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History's Borders

JULY 26, 2000

Listening to a BBC report on Lebanon, where I'm presently living, I heard an interviewee talking about Lebanon's tendency to forget. The comment was, in its context (in reference to the civil war), quite correct, but it reminded me that, when they want to, the Lebanese have memories like elephants.

When Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon after a 22-year presence, people who had been unable to move freely in their own land were suddenly able to come and go as they wished (mostly, in any case; Hizbullah now has checkpoints on roads entering what Israel used to call its "security zone", although these exclude far fewer people than the occupation did). In many ways, though, the relationship between occupier and occupied has not ended with the occupation.

From the beginning it was a complex relationship; Many Lebanese opposed the Israeli presence, but not all did. Large numbers of Lebanese--Christians and Muslims--served in Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, some for ideological reasons, some for financial reasons, and some reluctantly, under duress. The relationship also involved outside forces, particularly Syria and Iran, which supported--some argue, directed--the resistance movements that dogged Israeli and SLA forces.

Memories are still fresh in the minds of those who were involved in the conflict in Lebanon's south, but in the aftermath of the withdrawal, these memories are already beginning to take on legendary proportions, and a set of rituals is growing up around them that serve to perpetuate the legends. Visits to the former occupation zone have taken on the air of a pilgrimage. When you mention that you spent the weekend in the "liberated South" you tell people that you made the "obligatory" trip to the notorious Khiam detention facility, where the SLA routinely tortured prisoners held without charge or trial.

We made our pilgrimage more than a month after Israel's May 24 withdrawal, and found that in that short time, the journey had been all but institutionalized. Travel and tourism companies have begun to run special tours that take in villages destroyed during the occupation, Khiam, the Fatima Gate border crossing, Beaufort Castle which Israel used as an outpost during the occupation and Qana, the site where, by UN estimates, more than 100 Lebanese civilians were killed when Israeli shells hit a UN compound.

In the early days after the withdrawal the village of Kfar Kila had been tense. Now the village has the atmosphere of a rural French fete. The crowds that thronged its dusty roads on the Sunday of our visit ranged from fully cloaked women walking quietly behind traditionally dressed men to buffed and bejeweled Beirutis (and that was just the men!) and the occasional European tourist.

Followers of Hizbullah stationed at various points on the road consulted each other across the airwaves about sightings not of collaborators, but of parking spaces for the ever-expanding sea of buses and cars. Those who weren't directing traffic with military precision were manning the sound system, which blared out songs lauding the steadfast Islamic resistance or anthems to the unparalleled beauty of the occupied territories.

You could buy copies of these recordings, along with your Hizbullah T-shirt, Hizbullah flag, peaked baseball cap, key ring and poster. We bought a flag, and asked the cheerful guerrilla manning the cash box how business was doing. It was good, of course, he reported. The day before he'd sold out of flags. Not surprising, we thought. This was a big event for the Lebanese people; even many of those who bore no real grudge against Israel were glad to see Lebanon one step closer to true sovereignty. Yes, he agreed, adding with a wry smile, but it was a group of Italians that had cleaned him out.

We watched parents positioning children near the border fence to be photographed throwing stones at the Israeli watch-house on the other side. Given that stone throwing has all but supplanted soccer as the national sport, it's a wonder there's a pebble left to fling, I commented. Yes, concurred the Hizbullah salesman. But we won't run out, he reassured, pointing at two piles of rubble nearby. We bring in more stones every day.

At Khiam, former prisoners have made the first, informal steps toward turning the grim detention center into a museum. A lot of the contents were pilfered when the SLA-run prison was stormed by locals during the Israeli withdrawal, but the cells still contain many of the prisoners' meager belongings. There were occasional reminders of the jailers, too; a riot shield lay, apparently forgotten, by the door of a cellblock and what looked like a prisoner transport vehicle had become a prop on which scout troops posed to be photographed. At the entrance gate a list names jailers who tortured detainees, with additional comments about the brutality of particular individuals scrawled in later by former prisoners.

Entering one of the cellblocks, we squeezed past people who emerged covering their noses with hands and handkerchiefs, and braced ourselves for the overpowering stench we assumed awaited us somewhere beyond. I wondered whether I was about to come face to face for the first time with the smell correspondents describe as the stench of death. Warily, we entered.

There was grime, there was a depressing lack of space and light, and there was no question that the existence of the prisoners here, even had they not been made to endure systematic torture, would have been bleak; but there was no stench. It didn't matter that the smell had dissipated from the cells; it had clearly become entrenched in the occupation legends.

In using the word "legend", I don't for a second suggest that the stories aren't based on fact. Many reports documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International include descriptions of prisoners being suspended by their wrists for long periods of time, of electric shocks being applied during interrogation, of their being doused with extremely hot or extremely cold water. When these stories become legends, though, they become more than just reports of suffering; they come to represent the wider relationship between the occupier and occupied.

For example, although the torture at Khiam was carried out with Israeli complicity and sometimes-direct participation, in most instances the perpetrators were actually Lebanese SLA members. The prison is, however, a powerful symbol of the occupation and so as we listened to the stories of former detainees, our driver and other visitors would periodically turn to us and say sarcastically, "this is what Israel does. Isn't Israel's a good country?"

The function of legend is not simply representational, though. The fact that legends take on meanings wider than the specific incidents that gave rise to them means that they can be appropriated and reinterpreted to apply to other situations.

Thus, legend and ritual and symbols can also serve to perpetuate relationships long after the circumstances that forged them have ceased to exist. They legends of the resistance and liberation may, therefore, help to sustain a sense of unity between segments of the Lebanese community that had little common ground other than their opposition to the occupation. They may also serve to further entrench the divisions between those who opposed each other over the Israeli presence for the past 22 years.

Already Lebanon's Council for the South has prepared books that graphically catalogue the horrific destruction and injury suffered by Lebanese people during the occupation. Israel is depicted as a viper that not only inflicts destruction indiscriminately, but which actively pursues children, the universal symbols of innocence.

The Lebanese propagation of images of Israel as the embodiment of evil also has its parallel in Israeli lore.

Israeli legends built up around Jewish persecution in Europe and the early struggles to establish the state of Israel in a hostile environment go a long way to explaining the present feeling of general vulnerability that is pervasive in Israel. Looking specifically at Israel's relationship with Lebanon, the Israeli authorities have actively promoted the image of Lebanon as a haven for terrorists, and depict Israelis in northern settlements as living in constant fear of rocket attacks launched from Lebanese soil, despite the fact that such attacks in recent years have been relatively few and greatly outnumbered by the attacks mounted by Israeli forces within Lebanon or launched from Israel across the border into Lebanon.

While legends can be particularly useful to authorities in fractious societies such as Lebanon or Israel, providing a common enemy against whom many otherwise opposed factions can unite, it must be asked whether excessive reference to such legends might keep alive hostilities that should be consigned to history with the disappearance of the circumstances that gave rise to them and the generations that experienced them.

One of the greatest challenges that faces Israel and Lebanon in the next phase of their relationship, then, is to negotiate the delicate balance between remembering their tragic past and recreating its horrors by investing some later dispute with the hatreds of another time.

-Robyn Kennison
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