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War is Here: The Lebanese Political Elites Unite Again

[Syrian Refugees Wait in Line to Register with UNHCR in Arsal, 2013. Image by UNHCR] [Syrian Refugees Wait in Line to Register with UNHCR in Arsal, 2013. Image by UNHCR]

War is often understood as a temporally bounded event. A war begins, and eventually it ends. In the process, people are killed, maimed, starved, and traumatized; infrastructure is damaged; and life-worlds are destroyed. In such context, survival, not life, becomes the goal. Yet such an understanding of war is often duplicitous. For example, one might look to the Gaza Strip, where slow death under a globally-sanctioned siege under the temporality of a “ceasefire” is easily as violent, as final, as the next “war” with Israel. 

In Lebanon whispers of the war to come have intensified in ways that go beyond the constant anticipation of violence that characterized the last ten years of political discourse and social mobilization. Every day, politicians publically and repeatedly warn of the alleged dangers—military, economic, social, demographic, and criminal—that Syrian refugees pose to Lebanon and Lebanese citizens. Every day, many of those Lebanese citizens that buy into the political rhetoric (or simply view themselves as better and seek to exercise their privilege) defame, harass, and/or terrorize some of the one-and-a-half million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.

The political elites of Lebanon have united under a common cause: removing, as in forcibly deporting, the most vulnerable, the poorest Syrians from Lebanon. Over the past several years, this same set of elites allowed state institutions and the country’s infrastructure to petrify as part of their strategic calculations vis-à-vis their local and transnational political and economic rivals. They now have found temporary unity—as they did during the unconstitutional extension of the parliamentary mandate as well as during the garbage crisis—in the campaign to forcibly deport Syrian refuges from Lebanon.

Anti-refugee campaigns make strange bedfellows: representatives of Hizballah, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Progressive Socialist Party smile as they plan, execute, and justify an all out military assault and suffucating "security measures" against Syrian refugee encampments and surrounding regions in Arsal. They may disagree on details, particularly which state or non-state  organizations have the “right” to “sweep” the area (i.e., Hizballah or the Lebanese Army). Nevertheless, they all agree that the presence of armed individuals and groups within the general Syrian refugee population is reason enough to engage in acts of collective punishment and the abandonment of any sense of due process. This logic is familiar to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, as well as to any civilian community made expendable by the presence of armed persons among them—irrespective of those persons’ ideological commitments, strategic alliances, and political objectives. The irony of Hizballah “cleaning” a densely populated area to root out those accused of being affiliated with ISIS or al-Qa‘ida should not be lost on us almost eleven years to the month since the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. Then, the Israeli armed forces leveled and emptied entire parts of Lebanon to destroy what the Israeli state called the “civilian infrastructure” of the resistance group. In 2006, as entire sections of the country was brutally dismantled piecemeal by the Israeli war machine, other sections of the country continued life as usual. It was the summer season, after all. War is often geographically segregated.

The segregation and localization of war enables large parts of the population to be unaffected as other parts of the population are subjected to aerial and land assaults as well as other forms of violence. In 1982, some East Beirut restaurants remained open during the Israeli invasion, siege, and bombardment of West Beirut. In 1990, the Lebanese government declared an end to the Lebanese civil war and “peace” despite the fact that one-quarter of the country remained occupied by the Israeli army and its Lebanese affiliates until the year 2000. In 2006, Faraya became a hot spot for those who wanted to enjoy war segregation. In 2007, the Lebanese Army leveled a Palestinian refugee camp as many Lebanese citizens, towns, and cities paid attention only to support them and further discriminate against Palestinian refugees in the name of “security.” Today, many Lebanese are happy, again, to accept the war-segregation of Arsal. Of course, it does not help that Arsal is already segregated and largely forgotten—poor, rural, undeveloped—in the minds of many.

The cumulative effect of prolonged and successive episodes of violence may play a role in the ability of some to feel relatively safe as war occurs a few streets, a five or fifty minute drive, away. After all, this is how people survived—both mentally and physically—the fifteen-year Lebanese Civil War. Then, it became necessary to find a geographic, militia, sectarian, or national/ethnic logic to violence—a feeling of relative safety which people knew might change the next day. This is how one lives, raises children, and inhabits a war: by finding or creating a logic of violence that one feels they have a modicum of control navigating. This type of war conditioning is on display every time Lebanese politicians or civilians wonder out loud about why Syrian refugees do not return to the “safe” parts of Syria and threaten to forcefully deport them there. The lack of war conditioning (i.e., the fact that some Syrians may not be as equipped to navigate the false logics of civil war, or perhaps their rejection altogether) appears suspicious to many Lebanese.

On 20 July 2017, Hizballah, the Lebanese Army, and the Syrian Air Force launched a joint attack—a “cleansing” campaign, of Arsal (both the town and the surrounding region, including the border area between Lebanon and Syria). Over ten thousand Syrian refugees live in the town of Arsal itself, and over 100,000 Syrian refugees live in encampments in the larger areas surrounding the town. Yet none of the refugee encampments are visible in maps of the military campaign released and circulated by Lebanese media. Instead, in a map published by Maydani news and widely circulated on social media, Arsal is divided geographically into areas shaded “ISIS” and “Nusra”—a graphic representation of the premise that equates civilians and armed groups based on geography, effectively representing (by not representing) civilians as suspicious and expendable. While evacuation campaigns have been launched for refugees living in the area, they are insufficient, slow, and and subject to a large scale securtization process that is both highly gendered and deeply invasive. Media has been slow to report (and has in some cases been blocked from reporting) civilian causualties and traumas related to large scale military and security sweeps, to say nothing of the psychological effects of criminalization. 

This most recent military campaign follows political and social incitement to violence against Syrian refugees, some of the poorest and most destitute of whom live in the Arsal region.  On July fourth 2017, the Lebanese Army allegedly tortured four “suspected militants” to death after “sweeping” a refugee encampment in Arsal in order to arrest ISIS members. The army also sustained causualties during this operation. That same week two refugee encampments were engulfed in devastating fires.   In the July fourth operation, hundreds of refugee civilians were detained or arrested. On July 19th, a viral video of a group of Lebanese men beating up a Syrian refugee and terrorizing him was released, proudly, by the abusers themselves. Protests in solidarity with Syrian refugees have been banned (to say nothing of protests by Syrians themselves, which have been designated a political and criminal red line). In addition, government and various social media campaigns have targeted activists who have publically taken a stand in solidarity with the Syrian refugees.  In multiple municipalities across Lebanon, Syrians are under evening curfews—announced through the posting of banners and fliers openly declaring those curfews. Anyone who is Syrian and on the streets after the announced time is criminalized and deemed suspicious, irrespective of why they are exercising their right to movement.

While there are many obscenely rich Lebanese (including the political class), Lebanon is a poor country in terms of macroeconomic indicators. In 2012, before the Syrian refugee crisis reached its peak, over twenty five percent of the population lived below the poverty line (measured at 268$ per person per month). In the Bekaa, where Arsal is located, the poverty level was estimated to be at thirty-eight percent. By all accounts, these national and regional poverty statistics have risen since then, particularly when poverty among Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees are factored in.

Water, electricity, and waste management infrastructure was already insufficient before whatever strain placed on them by a large refugee population (inflated as it has been for political purposes). If you add all the various refugee populations in Lebanon up, one out of every three residents in Lebanon is a refugee from elsewhere in the Middle East. Many small towns and villages in Arsal, already impoverished, undeveloped, and lacking sufficient infrastructure, have seen their populations double or even triple since Syrian refugees began arriving in Lebanon. However, if there is blame to be placed for the worsening living conditions in Arsal, it should be placed on successive corrupt Lebanese national and municipal governments who have underdeveloped the region and neglected it—in large part because it is filled with poor people, those deemed politically unimportant. The fact that deteriorating living conditions outside of Beirut, particularly in rural areas such as Arsal, rarely spark national outcry also plays a role in the geography of government neglect and underdevelopment.

Rather than engaging in the theater of the war to come (since most are not really talking about the real possibility of an Israeli assault on Lebanon), we should engage with the wars that are already here. There is a war in Lebanon on refugees, both Syrian and other. There is also a wider war waged against the poor of all nationalities, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinian, and others. This war is pervasive, has no clear start and end date, and has no geographic limits. It occurs in Arsal as it does in Hamra, Beirut. It occurs with wide scale military operations as well as with thugs beating a refugee repeatedly as they demand that he defame Syria. This war makes certain bodies expendable and others not. As foreign tourists and eager academic researchers set up shop in Beirut, there is a three-pronged military campaign against one of the country’s largest regions—just two hours' drive away. Lebanese politicians, and significant portions of Lebanese citizenry, have reached a consensus that Syrian refugees are inherently dangerous. The xenophobic and mass-scale criminalization of Syrian refugees today is effectively hegemonic—it unites the entirety of the political and economic elites, without any base of rejection or critique amidst their ranks. This is what makes this unique moment different in some ways to the political and social sentiments mobilized against Palestinian refugees in the 1970s. Today, Lebanon is not at the precipice of war. It is mired within one.

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