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Documenting the destruction of Lebanon



By Ali Moossavi


The Arab American News




When world renowned chef Anthony Bourdain, host of the television show "No Reservations," went to Lebanon, his intent was to explore Lebanese cuisine and by extension, Lebanon itself. Early on, however, Bourdain found himself caught up in the war between Israel and Hizbullah sparked by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.


Rather than delving into the core issues, Bourdain used the episode to indirectly place blame on Hizbullah while ignoring Israel's atrocities or Washington's longtime support for the Jewish state.


While Lebanon burned, Bourdain's attention was focused on wondering when he would be evacuated and how hospitable the Marines would be to the American evacuees on board the Navy carrier that shuttled them to safety. Little was said on his program about the massive civilian casualties, the destruction of Southern Lebanon or of Israel's ambitions towards their Northern neighbor.


What could've been a timely and eye-opening expose towards understanding the roots of anti-Americanism instead became apolitical drivel that reflected the ego of a typical American celebrity.


As Bourdain left for his comfortable home life in New York, another New Yorker arrived in Lebanon for a very different purpose - to witness the invasion's aftermath and document the carnage in Israel's so-called war of self-defense.


In addition to delivering emergency aid and speaking with residents in Beirut and Southern Lebanon who were affected by Israel's actions, International Solidarity Movement (ISM) co-founder Adam Shapiro photographed what he saw and plans to use it in a photo exhibit.


When the war first broke out, Shapiro helped organized protests outside the Israeli consulate and the U.N. in New York, and also delivered a letter to U.S. ambassador John Bolton demanding that the U.S. enforce a cease-fire. But it was the suggestion from others who knew about his work with the ISM promoting non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine that prompted Shapiro to organize a team to go to Lebanon.


What he saw when he arrived in the Hizbullah stronghold of Dhahiya at first took him back to his experiences in the refugee camp of Jenin in the West Bank. But he quickly retracted that mental image as soon as he realized the scale of destruction.


"It made Jenin look almost like nothing compared with what we saw just in Dhahiya and this was on August 4," he said as he sat in the offices of "The Arab-American News."


In 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces invaded Jenin and destroyed much of it, killing many Palestinians and leaving many more homeless, in response to a suicide bombing committed by Palestinian residents of that camp. The IDF attack sparked international outrage, but a subsequent U.N. report failed to draw conclusions about Israel's conduct or human rights abuses.


Israeli objections, according to the "Palestine Chronicle" in 2002, forced Secretary-General Kofi Annan to disband the fact-finding team: the report came as a result of a U.N. General Assembly resolution. The report was highly criticized by human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which characterized it as a "watered-down account of the very serious violations in Jenin."


Around the same time as Jenin, Shapiro earned notoriety by staying in the late Yasser Arafat's compound - called the Muqata'a - and subsequently gave news conferences denouncing Israel's actions in Bethlehem as the equivalent to the Nazis, according to Wikipedia.


In early 2002, the Jewish activist and his Palestinian Christian wife - ISM co-founder and Michigan native Huwaida Arraf - were forced to flee their Brooklyn apartment after they were threatened by members of the Jewish Defense League and the Jewish Defense Organization. According to Shapiro, the JDO issued a death threat against him on their website.


Shapiro arrived in Beirut via Damascus on July 31 with Arraf and a friend named Aisha and immediately hooked up with a Lebanese relief group called Samidoun, or "Those Who Will Remain." The group - numbering at 400 - worked directly with the trio and eventually they brought more internationals from countries like Ireland, Spain, the U.K. and Egypt.


In conjunction with Samidoun, Shapiro and the other internationals organized a 52-car caravan to the South to deliver food, medicine and other aid to affected villages. As they made their way South towards Sidon, however, they were stopped at a checkpoint by order of the Minister of Interior.


"There was another group who was affiliated with the Hariri party that had originally organized a convoy just to Sidon that was supposed to happen on August 13," Shapiro said, referring to the late Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. (Al-Hariri was assassinated in a truck bombing in Beirut in February 2005, an event that was blamed on Syria and sparked a movement that eventually saw the withdrawal of Syrian troops and an end to its 29-year presence in Lebanon.)


Samidoun's convoy was meant to be apolitical, he said, with no singular representation by any political party. Shapiro soon found out that no matter how much Lebanese society was shattered by Israel's assault, Lebanese politics remained intact.


"The August 13 group was very specifically Hariri and Hariri's party, and so they didn't want to participate in our action, they didn't want to join," he said. "Well, they changed their date from August 13 to August 12, the same day as ours, and their convoy left earlier in the morning than ours and they got to Sidon.


"The Minister, it turns out later, was from Hariri's party," he added. "It was later explained to us very clearly that the reason he didn't let us go was because he wanted the other convoy to get all of the attention and all of the media coverage."


Besides delivering material aid, the other purpose of the convoy was to show solidarity with the people in the South, or as he put it, "We reject Israel telling Lebanese people what they can do in their own country." Israel had previously threatened to shoot any car traveling South of the Litani River, so the convoy was meant to counter that threat.


The destination was Nabatiyeh and Marj'ayoun and the villages in between, where aid was to be delivered because Israel refused to allow the U.N. or the Red Cross into those areas. After being turned back, the group returned to Beirut and delivered it to people displaced from their homes in the Shi'a-dominated Southern suburbs.


Among the 400 members of Samidoun is a young woman named Maryam, 26 years old and a resident of Dhahiya. Dhahiya is where Hizbullah's TV station, Al-Manar, is located. Dhahiya is also where the apartment was where she lived with her sister until the Israelis bombed it along with her original home in the Southern village of Siddiqine.


Maryam's story was just one of many Shapiro encountered while over there, and he documented what he saw through 140 pictures in Siddiqine alone as well as videotaping her talking about where she grew up.


Throughout the course of his stay, Shapiro documented not only what he believes are war crimes, but the walls of lies that surround those crimes, as well.


The ruins in Dhahiya, for example, were largely apartment blocks where civilian families lived, not where, as the Israelis said, Katyusha rockets were being fired from and landing in Northern Israel.


The rockets that were landing there were being fired from South of the Litani River, he said, not North, from Beirut - if they had been, they would be landing in Southern Lebanon. It was this logic that compelled him to believe that the Israelis were not only targeting civilian areas purposely, but lying about it as well.


"The scale of the size of the destruction, the systematic way - it was building after building after building - and we would see in the rubble little toys of kids," he said. Each picture he showed added some visual detail to the destruction; a toy truck here, a teddy bear there.


"You would see these toys, or you would see pictures or books that people had from their apartments lying about in the rubble and it's haunting because you know these belonged to people who were living there," Shapiro said.


In one of the villages he toured, Aita Al-Sha'ab, he saw a missile through the wall of a man's house - it didn't explode. Everybody wanted to have their kids close to them because they feared unexploded ordnance, a fear made real when four kids from the village were injured when they picked up cluster bombs - they didn't know what they were.


In Ba'albeck, East of Beirut, Shapiro met a girl named Al'a whose stomach was opened by shrapnel when a missile hit her while she was out walking. She was saved after being operated on for 12 hours.


Perhaps the most bizarre hit took place at Lebanon's only dairy production facility called Liban Lait, when Israeli missiles destroyed their production warehouse. A Christian family politically connected to the late al-Hariri owns the factory and the company itself is affiliated with a larger French dairy company.


According to the Israelis, the factory hid missiles launched by Hizbullah that were hitting Israel. But Marc Waked, who helps run the company, showed Shapiro out back a larger warehouse out back where the cows are, less than a kilometer away. According to Waked, that warehouse is a hangar, which offers more protection from the environment and hence, a more ideal place to hide missiles.


Waked thinks - and Shapiro agrees - that the warehouse was targeted not because it hid Hizbullah's missiles - Waked denies that - but because his company has been the sole supplier of dairy products to the U.N.'s peacekeeping force called UNIFIL since 2001.


Before that, the supplier had been an Israeli company, and the contract for the newly increased UNIFIL forces to 15,000 peacekeepers was expected to be worth over four million dollars a year. In other words, the strike on the factory wasn't a national security issue for the Israelis, but a business decision to ensure the Israelis would get the new contract.


Even if there were missiles, Shapiro notes, they still wouldn't be able to hit Israel.


"Even if you believe that they were targeting areas where missiles were being fired from, if they were to fire from Ba'albeck, they would never reach to Israel, these arguments don't work," he said.


Shapiro has been compiling data like this and has been meeting with legal organizations to devise strategies in order to prepare cases for the International Criminal Court.


In addition, he is going to tour a photo exhibit around the country where he will re-create the main streets by blowing the pictures up into life size proportions. The idea is to have the viewer walk between the pictures as if they're really there to get a sense of the systematic destruction.


A documentary film is also in the works and he will continue to support Samidoun, whose focus has changed from relief into long-term recovery. On top of those projects, Shapiro is working on a doctorate in International Relations at the American University in Washington, D.C.


But what has captivated Shapiro above all else has been the resilience of the Lebanese people in the face of a horrendous attack that left 1,300 civilians dead.


"People from all walks of Lebanese society, people from all socio-economic groups, from all the religious groups, everybody was interested in participating in resistance," he said. Shapiro characterized actions like displaced people returning to their homes even before the cease-fire as "civilian resistance."


"Everybody saw and understood that the attack was an attack on Lebanon, not just an attack on one political group, one faction or this or that, everybody wanted to act and do something."


Presumably, Anthony Bourdain couldn't care less.




Ali Moossavi is a local freelance writer. You can reach him at alimoo@hotmail.com.