On the road from Beirut to Sour (pronounced ‘Soor’), a coastal town about 20km from Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, my friend Aaron and I pass an increasing number of Lebanese military checkpoints and one UNIFIL checkpoint. (United Nations Interim Forces In Lebanon, since 1978.) The Lebanese military see us through with a curt nod, while the UNIFIL guards glare imperiously from atop two black tanks stationed behind white concrete barriers, each stenciled ‘Peace to Lebanon’. (The obvious subtext: ‘Or else’.) The increasingly visible military presence tips us off that things in the south, especially the southeast are not so settled compared to our experience in Beirut. (See previous article, ‘Our Man in Beirut, Lebanon’.)
In fact, the further south we travel in Lebanon, the less people are willing to talk about its biggest political problems: Israel and Hezbollah. Their reticence is easy enough to understand: Israel and Hezbollah have clashed repeatedly since 2000, most recently in 2006, when Israel bombarded Beirut and invaded southern Lebanon (including Sour), in response to Hezbollah rocket fire that killed three Israeli soldiers, with two others subsequently kidnapped. (Hezbollah is a political party in Lebanon, formed in 1982 to oppose Israeli invasion and occupation during the Lebanese Civil War. The United States, at least, considers the party a terrorist organization.) While Hezbollah provides much-needed social services in southeastern Lebanon, this stronghold also keeps it unnervingly proximate to the Israeli border.
All of which makes us keen to visit the border and see firsthand the status of the current peace. We get off to a poor start with our hotel, in Sour, where the staff suddenly forget they speak English when we ask for the best route to the border:
Can you tell us the best route to the Israeli border? [We point to the border on our map.]
No, no, I don’t know that. I don’t understand?
Undeterred, we walk down to the taxi station to negotiate in a language that everybody understands. From our map and a quick Internet search we determine that Fatima Gate, a former border crossing closed in 2000, would be a good bet. The Gate is located near the town of Kfar Kila (pronounced ‘Far Keela’), and eventually we find a taxi driver who knows this place. We haggle over the price, taking turns wiping-out and drawing numbers in the dust on the back window of his taxi. A half-dozen drivers crowd around to watch the action.
Off we go, winding up and through the hills of southeastern Lebanon. The elevation gives us expansive views of dry, pitched countryside, sparsely covered with golden grass and shoots of green conifers. Construction activity in this region is less obvious than in the areas around Beirut, especially commercial construction, but we pass dozens of homes in various stages of development, many of them impressively large. A good portion of the roadway is pristine, recently laid asphalt, along which we observe the steady substitution of yellow and green Hezbollah flags for red, white and green Lebanese flags. Pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, appear regularly on power poles and billboards, smiling and waving even more flags.
Presently we are stopped at another Lebanese military checkpoint, in an area our driver calls ‘Mankour’. (His English is extremely limited; our Arabic is worse.) The soldiers scrutinise our passports and make numerous, stern demands of our driver. Apparently, the road we want to take requires military clearance that we don’t have. We drive to the nearby UNIFIL checkpoint, and while these guards assure us no clearance is required our driver gets on his mobile and finds someone who speaks English:
You want to go to Kfar Kila? There is another route, it is much longer but there is no military. If you tell me then my friend [our driver] will take you.
Since our driver is not about to weigh the UNIFIL’s claims against his own military, we agree to the proposal of the faceless English speaker.
Over an hour later we are still winding our way through the Lebanese countryside. It is hot and we are hungry, even our driver, so stop for lunch in a town called Bint Jbay. The entrance to the town is marked by a large sign mounted in a circle of manicured grass. The sign reads: ‘The Capital of Resistance and Liberation’. It supports a half-dozen yellow and green flags.
Looks like we are having lunch with Hezbollah.
The shawarma is delicious and the interactions stilted but friendly. (Again, weak English and worse Arabic.) We split an ice cream bar for dessert, which seems to please the owner of the restaurant. We really aren’t surprised to find such ordinary life in this Hezbollah stronghold: in Bint Jbay as in Beirut, as in New York or Oxford, ordinary life is, for most people, just ordinary life.
But not for everyone: back on the road we finally reach Fatima Gate, which is marked by an abandoned UNIFIL outpost, a low-slung white bunker adorned with razor wire and the minimalist ‘UN’ logo. There is a helipad down the hill, about 500 yards from the border fence, where we walk for a better vantage. We take several photographs before we notice another, smaller Lebanese military outpost tucked further down the hill. There is a gray bunker and at least one tank, hidden from the sky by camouflage netting.
As we walk back to our taxi, we hear whistling and shouting in Arabic. Two Lebanese military personnel have emerged from the bunker and are calling us back down the hill. They take our passports and the inevitable miscommunication ensues. Then they take our cameras. Then they see our driver and dispatch a truck to bring him onto the scene. The younger of the two soldiers returns to the bunker for further instructions while his senior interrogates us in futile, angry Arabic. We grow increasingly nervous.
Our driver arrives in a bluster of exculpatory Arabic. (We hope.) The younger guard returns with orders to delete any pictures we have taken of the site. Duty discharged, we reclaim our passports and jump into the taxi. As we drive away, our resolve disintegrates in an outburst of nervous laughter. Even our driver is relieved. High fives are exchanged all around.
[Photo: A devastated Israeli tank impaled by a Hezbollah flag, near the Lebanon-Israel border.]