The world watched with bated breath this week as more than a month of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon came to an uneasy truce Monday morning.
The United Nations-brokered cease-fire calls for an international peacekeeping force along with Lebanon’s own small military to replace Israeli Defense Forces in the region.
Hezbollah forces will also be required to disarm and pull back north out of easy firing range toward northern Israel.
Arguably, no one in Costa Rica watches these developments more closely than Albert Karam, Lebanon’s honorary consul here for the past 32 years. He has watched from afar the news footage of heavy civilian casualties and bombardment of infrastructure in his country.
Karam, a Maronite Christian, a member of one of several religious groups that make up multicultural Lebanon, hails from Esgarta in the northern part of the country.
More than three decades in Costa Rica have not tempered Karam’s tireless boosting of his native country. He is fond of recounting the oft-told Lebanese story of the world’s creation, a slightly different take than that inscribed in the Book of Genesis.
“On the seventh day, God rested,” he says. “He decided to give the Lebanese people the site where he was resting.”
The consulate is a one-man operation representing Lebanon here, though a fullfledged embassy in Mexico City is accredited to Costa Rica. Karam provides full diplomatic and consular services.
Karam spoke with The Tico Times Tuesday at his office in the western San José district of Rohrmoser, discussing the war, the cease-fire and the prospects for peace in his struggling country. Excerpts:
TT: Are you confident the cease-fire engineered this week can hold?
AK: We, the Lebanese, yes. We asked the international community to end the war. We didn’t declare war on anyone.We haven’t been able to defend ourselves. We have no arms. Our army exists only to maintain order and protect our borders, not to wage war.
What would your advice to Israel have been in this situation? Doesn’t it have the right to defend itself from missiles that originated on Lebanese soil?
Yes, of course. Every nation has the right to defend itself when they can. But Lebanon cannot defend itself, so Israel needs to take care and understand that and not use such aggressive tactics.Why does Israel need such high-technology arms? Why not, other than to conduct war? That makes the situation much more difficult.
Israel should defend itself, but also look for ways to eliminate arms. It hasn’t achieved peace through war during its entire existence.
We are brothers, even if we have cultural differences.
What’s my recommendation for Israel? It should change its way of thinking and begin to share commerce and technology with its Arab neighbors. Israel looks for markets in Europe and the Americas, but the Arab world is a natural market for its goods. It is such an advanced country; it can benefit the Arab world and benefit itself too.
But when past Arab leaders have denied Israel’s right to exist, and Iran’s President now calls for wiping Israel off the map,why wouldn’t it view its neighbors in the context of war?
Iran’s leader calling for “driving the Israelites into the sea” is terrible, but I don’t believe the Iranians are bad people. Such comments don’t have to be met with the same level of aggression.
Is it fair to say Lebanon is held hostage by internal groups, such as Hezbollah, and its bigger, more powerful neighbors?
Yes. Not having our own strong military, we look for support from other countries. When Israel occupied southern Lebanon, our parliament agreed to let Syrian troops come in to put an end to the conflict and maintain order, but they didn’t want to leave, and we didn’t have the power to throw them out. That was the situation for almost 20 years. We are now free of Syrian forces, but have entered into another conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.
We don’t agree that if the Lebanese government has few arms, we should permit groups within the country to remain armed. Hezbollah is not, as some think, a terrorist group. It is a military group and political force with seats in the parliament. Why is Hezbollah still fighting? They are calling for the return of the 10,000-20,000 Shiite prisoners Israel took during its occupation and won’t give back.Hezbollah’s capture of (two) Israeli soldiers was only to negotiate.
Then why did not Israel, being a neighbor, ask for help from our government to rescue their soldiers? They didn’t ask us for anything. They simply sent in their machinery.
How do you gauge the level of support or opposition for and against Lebanon here in Costa Rica?
It surprises me. Support for Israel has always run about 80% in Costa Rica. We’ve received a ton of e-mails and letters expressing solidarity with Lebanon. I would say the percentages have been reversed. It’s an expression of humanity for those civilians who are victims and who are not to blame.
Some of the demonstrators here have compared Israel with Nazi Germany, or equate the Star of David with the swastika (TT, Aug. 4, 11). Is that fair?
No. That’s unjust. The people of Israel are like the people of any other nation. No difference. We’re all human beings. There simply exist cultural differences. Israel has the right, as does any other country, to live in peace.When tensions run high, the tone gets exaggerated.
But Israel should change its plan. It can win over the Arab world by human means.
What can Costa Rica do to help Lebanon in its humanitarian needs?
There are many ways to help, but it doesn’t have to be economic aid. Peaceful demonstrations have aided us much. They have elevated the image of Lebanon in the world.
The world now realizes that we are a country that has been occupied and destroyed. The great satisfaction in all this is knowing that people are thinking of us.