x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Israeli bugs and tomato scares for Lebanese but don’t mention the Syrians

The Israeli bogeyman has once again worked its way into Lebanon's collective consciousness.

Anyone wondering why Lebanon is a failed state need look no further than the two instances of high melodrama that occurred last week.

First we were briefly convinced the Israelis were trying to kill us with tomatoes deliberately stuffed with carcinogens. That was until Ali Haj Hassan, the agriculture minister and a member of Hizbollah, told us all to calm down and reminded us of the stringent monitoring his ministry, along with the security forces, makes on a regular basis on all incoming produce.

That said, he might have not been entirely unhappy that the Israeli bogeyman had once again worked its way into our collective consciousness.

Because if you hang around this part of the Middle East for more than a few days, you will soon understand that Israel, as the Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy aptly pointed out, is the “opium of the [Arab] people”. Most of our problems are its fault, somehow.

It doesn’t take much to light the embers of panic and paranoia.

Businesses can fail, unemployment among those under 25 can be a staggering 25 per cent and the Beirut Stock Exchange can witness a drop in trading volume of 30 per cent but all this is means nothing if spectre of Israel is invoked.

The tomato scare, however, was small potatoes compared to the news broken earlier in the week by the parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri who revealed to MPs that … wait for it … the Israelis had installed surveillance posts along its southern border with Lebanon. And guess what? They were doing all this to spy on us, listen in on our phone calls, text messages and what have you.

This was enough to stir the state from its coma.

The parliamentary telecommunications committee that broke the “news”, said it would hold an emergency meeting on Monday to deal with the matter and raise hell at the United Nations.

The caretaker telecoms minister – Lebanon has had no government since April – Nicolas Sehnaoui declared it a “violation of the country’s sovereignty”, while the defence minister Fayez Ghosn waded in with his five cents worth, urging the Lebanese “unite and set aside their differences to confront the Israeli plot against Lebanon”. Ah yes, of course. It’s all our fault the country’s in such a mess.

The reaction of most of the people I spoke to was a mix of disgust and laughter about the cynical way in which attention was diverted away from the state’s spectacular ineptitude.

I mean let’s face it everyone listens in on everyone these days; just ask Germany’s Angela Merkel or the British actor Hugh Grant. And it is lunacy to assume that, until this month, Israel has not been monitoring its prickly northern neighbour.

Hizbollah’s military machine, arguably the most efficient non-state army in the world, sits just over the fence. Since the mid-1980s, one of the pillars of its core policy has been to retake Jerusalem and kick the Israelis into the sea.

So after nearly 30 years of tension and conflict, Israel suddenly decides it had better try to listen to what those pesky Lebanese are up to. It’s nonsense.

Then there is the small matter of violating a country’s sovereignty as Mr. Sehnaoui so dramatically put it. Well here’s a news flash Nicolas. For nearly two years the Syrian military has been violating Lebanese sovereignty on a daily basis, bombing our land and in many cases murdering our citizens.

But Syria doesn’t count does it?

Then again, while we are on the subject of non-stories, my initial declaration of Lebanon as a failed state may be even staler.

Writing in 1870 in his book The Land and the Book, the American writer William Thomson, described what is now Lebanon as a society with “no continuous strata underlying it, which can be opened and worked for the general benefit of all, but an endless number of dislocated fragments, faults, and dikes, by which the masses are tilted up in hopeless confusion, and lie at every conceivable angle of antagonism to each other.”

Sound familiar?

Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer