A conversation with Jehan Mullin
By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
Jehan “Gigi” Mullin is a former president of the Ohio University chapter of human rights group Amnesty International. She graduated OU in 2000 with a Bachelors of Political Science and in 2005 obtained her Masters in Middle Eastern Studies from American University in Beirut, Lebanon. After graduate school, Ms. Mullin remained in Beirut to conduct a study on women’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS in Lebanon funded by the Feminist Review Trust. In mid-July she was evacuated from Lebanon with other US citizens 10 days into the 34-day war that claimed the lives of 157 Israelis (mostly military personnel) and nearly 1,200 Lebanese (mostly civilians). I spoke with Mullin about the war in mid-August, during the first week of the precarious ceasefire established by LN Security Council Resolution 1701.
You were in Lebanon for the first 10 days of lsrael’s offensive. What did you see?
I saw parts of Beirut and other areas of Lebanon on fire. I saw the airport ablaze as well, literally from my window. I felt the bombs dropped in the southern suburbs of Beirut as if they were dropped next door. I saw bombs slam into the countryside during evacuation. I saw refugees from the south and Dahiye fill the streets with nowhere else to go. I saw friends sleeping where they worked because their homes were in the suburbs that were being targeted. I met with people whose families were trapped in the south, many of whom wanted to get out but could not. I saw numerous photos of civilian buses being bombed on their way out of the south and Biqa valley while evacuating. I saw pictures of hundreds of civilians dying in Lebanon. I saw photos of dead civilians on the news that showed disintegrated bodies with hair and clothes in tact, pointing to the use of chemical weapons. I saw photos of bombed out civilian convoys leaving southern Leabnon and the Biqa valley upon the orders of the Israeli military. I saw that when they tried to evacuate, when they loaded up in cars and left the region as the Israeli Defense Force insisted, they were then shot down by the IDF.
I also saw photos of dozens of Israeli civilians dying. I saw images of Israeli civilians holed up in bomb shelters for a month without a breath of fresh air, and I saw Lebanese civilians with no bomb shelters die under the weight of fallen buildings. I watched the Israeli families of the taken soldiers plead for the return of their sons. I saw an Israeli man who was simply taking a ride on his bicycle struck down. I saw that an Arab Israeli mother and her child were hit by Hizbullah fire. I saw pictures everyday of civilians on both sides turned into refugees.
lsraeli officials contend that while collateral damage is inevitable, lsrael has only targeted Hizbullah personnel and installations, rather than Lebanese civilians and the country’s infrastructure. Did you observe this to be true?
Absolutely not. Major-General Udi Adam, the head of Israel’s Northem Command said, “This affair is between Israel and the state of Lebanon…Once it is inside Lebanon, everything is legitimate – not just southern Lebanon, not just the line of Hezbollah posts.” Speaking of the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah on July 12, Israeli Lieutenant- General Dan Halutz. stated that “If the soldiers are not returned, we
will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.” If they were just at war with Hizbullah, why would they threaten the entire nation? Why did Israeli soldiers return back to Israel not only with Hizbullah flags, with whom they said they were at war, but with the national flag of Lebanon in their hands as prizes?
The truth of the matter is that Hizbullah was not the only one targeting civilians. Over and over again, the IDF targeted civilian convoys. Over and over again, they targeted aid workers. The Israeli army struck at Lebanon’s electricity and factories while simultaneously imposing a blockade that prevented food and fuel from entering the country. Without fuel the hospitals couldn’t run efficiently, if at all. The IDF refused to allow fuel and other essentials in the country through the blockade, although they had and have the capabilities to do so, and to make sure that what comes through is indeed aid and not support for Hizbullah.
This is nothing less than collective punishment of the entire civilian population. The systematic destruction of the country’s infrastructure, the targeting of civilians, and the demands Israel made before a cease-fire could be established lead me to believe that Lebanon’s state of peace was also being targeted. After all this, I cannot believe that the state of lsrael was only at war with Hizbullah but, rather, with the state of Lebanon and its people in general.
During the war, was there fighting between lsrael and the Lebanese Army?
Twenty-eight Lebanese soldiers died in the conflict. I believe it was on July 18 that the first eleven soldiers were killed and that the Lebanese army barracks were targeted in east Beirut. I believe the IDF attacked the Lebanese army in an attempt to draw it into the conflict. Had the army fought back, Israel would have had greater grounds to argue that they could legitimately be at war with all of Lebanon and not just Hizbullah. Then the IDF would not have had to “limit” their bombing raids to those parts of the country where Hizbullah was strongest, opening the door to much greater destruction. But to my knowledge, the Lebanese army did not fight back at all.
lsrael’s defenders often claim this war is just one more example of the Jewish state being forced to defend itself against the multitude of hostile Arab countries and terrorist groups that surround it, each of which is bent on the complete destruction of lsrael. Is that what most non-Jews in the region want?
I do not believe that currently constitutes Hizbullah’s political motives or grievances with Israel. I think in this case, it is not only Hizbullahs’ armament/disarmament that is a crucial issue that must be addressed but also the unresolved issues of the Shebaa farms and the issue of prisoners, which also need to be addressed in order to better prepare a long-term peaceful settlement of the conflict. The problem is attempting to find a solution by examining the violent actions and extremism of only one party involved.
It is also important to acknowledge that Israel has the most advanced, well-financed and strongest military in the region with nuclear capabilities. It is the state of Israel that had the capability to invade Lebanon and has indeed done just that twice now along with imposing full air, land and sea blockades on Lebanon and Gaza. All of this should lead us to reexamine the question of who is perpetually in danger in the region if the state of Israel can impose air raids, blockades, military advances, and destroy entire infrastructures of any state in the region when it sees fit.
I do not believe the majority of persons in the Arab world and Middle East hate Israel or are anti-Jewish. I believe the base of what upsets many Arabs and other Middle Easterners are actual Israeli policies that practice collective punishment against Palestinians and Lebanese civilians, or that privilege Israeli Jews over Israeli Arabs, and that attempt to destroy Lebanese and Palestinian infrastructures. Of course the issues of the return of refugees, the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and annexation of land via the “security fence” are major problems as well.
There are lots of tragic conflicts in the world. Why should Americans pay particular attention to this one? Or, for that matter, the much less reported lsraeli offensive in Gaza, which is part of the Palestinian territories under military occupation by lsrael since 1967?
Well, from a human rights perspective, the fact that this war has shown that some US policies have supported the blatant targeting of civilians and the humanitarian crisis resulting from the imposed blockade, which has its own new set of civilian victims, is something that cannot go unaddressed. This holds for the offensive in Gaza as well.
At the beginning of the conflict, the US Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution that endorsed lsrael’s military campaign on July 18. In the second week of the conflict, the House passed a resolution (410 to 8) further supporting Israel’s war in Lebanon, and actually rejected a call during negotiations by four representatives to urge Israel to exercise restraint in the use of civilian targets. During the conflict, 22 members of Congress flew to Israel and only 1 flew to Lebanon. Prior to this war the US had been pushing for Hizbullah to be disarmed via the implementation of the U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias within Lebanon, among other things.
Throughout the war, President Bush and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, continually reiterated their desire to reach a lasting cease-fire, while simultaneously rejecting calls for an immediate cease-fire despite the heavy loss of civilian life in the conflict. Before a cease-fire was to be established, the United States had wanted to see Hizbullah disarmed and the Lebanese army deployed in the south. What they were pushing for, in essence, along with Israel, was for negotiations to take place on these issues prior to agreeing to a cease-fire. In doing so, the US was complicit in allowing the war to continue.
It is also a fact that the United States sent Israel guided missiles and bunker bombs to be employed in this war. The US even sent these missiles before the evacuation of its own citizens, including myself, had been completed. From a strategic perspective, Americans need to care about this crisis for many reasons. The Bush Administration has consistently argued that the way to make America and the world safer from terrorism is to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. Americans should be asking themselves how supporting the destruction of the entire infrastructure of a newly reconstructed nation — just emerging from the ashes of a civil war and yet one of the more democratic and liberal Arab countries in the region — can be expected to contribute to the growth of democracy in the Middle East?
It is not that only Lebanese died. No, Israeli civilians suffered, died and were also displaced, albeit on a much smaller scale. The problem, though, is not that US and the international community refused to accept attacks on the Israeli state and innocent civilians, but that when they did so they turned around and supported, or were unwilling to do anything about, such attacks on another nation and its civilians. It is the unequal treatment of nations by the United States that is extremely problematic in the region and is anything but compatible with democracy and human rights.
One must realize that this war, with all the devastation that resulted and all the suffering among Israeli and Lebanese society, has had devastating costs for America’s image abroad and in the Middle East. It has also severely set back initiatives for peace and hopes for stability in the region. The way in which the US and Israel attempted to justify violence when it was Arab civilians dying, did not help Israel gain any friends in the region. Sadly, it did the opposite and in doing so, it appears hopes for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also suffer.
If Americans are concerned about the safety of their nation from future attacks, if they are concerned about protecting the very ideals upon which America is based; if they are concerned about a more democratic Middle East region or about achieving a lasting and just peace between Israel, Palestine and Arab states in the region, then they need to care about this war, how it was conducted, how it was portrayed and all the implications these entail.
Has the war affected the way in which Lebanese view Hizbullah?
Feelings towards Hizbullah are mixed. Many, including some Christians ands Sunnis. feel that Hizbullah has been fighting against Israeli troops, and that this is legitimate and the only means of protection in light of American support for Israel and the fact that the international community seemed incapable of doing anything. Others in Lebanon, with whom I have spoken, have stated they feel Hizbullah has no right to decided the fate of war for all of Lebanon and feel that they should be disarmed like all other militias in the nation after the end of the Lebanese civil war. Some have expressed that they are very close to helping do anything that may achieve this, even if it returns Lebanon to a civil war.
What exactly is Hizbullah? What is its relationship to the rest of Lebanon and to other countries in the region?
First of all, although Hizbullah is a militant Islamist organization with whose interpretation of Islam I disagree, it is simply inaccurate to just lop Hizbullah in the same group with Al Qaeda, especially if one really wants to understand the nature of the conflict and attempt to find possible solutions. For more information on the complexity of the organization and its history in Lebanon, I would direct you to an article on Middle East Report Online (www.merip.org), published on July 3lst, by Lara Deeb, entitled “Hizbullah: A Primer.”
My friend and former colleague, Steve Mclnerney, who is a graduate candidate at the Center for Middle Eastem Studies atAUB and tbllow of the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, has discussed this with me. I would like to share with you his analysis of the situation of which I find to be very accurate. In his words, “Hizbullah is currently a pretty inseparable part of the Shi’a Muslim community in Lebanon. For many (but not all) Shi’a, it largely plays the role of the state and provides the Shi’a citizens of Southern Lebanon
and the Beqaa Valley with services that the Lebanese government fails to provide.
“Hizbullah arose in the mid- 1 980s as a response to the Israeli invasions of Lebanon (to the Litani river in 1978 and to north of Beirut in 1982) and the continued occupation of southern Lebanon by Israeli forces roughly 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, the majority of these during the 1982 invasion). Most citizens of these areas (particularly the south) view Hizbullah as accomplishing something for them that no one else could-forcing Israel to end its brutal 22-year occupation of Southern Lebanon in 2000. The LIN Security Council called for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1978 (with resolution 425), and repeated this demand in several Security Resolutions that followed, but neither the UN nor the Lebanese government nor various foreign powers could succeed in forcing or persuading Israel to leave southern Lebanon.
“When Israel finally left all of Lebanon (with the possible exception of the small, disputed Sheba’a farms area, which Israel and the UN say is actually part of Syria) in 2000, it was generally perceived to be the result of Hizbullah’s resistance against the Israeli occupation. As soon as Israel withdrew, Hizbullah began rebuilding all of the homes in southern Lebanon that were destroyed or damaged during the Israeli occupation. The result is overwhelming loyalty and support from the people of southern Lebanon for Hizbullah, as they not only forced the Israeli soldiers out, but then immediately rebuilt the homes and infrastructure there.
“This is now being repeated-as soon as last week’s ceasefire ended the recent conflict, Hizbullah dispatched large numbers of construction workers and engineers to begin the rebuilding process. Hizbullah also distributed packages of $12,000 in cash to families who had lost their homes to provide rent money and basic needs until they are able to return to their home after Hizbullah rebuilds it. Now, as in 2000, the Lebanese state’s efforts at reconstruction in the south could not compete with the efficiency of the job done by Hizbullah.
“Hizbullah’s two main extemal allies are Iran and Syria. Both are supporters of Hizbullah, but Hizbullah certainly makes its own decisions, is a Lebanese nationalist organization, and certainly is not controlled by either Syria or Iran, as is often implied in the American press. Both of these countries do help Hizbullah obtain weapons. Iran also contributes roughly $100 million to Hizbullah annually. This is l0 percent of Hizbullah’s estimated annual budget of $1 billion. Most of the remaining 90 percent of Hizbullah’s funding comes from donations made by Lebanese Shi’a, including many Lebanese Shi’s expatriates who are very successful financially in West Africa and South America, among other places. It is widely suspected that Iran will be contributing additional funding in the coming months to help Hizbullah with the massive reconstruction effort now needed in southern Lebanon.”
In the US, the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanese Hizbullah are blamed for starting these conflicts, in both cases by crossing into lsrael and killing or kidnapping IDF soldiers. Yet according to the BBC and lsraeli media, the day before Hamas’s June 25 raid, lsraeli forces crossed into Gaza and abducted two Palestinians it claims are members of Hamas: physician Osama Muamar and his son Mustafa. lt is unknown whether lsrael will charge these men or merely jail them indefinitely as “administrative detainees,” hundreds of whom are now being held indefinitely without charge in lsraeli jails.
Lebanese citizens are also among these detainees, some having been held for decades. Commentator Nehemia Shtrasler writes in the July 21 edition of the lsraeli paper Ha’aretz that the release of these prisoners is “the central demand of Hezbollah.” Indeed, in recent years Hizbullah has won the release of such prisoners by exchanging them for captured lsraeli soldiers.
Hizbullah has openly stated that its July 12, 2006 attack on Israeli soldiers, which resulted in the capture of 2 and the deaths of 3 others, was intended to gain leverage in negotiating for the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. By leaving out crucial details such as these, it is easier to lay fault at the feet of one group, as opposed to realizing that all parties carry guilt and are responsible for these conflicts. In doing so, it is easier for the US administration to gain public support for policies that support Israeli policies and methods employed in these conflicts without question.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I would like everyone to realize that Arab civilians and/or Muslim ones are people just like them. They are people afraid, like everyone else in a war, just as Israeli civilians under the reign of Hizbullah rockets are afraid. They are people whose lives are vested in their homes and cannot imagine abandoning everything without a promise of seeing it again. I want people to realize that the majority of people there, whether arab or jewish, Palestinian, Lebanese, Israeli or lraqi just want to live in peace with opportunity.
See also Mullin’s letter to the Athens News, describing the beginning of the war and her evacuation, “Former OU student tells of recent evacuation from Lebanon,” Athens News, 8/24/06