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Lebanon Fighting Brings Bitter Memories

Fierce fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerrillas has led to widespread destruction in parts of Lebanon and brought back bitter memories of the country's civil war and the past involvement of regional powers in a place that at times has been a jewel of economic prosperity in the Middle East.

Despite everything that has happened to Joseph Cicippio personally, he loves Lebanon, especially Beirut. The former controller of the American University in Beirut, who was kidnapped and held hostage for five years, Cicippio was in the Lebanese capital July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers sparking the current crisis.

Cicippio says the day before the kidnapping, Beirut was alive, the streets, restaurants and hotels were filled with happy people and the future was bright.

But after the kidnapping and the nearly immediate Israeli air raids on Beirut and throughout Lebanon, Cicippio says everything changed. "The hotels emptied, no cars were on the street, retail merchants closed, restaurants were closed, you know you could walk up and down anywhere and you would not see anybody. It was just as if, overnight, overnight, everything just died. It was an awful feeling," he said.

Throughout its history, Lebanon has enjoyed periods of prosperity, punctuated by lengthy upheavals of violence and war.

Beirut is famous for its wide boulevards and French-style architecture. It has been called the Paris of the Middle East.

Before the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Lebanon as a whole was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, enjoying a conflict-free status such as Costa Rica in Central America.

But the seeds of conflict had already been sown. After the Arab-Israel conflict in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees flooded Lebanon, and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization was in charge of their political and military activities.

In the 1970's fighting began between a coalition of Palestinian refugees along with Muslim and Druze militias in a conflict with mostly Christian resistance forces.

Syria intervened, sending tens of thousands of troops into Lebanon, while Israel launched invasions in 1978 and again in 1982 in an effort to stop cross-border attacks aimed at Israeli civilians.

It is estimated more than 100,000 Lebanese were killed during this period and many fled the country and its ruined economy.

Paul Salem, a writer and political analyst based in Lebanon, says while there are familiar aspects about the current fighting, much has changed in the region. "A number of things are dramatically different. We are in the middle of a post-September 11 world. The U.S. is involved in Iraq. U.S. Syrian relations are nonexistent. Certainly U.S. Iranian relations are nonexistent. The peace process is dead. Sunni-Shi'ite conflicts in the region are at a high. So the incidents are not new but the context is rather new and rather dangerous," he said.

Israel withdrew from its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000 and Syria withdrew its troops last year after being linked to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Before the current crisis, Lebanon's economy was improving rapidly, helped by a financially sound banking system, small and medium scale manufacturing and international aid.

The president of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby, says the lesson all sides need to learn is that war will not solve problems in Lebanon or in the Middle East. "The solution is the recognition on everybody's part, the Arab side, the Israeli side and the United States side, there is no military victory, there is no military solution to what is essentially a political problem. It should have dawned on us decades ago and it needs to dawn on us today. These are political issues that have to be solved politically," he said.

So in recent decades Lebanon has seen some periods of political stability and economic prosperity, marred by significant times of turmoil.

When the current fighting between Israel and Hezbollah stops, the Lebanese people will once again face the difficult and lengthy task of rebuilding their country, while hoping for a more peaceful future.