Richard Reeves

The Bloody Circles and Cycles of the Middle East

PARIS -- So, the Israelis move back into Gaza and into southern Lebanon, then bomb the Beirut Airport. It is, as that great political philosopher, Yogi Berra, is reputed to have said, "Deja vu all over again."

Does anything ever change in the politics, wars and occupations of the Middle East? It may have for one, bright shining moment. But then one of his own people assassinated the peacemaker, Israel's Yitzhak Rabin.

Now, a new generation of leaders in Lebanon, Syria, the non-state of Palestine and Israel seems poised to repeat the mistakes and horrors of the 1980s. Let us pray that the other party to the blood and chaos of that time, the United States, has learned its lesson and will not put our own military in deadly and hopeless jeopardy as we did in 1981.

For those who have forgotten what happened in those unlamented days of yesteryear, it began with ...

Well, nothing "begins" in the Middle East; it is always the same, circular and cyclical, and "began" is a loaded word that implies that someone "started" something that was always there. "Began" is a word of blame, and all sides share that in the endless insanity of peoples destined and determined to destroy each other in the name of God the merciful.

Without trying to put events in rational order, in the 1980s, Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims were harassing villages in northern Israel in deadly ways, lobbing rockets and sending in commando teams from southern Lebanon. They were being armed and helped by Syria and Iran. An Israeli defense minister, Ariel Sharon, thought he could stop that with what he called a surgical invasion, a week of cleanup work in the 20 miles north of the Israeli border. The Beirut Airport was bombed. Sharon was lying. He intended to wipe out the Palestine Liberation Army, which seemed to be in the process of taking over Lebanon.

Then a lot of other things happened -- again, putting them in a rational order is really impossible, because it only allocates blame and gives the impression people on every side knew what they were doing. The only sure thing was killing. These things happened:

-- Syria took over most of Lebanon, a process that included the assassination of one Lebanese leader after another -- a tradition that continues.

-- The Israelis stayed in Lebanon, occupying different parts of the country for more than 20 years, finally leaving in 2000.

-- More than 2,000 Palestinians in refugee camps called Sabra and Shatilla, mostly women and children, were massacred by Lebanese troops and Lebanese Christian militias -- as Israeli troops and tanks blocked the camps' few exits.

-- Lebanon was more or less destroyed in a civil war with confusing and shifting alliances.

-- In 1983, a total of 241 U.S. Marines, peacekeepers where there was no peace, were killed in a single suicide bombing of their barracks at the Beirut Airport.

Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States when these things happened. He made at least one horrendous blunder, saying at a press conference that the Marines were in Lebanon (along with French and Italian forces) not to keep the many warring sides and factions apart, but rather to train the Lebanese Army to allow Lebanese politicians to regain control of the country. (Does that one sound familiar?) But the army and old political leaders were Christians, who had governed the country since it was a French colony. Shiite Muslims, living in the slums around the airport, took this as a declaration of war on Islam and went after the Americans.

President Reagan also did one smart thing. He cut and ran after the killing of the Marines. Officially it was called "redeployment," but the surviving Marines and other American representatives were redeployed to ships far off the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, out of the range of the crazies all around.

American policy now, again, is to call for restraint on all sides, defend anything the Israelis do, and put the blame on Hamas and Hezbollah, political-military-criminal gangs that grew in the bloody haze of the 1980s -- again with Syrian and Iranian help.

We could argue about the morality and effectiveness of that "policy" for a long time, but what we should remember first is this: There is not a damned thing we can do about these people. They long ago stopped seeing each other as human beings and are determined to kill each other no matter what we say or do. Deja vu all over again.

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