Beirut, Lebanon – Over the last month, Israeli jets have carried out some of their biggest air raids yet in Syria, apparently striking Iranian targets. It may have been the Lebanese next door, though, who trembled with greater fear. Some took cover under a table or a sink, others hid in their cars.
The roar of low-flying jets flying in from the Mediterranean over Beirut is especially tormenting to those who experienced the August 4 port blast that left nearly 200 people dead, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands homeless.
Rana al-Dirani’s 10-year-old son shudders every time he hears an Israeli plane and wraps his arms around her.
“He asks me, ‘What is it, Mama – another explosion or is Israel bombing us?’ He gets scared and so do I, but I have to be strong in front of him,” said Rana. “I mean what do the Israelis want from us? Aren’t we suffering enough?”
Rana’s life has not escaped any of her country’s many crises.
She is a co-owner of an Arabic language school that became financially inoperable as the economy collapsed last year and the local currency devalued by more than 80 percent.
Then came the blast. Her school was barely 200 metres from the port and was fatally damaged in the explosion. Now she and her children are infected with the coronavirus. On top of all that, Israel’s planes spark the memories of the blast and terrify her children.
Israeli jets were heard in Beirut days before the explosion, too, leading many to first suspect the country, which is still technically at war with Lebanon and has a mortal enemy in Hezbollah, was behind the explosion.
“I was so sure that the pre-port explosion sounds were jets, so now when I hear that sound I rationalise that this time it truly is jets,” said Niamh, who runs Aaliyah’s Books, a cafe in Gemmeyzye, which was among the worst-hit neighbourhoods in the explosion.
“When I’m alone, especially if the sound is particularly loud, I’ll decide to err on the side of safety and tuck myself under a sink or table, feeling irrational as I do so – but also calmer.”
‘State of panic’
Rudeynah Baalbaky was celebrating with her friends on Christmas Eve in Dahiye, a suburb in southern Beirut and stronghold of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political party and militia in Lebanon.
When she heard the jets swish through the sky to bomb Masyaf, a city in northwestern Syria that is home to a military academy and a scientific research centre, she thought the bombs were intended for Hezbollah.
“I felt the raid [on Lebanon] was very imminent, very close. I hid in the car at that moment,” said Rudeynah. “I spent the past few days in a state of panic, very worried about securing medicine for my mother and father.”
The planes reminded her of the port explosion but also took her back in time to 2006 when she was a teenager. She used to live with her family in the western Bekaa Valley in a village that witnessed heavy bombing by Israel. She said her whole family has been struggling with severe post-traumatic stress disorder ever since.
“I have no illusions about Lebanon’s sovereignty and I am not surprised by Israel’s criminality and its violation of international law,” added Rudeynah.
Israel has been invading Lebanese airspace for more than 10 years. But as former US President Donald Trump lost the election in November and new President Joe Biden said he would rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, Israel intensified bombings in Syria to inflict maximum damage on alleged Iranian shipments, which it says are intended to strengthen Hezbollah.
Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, said while Israel could bomb these alleged shipments through Syrian airspace, it is easier to go through Lebanon.
“Israel does not violate any bilateral agreement with any regional power if its planes invade Lebanese airspace, whereas in Syria it has an agreement with Russia and it’s more complicated for them,” Nader said.
“On the one hand Israel is violating Lebanese sovereignty,” he added. “But on the other Lebanon has not adhered to its international commitments either, because according to the UN resolutions Hezbollah is supposed to be unarmed but it very much has its weapons.”
Scars may never heal
Not every Lebanese faults Israel. Carmin, who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing her political views might land her in trouble, was at her home, also in Gemmeyzye, when 2,750 tonnes of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate exploded at the nearby port in August.
Her house shattered around her and shards of glass slashed her head. She was soaked in blood that day when Al Jazeera first met her.
Carmin is slowly refurbishing her flat but the scars the explosion carved on her psyche are deeper, and may never heal if the Israelis keep flying their jets above her head.
And yet she blames Hezbollah more for dragging Lebanon on a path of conflict rather than peace with its neighbour.
“So many countries have normalised ties,” she said of the deals inked between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Sudan, and Bahrain in the last few months. “But this group won’t let Lebanon sign peace.”
Gemmeyzye is a Christian-dominated neighbourhood lined with restaurants and bars and most of its inhabitants are Western-leaning Lebanese or expatriates. Neither group feels much support towards Hezbollah, which describes itself as the “resistance” to Israel. In fact, people here often speak of a rapprochement.
But a few kilometres away, in places such as Dahiye, Israel is seen as an enemy, and even talking peace is treated as treason.
Trump’s exit from the White House has seen fears of an all-out war recede. He backed Israel more than any American president before him, and gave support to Israeli assaults against Iranian proxies with its own military and diplomatic power. Biden, however, is expected to try to ease tensions, notably by rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
But no one in Lebanon imagines Israel will stop flying its planes over their skies any time soon.