Omar Turbi is Senior Board Member of Trustees, World Affairs Council of America. WAC chairman Sir Eldon Griffiths contributed to this report.
As a member of the World Affairs Council of America's delegation to Lebanon, I realized that we could not have arrived at a more challenging--and intriguing--moment. As our plane landed in Beirut, the United States was preparing to commemorate the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, and the drumbeats of war were loud. America was saddling up to attack Iraq.
Unlike many congressmen and administration officials, many World Affairs Council leaders have reservations about the claim that Iraq is a terrorist state, building and preparing to use weapons of mass destruction. Members of our delegation asked everyone we met if Lebanon would support U.S. moves to attack Iraq and get rid of Saddam Hussain. Not one person said "yes"!
"Would the promotion of some kind of internationally monitored participatory democratic process in Iraq work?" I asked Lebanon's Prime Minster Rafiq Hariri.
His rhetorical reply: "Would you insert a needle through your eye?"
I was struck by Lebanon's extraordinary natural beauty, and by the pulsating human talent and resilience of its people. I also noted the downside. No one who visits Lebanon can fail to see the scars, physical and emotional, of the civil and religious wars that shattered the country's economy and devastated Beirut between 1975 and 1990. Lebanon today has turned its back on violence. Beirut bustles by day and glitters by night.
My mission was to look, listen and learn, and to bring back to America a deeper understanding of what makes Lebanon tick. Our generous hosts, the Fares Foundation, arranged for us to meet the country's president, prime minister, defense minister, and the industry, trade and communications ministers. We also met with the governor of the Central Bank, the Chamber of Commerce, editors of Lebanon's principal newspapers, the U.S. and British ambassadors, the head of UNWRA, and the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Our delegation benefited from more than 30 revealing interviews and discussions with the leaders of Lebanon on matters ranging from current political, economic and financial matters to the Palestine peace process and Lebanon's relations with Syria, the rest of the Arab world, and the U.S.
By far the strongest reactions delegation members encountered in Beirut when discussions turned to international matters were the strong feelings Lebanese had against Israel. No matter how often the question of Iraq was raised, our hosts politely but firmly brought the conversation back to Israel! Israel was condemned for "expelling" the Palestinians, "occupying" Arab land, "bullying" the PLO, "oppressing" the West Bank and Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in particular was accused of "human rights violations," "defying U.N. resolutions" and "building, and threatening to use, nuclear weapons."
Shatila Refugee Camp: 20th Anniversary of the Massacre
Even had it not been the 20th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, it would have left a tremendous gap in my visit to Lebanon if I had not visited one of the dozen or more refugee "camps" in which most of the 400,000 Palestinians live. This was not easy to arrange, however. Lebanon does not accept responsibility for the refugees. Only the head of the delegation, Council chairman Sir Eldon Griffiths, and I made the visit to Shatila, the camp nearest Beirut. He agreed to join me after he felt assured of our safety.
On our visit to this labyrinth of hovels and concrete tenements it was suggested that we wear old clothes and sneakers and stay close to our guide, Rashid el Khatib, the Arab representative in Shatila of a Norwegian NGO, People's Aid in Palestine.
Shatila is not much larger than a U.S. city block: a square kilometer of dirt and despair in which 5,000 refugees pitched their tents after their expulsion from Palestine 54 years ago. …