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Phoenicians no more

Oh, how the proud seafaring Phoenicians have fallen. Their triremes may have dominated large swathes of the Mediterranean in antiquity, some Lebanese never tire of repeating, but their descendants are struggling to control even just half the 12-mile territorial waters zone off Lebanon.
Helping the boardersBelgians give Lebanese 'boarders' a helping hand in the port of Beirut - pictures by RedSnapper - click image for slideshow on front page

One unusually rainy and stormy day in April this lack of naval prowess was on display as a tiny patrol boat, donated by Germany and appearing to be the maritime equivalent of the old East-German Trabant, staged a mock inspection of a large, almost modern Belgian frigate in the port of Beirut. The show, performed for the benefit of the visiting Belgian Prime Minister, was supposed to have taken place on the ‘high’ seas just outside the port but nobody wanted to risk the lives of the life-jacketed Lebanese coast guard recruits or the stomachs of the visiting dignitaries and journalists.

“Don’t worry, they carry plastic guns, we don’t want a security incident,” one of the Belgian officers reassured the PM. Even in the port, the frigate rolled slightly on its moorings and the sea proved quite choppy for the approaching patrol boat, whose admonitory hailings were scattered in the wind. In the end, the Belgians, no great sea-faring nation themselves, had to help the tiny Lebanese vessel tie up alongside and help the boarders onto the deck. The irony of the Tabarja, as the Lebanese patrol boat was christened, rubbing up against the Leopold I must have eluded the visitors who could not have know that the frigate named for the founder of their monarchy was being taken over by a boat named after a slightly seedy town north of Beirut that’s mostly known for its louche ‘super nightclubs’. Not that the Belgian monarchy has much to brag about; the second Leopold enslaved and plundered the Congo, an area several hundred times the size of his tiny divided Kingdom.

Brandishing their bright orange toy guns and striking poses straight from a 1970’s James Bond movie, the Lebanese soldiers progressed to ‘search’ the frigate. The Belgians had obligingly provided a couple of suspects for them to frisk and interrogate, a ‘Swedish’ cook, a ‘German’ engineer, miss Piggy and other assorted Muppet characters. The soldiers should have been commended for their bravery under indifference – a few minutes into the demonstration the audience lost interest and went on a tour of the frigate, a relic from the early 1990’s that the Dutch palmed off on the poor Belgians. The highlight of the tour was to hear an officer explain that good food was crucial for morale – after having been fed tough and greasy pork brochettes for lunch. Presumably Muslim journalists had not been invited on board. At several points during the tour, totally disinterested Belgians would cross seriously concentrated Lebanese soldiers who kept up the ‘inspection’, followed all along by a UNIFIL officer taking notes.

The maritime branch of UNIFIL, the international force that was beefed up significantly following the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, is helping the Lebanese control their territorial waters. The international sea patrols were an Israeli demand for the lifting of a crippling blockade that continued beyond the hostilities and are meant, ostensibly, to prevent arms smuggling to Hezbollah. The international warships have ‘hailed’ more than 20,000 vessels over the last three years but have not been allowed to board a single one. For that they have to contact the Lebanese ‘navy’. The Lebanese themselves have carried out some 250 inspections, mostly in port. And of course not a single ancient musket has been found. The briefing Belgian officer did allow for the possibility that smuggling does take place – mostly cigarettes from Syria in small boats during bad weather. It may even be somewhat true – large quantities of arms will only have to be shipped directly to Lebanon if ever the Syrians close the land route. And the restoration of Phoenician sea power seems a more likely eventuality than for that to happen.