“Did you hear that!” says a café owner to customers over the sound of his coffee maker in Beirut’s Gemmayze district. “Our government is talking to Israel now,” says Mazen*, not his real name. “Who knows, maybe this actually is the beginning of peace with our neighbors.”
A cold conflict
Peace with Israel is a bold notion.
Relations between the two states have been highly strung for almost 40 years. During the Lebanese Civil War, Israel invaded parts of southern Lebanon in 1982 to drive out Palestinian fighters. With the help of a Lebanese Christian militia, it occupied parts of southern Lebanon until May 2000. When the militia collapsed and Israel withdrew, the Shiite organization Hezbollah, formed in response to Israeli occupation, filled the vacuum.
Continued disputes over a small area ignited into a month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. Although it ended with a ceasefire, a peace treaty was never reached and minor skirmishes continued. At the state level, the two sides have not held direct talks for a good 30 years.
Now, representatives from both countries began mediated negotiations last week, strictly limited to their common sea border and the distribution of any gas deposits found there.
Quiet hopes for wider peace
Nevertheless, it’s not just Mazen who hopes that continuing talks could, contrary to official denials, be the prelude to further agreement. He and others DW spoke to asked not to be named as those considered sympathetic to Israel can still expect hostility in certain circles.
For Mazen, gas deposits in the Mediterranean are of little interest compared to his own personal hopes. After years abroad, the Christian, who is in his mid-30s, returned to Lebanon to open his own café, now freshly rebuilt after the August 4 blast at Beirut port.
His parents’ and grandparents’ stories are still with him: Israeli soldiers were always friendly to Lebanese Christians during the war, he says. “Unlike the Muslim areas, the Israelis often spared the Christian neighborhoods.” As a devout man, one thing is of particular importance: a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. “I wish I could walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ without any problems,” he says.
But it’s not only religion that drives his hope for rapprochement: “In Israel, they have everything we don’t: electricity, a government and a strong economy,” he says. “We all could only profit from open borders.”
And yet, any real peace agreement with Israel would only involve another war and further suffering, he says. By no means are all Lebanese are in agreement with the latest rapprochement, least of all supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah has called for the destruction of Israel.
Mazen fears that only after another war would Israel and Lebanon perhaps be open to reconciliation.
‘More afraid of starving’ than Israel
But while Hezbollah holds firm on its defining anti-Israeli stance, it has come under increasing criticism for its influential domestic role in the political system amid a devastating economic crisis and in the wake of the recent explosion that many blame on a corrupt ruling class.
“People here are now more afraid of starving than of an attack by Israel,” says Charif, a Sunni real estate agent from Beirut. The recent talks are certainly a historic rapprochement, he says, but many of his fellow citizens see them above all as a desperate maneuver by the elite to save the crisis-ridden country from ruin. “What distinguishes Israel from Lebanon is the fact that there is a functioning political system in Israel,” he says.
Despite that, limited discussion on Lebanese social media shows there are few voices that openly call for peace with Israel. The basic mood remains negative, or at least skeptical, towards Lebanon’s southern neighbor — including that of some of the young activists working for democratic reforms.
Palestinian return crucial, trauma remains
One of those skeptics is Hussein El Achi, a lawyer and co-founder of the activist group “Minteshreen.”
“We’re in the middle of an economic catastrophe and looking into a black future,” he says. El Achi shares a distrust in Lebanon’s political leaders that is currently deeper than at any moment in the recent past. The fact that its spurned elites have cautiously agreed to the maritime talks does not necessarily bode well: “The negotiations with Israel are just a show with which the government is trying to save itself,” he says.
He also wants peace, he says, but stresses that can only happen when the Palestinians get their land back. Hailing from a region close to the disputed southern border, he sees Israel as the state that destroyed his home village and killed many in the process, above all.
Protesters gather in front of the remains of Beirut’s port on the anniversary of the October 17 Revolution protests.
Such trauma makes the recent Israeli normalization agreements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — neither of which have suffered open conflict with Israel — incomparable.
Lea’s* experience is similar. When the war between Israel and Lebanon broke out in 2006, she was 16 years old and lived, as she does today, in the Shiite-majority south of Beirut, an area Hezbollah is considered to control. Homes around her were bombed and at least 1,100 people, mostly civilians, were killed. “I have panic attacks when I hear airplanes and drones above me to this day,” she says.
“I don’t want more war with Israel — but how can I trust someone who has traumatized me like that?”
*Names changed by the editorial staff.
This story was adapted from German by Tom Allinson.