The Washington Diplomat / October 2006
By Larry Luxner
As Lebanon clears the rubble from this summer's fierce 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, the country's top diplomat in Washington cannot hold back her anger.
"The Lebanese government from the very beginning disavowed what Hezbollah did," said Carla Jazzar, deputy chief of mission at the Lebanese Embassy. "But this never justified Israel's military operation. It was collective punishment, disproportional to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. You cannot destroy a country to rescue two soldiers."
Jazzar, in an exclusive one-hour interview last month with the Washington Diplomat, spoke of her country's uncertain political future, now that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has emerged as a strong counterpoint to pro-Western forces such as Druze leader Walid Jumblat and the so-called "March 14" democracy movement.
She said Hezbollah's July 12 ambush of Israeli troops patrolling the country's northern border with Lebanon — the spark that triggered the war — didn't happen in a vacuum. Rather, it was the result of long-festering issues that go back at least 28 years.
"Hezbollah wanted to capture Israeli soldiers because there are Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails, and because land mines planted by Israel in southern Lebanon are killing and crippling civilians every day," she said. "Israel won't agree to hand over maps of the land mines, not to mention the daily Israeli incursions into Lebanese territory and airspace. This whole issue exploded on July 12, and this has nothing to do with Syria or Iran."
The war that resulted left over 1,100 Lebanese dead and 4,000 injured, according to official Lebanese government figures. Many of those injured will be crippled for the rest of their lives, Jazzar said, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by the fighting.
"The Israeli operation targeted every single area in Lebanon, every single religious community, every symbol of Lebanon. The anger is widely shared by all Lebanese. Israel targeted everybody," she said.
Not true, says Israel, which claims it targeted only Hezbollah outposts rather than civilian infrastructure (see sidebar interview with Israel's Arye Mekel). But Jazzar says that's patent nonsense, evidenced by the vast destruction in Christian neighborhoods of Beirut that were never particularly sympathetic to Hezbollah's objectives of turning Lebanon into an Islamic state.
"From the very beginning, the operation should never have started. If their intention was to target Hezbollah and its infrastructure, the end rewsult was a full destruction of the country. No area was safe in this war. They went as far north as the Beka'a Valley. If their intention was to cut supplies coming from Syria, why did they hit the mountains and radio transmitters at sea?"
On Sept. 22, Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah — in his first public appearance since the war — thanked God for Hezbollah's "divine, historic and strategic victory" over the Jewish state.
That kind of inflammatory talk clearly makes Jazzar — a Christian — uneasy, but she refused to condemn Hezbollah outright for attacking Israel and provoking the war.
"We don't play the blame game," she said. "Hezbollah has always been a part of Lebanon's political system and social fabric. Of course, ultimately our wish is to have Hezbollah become a political party and abandon its military wing. We were in the middle of a national dialogue to convene and agree on a collective national strategy. However, this transformation was not supposed to be done by Israel."
Jazzar, who was born and raised in Beirut, started her diplomatic career in 1992. She served as chief of consular affairs at the Lebanese Embassy in London, deputy chief of Lebanon's mission to UNESCO in Paris and as economic officer at Lebanon's Ministry of Foreign Affairs before being sent to Washington in 2004.
She became the embassy's top diplomat after the previous ambassador, Farid Abboud, was fired for saying publicly that if Israel wanted its kidnapped soldiers back, it would have to negotiate directly with Hezbollah.
"He looked a bit at odds with his government's position. He should have coordinated more," Jazzar said of Abboud. "Since he left, I'm in charge."
On Aug. 31, an international donor conference convened in Stockholm, attracting 60 countries (Israel wasn't one of them). Jazzar said Lebanon was expecting to raise $500 million, and instead got $940 million in pledges. The most generous donors have been the United States ($230 million), followed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
"We're still in the process of reassessing the entire scope of the destruction," she said. "The damage was much more than just the physical destruction. This touches the country's finances as well."
She said Lebanon's most immediate needs have been addressed, and that more than 800,000 displaced people have gone back home, though some schools are still being used as shelters.
"Lots of money was pledged in Stockholm, and will be made available very soon. The Cabinet has agreed on a plan of compensation for displaced victims and their families. They've already agreed to pay $33,000 to every family that lost its house, with the money going immediately into their bank accounts. Later on, a certain amount of money will be given to families according to the importance of their losses. How much will be decided later on a case-by-case basis."
During the crisis, Jazzar herself got little sleep — between worrying about her own family's safety and trying to reassure the hundreds of thousands of Americans of Lebanese descent that Lebanon would somehow pull through.
"On a personal level, it was difficult for me. I was very concerned for my family and my country. It was a daily, round-the-clock torture," she said. "The media in this country were after me like 24 hours a day. It was psychological fatigue for me, for at least a month."
And was the media fair in its portrayal of the conflict?
"No. At the beginning, they were not fair at all. When the crisis turned to collective punishment, they tried to balance their position a little, but it wasn't enough," she said, "though the Washington Post was great in its coverage."
One comment that got more than its share of press was Nasrallah's recent statement expressing regret over having started the war. Israelis widely interpreted that speech as an admission of guilt — and therefore justification for Israel's harsh response.
But Jazzar doesn't see it that way.
"Nasrallah was trying to express a widely shared feeling among Lebanese that this kidnapping operation was not worth it. You have to put it in context. Nobody deserves what happened. This was a miscalculation on his part," she said.
"Of course, Nasrallah as a great deal of sympathy among a large faction of Shi'ites. During the war and because of Hezbollah's resistance to the Israeli operation, he beneftitted from large support among the Arabs."
Interestingly, she pointed out that such support for Hezbollah doesn't necessarily follow sectarian lines.,
"You find Sunnis and Druze who are anti-Hezbollah, as well as pro-Hezbollah Christians," she explained. "But the main supporters of Hezbollah are found among the Shi'ite community. Southern Lebanon, for a very long time, was vacated because during our civil war, this area was used by the Palestinian factions to launch operations against Israel. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to oust the Palestinians from Lebanon, it occupied Lebanon up to the Litani River. Hezbollah grew up amidst frustration with the Israelis interfering in the people's everyday life."
Indeed, Hezbollah's Nasrallah has forged an alliance with Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian lawmaker in Lebanon's Parliament.
According to the New York Times "even if the current government remains in power, its influence has suffered severely. Members of the March 14 group worry that without making peace with Hezbollah, they will not be able to get anything done. Hezbollah and other Shi'ite ministers paralyzed the government for seven weeks earlier this year with a boycott to protest the government's call for an international tribunal to judge suspects in the assassination of former prime minsiter Rafik Hariri."
Even so, Lebanon's current prime minister, Fuad Saniora, had already disavowed Hezbollah's border raid prior to Israel's massive air bombardment of the country's southern half.
"The Lebanese government was on the verge of collapse. Its biggest achievement was to be able to survive this crisis," she said. "This cabinet is much stronger than it was before the crisis, because its leadership was wise enough to keep it together."
That strength will be tested in coming months as the Lebanese Army takes up positions along its border with Israel for the first time in many years — backed by the presence of thousands of UN peacekeeping troops.
Jazzar confirmed that "any act against Israel would be considered an act of treason. This was a political decision to impose our authority and make any person or group who launches any rocket from Lebanon responsible for their act of aggression."
She added: "As far as we're concerned, we've done our part. We have 8,500 troops on the border with Syria, and we've changed the security command at Beirut airport. I think we've done lots of what has been requested from us."
Disarming Hezbollah, as Israel demands, is something else altogether.
"This issue will be left to the Lebanese to be resolved internally, in the same way it was under discussion as part of our national dialogue," she said. "The international force is not supposed to finish this job. It's supposed to protect Lebanon, because Lebanon is ultimately the victim. You could bring thousands of troops there, but if you don't have the political will, these troops will be inefficient."
And Hezbollah won't lay down its arms willingly.
In his Sept. 22 speech, Nasrallah – speaking to thousands of supporters in an empty field next to a bombed-out Hezbollah stronghold — claimed his forces had 20,000 rockets left from the fighting, and that "no army in the world will be able to make us drop the weapons from our hands."
Another sticking point is the dispute over Shaba Farms, a tiny piece of land along the border claimed by both Israel and Lebanon.
"It's very strategic in terms of water resources. We're asking the UN to put this area under its jurisdiction as a first step in resolving this issue of occupation," she said.
"Israel says it has no claims and that they would respect our borders as recognized by the international community. However, knowing our past experience with Israel and several occupations going back to 1969, we have a few doubts about their true intentions. It took Israel 22 years to implement Resolution 425, which was adopted in 1978 calling for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon."
Jazzar spends a lot of time on the Hill and at the State Department. She says Lebanon has many friends in Congress; prominent among them are Rep. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — all Republicans.
"I've received thousands of letters of support, from everywhere. It's unbelievable," she said. "Does this reflect American public opinion? I don't know."
As far as the White House in concerned, Jazzar says "the Bush administration likes and supports Lebanon. They sense that Lebanon is the main democracy in this region. They were extremely pleased when the "Cedar Revolution" took place on Mar. 14, 2005, when they saw more than a million people in the streets shouting for freedom. However, it's not doing enough to promote the Lebanese government as such."
The administration has been leaning on Lebanon to prosecute those responsible for the 2005 assassination of Hariri, who opposed Syria's 29-year military presence in Lebanon.
The Syrian government is widely believed to be behind his murder. Interestingly, Jazzar's ousted predecessor in Washington — Farid Abboud – tried to suppress a probe into the assassination, which brought him into direct conflict with the Lebanese government.
"A report will be coming out by the end of September, following a very professional investigation. We're being extremely discreet to avoid any leaks," she said. "This is very important for the future of Lebanon. It's going to be a moment of truth for us."
Jazzar has had no time for a return trip to Lebanon, but hopes to make it home by Christmas. She's less hopeful that any real peace with Israel can ever be established.
"In the short term, it's very hard for us to swallow," she said. "The Lebanese people will need some time to forget, but we're not excluding the fact that we already have a kind of political and military framework which could be used to resolve conflicts. This is the 1949 armistice agreement with Israel. We could revive it at some point."
But don't expect any breakthroughs anytime soon, at least on the Washington diplomatic circuit. Jazzar just isn't in the mood.
"I will never have contact with the Israeli Embassy," she vowed. "It's too difficult for me to accept what happened. We need some time to heal our wounds."