Lebanon tightens lockdown, imposes 24-hour curfew, as hospitals buckle

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon announced a tightening of its lockdown on Monday, introducing a 24-hour curfew from Thursday as COVID-19 infections overwhelm its medical system.

The new all-day curfew starts at 5 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Thursday and ends at 5 a.m. on Jan. 25, a statement by the Supreme Defense Council said.

Lebanon last week ordered a three-week lockdown until Feb. 2 that included a nighttime curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.  But tighter measures were now necessary as hospitals run out of capacity to treat critically ill patients, President Michel Aoun said in the statement. “We have seen dreadful scenes of citizens waiting in front of hospitals for a chair or a bed,” he said.

The new measures also include stricter procedures at the airport for passengers arriving from Cairo, Addis Ababa, Baghdad, Istanbul and Adana. Travelers arriving from these destinations will have to quarantine for seven days at a hotel while all others will quarantine up to 72 hours. Overall air traffic at the airport will also be cut to 20% from normal operating levels and supermarkets will be limited to delivery services.

Anticipation of stricter measures on Monday had driven many Lebanese to wait in long queues in front of supermarkets and empty shelves.

Lebanon registered 3,743 new infections on Sunday, bringing its total to 219,296 cases and 1,606 deaths since Feb. 21.

Adherence to social distancing and other preventive measures has been lax prompting government fears of a significant rise in cases after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Daily infections reached an all time high of 5,440 on Friday.

“Sadly we are being faced with a frightening health situation,” Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said. “The corona pandemic is out of control because of the stubbornness of people and their rebellion against measures we take to protect them from its dangers.”

The lockdown faces resistance amid concerns over soaring unemployment, inflation and poverty.

Lebanon is still dealing with a devastating financial crisis that has crashed the currency, paralyzed banks, and frozen savers out of their deposits.

Medical supplies have dwindled as dollars have grown scarce.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Laila Bassam; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.S. ready to mediate discussions between Israel and Lebanon -Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday said the United States is ready to keep working with Israel and Lebanon on negotiations for a maritime boundary, as the countries struggle to come to an agreement.

“Regrettably, despite goodwill on both sides, the parties remain far apart,” Pompeo said in a statement.  “The United States remains ready to mediate constructive discussions and urges both sides to negotiate based on the respective maritime claims both have previously deposited at the United Nations. ”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Alison Williams)

Lebanon sets starting point for sea border negotiations with Israel

BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Michel Aoun on Thursday specified Lebanon’s starting point for demarcating its sea border with Israel under U.S.-mediated talks, in the first public confirmation of a stance sources say increases the size of the disputed area.

Israel and Lebanon launched the negotiations last month with delegations from the long-time foes convening at a U.N. base to try to agree on the border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area.

A presidency statement said Aoun instructed the Lebanese team that the demarcation line should start from the land point of Ras Naqoura as defined under a 1923 agreement and extend seaward in a trajectory that a security source said extends the disputed area to some 2,300 square km (888 sq. miles) from around 860 sq. km.

Israel’s energy minister, overseeing the talks with Lebanon, said Lebanon had now changed its position seven times and was contradicting its own assertions.

“Whoever wants prosperity in our region and seeks to safely develop natural resources must adhere to the principle of stability and settle the dispute along the lines that were submitted by Israel and Lebanon at the United Nations,” Yuval Steinitz said.

Any deviation, Steinitz said, would lead to a “dead end”.

Last month sources said the two sides presented contrasting maps for proposed borders. They said the Lebanese proposal extended farther south than the border Lebanon had years before presented to the United Nations and that of the Israeli team pushed the boundary farther north than Israel’s original position.

The talks, the culmination of three years of diplomacy by Washington, are due to resume in December.

Israel pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Hundreds of disillusioned doctors leave Lebanon, in blow to healthcare

By Samia Nakhoul and Issam Abdallah

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fouad Boulos returned to Beirut in 2007 from the United States having trained there in pathology and laboratory medicine. He was so confident that Lebanon was the right place to be that he gave up his American residence green card.

Fourteen years later he is leaving his homeland with his wife and five children and returning to the United States to try his luck starting from scratch.

In the past year, Lebanon has been through a popular uprising against its political leaders, the bankruptcy of the state and banking system, a COVID-19 pandemic and, in August, a huge explosion at the port that destroyed swathes of Beirut.

Some of those who can leave the country have done so, and an increasing number of them are doctors and surgeons, many at the top of their profession. With them goes Beirut’s proud reputation as the medical capital of the Middle East.

“This is a mass exodus,” said Boulos, Associate Professor of Clinical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

“It will keep on going,” he told Reuters. “If I had hope I would have stayed but I have no hope – not in the near nor in the intermediate future – for Lebanon.”

As he spoke at his mountain residence in Beit Mery, a forested area with sweeping views over Beirut, his wife helped pack up their last possessions, ready to return to the United States.

Suitcases lined the hallway, and one of his daughters was online saying final farewells to school friends and her teacher.

“It breaks my heart. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make, leaving everything behind,” Boulos added.

Many highly qualified physicians, who were in demand across the United States and Europe before they returned to Lebanon after the 1975-90 civil war, are throwing in the towel, having lost hope in its future.

They are not only seeing wages fall, but also face shortages of equipment, staff and even some basic supplies in their hospitals as Lebanon runs out of hard currency to pay for imports.

BLEEDING TALENT

Sharaf Abou Sharaf, head of the doctors’ syndicate, said the departure of 400 doctors so far this year creates a major problem, especially for university hospitals where they both practice and teach.

“This bleeding of talent does not bode well, especially if the situation lasts long and there are others who are preparing to leave,” he said.

Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan agreed.

“Their expertise was built over many years and is very hard to lose overnight. We will need many years to return the medical sector to its former glory,” he told Reuters.

Protests that erupted last year and brought down the government had raised hopes that politicians, selected by a system in which leaders of Christian and Muslim sects shared the top jobs, could be pushed aside.

Then came the Aug. 4 blast, when large amounts of poorly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 200 people, injuring 6,000, making 300,000 people homeless and destroying large parts of the capital Beirut including several hospitals.

“The explosion was the final nail in the coffin,” Boulos said.

“It crystallized all the fears, all the pain and all the difficulties that we were living through,” added the medic, who trained at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

‘CORRUPT TO THE CORE’

Boulos said he had lost faith in the country’s leadership, after years of instability caused by political bickering.

“Lebanon is corrupt to the core,” he said, echoing the chants of thousands of protesters who packed city streets during the last year.

The country has also had to deal with the influx of more than a million Syrians fleeing civil war, an economy that has buckled under the weight of debt, mass unemployment, poverty, and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, Lebanon ordered a nationwide lockdown for around two weeks to stem the spread of the virus, as intensive care units reached critical capacity.

Hassan, the caretaker health minister, has said an agreement was reached with the central bank to allocate funds for private hospitals to set up COVID-19 wings and that the state would pay hospital dues for the first six months of 2020.

The government had for years owed hospitals arrears and their unpaid bills are mounting.

Ghazi Zaatari, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Chair of the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine at AUB, said he feared the exodus would accelerate.

“For the past 10 years we put a lot of effort into recruiting around 220 faculty members, and now it is very disheartening to see that many of those we hired are leaving again.”

Doctors in Lebanon, although relatively well paid, generally earn less than they did abroad.

Over the past year they have seen real incomes drop due to the 80% devaluation in the currency.

The caretaker health minister said the state was seeking international help to prop up depreciated salaries of doctors to slow the exodus.

But both Boulos and Zaatari said money was not the main problem.

“Money is an issue, but this lack of trust and confidence in the political leadership (for) a safe, secure and successful future is a huge factor,” Zaatari said.

“I am one of those who came back in the mid-90s believing that there was a promise of a better future and a reconstruction plan, only to find that 20 years later everything is collapsing and the promises were false promises. We were robbed big time.”

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam, Imad Creidi and Nancy Mahfouz; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Israel, Lebanon resume talks on disputed maritime border

NAQOURA, Lebanon (Reuters) – Israel and Lebanon resumed U.S.-mediated talks on Wednesday on a dispute about their Mediterranean Sea border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, the Israeli energy minister and Lebanon’s state news agency said.

The longtime foes held three rounds of talks last month hosted by the United Nations at a peacekeeper base in southern Lebanon which the world body and the United States have described as “productive”.

But sources had said that gaps between the sides remain large after they each presented contrasting maps outlining proposed borders that actually increased the size of the disputed area.

The next round of talks will be held in December, a joint statement from the United States and the U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon said, as did Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz in a separate communique. They did not provide further details about Wednesday’s discussions.

Israel already pumps gas from huge offshore fields but Lebanon, which has yet to find commercial gas reserves in its own waters, is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

The meetings are the culmination of three years of diplomacy by Washington, and follow a series of deals under which three Arab nations – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – agreed to establish full relations with Israel.

Lebanon has said its talks are strictly limited to their disputed boundary.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Toby Chopra)

U.S. envoy: Lebanon’s Bassil was open to breaking ties with Hezbollah

By Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S. envoy to Lebanon said on Monday that Lebanese Christian politician Gebran Bassil, who has been sanctioned by the United States, had voiced willingness to sever ties with Hezbollah, challenging his assertion that he rejected the idea outright.

Washington on Friday blacklisted Bassil, son-in-law of Lebanon’s president and leader of its biggest Christian bloc, over charges of corruption and ties with the Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah, which Washington deems a terrorist group.

Bassil slammed the sanctions as unjust and politically motivated, saying they were imposed after he refused to submit to a U.S. demand to break ties with Hezbollah as that would risk Lebanon’s national unity and peace.

U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea told Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV that Bassil, in exchanges with her, had “expressed willingness to break with Hezbollah, on certain conditions.

“He actually expressed gratitude that the United States had gotten him to see how the relationship is disadvantageous to the party,” said Shea, without elaborating on the conditions.

Bassil did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He, along with an array of the political elite, have been the target of mass protests since October 2019 against widely perceived corruption, waste and mismanagement of state funds.

Bassil denied corruption charges and said he would fight the sanctions in U.S. courts and sue for damages. President Michel Aoun said Lebanon would seek evidence from Washington.

“We endeavor to make as much information publicly available as possible when announcing designations, but, as is often the case, some of this information is not releasable,” said Shea, adding that Bassil was welcome to legally contest the blacklisting.

Bassil was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets human rights abuses and corruption. Shea did not rule out further sanctions against him or others in Lebanon.

Washington in September blacklisted two former Lebanese government ministers it accused of directing political and economic favors to Hezbollah.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Lebanon and Israel, long-time foes, to start talks on disputed waters

By Dominic Evans and Ari Rabinovitch

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon and Israel, formally still at war after decades of conflict, launch talks on Wednesday to address a long-running dispute over their maritime border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

The U.S.-mediated talks follow three years of diplomacy by Washington and were announced weeks after it stepped up pressure on allies of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah.

They also come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under U.S.-brokered deals which realign some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.

Hezbollah, which last fought a war with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of peace-making with its long-time enemy. Israel’s energy minister also said expectations should be realistic.

“We are not talking about negotiations for peace and normalization, rather an attempt to solve a technical, economic dispute that for 10 years has delayed the development of offshore natural resources,” minister Yuval Steinitz tweeted.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the decision to go ahead with the talks as historic, and said Washington looked forward to separate talks later over disagreements on the land border.

Wednesday’s meeting will be hosted by the United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which has monitored the land boundary since Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation.

A Lebanese security source says the two sides will meet in the same room in UNIFIL’s base in south Lebanon, but will direct their talks through a mediator.

LEBANON CRISIS

Disagreement over the sea border had discouraged oil and gas exploration near the disputed line.

That may be a minor irritation for Israel, which already pumps gas from huge offshore fields. For Lebanon, yet to find commercial reserves in its own waters, the issue is more pressing.

Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The financial meltdown has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and by an explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.

Struggling to form a new government to tackle the multiple crises, some Lebanese politicians even argued this week over the formation of their negotiating team, with the prime minister’s office complaining it was not consulted by the presidency.

“The Lebanese negotiator will be much fiercer than you can imagine because we have nothing to lose,” caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said.

Hezbollah’s political ally, the Amal party, has also come under pressure. Last month the United States sanctioned Amal leader Nabih Berri’s top aide for corruption and financially enabling Hezbollah, which it deems a terrorist organization.

David Schenker, the U.S. assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, who landed in Beirut on Tuesday, has said more sanctions remained in play.

For Hezbollah and Amal, the decision to start the border talks is a “tactical decision to neutralize the tensions and the prospect of sanctions ahead of the U.S. elections,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Berri, a Shi’ite leader who led the border file, has denied being pushed into the talks.

In 2018 Beirut licensed a group of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek to carry out long-delayed offshore energy exploration in two blocks. One of them contains disputed waters.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Dominic Evans in Beirut, and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones)

Huge blaze at Beirut port alarms residents a month after massive blast

By Tom Perry and Alaa Kanaan

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A large fire erupted at Beirut port on Thursday, engulfing parts of the Lebanese capital in a pall of smoke weeks after a massive blast devastated the port and surrounding residential area.

The blaze began in the shattered duty free zone of the port, prompting some residents to flee the city still traumatized by last month’s explosion which followed a port fire.

Army helicopters dropped water as firefighters battled on the ground to bring the blaze under control. By evening, officials said most flames had been extinguished. Smoke still rose from smoldering wreckage but it was far less dense.

“For sure we were scared, it’s only been a month since the explosion that destroyed Beirut. We saw the same thing happening again,” 53-year-old Andre Muarbes said as soot and ash fell on vehicles and buildings across parts of the capital.

Officials said no one had been injured, but the blaze strained nerves already on edge in a nation grappling with a deep economic crisis that has posed the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since its 1975-1990 civil war.

Michel Najjar, public works minister in the outgoing government which resigned in the wake of the blast, told Lebanon’s MTV initial indications suggested the blaze was sparked by welding work during repairs at the port.

A military source said it appeared to have started when cooking oil caught fire and spread to stores of tires. At one point, live television footage had shown flames licking up near a pile of tires in a warehouse ruined by last month’s explosion.

The Aug. 4 blast killed about 190 people and injured 6,000.

Majed Hassanein, 49, was taking his wife and two children out of the capital by car during the height of the blaze. “I am forced to get them out of Beirut from the smoke and the fire that is happening at the port again,” he said.

His son, he said, was still suffering shock from the blast that ruined a swathe of capital near the port, leaving about 300,000 people without inhabitable homes and shattering windows across the city.

The head of Lebanon’s Red Cross, George Kettaneh, said there were no injuries but some people suffered shortness of breath.

The public prosecutor ordered an immediate investigation. Many Lebanese are frustrated that they have not been told about any initial findings from an investigation into the port blast, more than a month after it ripped through Beirut.

Carmen Geha, an activist and associate professor at the American University of Beirut, said the fire was further proof of mismanagement by a ruling elite, who have dragged the nation into crisis after years of corruption and poor governance.

“It’s a gross crime, gross negligence and gross arrogance,” she said. “You can’t trust them to manage anything.”

Firefighters were shown in television footage dousing the port fire surrounded by mangled remains of warehouses destroyed in last month’s explosion, which was caused by a store of ammonium nitrate that had been kept in poor condition at the port for years.

(Reporting by Alaa Kanaan, Tom Perry and Reuters reporters; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle, Toby Chopra and Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. slaps sanctions on two former Lebanese ministers over ties to Hezbollah

FILE PHOTO: A man holds a Hezbollah flag at Meis al-Jabal village in south Lebanon, December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday expanded its sanctions on Lebanon, blacklisting the former finance and transport ministers and accusing them of providing material and financial help to Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, following a powerful blast last month in Beirut that left the country reeling.

“Corruption has run rampant in Lebanon, and Hezbollah has exploited the political system to spread its malign influence,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement, announcing the blacklisting of former Lebanese government ministers Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil.

“The United States stands with the people of Lebanon in their calls for reform and will continue to use its authorities to target those who oppress and exploit them,” he added.

The move freezes any U.S. assets of the two blacklisted and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. Those that engage in certain transactions with the former officials are also at risk of being hit with secondary sanctions, the Treasury said.

Fifteen years after the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Hezbollah has risen to become the overarching power in a country that is now collapsing under a series of devastating crises.

An Aug. 4 blast killed about 190 people, injured 6,000 more, and destroyed large swaths of the Mediterranean city, compounding a deep financial crisis.

Authorities said the blast was caused by about 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stacked in unsafe conditions in a port warehouse for years.

Washington accused Finyanus of accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from Hezbollah in exchange for political favors and said the former transport minister was among the officials Hezbollah used to siphon funds from government budgets to ensure Hezbollah-owned firms won bids for government contracts.

The Treasury also said Finyanus helped Hezbollah gain access to sensitive legal documents related to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and served as “a go-between” for Hezbollah and political allies.

Ali Hassan Khalil, who was the finance minister until this year, was one of the officials Hezbollah leveraged a relationship with for financial gain, the Treasury said, accusing him of working to move money in a way that would dodge U.S. sanctions.

Washington said Khalil used his position as the finance minister to get sanctions relief on Hezbollah, and was demanding a certain personal commission to be paid to him directly from government contracts.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Tom Brown)

From golden age to war and ruin: Lebanon in turmoil as it hits 100

By Tom Perry and Imad Creidi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Looking back on his childhood in the newly declared state of Lebanon nearly a century ago, Salah Tizani says the country was set on course for calamity from the start by colonial powers and sectarian overlords.

Tizani, better known in Lebanon as Abou Salim, was one of Lebanon’s first TV celebrities. He shot to fame in the 1960’s with a weekly comedy show that offered a political and social critique of the nascent state.

Now aged 92, he lucidly traces the crises that have beset Lebanon – wars, invasions, assassinations and, most recently, a devastating chemicals explosion – back to the days when France carved its borders out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 and sectarian politicians known as “the zuama” emerged as its masters.

“The mistake that nobody was aware of is that people went to bed one day thinking they were Syrians or Ottomans, let’s say, and the next day they woke up to find themselves in the Lebanese state,” Tizani said. “Lebanon was just thrown together.”

Lebanon’s latest ordeal, the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion that killed some 180 people, injured 6,000 and devastated a swathe of the city, has triggered new reflection on its troubled history and deepened worry for the future.

For many, the catastrophe is a continuation of the past, caused in one way or another by the same sectarian elite that has led the country from crisis to crisis since its inception, putting factions and self-interest ahead of state and nation.

And it comes amid economic upheaval. An unprecedented financial meltdown has devastated the economy, fueling poverty and a new wave of emigration from a country whose heyday in the 1960’s is a distant memory.

The blast also presages a historic milestone: Sept. 1 is the centenary of the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon, proclaimed by France in an imperial carve-up with Britain after World War One.

For Lebanon’s biggest Christian community, the Maronites, the proclamation of Greater Lebanon by French General Henri Gouraud was a welcome step towards independence.

But many Muslims who found themselves cut off from Syria and Palestine were dismayed by the new borders. Growing up in the northern city of Tripoli, Tizani saw the divisions first hand.

As a young boy, he remembers being ordered home by the police to be registered in a census in 1932, the last Lebanon conducted. His neighbors refused to take part.

“They told them ‘we don’t want to be Lebanese’,” he said.

Tizani can still recite the Turkish oath of allegiance to the Sultan, as taught to his father under Ottoman rule. He can sing La Marseillaise, taught to him by the French, from start to finish. But he freely admits to not knowing all of Lebanon’s national anthem. Nobody spoke about patriotism.

“The country moved ahead on the basis we were a unified nation but without internal foundations. Lebanon was made superficially, and it continued superficially.”

From the earliest days, people were forced into the arms of politicians of one sectarian stripe or another if they needed a job, to get their children into school, or if they ran into trouble with the law.

“Our curse is our zuama,” Tizani said.

POINTING TO CATASTROPHE

When Lebanon declared independence in 1943, the French tried to thwart the move by incarcerating its new government, provoking an uprising that proved to be a rare moment of national unity.

Under Lebanon’s National Pact, it was agreed the president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim.

The post-independence years brought signs of promise.

Women gained suffrage in 1952. Salim Haidar, a minister at the time, took pride in the fact that Lebanon was only a few years behind France in granting women the right to vote, his son, Hayyan, recalls.

Salim Haidar, with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, drafted Lebanon’s first anti-corruption law in 1953.

“This was the mentality … that Lebanon is really leading the way, even in the legal and constitutional matters. But then he didn’t know that all of these laws that he worked on would not be properly applied, or would not be applied at all, like the anti-corruption law,” Hayyan Haidar said.

The 1960’s are widely seen as a golden age. Tourism boomed, much of it from the Arab world. A cultural scene of theatre, poetry, cinema and music flourished. Famous visitors included Brigitte Bardot. The Baalbeck International Festival, set amid ancient ruins in the Bekaa Valley, was in its heyday.

Casino du Liban hosted the Miss Europe beauty pageant in 1964. Water skiers showed off their skills in the bay by Beirut’s Saint George Hotel.

Visitors left with “a misleadingly idyllic picture of the city, deaf to the antagonisms that now rumbled beneath the surface and blind to the dangers that were beginning to gather on the horizon,” Samir Kassir, the late historian and journalist, wrote in his book “Beirut”.

Kassir was assassinated in a car bomb in Beirut in 2005.

For all the glitz and glamour, sectarian politics left many parts of Lebanon marginalized and impoverished, providing fertile ground for the 1975-90 civil war, said Nadya Sbaiti, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

“The other side of the 1960’s is not just Hollywood actors and Baalbeck festivals, but includes guerrilla training in rural parts of the country,” she said.

Lebanon was also buffeted by the aftershocks of Israel’s creation in 1948, which sent some 100,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing over the border.

In 1968, Israeli commandos destroyed a dozen passenger planes at Beirut airport, a response to an attack on an Israeli airliner by a Lebanon-based Palestinian group.

The attack “showed us we are not a state. We are an international playground,” Salim Haidar, serving as an MP, said in an address to parliament at the time. Lebanon had not moved on in a quarter of a century, he said.

“We gathered, Christians and Muslims, around the table of independent Lebanon, distributed by sect. We are still Christians and Muslims … distributed by sect.”

To build a state, necessary steps included the “abolition of political sectarianism, the mother of all problems,” said Haidar, who died in 1980.

TICKING TIME BOMB

Lebanon’s brewing troubles were reflected in its art.

A 1970 play, “Carte Blanche”, portrayed the country as a brothel run by government ministers and ended with the lights off and the sound of a ticking bomb.

Nidal Al Achkar, the co-director, recalls the Beirut of her youth as a vibrant melting pot that never slept.

A pioneer of Lebanese theater, Achkar graduated in the 1950’s from one of a handful of Lebanese schools founded on a secular rather than religious basis, Ahliah, in the city’s former Jewish quarter. Beirut was in the 1960’s a city of “little secrets … full of cinemas, full of theaters,” she said.

“Beside people coming from the West, you had people coming from all over the Arab world, from Iraq, from Jordan, from Syria, from Palestine meeting in these cafes, living here, feeling free,” she recalled. “But in our activity as artists … all our plays were pointing to a catastrophe.”

It came in 1975 with the eruption of the civil war that began as a conflict between Christian militias and Palestinian groups allied with Lebanese Muslim factions.

Known as the “two year war”, it was followed by many other conflicts. Some of those were fought among Christian groups and among Muslim groups.

The United States, Russia and Syria were drawn in. Israel invaded twice and occupied Beirut in 1982. Lebanon was splintered. Hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted.

The guns fell silent in 1990 with some 150,000 dead and more than 17,000 people missing.

The Taif peace agreement diluted Maronite power in government. Militia leaders turned in their weapons and took seats in government. Hayyan Haidar, a civil engineer and close aide to Selim Hoss, prime minister at the end of the war, expressed his concern.

“My comment was they are going to become the state and we are on our way out,” he said.

In the post-war period, Rafik al-Hariri took the lead in rebuilding Beirut’s devastated city center, though many feel its old character was lost in the process, including its traditional souks.

A Saudi-backed billionaire, Hariri was one of the only Lebanese post-war leaders who had not fought in the conflict.

A general amnesty covered all political crimes perpetrated before 1991.

“What happened is they imposed amnesia on us,” said Nayla Hamadeh, president of the Lebanese Association for History. “They meant it. Prime Minister Hariri was one of those who advanced this idea … ‘Let’s forget and move (on)’.”

‘I LOST HOPE’

The Taif agreement called for “national belonging” to be strengthened through new education curricula, including a unified history textbook. Issued in the 1940’s, the existing syllabus ends in 1943 with independence.

Attempts to agree a new one failed. The last effort, a decade ago, provoked rows in parliament and street protests.

“They think that they should use history to brainwash students,” Hamadeh said. For the most part, history continues to be learnt at home, on the street and through hearsay.

“This is (promoting) conflict in our society,” she added.

Old fault lines persisted and new ones emerged.

Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims fell out following the 2005 assassination of Hariri. A U.N.-backed tribunal recently convicted a member of the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah of conspiring to kill Hariri.

Hezbollah denies any role, but the trial was another reminder of Lebanon’s violent past – the last 15 years have been punctuated by political slayings, a war between Hezbollah and Israel and a brush with civil conflict in 2008.

To some, the civil war never really ended.

Political conflict persists in government even at a time when people are desperate for solutions to the financial crisis and support in the aftermath of the port explosion.

Many feel the victims have not been mourned properly on a national level, reflecting divisions. Some refuse to lose faith in a better Lebanon. For others, the blast was the final straw. Some are leaving or planning to.

“You live between a war and another, and you rebuild and then everything is destroyed and then you rebuild again,” said theater director Achkar. “That’s why I lost hope.”

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)