A displaced Syrian woman sits outside her tent at a refugee camp in Bar Elias, in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa valley, March 5, 2021. (AP/Hussein Malla) (AP/Hussein Malla)
Syrian Palestinian refugees Lebanon

Ironic twist to fiasco in Lebanon: While most Arab countries are turning a blind eye to the country’s deepening humanitarian crisis, Israel is the only country that appears ready to help the Lebanese people.

By Khaled Abu Toameh, The Gatestone Institute

The financial and economic crisis in Lebanon is dragging the country towards mayhem at a quickening pace, according to various reports. Lebanon is running out of critical medicines and is witnessing fuel shortages. The economic collapse has stripped the national currency of most of its value and left four out of five Lebanese citizens below the poverty line.

The World Bank has described the crisis as among the worst in over a century.

The crisis, however, has not stopped the Lebanese authorities from again displaying their hostility towards Israel. Instead of devoting its energies to solving the economic crisis and end the suffering of its people — not even to distract their people from problems they are clueless how to fix — the failed Lebanese government is busy combating “normalization” with Israel.

“Normalization” with Israel is not what is plaguing Lebanon. The Lebanese who are dying for lack of medication could not care less about “normalization” with Israel. The Lebanese who queue for hours to fill their cars with gasoline could not care less about “normalization” with Israel. These people are desperate for real and immediate solutions to the deepening crisis in Lebanon.

Yet the Lebanese government has found time to punish Lebanese citizens for allegedly promoting “normalization” with Israel at a time when it cannot manage to resolve the life-and-death problems plaguing its own people.

Last week, a military court in Beirut sentenced three men to prison after convicting them of “doing business and engaging in normalization” with Israel.

Lebanon’s official National News Agency said that the court, headed by Brigadier General Mounir Shehadeh, issued three rulings against “dealers with the Israeli enemy.”

Dr. Jamal Ahmed Rifi, a Lebanese physician residing in Australia, was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for the crime of “normalization with Israel,” the agency said.

The second man, Amin Mohammed Baydoun, who holds US citizenship, was sentenced to five years in prison for the crime of “dealing with the Israeli enemy.” Baydoun was arrested last June at Beirut Airport.

The third ruling was issued against Marc Charbel Tanios, who received two years in prison after being convicted of “communicating with the Israeli enemy and exchanging electronic messages with it,” according to the agency.

Convicted for Helping Palestinians, Not Israelis

The first defendant’s brother, Gen. Ashraf Rifi, is a former Lebanese Minister of Justice and Director General of Internal Security.

Commenting on the sentencing of his brother, Dr. Jamal Rifi, he accused the court of being “politicised.”

“The intent of the ruling is to tarnish our image as a family,” Gen. Rifi wrote.

“My brother is an Australian-Lebanese who has been living in Australia for more than 50 years. He is a member of an Australian medical institution working as the Doctors Without Borders organization. He contributed, with the support of the Palestinian Authority, to helping the Palestinian medical sector and proudly fulfilled his duty towards the people of Palestine.”

What Gen. Rifi is explaining is that his brother was convicted by the Lebanese court for helping Palestinians, not Israelis. He is also saying that his brother carried out his duty as a physician at the request of, and with the support of, the Palestinian Authority.

There is only one explanation for the court’s absurd verdict, which found the physician guilty of the “crime of normalization” with Israel: some of the Palestinians he treated apparently hold Israeli citizenship or residency. In Israel, there are nearly two million Arabs, or about 20% of the population, who are Israeli citizens. Another 300,000 Arabs who live in Jerusalem carry Israeli-issued ID cards in their capacity as residents of Israel. A resident does not hold citizenship, but is entitled to all the rights of an Israeli citizen with the exception of voting in general elections.

The Lebanese authorities, in other words, obviously consider all these Arabs as traitors and as an enemy simply because they hold Israeli citizenship or residency.

If an Arab doctor who provided medical services to Arabs is sentenced to 10 years in prison, one can only imagine what would have happened to the doctor had he been found guilty of providing services to Israeli Jews. He would have most likely been sentenced to death by the Lebanese military court.

In a first comment on his sentence, Dr. Jamal Rifi was quoted as saying:

“Unfortunately, they sentenced me to 10 years in prison, but they sentenced the Lebanese people to life in poverty and humiliation. The military court in Lebanon did not give me any opportunity to defend myself. The court did not inform my lawyer in Beirut even of the trial date. It did not inform me personally of anything. The least that should have been done was to inform me of the date of the trial so I could defend myself.”

Rifi said that all he did was to engage in “humanitarian action” for the Palestinian people by sending them 30 ventilators for those infected with COVID-19. “We help the Palestinians humanely, while they (the Lebanese authorities) trade with their lives and issues,” he said. “Whoever stands behind this trial is trading with the cause of the Palestinian people.”

‘Scene of Bankruptcy’

The head of the Australian-Lebanese Christian Congregation, Wali Wahba, said that the court rulings reflected the “scene of bankruptcy in Lebanon.”

The Lebanese judiciary, Wahba added, “has become a vehicle for political targets. Anyone who knows Dr. Rifi and his career is undoubtedly aware of the tragic situation that Lebanon is suffering from in the time of lost logic. Dr. Rifi will remain a humanitarian hero in the People’s Court.”

The leader of the Palestinian Fatah faction in Australia, Abdel Qader Qaranouh, said:

“It is certainly an unjust and illogical ruling. What Dr. Rifi has done in recent years for the Palestinian people is priceless, and we consider it part of our humanitarian struggle.”

The Palestinian-Australian Cultural Center denounced the verdict against Dr. Rifi. It pointed out that the verdict was issued without giving him his constitutionally guaranteed right to legal defense before the court.

“Dr. Rifi is one of the most important leaders of the Arab and Islamic community in Australia because of the role he plays around the clock in the medical and community service,” the center added.

“Dr Rifi has been providing free medical service to Palestinian students and refugees who are not covered by the government health insurance, in addition to providing medicines available for free in his health center. Dr. Rifi also works to provide medical service and social support to detainees in immigration detention centers on a regular basis. He also led the efforts and initiatives to secure government aid to a number of medical centers in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon.”

The center said that Dr. Rifi had volunteered to work with a project to provide medical supplies to Arab hospitals in Jerusalem and to provide training for Palestinian medical staff in hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Dr. Rifi played a key role in securing dozens of respiratory intensive care devices for hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in coordination with the Ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs in the Palestinian Authority, during the COVID-19 pandemic last year… It is shameful that the accusation of treason and normalization is attached to those who did everything they could over decades to serve the Palestinian people.

“Dr. Rifi is one of the pioneers of humanitarian and social volunteer work, and he has provided the Palestinian cause and our Palestinian people for decades with great services that are impossible to enumerate and for which it would be difficult to provide sufficient thanks. Therefore, we call upon those who wrote this unjust ruling to correct this sin.”

Blind Hatred

The case of Dr. Rifi is yet another example of the blind hatred in Lebanon and other Arab countries towards Israel. These countries are so blinded by their hate for Israel (and Jews) that they are even prepared to punish a physician who helped Palestinians living in Jerusalem. It can be fairly said of these Arabs that they are willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian.

There is a further ironic twist to this fiasco. While most Arab countries are turning a blind eye to the deepening crisis in Lebanon, there is one country that appears ready to help the Lebanese people: Israel.

One day after the court verdicts were issued against Dr. Rifi and the other two Lebanese, Moshe Arbel, a member of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) called on Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz to provide the Lebanese health system with emergency humanitarian assistance in light of the public health crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the political and economic crisis in Lebanon.

“The State of Israel and Israeli society cannot remain silent and stand idly by when a humanitarian catastrophe is occurring just a few minutes from the northern border,” Arbel wrote to the minister. “As Jews, we are taught that kindness of all people who are created in the image of God are beloved, and that all people are entitled to basic natural rights that must not be taken away.”

If a Lebanese parliament member had made a similar call to provide humanitarian aid to Israel, he or she would undoubtedly have been sentenced to life in prison in the best case and death in the worst. It is no wonder that Lebanon — which is dominated by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist militia — has become a failed state and is on the brink of collapse.

A country that prioritizes fighting “normalization” with Israel over rescuing its own people from disaster will never be able to recover from its chronic illness of bigotry and hate.

Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.

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