Hizbullah doesn't speak for Lebanon

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Ignorance is bliss. But you can only be content with what you have until you get a glimpse of something better, or until you are struck by a harsh reality that makes it impossible to continue living comfortably with the knowledge you now possess.

As part of a younger generation of Arab Americans, I have no firsthand memories of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war. Until recently, my experience of conflict in Lebanon was limited to the stories I'd heard and a look at the occasional bullet-scarred building in downtown Beirut. Juxtaposed against the new infrastructure, the jarring effect of these wartime relics did not escape me. It was difficult to picture a Lebanon without the joie de vivre that defines its character.

Sadly, it is no longer hard. I imagine that the horrifying images from Lebanon elicit a surge of emotion in most of us. While I personally find it difficult to sit idly by, I understand why others around me might not. Our daily lives are not often affected by events elsewhere, so it makes sense that we might not feel personally compelled to take action in response. This applies to Americans and Lebanese alike.

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Given this reasoning, I am puzzled by the widespread misperception that Hizbullah has always represented the Lebanese majority. Until recently, Lebanon was a market economy with a per capita income of $5,000. Its society was liberal, sophisticated, and intellectually refined. Regardless of their sentiments toward Israel, most Lebanese did not wish to take up ideological battles that would hinder their economic and cultural prosperity. Just as we each have our individual causes, we do not usually seek to champion them in ways that disrupt our own lives.

However, Israel's military campaign has certainly galvanized significant support for Hizbullah within Lebanon, leading this misperception to become the reality. The assumption that most Lebanese identify with Hizbullah is symptomatic of the preexisting stereotypes that characterize the Middle East and thus comes as no surprise.

What is alarming is that those who are more exposed to the region and are armed with more expertise refuse to acknowledge the realities on the ground. At the onset of fighting, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Lebanon is more at fault than Israel because the fighting began with the capture of two Israeli soldiers. She said, "I think that one needs to be very careful to make a clear distinction between the root causes and the consequences of something."

As a Palestinian, an American, and a rational being, I can confidently say that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, which occurs in violation of numerous UN resolutions and is upheld through gross human rights abuses, is now, and has always been, the root cause of conflict between Israel and Hizbullah. What many neglect to realize – or perhaps choose to ignore – is that Hizbullah formed as a response to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It is a reactionary group, but much effort has gone into obscuring this irrefutable reality. This aside, Hizbullah may very well have triggered the recent violence. Its actions were foolish, as they provided the impetus for Israel to launch a full-fledged attack on Lebanon. But this provocation by Hizbullah does not justify Israel's brutal and disproportionate response.

Until this past month, the bullet-scarred apartment buildings scattered throughout Beirut seemed nothing more than innocuous remnants of worse times. Today these buildings no longer stand out, as they continue to proliferate throughout the country. Until recently, I had no concept of Lebanon's fragility and how temporary all of its splendor could be – how quickly its past could become its present and how all of what my generation had known of the country could cease to exist.

These painful realizations have left me humbled and disillusioned. Although the current cease-fire will allow humanitarian aid to reach many who need it, its language specifically sidesteps the underlying issues that fuel the conflict. As such, any relief that it provides will probably be temporary.

At this point, my perspective may be especially jaded, and thus unfairly pessimistic. I sincerely hope so. Ignorance is bliss, but it is costly. Among those who are already aware of the realities of this conflict, yet choose to eschew them, feigned ignorance is simply inexcusable. I hope that the devastation that has struck Lebanon will eventually shatter the facade of ignorance upheld by those who clearly know better.

Zaina Arafat spent the summer of 2001 studying Arabic at the American University of Beirut and volunteering at a Palestinian refugee camp outside the city. She has been back to Lebanon every year since, as well as to Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. She currently works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her opinions are her own.

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