In the Thirties, Beirut was a favourite holiday destination for Jews. Hoteliers hired Kosher cooks and subscribed to Hebrew newspapers. Zionists hoped to create an ally among the Christian majority. Seven decades later, in July 2006, Hizbollah, the popular Iranian-backed Shi’ite Lebanese militia committed to Israel’s destruction, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, provoking Israel to unleash Operation Just Reward. In 34 days of fighting, more than 1,000 Lebanese, as well as 43 Israeli, citizens were killed.
Lebanon’s relationship with her neighbours - near, far, Arab, Persian, Jewish and colonial - is the topic of David Hirst’s fascinating book. As he admits in the conclusion, almost as if it had taken him by surprise, it is not so much a history of Lebanon as of the Israeli-Arab conflict through the lens of Beirut, where he has lived and reported (mainly for the Guardian) for 50 years.
It is certainly a complex history. Lebanon, 130 miles long by 50 miles wide, is home to 17 religious communities, notably Christian, Sunni, Shi’ite and Druze. In 1989, at the height of its 15-year civil war, Christians fought each other with arms variously supplied by Israel, the United States and Iraq (which had intended them for use against Syria). It has twice hosted states-within-a-state: Arafat’s Palestinians controlled “Fatahland” until their expulsion in 1982; Hizbollah has dominated the south since the late Eighties.
For the most part, Hirst charts this course with skill and panache. His particular interest is in how a country that kept Arab-Israeli affairs at arm’s length for the first two decades of Israel’s existence - the “Switzerland of the Orient” - became the battleground for other people’s wars. It is not a story to reaffirm one’s faith in human nature. The displaced Palestinians, hundreds of thousands of whom came to Lebanon because “it was a garden without a fence”, were raped and massacred by Christian Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, while Israeli troops turned a blind eye. Syria, with its double-dealings, assassinations and eagerness to fight Israel on Lebanon’s border, but not its own, emerges especially badly.
Hirst, who has been banned from six Arab countries and kidnapped twice, does not pull his punches, although pro-Israelis will perhaps feel his criticism of the Jewish state is stronger than of others. Israel “rains down indiscriminate slaughter from the skies”, while he appears just a little admiring of plucky Hizbollah and their ability to hide rocket launchers in less than a minute, before the Israeli drones can find them.
Hirst is at his best in straight reportage; the gruesome details of atrocities and the carefully chosen quote. “They shoot,” said one prime minister of the militias, “to show that they are there.” He vividly describes the civil war as a period of “Hobbesian chaos”; of man against man, sect against sect, bellum gratia belli. Where the book occasionally loses its way, especially for those unfamiliar with the region, is in its jumping across decades and borders - sometimes within the space of a single sentence - so that an already complex chronology becomes tangled to the point of incomprehension. But Hirst’s bleak conclusion is compelling: that the next resort to arms in the Israeli-Arab conflict will likely begin again on the Lebanese front - the only militarily active border of the past 36 years outside Gaza and the West Bank - but might not remain confined to it, as Hamas, Syria and, most worryingly, Iran join in.
Book: Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East
Author: David Hirst
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 480pp.
Reviewer: Alain Hollingshead