If the United States wants to gauge the extent of anti-American sentiment in Lebanon, it needs look no further than its embassy's efforts in the past few weeks to host iftars, the evening fast-breaking meal during the Muslim month of Ramadan. Just nine of 80 invitees attended a Monday-night iftar. Most observed a boycott of the event in protest of US Middle East policies.
As a possible US-led invasion of Iraq inches closer, and the bloodshed in the occupied Palestinian territories increases, anger toward America in this comparatively Western-friendly nation has grown more violent.
Several American fast-food restaurants have been bombed recently - three in one day last month. Then, two weeks ago, an American missionary was shot dead in her office in Sidon, the first killing of a US citizen on Lebanese soil since the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. It is still unclear whether she was murdered because of her nationality or because of her alleged attempts to convert local Muslims.
In Lebanon, as in the rest of the Middle East, public expressions of opposition to Washington's Mideast policies had until recent months been confined mainly to organized and peaceful campaigns to boycott American goods.
The killing last month of a USAID official in Jordan and attacks on US troops based in Kuwait support the argument that even US-friendly Arab nations are seeing a rise in anti-American sentiment.
The recent killing in Sidon underlined the vulnerability of American citizens to potential attacks. "The hostility against Americans is very clear. It's increasing every day," says Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a prominent Muslim cleric in Sidon. "It will become much worse if America attacks Iraq. The situation will be very difficult to repair." In the dark, narrow alleyways of Sidon's souk, or marketplace, it seems that anger toward America is shared by everyone.
"Of course, our hatred of the United States will increase if America attacks Iraq," says Mohammed Nawfal, a barber. "The Lebanese have experienced much bloodshed and there is a history of bloody American involvement in Lebanon. So we feel more sympathy for Iraq than other countries because we have been there."
Lebanon tends to have a greater understanding of the West than neighboring Arab countries - even ostensible allies of the US such as Jordan and Egypt - because of the extensive Lebanese diaspora and the Christian community's traditional ties with Europe. It is estimated that there are four times as many Lebanese living overseas as there are in Lebanon.
But Yehya Sadowski, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, believes that Lebanon's familiarity with the US paradoxically heightens anti-Americanism among the Lebanese.
"Many Lebanese understand that the US just doesn't care," he says. "The average Syrian may give the US the benefit of the doubt, believing that the Zionist lobby has pulled the wool over the eyes of the Americans. But the Lebanese seem to know that the US considers the Arab world as a cranky nuisance."
Yet many Americans living in Lebanon say that they have not noticed any personal hostility directed toward them, nor do they feel particularly threatened. "I haven't felt any aggressiveness toward me. I am feeling pretty much comfortable," says Mary Cochrane, who is married to a Lebanese man and has lived in Lebanon for more than six years. She admitted, however, that an American friend had stopped taking her children to McDonald's since the bombings of American fast-food restaurants began.
Sheikh Hammoud said he deplored terrorism - what he called "attacks from the darkness" - and instead encourages through his sermons civil protest such as boycotting American goods and holding demonstrations. But he admitted that, in tandem with an increase in anti-American hostility, he has detected a rise in extreme Islamic sentiment in Sidon. "Even the people who listen to my sermons urge me to take a stronger line," he says. "American policies are breeding extremism and if these policies continue as they are, then there will be no moderate Muslims left."
But the anger toward the US is not confined to Muslims. Even in secular institutions such as the American University of Beirut, the increase in anti-Americanism has been fairly dramatic, according to Professor Sadowski. "One shouldn't think it's associated only with Islam. It's a much broader phenomenon," he says.
Hold a conversation with a Lebanese, or any Arab for that matter, and they will generally say that they have nothing against the American people, it's Washington's specific Middle East policies that they resent.
But Sadowski, himself a US citizen, says he believes that tolerance toward Americans is "clearly eroding." "There is a growing sense that opposing US policy as an American citizen is not enough to let you off the hook. It won't be much longer before just having an American passport is enough to be targeted," he says.