11 April 2012

* Israel’s Killing Spree on Verdun Street

On the anniversary of the infamous 1973 raid in the heart of Beirut, Al-Akhbar speaks to contemporaries of the three Palestinian resistance leaders who were assassinated that night.

The Israelis called it “Operation Spring of Youth.” On the night of 10 April 1973, Israeli army commandos led by Ehud Barak – currently the Israeli defense minister – carried out a raid in the heart of Beirut aimed at assassinating three key Palestinian leaders.

Landing on the shore in boats, the killers were driven by agents in hired cars to a building in the Verdun district.

Muhammad Yousef (Abu Yousef) al-Najjar, a member of the Fatah movement’s central committee, was asleep when the front door of his apartment was blown out by an explosive charge. Within seconds, one of the assassination squads stormed into his bedroom. He did not have time to reach for a pistol he kept nearby, and his wife threw her body over his to protect him. The couple were riddled with bullets.

A second group, after killing a guard, targeted the second-floor apartment in an adjacent building of fellow Fatah central committee member Kamal Adwan. When he heard a commotion outside the door, he grabbed his machine gun. But he did not have a chance to use it. He was shot in the back by another group of Israelis who had entered through the kitchen window. They fired about 60 bullets into his neck and head, severing his head from his body.

A third group raided the third floor of the same building where the apartment of the Kamal Nasser was. He was head of information and a member of the executive committee for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He tried to resist with a 6mm pistol, but it was hardly a fair battle. He fought until his last shot was spent.

The Israelis wanted to send a message to the Lebanese in general via the Verdun operation.The trio were among the most prominent and dynamic Palestinian leaders of their generation.

Adwan was in charge of Fatah’s military operations in occupied Palestine. He was a co-founder of the movement, after having studied engineering in Cairo and worked for a while in the Gulf. He had also earlier played a leading role in Fatah’s media work.

Abu Yousef al-Najjar was Fatah’s head of clandestine military operations and a senior officer in its guerrilla force al-Asifa. He was a refugee from Ramleh in central Palestine, and was briefly active in the Muslim Brotherhood before joining Fatah and rising in its ranks.

Nasser hailed from Birzeit in the West Bank. A graduate of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Baath party activist in his youth, he had edited the Jerusalem newspaper Filastin and was elected to the Jordanian parliament in 1956. After the Israeli invasion and occupation in 1967, he was arrested and deported to Jordan. He became a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee in 1969, and then its head of information and official spokesman.

The Verdun killings stunned Lebanon. Fatah’s second-in-command and security chief, Salah Khalaf (Abu-Iyad), accused “local partners of the Zionist entity” of complicity in the crime. He wondered how the electricity had been cut off in the targeted area just before the attack began and questioned how the assassins had been able to move about unhindered.

Contemporaries of the three murdered leaders clearly recall the effect at the time.

“The Israelis wanted to send a message to the Lebanese in general via the Verdun operation, and especially to Christian Arab nationalist Lebanese,” says the writer Muna al-Solh, a friend and colleague of Nasser. By striking in the heart of Beirut they were sending a threat to all Lebanese supporters of the Palestinians, and by slaying the well-known Arab poet who was the PLO’s most prominent Christian leader, they were repeating that warning to Arabs at large and underlining it to Christians, he says.

But their key target, in Solh’s mind, was Adwan, as he had assumed control of Fatah’s military operations inside occupied Palestine.

Each of the three slain men had singular qualities that made the Israelis want to eliminate them.Muhammad Abu-Maizar, Fatah’s former head of external relations, concurs. Adwan had been given charge of operations in the western sector at Fatah’s 1971 general congress, as part of a reorganization following that year’s “Black September” in Jordan, he recalls.

Adwan traded places with Abu Yousef al-Najjar, who replaced him as Fatah’s head of central information. “As a result, Abu Yousef managed media activities with a military approach, while Adwan managed guerrilla activities with a media approach,” he says.

While Abu Yousef and Adwan were singled out for their role in activating guerrilla resistance in occupied Palestine, Nasser was the “conscience of the Palestinian revolution,” according to Nazih Abul-Nidal, who worked with him on the PLO magazine Filastin al-Thawra.

Nasser “had the most democratic outlook of all Palestinian leaders at the time,” he recalls. He respected opposing views, admired the commitment of young people, and was a major recruitment asset for the Palestinian revolution. “That is why he was put high on the hit-list.”

The previous year, the Israelis had murdered another renowned Palestinian writer and activist in Beirut, Ghassan Kanafani, by booby-trapping his car in the Hazmieh district. Nasser’s successor as head of information for the PLO, Majed Abu Sharar, was in turn assassinated by the Israelis, in Rome in 1981 while attending a conference in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Another contemporary, the former Deputy Secretary-General of the Lebanese Communist Party, Karim Mroue, says the 1973 killings were “designed to serve notice that Israel can strike at the very heart of the resistance” and stage a show of power not just against the Palestinians but at the global level.

At the same time, each of the three slain men had singular qualities that made the Israelis want to eliminate them, says Maan Bashour, who was a member of the PLO information committee at the time as a representative of the Arab Liberation Front. “[They struck] Kamal Adwan because of his activities inside Palestine, and because he was the youngest of the resistance leaders and a major inspiration for youth; Abu Yousef because he was one of the main planners of the operations of the Black September organization; and Kamal Nasser, the freedom fighter from Ramallah, as a cultural and media star with his popular and especially Christian credentials,” says Bashour.

“Kamal Adwan had a wide network of contacts on the inside which enabled weapons to be smuggled to the guerrillas,” says Marwan Dajani, who had earlier worked with Abu Yousef in procuring weapons for external operations. “That is why the Israelis decided to eliminate him.”

To Dajani’s mind, “if Adwan had lived, there would have been no Oslo.”

They stood for Arab renaissance in the battle to liberate Palestine, that is why I was not surprised they were assassinated.Abul-Nidal concurs that if Nasser had survived, “he would have had nothing to do with Oslo,” though he adds that “there is no place for ‘ifs’ in the reading of history.” All three slain leaders were nevertheless strong champions of armed resistance.

At the same time, Nasser, Adwan, and Najjar all “played a major role in reducing and preventing internal divisions on the one hand, and in developing the organizational side of the PLO,” says Bashour.

“They stood for Arab renaissance in the battle to liberate Palestine,” adds Solh. “That is why I was not surprised they were assassinated.” Nasser, in particular, enjoyed great appeal in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq both as a distinguished poet and likeable personality.

“Their loss was great, but it also enabled some resolve to be summoned,” recalls Dajani. The funeral of the three men was attended by the full spectrum of Lebanese and Palestinian political leaders, including those of the “isolationist right,” notably the late Pierre Gemayel. Mroue describes it as having been “the biggest funeral in Lebanon’s history.”

Abul-Nidal insists however, that revolutions do not suffer fatally when their leaders are martyred, and can often emerge more resolute. “Look at Hezbollah. Whenever they targeted its leader, a new one emerged who was even worse for the Israelis. The martyrs’ blood is fuel for the continuation of the struggle.”

But Mroue says the show of unity staged after the crime was misleading. Although all Lebanese political forces participated in the funeral, the charges of incompetence levelled at the Lebanese army concealed the failure or complicity of other players.

“We must admit that we erred in Lebanon by violating Fatah’s principle that we do not make enemies of those who have not made us their enemies,” says Dajani. “But everyone was accusing the Lebanese military and security forces, not just Abu Iyad.”


* Wadi Khaled: Syrian Army Fire Kills NTV Cameraman

Ali Shaaban, 29, was killed when Al-Jadeed television crew came under fire in the increasingly volatile border region with Syria.

Akkar – While preparing to cover the armed clashes in Syria near the northern Lebanese border in Wadi Khaled, Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed TV crew became headline news on Monday.

Their car came under a hail of fire and cameraman Ali Shaaban was fatally shot in the chest while cameraman Abdel Azim Khayat and reporter Hussein Khreis managed to take cover.

They were accompanied by Jamal al-Ahmad, brother of a local mayor who was guiding the crew.

Khayat described to Al-Akhbar how they arrived to an area known as the “United Company” near a petrol pipeline.

They had asked for permission to film from the Syrian border guards known as al-Hajjana.

“Members of 'al-Hajjana' nearby began shouting to the soldiers on an opposite hill, asking them to cease fire. But to no avail.”Khayat added that Khreis and al-Ahmad had exited the car and were walking about when suddenly, heavy gunfire struck their vehicle from the nearby Syrian village of al-Armouta.
Shaaban, who was driving the car, was hit and Khayyat managed to escape to the nearby orchards.

Khayyat said their car was hit with many bullets while “members of al-Hajjana nearby began shouting to the soldiers on an opposite hill, asking them to cease fire. But to no avail.”

Hussein Khreis seemed shaken and lost for words. He tried to explain some of the details but was visibly disoriented outside Our Lady of Peace hospital in Kobayat, where Shaaban’s body was taken.

He spoke to Al-Akhbar about those critical moments.

“I am not a soldier to be able to act in such a situation. My colleague Abed [Abdel Azim] Khayyat tried to save the other cameraman and so did the mayor’s brother who was with us. But I could not muster the courage,” he said.

He describes how al-Ahmad was able to reach the car to pull Shaaban out, but “he had died instantly.”

It took the team two hours to be able to report the incident due to bad cellular coverage in the area.

According to the nearby town of al-Haysha’s mayor, when they heard the news, dozens of young men headed to the area accompanied by members of a Lebanese Army intelligence unit. They also came under gunfire when trying to retrieve the body.

Al-Jadeed TV accused the Syrian army of shooting at their news team and killing Shaaban.

Al-Haysha’s mayor could not see any reason for the gunfire from the Syrian side against Al-Jadeed’s crew. He spoke to Al-Akhbar about the clashes that took place in the area Sunday night.

According to his sources an armed group had crossed into Syria, clashed with the al-Hajjana, and taken control of a guard post.

Al-Jadeed TV accused the Syrian army of shooting at their news team and killing Shaaban.The same story was repeated to Al-Akhbar by security sources who revealed that the area is a known route for arms smuggling into Syria. Several clashes had occurred with militants crossing the river that marks the borders the night before.
In the meantime, a Syrian media source told SANA that “a post for the Syrian border guards came under fire by an armed terrorist group at the same time as when the Al-Jadeed TV crew was in the area, seemingly in an attempt to cross the border to carry out terrorist attacks.”

The sources added that “the guards responded to the fire” and expressed “warm condolences to the family of Al-Jadeed cameraman Ali Shaaban and Al-Jadeed TV.”

In light of the failure of the Lebanese security agencies to protect the journalists, Khreis asked them to declare the region a military zone.

An army intelligence officer who arrived at the hospital called the head of army intelligence in north Lebanon, General Amer al-Hassan, to tell him he had offered a military escort to the TV crew before they went to Wadi Khaled.

At the start of the Syrian events last year, a crew from the same TV station was attacked by some young men in Wadi Khaled who destroyed their car.

Surviving cameraman Khayyat had previously been injured during his coverage of the Israeli War against Lebanon in 2006.


Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.