Demarcating the Lebanon-Israeli Border

Two barbed wire fences run parallel to each other for miles, guarded by UNICEF troops who are stationed there 24 hours a day. The contrast is striking. On one side you can olive trees, homes, small shops selling candy. You see posters of Hassan Nasrallah and of martyrs celebrated for their heroism and for their death.  On the other side there is an expanse of fruit trees – pomegranates, cherries, peaches – in perfect rows coming as close to the fence as possible. There are no homes or buildings close to the fence, apart from the watch stations every few kilometers. The Lebanon-Israel border is somewhat of a surreal area.

Today we spent much of our day getting into South Lebanon so that we could visit this area and witness the situation at the border of the two states that have been at constant state of war. I don’t know what I was imagining, but what I saw today was certainly not it. On one hand, I was surprised at how organized the area was. The fences were impeccable. Both sides have built these fences to demarcate the border after the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. In between the two fences is a streak of land about the width of a single lane road- an area that I imagine is “no mans land” under the supervision of UNICEF. On the other hand it is striking to witness the amount of patrol along the border. On the Lebanese side, there is a constant flow of soldiers and UNICEF personnel. On the Israel side, there are stations all along the border where Israeli troops can supervise. I never imagined a border being so well guarded.

What was also interesting is the 4 flags that waved along those fences: the Lebanese, Hezbollah, Iranian, and Palestinian flags. Hezbollah predominantly controls the south, and is in large funded by the Iranian government. The most interesting flag was the Palestinian.

The previous night we spoke with Bill Corcoran, the President of ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid). ANERA is the only organization that was allowed to bring supplies into Gaza and the West Bank after the 2006 war. They are trusted and respected on both sides of the spectrum. Mr. Corcoran spoke to us about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. He told us that by and large, the Lebanese do not like the Palestinian refugees. The March 14 and the March 8 coalitions would prefer that these people were not in their countries. However, the one group who does support the Palestinian cause in the country is Hezbollah. The way Mr. Corcoran put it is by saying that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Since Palestine dislikes Israel as much as Hezbollah, there is a de facto relationship that arises there. This was very evident in the waving flags of “Hezbollah land.”

I wanted to share this bit of information because I thought it was really intriguing. Although it does not surprise me in retrospect, it was quite a shock to see this area initially.

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When we get mad, we burn tires.

Hi all. It’s been a few days since I blogged anything so this might be a little long. I just want to talk a little bit about the people we have spoken to and some of the things that I have picked up about Lebanon this far.

During the first day of the trip we took a tour of downtown Beirut. At first glance, the city is beautiful. All of the buildings are made in a similar French style using local stone. Everything looks so composed and sophisticated. There are restaurants lining the streets – people smoking hookah and having a drink to cool off under the oppressing hot sun. However, it has not been like this for long. From 1975 to 1990, the Lebanese people found themselves in a brutal civil war as clashes between Christian and Muslin reached uncontrollable levels. It was a period of bloodshed and misery. Today, you stand here and ask yourself how they managed to progress so quickly. The city looks so modern and put together.

However, the signs are all still there. Take a closer look at any building and you will see patched on the exterior. These are patches of cement intended to fill in the bullet holes created during the war. In between every other new construction you will find a dilapidated building that has seen the effects of war. It can be very draining.

With that said, as an insider looking in, it seems as if they have made so much progress in so little time. As someone who never saw the old Beirut, I am impressed with the way that it is now. Our escort for the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, Melcar, has been taking us around each day. The first night after the tour I told him that I was very impressed with the city. He looked at me and said, “Yes, its nice. But it is not Beirut. It is not my Beirut-the one that we all love.” This kind of caught me off guard. Although I can understand his sentiments, I am getting an increasing impression that people here seem disappointed by where they live. They do not like this changed city. It also seems to me that they are unwilling to let go of this past. It’s becoming ever more evident that they are embedded in this past – something that I believe will be a hindrance in their progress if it is left unresolved.

On day 2, we took a trip to northern Lebanon to visit the Gibran Museum, the Cedars, and the Baalbek ruins. The Gibran Museum is dedicated to a Lebanese writer, poet, and artist, Khalil Gibran. It was interesting to see some of his work and I ended up buying one of his books. The cedars were also very interesting. The area that we went to is one to some of the last remaining cedar trees in Lebanon. The cedar is the national symbol for the country. We also visited the Baalbek ruins- an area with ancient Roman ruins and towering pillars. I found it very interesting that they were so well preserved.

One thing that surprised me was the fact that stores and people on the street were selling Hezbollah shirts. Since Hezbollah is so active in the north, it was apparent that the people here were really supportive of an organization that the United States deems the most powerful non-state actor in the world.

Over the next two days we met with several speakers from journalists to economists to former Ministers and those who deal with microfinance. It has been really insightful to listen to those in the country who believe in democracy and are against the Assad government in Syria. That has been a hot topic of discussion in all of these interviews. One thing that I found interesting and frightening is the fact that there is no unified history book in Lebanon. What the youth are taught in school depends on the region they live in and the religious community they are a part of (Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Maronite Christian, Greek Orthodox, etc.). This is concerning because of the mere fact that such tense and profound divides exist in the society.

Today we spoke to a couple of other individuals and visited the campus of the American University of Beirut – the best American university outside the United States. The campus was amazing and it seemed that the students were bright and engaged. I think I will be looking into a possible semester at the school. Many of the graduates go on to holding high political positions from Presidents to prime ministers and MPs.

Although I wish I had time to write more, I am now about to go to dinner. Take care!

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The Group!

The Group!

The fellowship group at the Roman ruins!

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Mosque in downtown Beirut

Mosque in downtown Beirut

Built by Rafic Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister. He, however, did not get to see it finished because he was assassinated in 2005.

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“You sound like you’re from London.”

I am currently sitting at London Heathrow on our way to Beirut. This is the first connection flight and the next one is in Frankfurt. Since I never got a chance to write anything yesterday, I am going to talk a little bit about orientation and some of the people we met before our departure. With 3 hours of sleep the previous night, it was an excruciatingly long day.

I got to the NCUSAR offices around 8:30 am – right around the time everyone was finishing up introductions, so my flight situation worked well. We first got a lecture from the Founder and CEO of NCUSAR, Dr. John Duke Anthony, about the Arab world, and specifically Lebanon. Dr. Anthony spoke about the necessity that Western citizens refrain from passing judgment on Islam and the Middle East. He emphasized that we must be empathetic toward this world – we must be able to “put ourselves in the shoes, souls and situations of others.”

We then had 5 other hour-long presentations from the staff of NCUSAR, the Lebanese embassy, the US State Department, the former dean of the American University of Beirut, and the reporter Hashim Melhem at Al Arabia News. I did not mention the names of several of the individuals because in order for the speakers to talk candidly we had to promise anonymity. The speakers gave great insight into the conditions in modern day Lebanon as well as the history behind the state. It was extremely interesting to witness the different ways in which speakers presented the country. For example, Hashim spoke passionately and lovingly of Beirut, while still being critical of the faults that need to be resolved. The senior official from the State Department gave us the American “Hezbollah is a terrorist organization” talk. I found it interesting that the US cooperates with Lebanese so formally when Hezbollah now holds 2 seats in Lebanese government. Doesn’t this essentially mean that the US Government is working with individuals who are part of a terrorist organization? When I asked him this, the official said that US personnel are not allowed to interact with the Hezbollah members.

There was such a clear contrast between the American ideology and that of an Arab or Islam scholar. Although the Arab speakers were quick to condemn Hezbollah, they painted the picture of a society that has a thorough separation of the common citizen from influence in politics. Although the common citizen will speak out against Hezbollah, they have no influence on Iran funneling weapons to this organization. Hezbollah is the most powerful non-state actor on the globe, with an arsenal much larger than most countries. Westerners are so quick to say that since Hezbollah exists in this country, every citizen is associated with them and is thus a threat. This is simply not true. The common Lebanese citizen is so far removed from the spread of terror.

After all of the introduction lectures, we made our way to Washington Dulles for our flight! I was so exhausted on the plane that I passed out during liftoff and woke up with 50 minutes left of flight time. Since it was a 7-hour flight, I’m excited that I slept through it. I’ve never been able to do that before. In a few hours I will be boarding a flight to Frankfurt. From there we go to Beirut!

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What’s this all about?

This is my first post, so I figured I would tell you all a little about what this blog is about! In a few hours, I will be getting on a plane to Washington D.C. – the first flight of many as I make my way around the Middle East. First destination: LEBANON! I will be going on a 10 day study visit with the National Council on U.S-Arab Relations as part of a year-long fellowship to promote understanding of Lebanese culture, history and modern conditions through hands on research.  We have a lot planned throughout the 10 days, and I will be writing it all down here – as it happens!

I start this journey with the belief that one of the greatest threats to society and the modern world is misunderstanding. Human nature drives us to characterize people based on ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, etc. Sometimes these characterizations are harmless and true. Saying that a devout Christian believes in God is not a far reach from the implications of Christianity. However, misinterpretation has the distinct capability of creating a divide in understanding. This applies closely to the Arab world and the rifts that have originated as a result of global misunderstanding. For example, someone from the western world may claim, “Arab Muslims do not believe in God because they believe in Allah.” This common belief is embedded into the psyche of western civilization. Members of western society are inclined to denounce anything Arab as the antithesis of the west. However, if language barriers are removed from the claim mentioned above, it reads, “Arab Muslims don’t believe in God because they believe in God.” Retrospectively, this seems silly and unreasonable. I use this religious divide to illustrate the types of misinterpretation I am describing. These assumptions happen on a regular basis and the unjustifiable stereotypes that are made on such a macro scale have uprooted civilization, cultivated hatred, and spread a massive propaganda of misunderstanding in a rapidly globalizing world.

We are inevitably reaching a critical period in history that will define the dimensions of international culture and politics. The manner in which the global community interacts with and understands the Middle East will influence whether or not differences can be reconciled. I believe that today’s college students will play a huge role in this effort. As the emerging workforce in a time calling for significant attention to cooperation and understanding, it will be our responsibility to advocate mutual acceptance. This blog will be one of my attempts at spreading this message.

The title of the blog is a quote from Mother Teresa. Although this seems a bit corny, I promise there is a reason behind it. Firstly, it incorporates the intention of this blog quite well. In broader terms, if we allow ourselves to listen and hear someone else’s perspective, we are bound to learn something. There is research which proves that smiling can have a direct correlation with our moods. Although this international system that we live in doesn’t really leave me with a desire to smile, there are many reasons to open our minds. Maybe if we listen instead of thinking of a counterargument we might not be so quick to pass judgement. What a wildly radical theory, right? Secondly, I chose Mother Teresa because she is Albanian, like me! It’s a good way of molding my history with the history I am studying.

Anyway, at this point I desperately need to pack, although every inclination I have is persuading me to do anything but that. It’s currently 80 degrees, with a high around 100. The heat has started earlier than expected – yikes.

أراك في مابعد

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