Liberating Lebanon and Decolonising the Discourse that Occupies It

Whilst mainstream media has (often reluctantly) been forced to report major Israeli wars and attacks on Palestinians, the daily incursions into Lebanon are rarely acknowledged.  This normalisation of colonial violence against the people of Lebanon is intertwined with the oppression of Palestinians, and the physical and ideological resistance to the former are also intimately linked to the liberation of the wider region argues Denijal Jegić.

The sounds of Israeli fighter jets can disturb the peace on any day in Lebanon. Israel invades Lebanon, on average, several times a day by land, sea, and mostly by air, in flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty and international law. Israeli war planes have long become part of the Lebanese airscape. These invasions rarely make the headlines in mainstream media, nor do they trigger any impactful reaction from the international community. In fact, the illegal Israeli incursions are part and parcel of a structural aggression and tell a decades-long story of settler-colonialism and terrorism.

Israeli drones regularly spy on civilians, while Israeli fighter jets break the sound barrier, perform mock raids, and use Lebanese airspace for attacks on Syria.

Following the devastating Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, Israeli war planes flying at low altitude caused much unease. Residents of Beirut witnessed one of the greatest non-nuclear explosions in history, when 2,750 tons of stored ammonium nitrate caught fire and caused catastrophic damage in the city. The powerful blast was felt in neighboring countries. More than 200 people died, thousands were injured, and around 300,000 lost their homes.

The explosion came at a time of heightened insecurity. Lebanon is in the grip of a financial crisis, economic collapse, and political instability, all compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Given the presence of Israeli war planes and the memory of past Israeli air strikes, many assumed an Israeli involvement in the disaster. This was initially ruled out and as well denied by Israel, but the circumstances around the explosion are still under investigation.

Routine Violence

The routine presence of Israeli fighter jets in Lebanon exemplifies the normalisation of colonial violence.

In the first five months of the year 2020 alone, the Lebanese government registered over a thousand Israeli violations. According to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), a daily average of 12.63 airspace violations was recorded between June and October 2020. Lebanon’s repeated complaints to the United Nations have not resulted in any meaningful action being taken against Israel.

Israel remains unashamedly transparent about its invasions. When one of its military aircraft was intercepted on February 3, 2020, the Israeli “Air Forces” stated on Twitter: “A short while ago, during routine IAF UAV activity over Lebanon, anti-aircraft missiles were fired towards the UAV. The aircraft was not hit and continued its mission as planned.” It matters little to Israel that its military presence in Lebanon is illegal.

The History of Israeli Violence in Lebanon

Israeli violence is not restricted to Palestine. Israel has never defined its borders and it keeps extending its already contested sovereignty beyond Palestine. Since the state of Israel was established through an ethnic cleansing known as the Nakba, i.e., the forced expulsion of the majority of Palestinians from Palestine in 1948, it has also been in an official state of war with Lebanon. Israel’s aggressions on Lebanon cannot be detached from its oppressive policies in Palestine. The indigenous people in Palestine and Lebanon have been targeted for both standing in the way of the Israeli project and for actively resisting it.

As part of its ongoing campaign of infiltration into Lebanese territory, the Israeli military has on numerous occasions fired phosphorus bombs across the Lebanese border. For example, in August 2020, it targeted the small village of Hula sparking fires that kept citizens awake at night. In 1948, Zionist forces had carried out a massacre in the same village. Most women and children were expelled and the male population executed.

Hula is not an isolated case. It is one of many places that sustained a decades-long brutal Israeli military occupation and witnessed ongoing repetitions of Israeli violence.

As a result of the 1948 Nakba, thousands of Palestinians sought refuge in neighbouring countries, including Lebanon. Israel initially presented its incursions into Lebanese territory as acts of “retaliation” against organised Palestinian resistance. For example, in 1968, the Israeli military raided the airport of Beirut, destroying 14 passenger planes belonging to various Lebanese airlines, causing millions of dollars in damage. Israel claimed its raid was a “response” to an attack on an Israeli airplane conducted two days before by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The United States criticised that particular Israeli attack, as there was no proof to suggest any involvement by Lebanon.

Since its invasion of Lebanon in 1978, Israel has been trying to provoke reactions that would provide it with a pretext for increased military action. This has been a common pattern. Throughout these years, the Israeli regime would attack civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, usually presenting atrocities as response or self-defence. As Israel consolidated its role as a regional power and became increasingly central as a proxy for U.S. endeavours in the Middle East, Western criticism of Israel decreased.

Israel played a destructive role in the Lebanese civil war. Seizing on internal conflict within Lebanon, Israel aligned itself with a group of far-right Christian Lebanese forces in attempts to crush Lebanese and Palestinian resistance, at a time when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was increasingly gaining international recognition. In the summer of 1982, Israel conducted a large-scale invasion of Lebanon, besieging the western half of Beirut, killing around 20,000 civilians.

The well-documented genocide of Sabra and Shatila gained particular international attention. On September 16, 1982, Israeli military captured the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in western Beirut. Under the supervision of Ariel Sharon and command of Elie Hobeika, around 150 Lebanese Christian Phalangist fighters massacred the inhabitants of the camps over three days. More than 3,000 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese civilians, most of whom were women, children, and elderly, were killed, tortured, sexually assaulted, and/or mutilated. A journalist, Janet Lee Stevens, reported: “I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.”

Israel tried to downplay its involvement and eventually found that Sharon carried a personal responsibility for the massacre. He was removed as “defense” minister. However, Sharon would still continue his political career, holding various positions in the government and eventually becoming prime minister two decades later. Israel continued to hold South Lebanon under illegal military occupation until the year 2000, with the help of its proxy, the South Lebanon Army. From the Khiam torture camp to the Qana massacre, people in Lebanon have suffered various injustices under the terror of Israeli occupation. Israel even bombed the synagogue in Beirut.

While Israel formally withdrew from Lebanon, it has never left. The Israeli regime would create pretexts for further incursions through constant provocations and, in the case of a reaction, military attacks that are usually presented as the self-defense of an alleged victim.

The 2006 war was a brutal reiteration of this colonial tactic. Israel launched a large-scale military invasion, which was yet again presented as defense, exploiting the rhetorical framing of resistance as terrorism. The war saw the intentional destruction of civilian infrastructure and homes, particularly in Dahiye, the Southern Suburbs of Beirut, i.e., a densely populated residential area which Israel presents as a “terrorist” stronghold. The heavy destruction of civilian infrastructure and organised killings of civilians became known as the “Dahiye” (or Dahiya) doctrine. Israeli military commander Gadi Eizenkot threatened that the strategy “will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on.” Israel would “apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there,” since “these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. . . This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”

After being tested on Lebanese civilians, the doctrine was implemented in Gaza. Israel’s invasions have constantly created new refugee experiences and made many Lebanese internally displaced people within their own country. Thus, today’s airspace violations are but a manifestation of this decades-long structure of violence.

Colonial Rhetoric and Genocidal Threats

Through colonial rhetoric, Israel is constantly creating its imagery of the Orient. As a Western outpost that is still in the process of establishing its own narrative and founding myths, Israel defines itself as superior in regard to the backward, native ‘Other’. In many ways, the Israeli project ­­is the contemporary culmination of Orientalist narratives.

As Palestinian intellectual Fayez Sayegh outlined in his seminal work Zionist Colonialism in Palestine (1965), Israel emerged as “an alien state” “in the land link between Asia and Africa without the free consent of any neighboring African or Asian country.” (Sayegh 17) It should be mentioned that Sayegh’s work was published by the Research Center of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Beirut, which was attacked and looted by Israel, when it invaded the Lebanese capital. In his detailed reconstruction of Zionist colonial efforts, Sayegh elaborates on both the colony’s transnational dependence on Western powers and its exclusivist segregation in the Levant: “Not only its vital and continuing association with European Imperialism, and its introduction into Palestine of the practices of Western Colonialism, but also its chosen pattern of racial exclusiveness and self-segregation renders it an alien society in the Middle East.” (Sayegh 19)  

The narrative that Israel has employed to justify its actions has remained rather simplistic throughout the decades. In fact, it is largely based on continuous re-imaginations of Orientalist myths and Islamophobic fantasies that are used to dehumanise the indigenous people who represent obstacles in Israel’s settler-colonial endeavor. Exploiting the linguistic conceptual metaphor that equates resistance with terrorism, Israel constructs Lebanese and Palestinians in advance and posthumously as legitimate targets of state violence. Civilians are, thus, depicted as terrorists, while civilian infrastructure, including mosques, churches, hospitals and residential buildings are presented as weapons factories, human shields, and terrorist strongholds.

Within this narrative, Israel appears as a fragile, white, European outpost in an allegedly dangerous area of the world. Indigenous people are constructed as inherently evil, whose threatening character emanates from their culture, religion, or ethnicity. As a consequence, any Israeli aggression, in Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus, or elsewhere, is presented as necessary self-defence or the restoration of freedom and order.

These propaganda efforts are lucidly displayed in an opinion piece by Ariel Sharon, which the New York Times published shortly before the Sabra and Shatila genocide: “Israel’s troops entering Lebanon were greeted as liberators for driving out the terrorists who had raped and pillaged and plundered. Our soldiers were welcomed despite the casualties that were the inevitable result of fighting against P.L.O. terrorists who used civilians as human shields and who deliberately placed their weapons and ammunition in the midst of apartment houses, schools, refugee camps and hospitals.”  

Notably, at that point, Sharon was already responsible for decades of violence against Palestinians, including massacres and destructions of villages. At the height of Israel’s terrorist campaign in Lebanon, he had prime access to major news outlets.

The recycling of this narrative is visible in the constant creation of threats of destruction aimed at Lebanon. The rhetoric employed by Israeli politicians in recent years amounts to threats of genocide.

Naftali Bennett, a far-right politician who headed numerous Israeli government ministries, and at the time of publication has just become Prime minister, for example in 2017, identified “[t]he Lebanese institutions, its infrastructure, airport, power stations, traffic junctions, Lebanese Army bases” as “legitimate targets if a war breaks out.” He targeted the Shia population in particular: “Lebanon’s civilians, including the Shi’ite population, will understand that this is what lies in store for them if Hizbullah is entangling them for its own reasons, or even at the behest of Iran.”

Bennett played an active role in the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and participated in the Qana massacre and 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Later, he boasted: “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that.” On another occasion, he threatened to send Lebanon back to the Middle Ages.

Another example is the recent Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, who told Saudi media in 2017: “What happened in 2006 will be a picnic compared to what we can do. I remember a Saudi minister saying they will send Hizbullah back to their caves in south Lebanon. I am telling you that we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age,” he said in reference to the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.” He added: “We don’t want war, and we have no interest in destroying Lebanon, but we will not accept a Lebanese assault on us.

Benny Gantz threatened in 2021 he would make Lebanon pay a “heavy price” and inflict it with “enormous destruction” if war broke out.

These non-exhaustive examples show how the justification for genocidal actions is being constructed in advance. The threats of large-scale devastation are regularly accompanied by the allegation that Israel does not want war, but would be forced to invade, occupy, and attack. The Israeli regime is preparing the ground for blaming potential future victims for their own genocide.

Neither the Israeli threats of destruction nor the ongoing airspace violations seem to cause political issues internationally. They rarely become major events in the media. Despite Beirut being a prominent hub for Western, anglophone media outlets, journalists, correspondents and reporters, Israeli violence in Lebanon remains rather marginal in mainstream English-language media. In fact, the illegal presence of the Israeli military in Lebanon seems normalised. It does occasionally become a news story, but only when Hizbullah shoots down a drone or the Israeli army issues a statement.

The Fear of Indigenous Resistance

Currently, Israel focuses on the Lebanese resistance movement Hizbullah, attempting to portray it as a “terrorist” organisation. This is in large part due to Israel’s fear of Hizbullah. The movement initially emerged as a popular resistance from the context of the civil war and foreign occupation and eventually facilitated the liberation of the occupied Lebanese territory in May 2000. Throughout the years, Hizbullah has become a provider of social and economic services and a strong political party that represents a significant part of the Lebanese population. It is a powerful regional non-state actor that works in accordance with the Lebanese army.

Hizbullah, which emerged a century after the onset of settler-colonial Zionism, continues to represent a significant deterrent against Israel’s endeavours and is the primary reason Israel’s continuous colonial efforts have largely failed in Lebanon.

In fact, Lebanon is the only successful case of liberation from Zionist occupation. Hizbullah showed the Israeli army its own weakness. An example is the battle of Bint Jbeil in 2006. During its invasion of Lebanon, several Israeli brigades and battalions totalling around 5,000 troops tried to take over the town in South Lebanon. They were opposed by about a hundred Hizbullah fighters in a battle that lasted 19 days. Hizbullah successfully defended the town and defeated Israel.

As a result of its own contested existence, the colony is in perpetual fear of resistance. Within this context, Israel’s daily incursions into Lebanon can effectively be read as a quest for control and containment.

A Transnational Outlook

Besides its human rights violations in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, the Israeli regime has established itself as a notorious producer of racist strategies and technologies far beyond the Levant. It has become a model for far-right movements in many parts of the world and has forged alliances with oppressive regimes.

Recent geopolitical developments in Western Asia have benefitted Israel. In the last months of the Trump presidency, the Israeli regime publicly announced its “normalisation” with several dictatorships. What was hailed internationally as a milestone in “Arab-Israeli” peace efforts is rather a publicising of already existing ties between Israel and unelected leaders, who have never been in conflict and whose decisions do not necessarily reflect the will of their populations. Through their dependence on the United States, the governments of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia appear as natural allies.

Israel and its Gulf partners have justified their economic and political cooperation as prosperous developments toward alleged peace and stability. In fact, the attempt to reframe Israel’s settler-colonial expansion as a quest for peace is itself a colonial tactic that has been accepted quite successfully, at least in the Euro-American sphere. The rhetoric of “peace” in Western Asia has usually meant Western-backed peace for the Israeli coloniser and, thus, capitulation to and cooperation with Israel. The recent discourse around peace further obscures the underlying violence of colonisation and apartheid. Even in Lebanon, anti-Palestinian and anti-Iranian rhetoric as well as at least covert sympathy for Israel has at times been part of political and media discourses driven by particular ideologies.

A Way Forward

Despite its global prominence in oppressive policies, Israel never managed to defeat Lebanon. The current political and economic crises and isolation as well as Lebanon’s significance for various regional and international actors are increasing the pressure. Israel’s regional hegemony, its Western and Arab alliances, and the colonised dominant media discourse on victims of Israeli violence, have a negative impact on Lebanon.

The liberation of Lebanon cannot be detached from the liberation of Palestine, not least because of Israel’s structural and transnational violence. The intimate connection between Lebanon and Palestine was again reiterated during the Israeli regime’s latest war against Palestinians in May 2021. With violent expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, attacks against Palestinians and the storming of the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Israeli regime created another crisis that extended into Gaza. Resistance efforts by Hamas were met with Israeli airstrikes. More than 240 Palestinians were killed and over 70,000 were displaced as a result of Israeli attacks. The crisis highlighted the apartheid structures in the 1948 territories, as Palestinian citizens of Israel become victims of state-sponsored violence, which again showed that all Palestinians in historic Palestine are subjected to state violence and violence by settlers who are protected by the state.

The crisis was a setback for the Israeli regime. Besides its only strategy being the indiscriminate bombardment of Palestinians, Israel’s propaganda efforts suffered. The recycling of the same Orientalist tropes to justify the killing of Gazans did not prevent people around the world from taking to the streets to protest in solidarity with Palestine. When Lebanese and Palestinians gathered at Lebanon’s Southern border, a 21-year old Lebanese protester, Mohammad Tahhan, was martyred by Israeli forces.

The crisis lucidly displayed Israel’s fragility and its continuous dependence on Western-backed state violence and subjugation of the indigenous people.

In a speech on the occasion of the Liberation and Resistance Day on May 25th, marking the 21st anniversary of the liberation of Lebanon, the Secretary-General of Hizbullah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, praised the Palestinian resistance and saluted Yemeni solidarity. He reaffirmed that the resistance in the region is strengthened today. Warning the Israeli regime, he said that any violation of Islamic and Christian sanctities would be faced by resistance not only in Gaza but would entail a regional war for Al-Quds.

The latest events emphasize how intertwined people and resistance in Palestine and Lebanon and beyond are and reaffirm that decolonization and liberation are concepts that extend beyond current borders.

Denijal Jegić is a postdoctoral researcher in communication and journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon. He holds a PhD in American Studies. His work focuses on colonialism, resistance, and media representations.

____

References Sayegh, Fayez A. Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. Beirut: Research Center, Palestine Liberation Organization. 1965