Remembering the 2006 Lebanon War

The border between Israel and Lebanon has been mostly quiet for the past ten years. Some observers might interpret this quiet to suggest that the problems between Israel and Hezbollah — the Lebanese militant group- were either solved by the war, which ended on August 14, 2006, or that the patterns of Middle Eastern politics have substantially shifted. On the contrary, it is clear that the July war of 2006 inflamed and facilitated the tensions that now define much of the violence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

While I was interning at the State Department in the fall of 2006, a colleague in the Arab media office showed me a music video, perhaps the most effective propaganda that emerged from the July War between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded Lebanese militia cum political party, had worked with renowned Lebanese Christian singer Julia Boutros to release a song, “Ahibaii,” my beloved ones, in October 2006. Boutros powerfully sang lyrics adapted from a letter written by Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah to fighters during the war. The music video featured Boutros walking through Bint Jbeil, a heavily bombed out border town, with Christian and Muslim children. In the final scene the children unfurled a billowing Lebanese national flag. Hezbollah fiercely asserted that it was the protector of Lebanon, Muslim and Christian.

The talk of the D.C. foreign policy establishment in the fall of 2006 was Vali Nasr’s improbably well-timed book, The Shia Revival. Nasr argued that wars between Sunni and Shia Islam “will shape the future.” On the heels of the war in Lebanon and sectarian bombings in Iraq, the book appeared to be more of a manual than a prophecy. Nasr framed Sunni-Shia violence as an age-old animosity, an argument that seemed to absolve Americans of responsibility for the sectarian violence that had broken out in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Unsurprisingly, the book caught on quickly in Washington.

The July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel reinforced many of the regional changes initiated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, especially the deepening of regional sectarianism between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The war increased Shia dependency on Hezbollah and Iran, weakened American-allied states, accelerated Saudi-Iranian confrontation, and laid the groundwork for the extension of the Islamic State and its precursors into the Levant in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Uprisings.

Walking into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on the morning of July 12, 2006 to get my fingerprints taken for my internship at the State Department, there was an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty. Earlier that morning, members of Hezbollah had seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid and killed 5 others. The stated intention of the raid was to trade the soldiers for Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.

Three hours later, Israeli airplanes began a 34-day bombing campaign that paralyzed the country by destroying villages, apartment buildings, the Beirut airport, major bridges, and intersections. With American support, Israel reacted to Hezbollah’s incursion with intense bombardment and ground assault. Hezbollah responded with a wide-scale rocket attack into northern Israel. According to Amnesty International, over 1,000 Lebanese civilians and forty-four Israeli civilians died in the conflict.

Although the United States had not initiated the war, the Bush White House quickly supported the Israeli-led assault, which they recognized as an effort to eliminate another wing of the so-called ‘Axis of Evil.’ Administration officials quietly rushed precision-guided bombs to support the Israeli war effort. While travelling to Tel Aviv and Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly stated that she did not want to see a return to the status quo ante. American officials understood the war as “Hezbollah’s outrageous provocation” which might have “delightful” consequences by encouraging Christian Lebanese allies to distance themselves from the militia. At the outset of the war many US-allied Lebanese politicians worried that by engaging Israel, Hezbollah would appear to be the new defender of Lebanon and “the Arab cause.” Through military action, Hezbollah sought to reveal what they perceived to be the inaction and incompetence of the Sunni Lebanese elites who had gained dominance in Lebanon after the civil war from 1975–1990.

Having rushed back to my grandparents’ apartment after leaving the U.S. embassy, I made the gut-wrenching decision to seek the safety of the Lebanese American University campus, where I was enrolled in an intensive Arabic program. My U.S. citizenship granted me safety and passage out of the country, while my Lebanese family endured bombings, flyovers, sonic booms and the destruction of my aunt’s home.

Among some of the Americans with me in Lebanon, there was speculation about the timing of the Bush Administration’s evacuation of American citizens. The Canadian, Italian, French, and Filipino governments were all quicker to evacuate their citizens. Some wondered if an American evacuation was being delayed because it would constitute an admission that the Israeli assault endangered civilians.

When an evacuation of US citizens was finally announced, some Fox News commentators and disgruntled newsreaders worried about American taxpayers having to foot the bill for their departure and a few suggested that U.S. citizens’ presence in Lebanon itself was suspicious. What exactly had they been doing over there, anyway? Many Americans in Lebanon, like myself, were of Lebanese heritage — they might be sympathetic to Hezbollah, or at least not sufficiently critical of them. Others mused in language familiar to current debates about Syrian refugees, that we should be careful — the evacuation would be a great way for terrorists to sneak into the United States.

In a testament to the deep ties between the United States and Lebanon, nearly 15,000 of the estimated 25,000 American citizens in Lebanon that summer were evacuated by ship and helicopter. The U.S.-chartered ship I was intended to board, with fellow American students, never arrived. Instead we were generously shuttled onto a Norwegian cargo ship carrying mostly Scandinavian citizens. On a 12-hour journey through the night we slowly navigated the Israeli naval blockade on a ship with over 1,000 people exposed on the top deck, three bathrooms and several guarded decks of luxury cars originally destined for the Kuwait. Upon arrival in Larnaka, Cyprus, the U.S. Embassy official asked after our health and sent our group to one of the few hotels with space, which turned out to be a brothel that rented by the hour.

When a UN brokered ceasefire agreement was initiated on August 14, both Israel and Hezbollah sought to claim victory. The Israelis pointed to the devastation of Lebanon, while Hezbollah dramatically claimed that they had punctured the veil of Israeli unassailability cultivated since the 1967 war. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah became the single most popular leader in the Middle East, although a closer look at the data reveal that most of his support came from nations with substantial Shia populations.

American-encouraged Israeli bombings exacerbated Shia Lebanese reliance on Hezbollah, weakened the Lebanese government and in the eyes of many Arabs, further associated the United States with violence in the Middle East. Even some diplomats, friends at the State Department would later confide to me that they quietly questioned the wisdom of encouraging the ravaging of Lebanon.

The war shattered non-Hezbollah politics within Lebanon’s Shia population. To many who lived in the disproportionately Shia towns, villages and neighborhoods destroyed by Israeli assault, the war justified Hezbollah’s claim that the Lebanese could not rely upon their national army to defend them against Israeli attack. Opposing politicians suggested that Hezbollah was chiefly to blame for the assault. Nonetheless, among the people who depended upon the militia and its Iranian-procured aid to rebuild destroyed homes and businesses, the space to publicly critique Hezbollah was erased and replaced with a sense of indebtedness.

The war deepened the divide between the Lebanese who questioned their government’s close ties with Saudi Arabia and the United States and those who feared an emboldened Hezbollah and Iran, while erasing the space for those who worried about both. Saudi-Iranian struggle may have first reached the level of violence in Lebanon with the controversially unresolved 2005 assassination of Saudi-linked Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. A UN tribunal investigation suggested Hezbollah responsibility, although Hassan Nasrallah continues to blame the Israelis. In the aftermath of the assassination, Hariri’s son, Saad attempted to centralize political power in the hands of Sunni elites and successfully evicted the Syrian army, a Hezbollah ally, from Lebanon. By wresting political and military control from the government, the July war weakened Lebanese politicians with close ties to Saudi Arabia and rendered most politicians and the Lebanese Army into spectators.

Despite the display of superior Israeli bombing capability, Israel emerged from the war strategically weakened. By attempting to root Hezbollah militarily, the Israelis lost much of the public relations war as Western media outlets widely reported on the destruction of Lebanon and civilian casualties.

After the war Hezbollah engaged in a domestic power grab that inspired their opponents, domestic and regional, to become similarly militarized and counterbalance the group’s influence. Hezbollah’s post-war rise in popularity was halted in May 2008 when they turned their weapons against fellow Lebanese in a downtown Beirut confrontation with Saad Hariri’s Saudi-backed Future Movement over government attempts to rein in Hezbollah’s independent telecommunications networks.

In 2012, as civil conflict broke out in Syria and battle-hardened fighters from Iraq overtook domestic Syrian groups fighting against the Assad government, Hezbollah repurposed the raison d’etre it crafted in the aftermath of the 2006 war. Hezbollah struggled to recast themselves as the regional defenders of Christians and Shia Muslims against Sunni Islamist “salafists,” who had began seizing territory in Syria. As the Syrian state lost control of much of its territory, Nasrallah dispatched Hezbollah to fight in Syria, arguing that they were the only effective military force that could protect Shia holy sites against attack from groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and the emergent Islamic State. In January 2012, Julia Boutros, still a Hezbollah-sympathizer, released a pro-Syrian regime song, “Atlak niranak.” Although it was played on Syrian state TV and Hezbollah TV station al-Manar, no moving music video was released; the song had little appeal beyond regime propaganda.

In the past decade, no doubt in an effort to better understand this experience, I have pursued a PhD in US-Middle East relations. As a witness and scholar, it seems clear to me that the 2006 Lebanon War is best understood as an episode within the Bush administration’s project to spread democracy in the Middle East. By supporting Israel’s war in Lebanon, the US aggravated Saudi-Iranian regional conflict, paradoxically treated Middle Eastern lives as collateral damage to democratization and eliminated Middle Easterners’ political choices by pursuing military rather than political solutions.