Tensions rise but Lebanon’s only invasion is by tourists

The sun is shining and Beirut’s streets are busier than ever. Thousands of Europeans and Americans have gambled on the New York Times’ recommendation, Arabs from the Gulf have tightened their belts and chosen to vacation closer to home, and CNN is running reports on Beirut being the best party city in the world. Times have changed, right?

Well, no, not really. In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen reports about an explosion at a Hezbollah arms factory, a military build-up across the border in Israel, an al Qaeda video claiming responsibility for rocket attacks in the south, and 10 people arrested for plotting to attack UN peacekeepers. Oh, and fighter jets have been in the skies over Beirut.

The tension began two weeks ago when a series of blasts in the southern town of Khirbet Silim triggered a slew of conflicting explanations from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Israelis. Despite being Hezbollah-controlled territory, a friend of mine was told by the group’s spokesperson that he hadn’t heard about the blast – six hours after it had occurred. 

Eventually it transpired that the building had been a Hezbollah arms depot, which the UN quickly highlighted as a violation of Resolution 1701, and when UNIFIL sent a team of investigators to the site they were pelted with stones and forced to retreat with several peacekeepers injured.

Israel said the explosion was a clear sign that Hezbollah was actively rearming and initially responded by massing troops along the border before reportedly moving tanks into the area yesterday. And if that wasn’t worrying enough, there were also claims that a gun-battle between Israel and the LAF had been narrowly avoided last week when Lebanese authorities claimed an IDF watchtower was illegally positioned. For once, it seems the Blue Helmets managed to step in and calm the mood.

And then, out of nowhere, came a video thought to feature the voice of Osama bin Laden claiming responsibility for rockets launched from southern Lebanon into Israel in January. Whether al Qaeda had anything to do with it or not (I’ll save that for another post), it’s never a good thing to hear bin Laden talking about your country. Especially just after 10 suspected terrorists, thought to be members of the al Qaeda-aligned Fatah al Islam group, were arrested.

So there you have it: two weeks in the NYT’s top tourist destination for 2009. And although many Lebanese are adamant peace will hold, when the country’s fighter jets took to the skies above Beirut this week, after last being deployed over 30 years ago, it was hardly surprising that the city’s visitors from the Gulf were scrambling to evacuate.

If the tourism ministry wants to hit its target of 2 million tourists this year, they’d better warn everyone next time the vintage Hawker Hunters are taken for a spin.