is today.

RYK: How have Western perceptions of the Israel-Palestine issue and the wider Israeli-Arab conflict shifted in the years since The Gun and the Olive Branch was published? Why?

DH: Public opinion is clearly changing at an accelerating pace, and will continue to do so the more obviously the nature and characteristic activities of Israel collide at variance with Western “values” and interests. In general governments and political classes lag behind their publics in their perception of this, or, at least, fearful of having to “take on” Israel, they are loath to acknowledge it in public. Hence their continued reluctance to adopt the truly impartial or “even-handed” attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict that alone could bring about the “Middle East peace” they so solemnly proclaim they want.

RYK: Do you think the greater visibility of the Israel lobby in the West, partly because of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, partly as a result of changes in the American Jewish community, will have a positive effect on Western policy?

DH: The extraordinary outrage, hysteria almost, that greeted the publication of their book — sober, scholarly, unassailably objective presentation of its topic though it was — and the manifest reluctance of the mainstream media and of course the US political establishment to be seen to endorse its conclusions, is just another demonstration of how very powerful — and spoiled — that lobby is, but also, I think, how eventually vulnerable it is too. I just don’t think AIPAC and the like can go on like this for ever, with their bigotry on Israel’s behalf, their specious arguments and their disdain for America’s true interests in the region, as opposed to those which they define for it; they are pushing their luck and the harder they do so the stronger will be the eventual backlash against themselves and the foreign state they promote.

RYK: Should we believe that US President Barack Obama’s different tack on peace-making will go anywhere? Is a two-state solution still a realistic possibility?

DH: Only if Obama summons up the determination to “impose” a solution along the lines I suggest in my book. Though more promising than any other American president in recent times, I don’t think he will. The “friends of Israel” in America are still too strong.

RYK: Will there be further constitutional reform in Lebanon? Will the day that a Shia vote is worth the same as a Maronite vote be the day that Hizballah’s forces integrate into a national army?

DH: Well, within the complex checks and balances of the “sectarian state,” the Maronites do hold a disproportionate share of political power. But, thanks to constitutional modifications, demography and local and regional developments over time, it is nothing like it used to be when the state first came into being. The Shia were once the underdogs in the system; now they are the most dynamically up-and-coming — indeed perhaps, in practical terms, the single most powerful one. And that in large measure, is thanks to the existence of Hizballah, its military might and its regional, above all Iranian, backing. They won’t be integrated into a national army unless that army can somehow espouse enough of their agenda to satisfy them. Hizballah’s relationship with its environment is a constantly evolving one, but I don’t see that happening in any foreseeable future.

RYK: Recently a demonstration for “secularism” was held in Beirut. Could this be the beginning of a significant movement which could finally break down sectarian loyalties?

DH: Such manifestations have happened before. They never seem to lead anywhere significant.

RYK: Arab world opposition shifts from Leftist to Arabist to Islamist. At the moment Islamism is most prominent, with some Arabist and Leftist ideas subsumed into Islamism. What do you foresee happening next?

DH: I foresee that Islamism as a whole — in power as well as in opposition — will in the fullness of time lose its moral ascendancy, just as the other great credos, nationalism — or at least the “nationalism” of the regimes that presume to embody it — and leftism have done. Take the most famous and influential of Islamist regimes, Iran. The new opposition movement, largely from within the ranks of the existing order, is a striking indication of just how much, through the actual exercise of political power, Islamists can discredit themselves and the exalted ideology they uphold — indeed, no doubt, Islam the religion itself as well.

RYK: The “resistance front” of Hizballah-Syria-Iran seems to be threatening a unified response to any future Israeli attack outside historical Palestine. Is this a credible threat? Does the changing role of Turkey — its economic and political alliance with Syria and Iran — and the increasingly warm relationship between Russia and Syria, suggest the Middle East may be approaching a “balance of terror” to deter Israel from adventurism?

DH: There are increasing indications that the “next war” in the Middle East — what I call the seventh — may spread beyond Lebanon to embrace Hamas in Gaza, Syria and Iran. There is no formal military alliance between them, but Syria and Iran are clearly seeking to inculcate the fear that, if Israel does go to war against its likeliest, first target — Hizballah — they will join in on its side. They might be doing this for deterrent purposes only. Even so the mere hint of it increases the risk that, by accident or design, it will come to pass. Alternatively, of course, if Israel were to hazard a strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, it is highly probable that Hizballah would retaliate with its now vastly replenished stock of missiles. And, this time, that could well escalate into the war with Syria which had failed to materialize in 2006 — with Israel’s so-called Second Lebanon War — and earlier such conflagrations between it and Hizballah.

RYK: British journalist and author Robert Fisk says he is utterly pessimistic about the future of the Middle East. He sees it as an unfolding “hell disaster” with no light on the horizon. Are you equally gloomy?

DH: In my experience it has become a truism: things never get better in the Middle East, they just get steadily worse. I have been hearing that — from Arabs of pretty much any condition or background — since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. I don’t see any likely change in that reality, certainly not, at any rate, till the chief of the region’s many maladies — the Arab/Israel conflict — finds a cure, or a convincing remission.

RYK: Beware of Small States strikes exactly the right balance between close detail and broad interpretative sweep. How do you do it? Do you have a guiding principle?

DH: Well, I am happy you think so. I don’t think I have a guiding principle. It just comes out that way. I suppose that, apart from trying to get my facts right and my analysis sound, I aim above all at readability and narrative flow. Achieving it is the toughest thing, and sometimes I almost despair of doing so. But the breakthrough always seems to materialize in the end.

Robin Yassin-Kasab reviews the book  -  Qunfuz – 29 June 2010

The chaos of Lebanon has thrown up an Arab horror parallelled only in post-invasion Iraq. It has also produced the Arab world’s most urgent intellectual life, and its first victory against Israel. Lebanon is the most contradictory of countries, “a more open, liberal and democratic society than any of its Arab neighbours” precisely because of “its vulnerability to domestic dissension.” So, with its seventeen sects and constantly shifting allegiances, who would dare to explain Lebanon?

No better candidate than David Hirst, whose 1977 book “The Gun and the Olive Branch” was one of the very first to sympathetically present the Palestinian plight in English. Hirst’s latest work “Beware of Small States” is a panoramic study of Lebanon’s difficult history which strikes exactly the right balance between close detail and broad interpretative sweep. The writing is precise, penetrative and elegant. For sober, logical analysis, “Beware of Small States” outstrips even Robert Fisk’s magisterial “Pity the Nation.”

Hirst explains Lebanon, and especially the fifteen-year maelstrom of the civil war, its pogroms, set battles, kidnappings and car bombs, by delineating patterns of cause and effect. The civil war is interpreted as “the intertwining of the socio-economic, the sectarian and the Palestinian, those three characteristics of the whole, ever more noxious brew.”

To start with the socio-economic, class issues often underlie and mask Lebanese sectarianism; banker’s Lebanon and resistance Lebanon have always been opposed. Chieftains, notables and tycoons have always “connived, across the confessional divide, in a harsh form of laissez-faire capitalism .. mercantile rather than productive, steeped in cronyism and corruption, and marked by great disparities of wealth, by a sybaritic luxury that flaunted itself side by side with the poverty and squalor of Beirut’s spreading slums and shanties, by a massive brain drain, unemployment, exploitation, and a favouring of the capital at the expense of the provinces, especially the remote and mainly Shiite South.”

Then Lebanon is “the sectarian state par excellence.” Inhabited by minority sects, the impenetrable mountains of Greater Syria have never submitted to centralised control. The Ottoman Empire’s millet system allowed for Maronite Christian and Druze autonomy in the mountains around Beirut, and as Ottomanism decayed in the 19th Century France and Britain made their influence felt, each sponsoring a sect. “If one man hits another,” remarked a local chief shortly before the civil war of 1860, “the incident becomes an Anglo-French affair.” By 1920 France had separated Lebanon from the Syrian Mandate – a Lebanon expanded to include a majority who considered themselves both Syrian and Arab. When Lebanon achieved formal independence in 1943, Maronites constituted only a third of the population, yet dominated parliament and the army and held the presidency. Increasing Maronite prosperity and ambition combined with an antipathy to Islam and an Arabism which, despite the significant Christian contribution to its ideology, still seemed too ‘Muslim’, provoked a fierce Maronite nationalism. The ‘Phoenician’ myth, encouraged by the French, portrayed the Maronites as an ethnically and culturally separate, non-Arab, very nearly European people. Suggestively, ‘Phoenicianism’ has been called ‘Lebanese Zionism.’

Which brings us to Maronite relations with Zionism, and therefore with the Palestinians, Hirst’s third factor of conflict. The struggle between pro and anti-Zionist Maronites started long before the Jewish state was established on the ruins of Palestine. Pro-Zionists, with the Maronite Church in the forefront, welcomed non-Muslim ‘European’ settlement in the region to compensate for their own demographic decline.

Zionists originally envisaged a third of Lebanon for inclusion in Israel – a state “whose creation amounted to a vastly more arbitrary example of late-imperial arrogance, geo-political caprice and perniciously misguided philanthropy than Lebanon’s could have ever done.” In 1948 Zionist militias captured 13 Lebanese villages. In atrocities reminiscent of the Nakba unfolding in Palestine, 80 people in the village of Houle and 94 in Saliha were slaughtered when their homes were exploded over their heads. By the time the dust had settled, there were 17 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, accounting for 12% of the population and a worrying (for the Maronites) increase in the proportion of Muslims in the country. Restrictions were imposed on Palestinian employment in every sphere except manual labour. Palestinian organisers suffered persecution by the notorious intelligence service, the Deuxieme Bureau.

When Jordan expelled the PLO in 1970, Lebanon became the main base for Palestinian resistance. Fatahland, or the Fakhani Republic, was established as a state-in-exile. This was important for Arafat’s plan to prove the institutional existence of the Palestinians to the West, but abuses alienated the villagers of the South, and staggeringly violent Israeli responses to Palestinian attacks increasingly polarised Lebanon’s politics.

From 1975 to 1982, what Hirst calls the ‘Palestinian half’ of the civil war, two conflicting camps can be identified. The National Movement, led by Druze chieftan Kemal Jumblat, including Druze, Sunni Muslims, and Leftists (many from the Greek Orthodox community), allied themselves with the Palestinians. On the other side stood pro-Zionist, anti-Arabist Maronites represented by Pierre Gemayel’s unashamedly fascist Lebanese Phalange. At first, with passive support from Syria, the National Movement prevailed, but a Syrian volte-face in 1976 robbed it of its victory.

Israel invaded in 1978, pushing Palestinian fighters north of the Litani river and setting up the mercenary South Lebanon Army in their place. In the 1982 invasion Israel reached Beirut and subjected it to atrocious bombardment. Hirst points out that it was the Camp David treaty – removing Egypt from the Arab front – which allowed Israel to lay siege to an Arab capital, and to kill at least 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians. Israel’s General Sharon (facilitator of the Sabra and Shatila massacre) envisaged mass deportations of 200,000 refugees to Jordan. Beyond expelling as many Palestinians as possible, Israeli war aims involved turning ‘Christian Lebanon’ into a formal ally, thereby transforming the region from ‘Arabist’ to ‘pluralist’ (in Zionism’s own Orwellian language).

Israel was successful in removing the PLO from Lebanon, and in this respect won a great victory. Exiled to Tunis, Arafat’s men lost touch with the Palestinian grass roots and began the decline that would end with Oslo and the replacement of the liberation organisation by a collaborative ‘authority’ policing the West Bank and Gaza. Even if ‘Christian Lebanon’ (after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel) was unable to reorient the country according to Zionist wishes, Israel can’t have been too upset by the post-Palestinian status quo. The second stage of the war was characterised by extreme fragmentation. The country was split into ten cantons contested by 150 militias and factions. By now, after so many years of brutal conflict, the pathologies of the warriors often superceded strategic concerns. Christians fought Christians, Palestinians killed Palestinians, Shia slaughtered Shia. The 1990 Taif agreement (which retained the confessional system while improving Muslim political representation), and the geopolitical ramifications of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, finally established a heavy-handed but stable pax Syriana.

But behind the superficial chaos of 1982 to 1990, an epochal change had occurred – the rise of the Shia, Lebanon’s largest sect, and specifically Hizbullah. (Hirst is better able to understand the importance of this change than Robert Fisk, whose writing on Lebanon in recent years has suffered from too close an identification with the perspectives of the anti-Shia, anti-Syrian March 14th movement).

The Shia were Lebanon’s poorest, most despised community, and had played almost no part in the early stages of the war. But they had been developing a more militant identity since Musa Sadr launched the Movement of the Deprived in 1974. They were inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and radicalised by Israeli occupation.

On 23rd October 1983, 241 US marines and 58 French soldiers (both countries had taken sides, the French with the Maronites and the Americans with Israel) were killed in car bomb attacks carried out by the shadowy Islamic Jihad, an organisation whose key players would later form Hizbullah. The Israelis, meanwhile, were relentlessly beaten back by a resistance more ferocious than they had ever met before. By 1985 Israel had withdrawn to its self-declared ‘security strip’ in the south, 10% of the country.

Israel had unwittingly stumbled into the turning point of the Lebanese war, and possibly of the larger regional conflict. For the first time its army suffered a series of minor defeats by a combination of sword – Hizbullah and Iran (which offered to send 50,000 troops in 1982; Syria turned this down) – and shield – Syria (re-equipped by the USSR after the initial Israeli advance). Hirst remarks correctly that the same actors are facing off today.

He devotes a chapter – ‘Triumph of the Warrior Priest’ – to Hassan Nasrallah’s transformation of Hizbullah into the key player it is now. Nasrallah oversaw the party’s retreat from its maximalist aim of creating an Iranian-style Islamic state in Lebanon, sought accomodation with other sects, and brought Hizbullah into parliament.

In May 2000, Israel made an “ignominious scuttle” from the country. This was the first time that occupied territory had been liberated without Arab concessions. When Israel reinvaded in 2006 it expected to finish the resistance in a few days. Instead it bled in the border villages for five weeks. The Sixth Arab-Israeli War ended in defeat for Israel and the loss of its hitherto enormous psychological deterrent power. Hizbullah had grown from a barely-visible terrorist militia to the developing world’s most effective guerrilla group, and now to a semi-conventional army able to repulse invasions.

By perceptively drawing out historical trends, “Beware of Small States” gives structure to what, as lived, was often no more than a bloody mess. This indispensable history of Lebanon is also a history of Lebanon’s neighbours, the larger Middle East, and the superpowers. The book is an essential tool for understanding a tragic story which has not yet reached its end, and is very highly recommended.

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