After two days of downtime due to sickness, we’re back in action. We went south to Tyre yesterday and spent the afternoon on the beach. Found some sweet towels, which will make excellent souvenirs.
Today we got permits to visit the “secure zone” of Hizbollah controlled towns. Our permit required color photocopies of our passports and new photographs, but ended up being a slip of paper with a number written on it. Sometimes things are just laughably ad-hoc in the Middle East. Stormed a castle that was originally built by the romans, captured by the Crusaders in 1139, used by the PLO to shell northern Israel until 1982, was used by the Israelis during the occupation which ended in 2000. Now there is a yellow Hizbollah flag on the top, and the castle is in rough shape.
We also toured through several villages that were heavily bombed by the Israelis in the 2006 war, where reconstructions is still underway. As our gracious host explained, the Lebanese are experienced at rebuilding. We also saw a former Israeli detention center, which was also bombed during the most recent conflict. Hizbollah banners and martyr posters line the streets, and it isn’t hard to see why the population supports them. Of all the “non-state actors” in the region, they are the only one to achieve any real gains against Israel. My feelings about the group are mixed, however despicable the qassam rockets were they haven’t been involved in suicide attacks within Israel. They do seem to be a more classic nationalist organization than your stereotypical international terrorist group.
Wandered around the downtown today, seeing the massive rebuilding project. The area was where the worst fighting during the civil war was, but you’d hardly know it today. There are shops galore, a huge new mosque, and the Parliament building, even if the representatives haven’t met in two years. It’s almost like Disneyland, in that new-old building style.
At Jared and Jenna’s insistence, we went to a concert tonight in Martyr’s Square. It was both the worst musical experience of any concert I have been to, and also the most fun. Mika is apparently a big deal, especially in Lebanon, his homeland. I’d never heard of the guy, but I guess that means I’m out of the loop. It was a remarkably strange performance, with giant inflatable pizza slices and milkshakes surfing the crowd, a squadron of zaftig dancers, and several interludes with animal costume performances. Words cannot quite describe the, well, gayness, of this show. Still, the crowd loved it, and we decided to as well. When in Beirut, you have to party hard.
Crossed the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge again yesterday, and just made it across. I have to learn not to travel on the Sabbath in this place. Then we took a taxi to Amman, where we ate a good cheap dinner and collapsed. Amman really isn’t such an interesting town, but we needed to go through it to get here. Took a really early flight to Beirut, and made it through immigration without too much trouble. We are being put up by Jared’s friend Shireen, who is staying in her Aunt’s fabulous apartment. Going to a beach party tonight, so we’re all catching up on rest beforehand. We’re all experiencing pretty severe culture shock, coming from Palestine where women are all covered to Lebanon where it seems anything goes. It’s also amazing that we are only a few hundred miles from Jerusalem, and yet it took us 24 hours to get here. What seems like a small part of the world is not always so easily traversed.
Went on a tour of various Bedouin villages, focusing on water issues and run by Bustan. These villages are not recognized by the state of Israel, which is conducting an urbanization campaign. Official policy is to move people into newly developed towns in order to provide them access to government services. However, this is backed up by harassment, including repeated home demolishing, against people who are full Israeli citizens. While Bedouin villages are denied access to water, Jewish towns only miles away have green lawns and sprinkler systems. The health consequences of reduced access to water is obvious, but it causes Bedouin infant mortality to be around 15 per 1000 live births, three times higher than that for Jewish babies.
What really disturbed me about the tour was that the same set of restrictions and discriminatory are placed on the Bedouin as the Palestinians, even though the Bedouin are full citizens of Israel. Because this issue has none of the international legal complexity as that with the West Bank, the only reason for these policies that holds together is simple racism. And in a country that prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, that is simply unacceptable.
Jared took me to Hebron today, to see one of the most divided cities in the West Bank. Jewish settlers there have moved into the old part of town, where there has traditionally been a Jewish presence. However, the violence between the settlers and the Palestinians, originating from both sides, is such that the Israeli army has the town in virtual lockdown. There are checkpoints everywhere, and we were blocked from walking down some roads. We did get to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob and Leah are buried. The cave is covered by a large complex built by King Herod, with a basilica above that, half of which is Jewish and half is Muslim.
The rhetoric from some of the settlers is pretty ridiculous, including this map of “greater Israel”, which extends from the Sinai to Turkey. While it would have made this trip easier, it’s this kind of extremism that makes me wonder how this situation can ever be resolved. It’s also interesting to note that the founder of the modern Jewish settlement in Hebron is Moshe Levinger; probably the most famous owner of our moniker.