What is the general Lebanese opinion on Israel?
Officially, Lebanon is at a state of war against Israel. Currently, the borders are being supervised by UNFIL forces (mainly forces from European and Asian countries) in addition to the Lebanese army. Lebanon is a small country, but it comprises of 18 recognized religious sects. The main two religions are Christianity (the Maronite Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East) and Islam (Shi’a and Sunni). There is also the Druze minority religion, and there is a small Jewish population. Because of the diversity, there are very few topics where all Lebanese agree, but on at least one thing we can: that Israel is unacceptably hostile towards Lebanon. In Lebanon, Israeli war planes and drones, without provocation, breach our air space on a daily basis, citing “security reasons”. In addition, these forces sometimes stage mock attacks on Lebanese cities and emit sonic booms that frighten civilians. It is perhaps needless to say that relations are very unfriendly.
How was Israel involved in the Lebanese Civil War? It seems that a good amount of anti-Israel sentiment can be traced to that point. Were Christians under-supported by the Israelis?
The Lebanese Civil War is extremely complex, but it reminds me of Iraq’s current state. Whereas, in Iraq, their war started because of their invasion in Kuwait in the early 1990s, and it is currently very heavily sectarian — Kurds on one side, Arab Sunni on another side, and Shi’a on another – in Lebanon, the war started in response to the Palestinian threat and invasion of Lebanese cities. It ended in 1990, after Syrian forces invaded, and our country, too, is highly sectarian. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and later invaded the south of Lebanon until 2000, when Ehud Barak finally retracted Israeli forces.
As I understand, tension has also very much increased since the 2006 Lebanon War, which caused your country, conservatively, to lose at least $5 billion. Do you agree?
There were already tensions before 2006, but Hezbollah prompted the 2006 war, and Israel caused great damage to my country in response. Israel bombed our civilian infrastructure, bridges, and even the airport. It really crippled Lebanon, leaving heavy financial loss and hundreds of victims.
Hezbollah was heavily involved in that conflict. How influential is Hezbollah, and why?
Hezbollah is extremely influential, as it represents the majority of the Shi’a population in Lebanon. Because of economic alienation and weak government, Hezbollah has been able to step in and fill the void of the state, providing education, hospitals, and other basics. This helped it greatly increase their support, especially among the Shi’a. This can be traced back to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and the subsequent radicalism in Shi’a circles. Shi’a used to rely on the Amal party in Lebanon, but that party, though still powerful, cannot compete with the huge support that Hezbollah gets from Iran.
Hezbollah is similar to Hamas, in this regard. You have had some bad people in these organizations, and I reject their extremist actions. But Gaza has only Hamas to protect it. Both are fighting against ISIS, also.
We must get to the heart of the issue: the reason so many of these people are willing to do outrageous things – though suicide bombings, for example, have gone down in Shi’a circles – is that they are in dire straits. That is no excuse, but that is the reason they give. If Israel would allow the Palestinians to have security and support them, things would be solved. Lebanon cannot afford to care for all of their hundreds of thousands of refugees.
March 8 and March 14 disagree on everything except for their feelings against Israel. March 8 mainly represents groups supported by Iran and Russia, while March 14 represents groups supported by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. There is a shift that you see happening between Shi’a and Sunni. The Druze have a more moderate position. And Christians, unfortunately, are divided with their support, which weakens our position. How they formed is a little complex.
Syria invaded Lebanon, and March 14 wanted its forces gone. You must keep in mind that things were especially sensitive, because we had been invaded by Syria and Israel at around the same time. Our prime minister, Rafic Hariri (a Sunni), was killed, and no one knows precisely what happened, but the Syrians were blamed politically because it happened on their watch. After this, Sunnis and Christians united against occupation, under the March 14 banner. March 8, meanwhile, wanted Émile Lahoud, who was under Syrian influence, as president.
The Church cares little for either movement, but has always advocated for independence for my country. Many Christians have since left March 14, citing the lack of need for it.
Has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu improved relations, or worsened them?
No, the policy is mostly unchanged, but leans worse. To solve the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, we must solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the latter is fixed, there will be possibilities for a peaceful Middle East.
I recall that your family is friendly with former Lebanese president Michel Suleiman. What has his position been?
Israel is the common Lebanese enemy.
What do you think of Ted Cruz’s recent comments?
His comments were very naïve. But the whole thing was more of a political stunt for him to gain support from his constituency for his presidential aspirations. I do not understand why, at a conference that aims to protect Christians in the Middle East, Cruz needed to bring up the Israeli relationship and hijack the whole conference, shifting topics from Christian persecution to Zionism. This was a great disservice to the Christians.
Is there anything else that people should know?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, once solved, will lead to peace in the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein was executed in Iraq, his last words requested freedom for Palestine – that shows how important this issue is for all Arabs.
[EDIT: Answers to questions 2 and 4 have been edited slightly, to better reflect the Cheikh’s meaning.]