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by Annette van de Kamp-Wright
Editor of the Jewish Press

Growing up, I heard stories from my teachers about Beirut, and how once it was considered the “Paris of the Middle east.” A city straight out of a Scheherazade-inspired fairy tale, with ornate palaces, mouth-watering food and an abundance of rich tourists walking the promenades. A place where culture reigned. But Civil war broke out in 1975, and whenever I saw Beirut on the news, it looked like a bullet-ridden hellhole, full of desperate people who had nothing to live for.

Not much has changed over the past decades; something we were reminded of when, on Nov. 19, a double suicide attack killed at least 23 and wounded many others at the Iranian embassy. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni Jihadist group linked to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Sure, the city is considered the focal point of Lebanon’s cultural life, and has undergone much rebuilding since the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990. In 2009, the New York Times named it the top place to visit, and it has been ranked as the fourth most expensive city in the Middle East in a 2010 study by the American consulting firm Mercer. The 2011 MasterCard Index noted that Beirut had the second-highest visitor spending, totaling $6.5 billion.

However, underneath that shiny surface, tensions are brewing. Al-Qaeda affiliated groups like the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have been operating in Lebanon for years, even though it is Hezbollah territory.

While in the West, the public tends to not distinguish between different terrorist groups; Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda are sworn enemies. What makes this even more urgent at the moment is the fact that Hezbollah openly supports the regime of Syrian’s President Bashar al-Assad, while Al-Qaeda and its affiliates support the Syrian rebels. Thus, the Nov. 19 bombing, while directly attacking Iran, was also a declaration of war against Hezbollah, because of the embassy’s location. To make things even more complicated, the reason Hezbollah supports the Syrian regime is Syria’s resistance against Israel, according to Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

In the meantime, Lebanon has been without a government for seven months; mere days before the embassy’s bombing, Hezbollah indicated it would not stop fighting in Syria just to become part of a new Lebanese government: “The country’s former prime minister, the Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, has refused to drop his demand that the Shia militia withdraws from Syria. Nasrallah called that demand “crippling.” (The Guardian, Nov. 14)

Immediately following the attack on the embassy, the Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon gave out the following statement: “Any attempt to thwart Iran’s agendas will be unsuccessful. We have no fear when it comes to giving more martyrs in the line of duties.”

Iran may take the attack in stride, but Lebanon’s Future Movement will get tired of these types of attacks, especially since Lebanon also has to deal with the more than 800,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed its borders.

Technically, the United States, Israel, and Al Qaeda are on the same side here, which is a little mind-blowing. Add to that Hezbollah’s accusation that those Arab countries (with Saudi Arabia at the top of the list) that oppose the Syrian regime and support the rebels are in cahoots with the Knesset. Nasrallah thinks those Arab countries are allowing Bibi Netanyahu to tell them what to do, and they listen to him. What a mess.

It serves as a reminder that, whatever we may think about the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Israel has some very conflicted neighbors.
In June of this year, the Times of Israel published a piece with the ominous title, “What’s left of Israel’s peace with its neighbors?”
Not much, says writer Elhanan Miller. While Jordan and Egypt are often mentioned as examples of why ‘cold peace’ is possible, relations with both countries have gradually deteriorated over the years.

In addition, the relationship with Saudi Arabia (not technically a neighbor, but close enough) is fragile at best, although common enemy Iran has brought the regimes somewhat closer. It was even suggested the Saudis considered allowing Israel to use its airspace in a potential strike on Iran–not that either regime would admit to that.

Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Iraq and Turkey within shouting distance. Is it any wonder Israelis sometimes get a little exasperated when American politicians try to tell them what to do? We, in the West, have no idea what it’s like to be surrounded by so much conflict, and still maintain our composure. Because while all this goes on, day after day, Israel continues an everyday life that includes start-ups, technological advances, medical breakthroughs and immense cultural achievements. They treat Syrian refugees in their hospitals, send medical aid to the Philippines, and host millions of tourists who often don’t stop to think about how precarious the situation really is.

Think about it, the next time you tear into a tub of Sabra hummus or decide to invest in some Soda Stream. Over the years, Israeli society has shown a tenacity that is unequaled, and almost unimaginable. Without understanding that, our support for Israel is not much more than lip service.