Michael Totten

An American in the Paris of the Middle East

Sol Stern reviews my book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, in City Journal.

In the title of Michael Totten’s book, “Fatima Gate” refers to the only official border crossing between Lebanon and Israel. Located on the edge of the little town of Metula in Israel’s northeast corner, the gate is almost never open for civilian traffic these days. Not that long ago, however, Lebanese Muslims and Christians regularly passed through it into Israel for jobs paying good wages. On weekends, hundreds of Lebanese families would regularly cross the border to spend a Sabbath day at the sprawling Canada Center (a gift to Israel from wealthy Canadian Jews). The Arab families, from a country technically still at war with Israel, frolicked in the center’s swimming pools, waterslides, and indoor ice rink, mixing freely with Jewish Israelis. The Muslims came on Fridays and the Maronite Catholics on Sundays. The economic activity and social contacts benefited both sides and even brought a taste of peaceful coexistence. It was in those halcyon days that Israelis named the border crossing “the Good Fence.”

The good times ended after the Israeli army withdrew from its South Lebanon security zone in 2000. On the Lebanese side, the gate morphed into a prop for Hezbollah political theater. (Hezbollah militants are said to have given the gate its present name after a girl named Fatima was allegedly shot near the border by Israeli soldiers.) Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” now conducts guided tours from the Shia slums of Beirut down to Fatima Gate for its international fellow travelers. These radical tourists, who have included such luminaries as Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, are driven to the border, where they can gaze across the fence and rage against the Zionist colonizers. The Party of God’s secular comrades are sometimes so overcome by the sheer injustice of it all that they throw rocks over the fence into the Jewish state.

A good part of Totten’s book describes what he saw and heard in his travels from the capital cities of Lebanon and Israel to each side of Fatima Gate, which he somehow managed without the assistance of any official tour organizers. For the author, the ugly, rusting gate serves as a metaphor for something more ominous than a mere military checkpoint between two nations periodically at war. The gate also serves as a fault line demarcating two antithetical social orders, an idea reminiscent of the “clash of civilizations” theory postulated in the early 1990s by scholars Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. Totten is not a political theorist, but he employs remarkable reporting skills to dramatize the subversion and near-destruction of a peaceful Arab democracy by a ruthless, clerical-fascist movement backed by Iran. Ostensibly created to defend the legitimate interests of the downtrodden Shia population, Hezbollah started out as just one of many competing tribal and religious groups in the Lebanese mosaic. Totten shows that, while dispensing social services to its own people, the militia was also able to intimidate the country’s other confessional groups and build a totalitarian mini-state within fractured Lebanon.

The timeline of Totten’s chilling story ends well before the recent upheavals in the Arab world. Yet it can be read as a cautionary tale, reminding us that there was once another “Arab spring” that appeared even more hopeful than the present-day uprisings in Tahrir Square, Tunisia, and Benghazi. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution broke out spontaneously in 2005, just a few months after the Syrian intelligence services—with Hezbollah’s active collaboration—assassinated the popular, pro-Western prime minister, Rafik Hariri. In a spontaneous outburst of “people power,” 1 million Lebanese, out of a total population of 4 million, packed Beirut’s Martyr’s Square to demand the removal of the country’s Syrian overlords. The Syrians did leave, and for a brief interlude, its Lebanese client, Hezbollah, was pushed off the streets and found itself in political retreat. Many in the West became convinced that democracy and civil society were about to blossom in a pivotal Arab country, while also creating prospects for peace and stability in the region. But Hezbollah bided its time, waiting patiently for its moment of opportunity. When the West lost interest, Hezbollah forced its way back into power and turned the lights out again. The ominous parallel to recent events will become obvious to readers of Totten’s book.

Read the whole thing. And buy the book if you haven’t already!