by Robert Fisk
Five years after the former prime minister was killed, rising sectarian tensions and a teetering government are threatening a new conflict
I guess that you have to live here to feel the vibrations. Take last week, when I instinctively ducked on my balcony – so did the strollers on the Corniche – at the supersonic sound of an F-16 fighter aircraft flashing over the seafront and the streets of Beirut.
What message were the Israelis sending this time? That they do not fear the Hezbollah?
That they can humiliate Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri?
Heaven knows, they hardly need to do that, when Hariri has several times taken the desolate road to Damascus for a friendly chat with the man he believes murdered his father Rafiq, President Bashar al-Assad.
But who cares about the Israeli plane? Supposing a Syrian MiG had buzzed Tel Aviv during a busy shopping day last week? Hillary Clinton would be shrieking condemnation from the State Department, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would have solemnly warned Syria of the consequences and the Israelis would be pondering an air strike on Syria to teach President Assad a lesson. But no.
The Israeli overflight was a clear contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 – Israel breaks 1701 every day with overflights, but not at this low level – and I could find not a single report of the incident in the American press. The Israelis are the good guys. The rest are bad.
Then came the story of the priest who died at the Maronite archdiocese at Sarba last week, overcome by smoke. Poor Father Pierre Khoueiry had fallen two floors off a balcony after his building caught fire – two other priests had made it safely out of the house – and the church explained that the cause was an electrical fault.
It was obviously true: I saw the junction box that had burned out.
But OTV brazenly led its nightly local news by suggesting that this could be the continuation of fundamentalist attacks on churches in Iraq and Egypt. Beirut's outraged information minister, Tark Mitri, complained bitterly of the "irresponsible coverage" of the church tragedy.
In Lebanon these days, just a hint of sectarianism can set the political petrol alight. Of course, we can dismiss this nonsense. Didn't 20,000 young Beirutis run a marathon round the entire city on Sunday, beating drums and clashing symbols and dancing the "dabka" in the streets? Sure. But why has my landlord welded a new steel door over his French windows? And why has he installed a security light at the back which illuminates my kitchen all night?
Maybe it's the sulphurous language of Lebanon's hopeless politicians. Ever since Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Shia Muslim Hezbollah chairman who handed over an Israeli assault rifle to Iran's president in Beirut, urged Lebanese to reject the Hague Tribunal investigating Rafiq Hariri's death – Nasrallah believes leading Hezbollah members will be accused – we've been waiting for the cabinet to fall.
The French ambassador believes Prime Minister Hariri will not last this week. I think he's wrong, but I worried about my predications when Hezbollah and the largely Shiite opposition refused to join President Michel Sleiman's reconciliation conference nine days ago. Under a crafty arrangement engineered by the Emir of Qatar, the Christian-Sunni majority in the Lebanese cabinet can make decisions. But the opposition and the Hezbollah have veto rights. Yet when the opposition won't come to the president for talks with the rest of the government, it seems they don't even care about their veto.
Christian politicians flocked up to their Patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, thus once again turning the Maronite Church into a political party – though that's not surprising when the other Nasrallah (the Hezbollah one) has turned the Shiites into proxies for the Iranians.
Others (please read Hezbollah, the Shiites and Iran) were trying "to impose on the Lebanese an impossible and unjust formula – deny justice in order to preserve civil peace, or sacrifice civil peace for the sake of justice".
Michel Aoun, a cracked Christian ex-general whose own party supports the Hezbollah in the vain hope they will make him president – Nasrallah enjoys telling the world this alliance gives him cross-sectarian support – would also be happy to see the tribunal abandoned. Even Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, whose politics perform a windmill cycle every three or four years, now says that its existence is not as important as "the serenity of Lebanon". Needless to say, Madame Clinton has been on the phone to Hariri, nagging him to disarm Hezbollah and to stick to the tribunal. In Washington, this makes sense. In Lebanon, she sounds as if she is mad.
Why? Shiites are the largest community in Lebanon, yet their sons and brothers make up a majority of the Lebanese national army.
It's not that the Hezbollah have infiltrated the ranks. It's just that since the Christian and Sunni elites have maintained the Shiites in comparative poverty, the youngest sons need a job and are sent off to the army. Think Manchester or Glasgow between the wars.
Furthermore, the Lebanese army is top heavy with generals and colonels. As Carnegie scholar Nadim Hasbani pointed out, the minister of national defence tried vainly to open an account with the Central Bank, to which private citizens could donate money to support the army's weapons procurements. There is, in reality, no account because by law the cabinet must organise any such budgetary arrangement. Anyway, how can a national army organise its weapons purchases on the basis of charitable donations?
But back to the Shiite soldiers. If they were indeed ordered to march south Grand Old Duke of York-style, does anyone believe that these young men are going to bash their way into their own Shiite homes to shoot their Hezbollah brothers, fathers and cousins to a chorus of White House cheers?
No, they would refuse and the Christian-Sunni soldiers would be tasked to attack the armed Shiites. The army would split. That's how the civil war started in 1975.
Does Madame Clinton – and France's foppish foreign minister, the saintly Bernard Kouchner who has turned up in Beirut to support the tribunal – want another civil war in Lebanon?
There's another problem. Given their numbers, the Shiites are grossly under-represented in the Lebanese parliament and government. And there's been an unspoken – certainly unwritten – agreement in Beirut that to compensate for their lack of political power, the Shiites can have a militia.
If God was to tell Nasrallah to disarm the Hezbollah – he would surely obey, for no-one else in the region would dare to make such a request – then Nasrallah would immediately demand an increase in Shiite numbers in government, commensurate with his perhaps 42 per cent of the population.
There would, therefore, in effect, be a Shiite government in Lebanon.
Is that what Clinton and poor old Obama want? Another Shiite Arab state to add to the creation of the Shiite Iraqi state which they have bestowed upon the Saudis and the rest of the Arab Sunnis as a neighbour?
Hezbollah risk, of course, getting what the Lebanese call "big noses". In other words, if the Hezbollah's noses get too big, someone will cut them off.
It's one thing for Nasrallah and his armed militia – along with the gentleman from Tehran – to spit at the Americans. But the UN is a legitimate international body; the place of recourse – however hopelessly – of the oppressed and benighted of the world.
Indeed, there was a time when the Hezbollah hung religiously – or almost religiously – on every UN resolution remotely critical of Israel.
Yet does Mr Ban really want to take on the Hezbollah? For he knows all too well that if the Hezbollah have "big noses", the Hezbollah have the UN, so to speak, by the balls (always supposing the UN has any).
For down along the Lebanese border are 13,000 UN soldiers, including NATO armoured units from France, Germany and Belgium – and China, while we're at it – with a clutch of NATO generals in command. They are supposed to be keeping Hezbollah weapons out of the area between the Litani river and the border, but for the first time last week the UN commander admitted that without the power of entering civilian homes – he needs Lebanese military permission for that (no laughter) – he cannot be sure there are no arms in his operational area.
All this goes back to a massive explosion earlier this year when a vast store of weapons exploded east of Tyre. A slightly unhinged French UN colonel – mercifully now back in Paris – ordered French and German soldiers to go pushing through front doors of the locals to look for guns. He had been warned by Lebanese army intelligence officers not to insult civilians. He paid no attention.
Then French peacekeepers on patrol in southern Lebanon found themselves pelted with stones. The Hezbollah said that the explosion was of old Israeli munitions left over from the 2006 war. (Hollow laughter here).
The Israelis then cashed in on the whole affair, producing aerial photographs – taken from a pilot-less drone, the principal weapon in the next Hezbollah-Israel war – with a claim that they showed an unexploded missile being loaded onto the back of a truck in the same village, watched by three Hezbollah gunmen. Quick as a flash, the Hezbollah came up with a videotape showing the same truck. But the "missile" was a damaged roll-up garage door and – alas for Israel – the three "gunmen" were clearly identifiable as members of the UN's French battalion.
Then last week came further humiliation, when a gang of unarmed Hezbollah housewives grabbed a briefcase of secret documents from two hapless UN tribunal investigators as they tried to find telephone records in a south Beirut gynaecological clinic.
Even several anti-Nasrallah and pro-government supporters in Beirut could scarcely suppress their laughter when the Hezbollah duly paraded two donkeys through the streets, each bearing a perfect replica of the blue UN shield beneath their furry necks. But again, do not laugh too easily. In the Arab world, the donkey is regarded as the most humiliating of beasts, worthy of execution. So watch out the UN. And back to the Israelis, who roar as much about "world terror" as Nasrallah does about the inevitable doom of Israel. This time it was the head of Israeli military intelligence Amos Yaldin – never regarded in Lebanon as the brightest of men – who told the Knesset foreign affairs committee in Jerusalem that Hezbollah could take over the whole of Lebanon "in a few hours".
Israeli defences were being undermined by Hezbollah's missiles and increasing the likelihood of conflict, he said – he was right there – but then he went into the same apocalyptic mode as all the other Israeli generals who have come to grief in Lebanon.
The next war, he said, will be far more devastating than any other in Lebanon – this is difficult to imagine – and "it will not be similar to anything we have grown accustomed to during the Second Lebanon War or (the) Cast Lead (operation in Gaza)."
Now this is very odd stuff, because the third Lebanon war – which Yaldin was predicting – took place in 1993, a massive bombardment that emptied southern Lebanon of almost a million people.
The first Israel-Lebanon war was the invasion of 1978 – Operation Litani, which Yaldin obviously forgot – and then came the second Lebanon war in 1982 (Operation Peace for Galilee), which Yaldin weirdly thinks was the first conflagration.
Then came the 1993 conflict, and then the 1996 war (Operation Grapes of Wrath) and then the 2006 Hezbollah war. So the next war – after the past five failures – will be Israel's sixth.
So what does all this mean?
Well, what we are seeing is an horizon of foreign powers all longing to interfere in Lebanon as they did during the country's merciless 1975-90 civil war. Washington is ranting about the tribunal's importance, so is France – the Brits, whose diplomats talk to the Hezbollah, are quietly and wisely asking if there might be a postponement of the tribunal's accusation – while the Syrians and Iranians are crowing at the UN's crisis.
The Israelis are, as usual, threatening semi-Armageddon.
The Saudis, who back the Sunnis – Hariri holds a Saudi passport – have been trying to mediate.
So, in a backward way, have the Syrians. A week ago, Syria's ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, invited to lunch both the Saudi ambassador, Ali Awad al-Assiri, and his opposite number in the Iranian embassy, Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi, an old Beirut hand who was here during the 1996 war. All of which suggests the Muslim nations of the region don't particularly want a civil war.
And the Lebanese? My driver Abed, as good a weather vane as any, used to have a small black sticker attached to his car mirror. "Haqiqa", it said.
The Truth. He expected the tribunal would tell him the truth about who killed Rafiq Hariri.
While I was away this summer, with great sadness, he tore it down.