Political Rivalries, Absent Sons : In S. Lebanon, Hijacking Comes Into Clearer Focus
There is probably no place where the human, political and military background for the TWA hostage crisis comes into clearer focus than here in southern Lebanon.
It’s clear in the troubled face of Ahmed Adeyhli, whose 18-year-old son, Imad, is one of the 735 mostly Shia Muslim prisoners whose release from an Israeli prison camp the hijackers are demanding in return for freeing 40 American hostages in Beirut.
“I’m not happy that they kidnaped people in Beirut,” Adeyhli said here Tuesday. “But I’m not happy about my son, either.”
The background is also clear at the Melkart Coffee Shop in central Tyre, where a three-day-old sign affixed to the front window advises that “spirits of any kind,” hashish and slot machines are now forbidden.
The new rules were issued by the Amal movement in Tyre. Like the Beirut hostage situation, they reflect the growing political competition for supremacy among Lebanon’s Shia Muslims between the relatively moderate Amal and more radical, Iranian-inspired groups such as Hezbollah (Party of God).
And the background is clear in Amal checkpoints on the pothole-covered streets in and around Tyre--checkpoints that are undermanned in part because Israel captured hundreds of the organization’s men and transferred them across the border to Atlit.
“Israel has seized the best boys in the south and put them in prison,” complained Daoud Daoud, Amal’s chief in the region.
To the Lebanese in the south, a hijacking is a relatively tame form of political violence compared to what has come to be expected after more than 10 years of almost constant warfare. And Amal political leaders interviewed here Tuesday seemed genuinely bemused when told of the American public’s outrage over the TWA incident.
Several talked about how well off the American hostages are, compared to the 735 Lebanese Muslims still held in Israel. The fact that they are innocent victims was, at most, unfortunate, they indicate.
“They are very happy,” said a local journalist of the Americans. “They eat. They sleep. They watch TV.”
Asked whether Amal was involved in planning the June 14 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, Dr. Ali Jaber, a physician and local Amal political leader, replied: “Maybe; maybe not. It doesn’t matter who took the airplane.”
What matters here is freedom for the rest of the prisoners in Israel, most of whom are from this area. Many were captured earlier this year in Israel’s “Operation Iron Fist” raids against mostly Shia Muslim villages suspected of aiding guerrilla attacks on occupying Israeli troops.
‘I Live Under Pressure’
“I know very well here the families of the prisoners,” said Amal regional chief Daoud during an interview at a fortified militia base just north of Tyre. “They ask me: ‘Why haven’t you done something? Why have you left our sons?’ So, I always live under pressure.”
Residents of the south welcomed the hijacking, said Daoud: “They say: ‘You didn’t forget our boys.’ ”
In the minds of the southern Lebanese, the United States shares fully in Israel’s guilt at continuing to hold the Atlit detainees.
“Why didn’t the United States try earlier to force Israel to release these people?” asked Jaber. “If we didn’t do such a way (commit the hijacking), we couldn’t have heard in the U.S. people saying that the (Atlit) prisoners should be let go.”
Jaber said that “we consider the United States the father of Israel” and therefore “still responsible.. . . We want the people in the United States to feel how we’re feeling.”
Slowing the Process
Israel has said that it was in the process of releasing the detainees anyway and that the hijacking has only slowed down the process. Jaber is skeptical.
“How can I believe the Israelis will release our people?” he asked, noting that Israel had also said it was going to withdraw from Lebanon. Despite that pledge, its troops and proxy forces continue to occupy a “security zone” extending up to 10 miles inside Lebanon.
Some Lebanese here speculate that the hijacking might never have occurred if Israel had gone through with the planned release early this month of 340 more of the Atlit detainees. Israel cancelled the planned release at the last minute for unexplained “security reasons.” TWA Flight 847 was hijacked several days later.
There is clearly a strong internal political background to the hijacking as well.
Identity Is Uncertain
The identity of the original TWA hijackers is uncertain although they are presumed to be radical Shia Muslims. Since early in the crisis, though, Amal chief and Lebanese Justice Minister Nabih Berri has been negotiating on behalf of the sky pirates.
Amal leaders in the south stressed Tuesday that Berri is acting on behalf of the entire organization. They described him as a middleman who hopes to resolve the crisis peacefully but who will “take his hand away” unless progress is made toward freedom for the remaining Atlit detainees.
They insisted that neither Berri nor Amal would be harmed politically if he fails to bring a satisfactory resolution to the crisis. However, independent sources here said otherwise.
“People here see this as a struggle between Amal and Hezbollah for control of the south, and the U.S. has become a pawn,” said a Western diplomatic source in the area. “Whoever gets (the Atlit prisoners) out and gets credit for it will have a hell of a lot of support in the south.”
The independent sources said that Hezbollah, which strives for a fundamentalist Islamic state in Lebanon, has gained considerable power in the south in recent weeks.
“Amal is still the dominant militia in the south,” one said. “But the question is the trend.” This source predicted that “an Amal-Hezbollah showdown is inevitable,” and he said that “much will depend on the outcome of the hijacking--how Berri emerges from all this.”
Hezbollah appears to have ample funds--reputedly from Iran and Libya, among others. And it is spending them freely to recruit fighters at a monthly wage of about $170.
Tyre’s Amal leader, Abdel-Majid Salih, said there is a tendency for Palestinians and others whom Amal has been keeping out of the south to join the more radical Hezbollah--another worrisome trend that he said his organization is watching closely.
Hard Pressed for Funds
Hezbollah is gaining strength at a time when Amal is spread thin. Amal, which dispenses a large range of social services, is hard pressed for money. In addition, many Amal fighters were ordered to Beirut to help take over the Palestinian refugee camps there during the last month. And, as Daoud said, several hundred of its best young men are imprisoned at Atlit.
Amal leaders interviewed Tuesday either sidestepped questions about the Amal-Hezbollah rivalry or minimized it, which only seemed to confirm that the situation is getting more serious.
Another indication is that notice posted by Amal on the front of the Melkart Coffee Shop, ordering Tyre’s beaches segregated into male and female sections, as well as banning drinking and gambling.
Amal leaders variously described the rules as part of a law-and-order campaign or as a reminder to people of the sacrifices necessary to push Israel all the way out of Lebanon. Independent sources, however, said the new orders were meant to appease the fundamentalist Hezbollah.
To ‘Shut Its Mouth’
“They do this to make Hezbollah shut its mouth,” commented a local journalist.
In appeasing Hezbollah, however, Amal appears to be alienating many of the very people who have long been its most important supporters. Above the notice of the new rules was another sign saying, “This Place Is for Sale.” “People are grumbling,” conceded a Tyre merchant who is a major Amal financial contributor. “They say: ‘Look, we can’t handle everything at once. Give us time.’ ”
Given all the personal, political and military problems created for them by Israel’s detention of their countrymen, the southern Lebanese clearly have a different perspective of the hostage crisis.
As Daoud put it: “If I release (the hostages), perhaps this is right to the American people. But it’s wrong to my people.”