Israel and Syrian Rebels: History Repeating Itself?

We Shias are quick at accusing the Sunnis of Syria for seeking Israeli help against Assad.

israel-syriaLet us go back in 1982, the year when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered South Lebanon and saw thousands of Shias standing in long lines along the road and cheering the Israeli soldiers by calling them liberators. Then the Shia mothers had come out of the houses and hugged and kissed Israeli soldiers and showered them with rice and flowers.

But the IDF personnel were not there to support any Shia cause. They had in fact come to attack and eliminate the Palestinian jihadi outfits which had established a fiefdom in Southern Lebanon.

The Palestinian militants had complete support of the Lebanese Army during their takeover of the Shia-majority Southern Lebanon which borders Israel. The Palestinians renamed South Lebanon as “Fatah-land” and demanded support from the Shias. Given that the Shias don’t believe in the concept of jihad the way Sunnis do, and they were also not so much thrilled with the arrival of their new masters; the Palestinians had to resort to force and violence to control the locals.

Under Palestinian control, the Shias suffered rape, torture and murder on daily basis.

In one incident, murder and torture forced more than 30,000 Shias to flee from the town of Nabatiye. Palestinians forced Shia Imams to praise their jihad during the Friday sermons and killed those who didn’t comply. According to David Shipler, who wrote Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, the Shias accused Palestinians of theft, intimidation and violence.

The Shia mayor of Tyre, Ali Shalaan, during an interview, accused the Palestinians of pressuring him to resign and hand over everything to the occupiers. However, he refused and preferred death over transferring authority and revenue of the municipality to the Palestinians. It is also reported that many desperate and victimized Shias volunteered to join Israeli army to attack Beirut and oust the Palestinians and Lebanese military from their neighborhoods.

The Palestinian occupation of Shia neighborhoods lasted for six years.

In 1982, when the Israeli soldiers entered Lebanon and freed Shia towns like Tyre from the Palestinians, the Shias cheered for them and welcomed their presence. A New York Times report of 1982 mentions the feelings of the Shias who were freed by the Israelis in the following manner: “Some are still circumspect, afraid the P.L.O. will return after Israel withdraws; others open up in a spirit of relief.”

In March 2003, Israeli writer Uri Avnery penned an article named “Bitter Rice” in which he states,

“On the fourth day of the 1982 Israeli attack on Lebanon, I crossed the border at a lonely spot near Metulla and looked for the front, which had already reached the outskirts of Sidon. I was driving my private car, accompanied by a woman photographer. We passed a dozen Shiite villages and were received everywhere with great joy. We extracted ourselves only with difficulty from hundreds of villagers, each one insisting that we have coffee at their home. On the previous days, they had showered the Israeli soldiers with rice.”

But then Israelis made a mistake. Assessing that Shias were a down-trodden, powerless community, who were held in contempt by all the others and were unable to defend their land from the Lebanese soldiers and the Palestinians; the Israelis overstayed their welcome.

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The Israelis decided to create a buffer in the South to control on permanent basis.

The Shias did not expect this long-term occupation. Circumstances eventually led to the creation of Hezbollah and the rest is history…

The fact remains that the cooperation of the Shias enabled the Israeli soldiers to enter Lebanon and push the Palestinians further north. It was a win-win situation for both, as Israelis and Shias saw the Palestinians and Lebanese soldiers as their enemy.

In July 2006, Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami wrote in his article “The Heartbreak of History” that

“They [Palestinians] held Lebanon captive, belittled its people, trampled over the Shiite country in the south, and hid behind the trappings of Lebanon’s sovereignty. No one wept when the Palestinian gunmen and their leaders were cast out of Lebanon. They boarded ships firing into the air, freeing the Lebanese to embark on a new history of their own…. Israel had shattered the Palestinian sanctuary, and this led to the rise of the Shiites. Israel had done for Shi’ites –Lebanon’s largest and most disadvantaged community–what they had been unable to do for themselves. In a chapter now long forgotten, those villages in the southern hinterland had welcomed Israel’s push into Lebanon.”

Times have changed and so are the roles of the Shias and Sunnis residing along the Mediterranean coastline. Now the Sunnis are desperate to get rid of Assad and would welcome any help coming in their direction.

Senge H. Sering is the President of Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies and hails from a Tibetan speaking region called Baltistan (Baltiyul), which has been declared a disputed area between India and Pakistan by the United Nations. There are about 600,000 Balti people residing in India and Pakistan who profess Islam and speak archaic Tibetan. Read other articles by Senge.