Evolution of Terror I: Pride, peace pit sides

Fellows Fall 2004

By Julie Goodman

June 01, 2009

Two months ago, I stood facing a towering fence propped up by sturdy poles, covered in what looked like a menacing cluster of cables and barbed wire.

It was the kind of fence you'd expect to see outside a high-security prison, or maybe a nuclear testing site.

But this fence was neither. It was the boundary between two countries, ones that for years had killed each other off in a war of bullets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

I stood in Lebanon; through the fence was Israel.

The "fence" was the Blue Line, the United Nations-created demarcation to confirm Israel's 2000 withdrawal from the south Lebanese border.

My trip there was part of a five-week stay to cover recent political developments in the country. I focused on one aspect of Lebanon's evolving political landscape: Hezbollah, a fighting militia that grew out of the conflict with Israel in the early 1980s and now has infiltrated Lebanon's government, causing ripples around the globe.

The Party of God, as its name translates from Arabic, is dismissed as a terrorist organization by the United States. But in Lebanon, its role is very complex.

To many Lebanese, Hezbollah is about pride, dignity and an affront to Israel. To others, it remains the force that forever will hold the potential to bring chaos to the region and aggravate tensions on the international scene.

The fighting faction reached heroic status after being credited with driving out the Israelis in 2000. But over the years, the party also has developed a more progressive, socially conscious side, one which eagerly embraces organic farming and recycled paper.

Violence at the border between Lebanon and Israel largely has died down, and since the end of its devastating 15-year civil war in 1990, Lebanon slowly has remodeled itself to become a relative bastion of peace in the Middle East.

But another transformation threatens that normalcy.

Recent changes have included the attempted assassination of an opposition leader, the resignation of a prime minister, and the launch of a drone to spy on enemy territory.

In the coming days, I will illustrate the evolution of Hezbollah — where it came from, where it's going and what its experience might say for emerging parties in other volatile parts of the world. I also plan to examine U.S. policy in the region and the complications that come with it.

The trip to Lebanon was the first chance I have had to taste authentic hummus, to explore ancient ruins and to watch Hezbollah's military marching — in an Iranian high step — in front of thousands of cheering spectators.

I saw an unexpected side to the Middle East, witnessing in Beirut the way Western styles have taken hold with female university students sporting tank tops and tight jeans, and Muslim women enjoying drags of tobacco from long pipes on the seaside.

A stark contrast to some of its neighboring Arab countries, Lebanon is where you can chug a beer while listening to the Muslim call to prayer broadcast through loudspeakers from a mosque down the street.

The country, it seems, is full of contrasts, with lush olive trees and thick banana groves at one turn, and a painting of a gun tearing through a Star of David at another.

You easily can make a pit stop for sticky pistachio sweets off some of the same roads dotted with haunting faces of young men — "martyrs," as they are honored — who died in the fight against Israel.

Residents can traverse the city freely, but the former Green Line, the boundary that once divided Beirut into Muslims and Christians, is still palpable.

The city is home to the pock-marked buildings and blown-out windows of the past, and the posh storefronts of reconstruction. The balcony of my apartment in East Beirut, the Christian side, bore the signs of plaster that had been used to repair the damage from bullets, mortars, or whatever may have once struck the building.

The country, struggling with an imperfect democracy and perhaps a precarious hold on peace, is accustomed to paradox.

The Blue Line, for instance, is a jarring, yet intimate juxtaposition for enemies.

A Jewish settlement can be seen through its chain links. On the Lebanese side, a sign marks the spot of a suicide bombing just in front of the "Freedom Cafe," whose marquee includes a picture of a foaming beverage.

An old tank sits nearby with Hezbollah's logo resting on top: an automatic Soviet rifle propped up on a globe.

My savvy translator, Maha, who guided me around the country during my stay, said the Lebanese were once fond of hurling rocks at Israelis on the other side of the border.

The paradox that confounded me the most was Hezbollah's dual nature.

It is angry and militant on one side; maternal and nurturing on the other.

One day, I watched a small child in military fatigues execute a guerrilla warfare stunt off a 30-meter high building. Another, I listened to a grateful shop owner explain how Hezbollah cleared sewage backup from his streets.

The question at the heart of this paradox is how one side feeds into the other, and what this split personality could tell us about other parts of the world.

The answers, I hope, lie ahead.

Copyright © 2007 International Reporting Project. All Rights Reserved.