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LEBANON: Scholar angry at NATO after invitation to speak

September 29, 2009 | 10:19 am


Lebanese academic Amal Saad-Ghorayeb has accused the NATO Defense College of tacitly encouraging her to break her nation's laws by inviting her to speak at a course where Israeli military personnel might be in attendance.  

Saad-Ghorayeb (at right) has characterized the episode as a botched attempt to enlist her as an unwitting agent and second-track diplomat, but the NATO Defense College maintains the incident was a "misunderstanding" and an unfortunate "illustration of different cultural sensitivities."

Ibrahim Mousawi, a spokesman for the militant Shiite party Hezbollah, charged that NATO was trying to violate Lebanese sovereignty, calling on all Lebanese lawmakers to take up the matter as a concern of state.

“They were trying to put her in a position to meet Israeli military officials," Mousawi told The Times. "I believe this is an aggression against Lebanese sovereignty and the law of Lebanon."

A series of leaked e-mail correspondence between Saad-Ghorayeb and the NATO Defense College came to light when the author, a frequently cited expert on Hezbollah, forwarded it to a number of friends and media contacts, including writer Helena Cobban, who posted excerpts of it on her blog.

The Times also obtained a full copy from Saad-Ghorayeb. According to the e-mails, the Defense College originally invited Saad-Ghorayeb to speak to military officers and diplomats enrolled in the NATO Regional Cooperation Course, a new program aimed at "reaching out to the Arab world." The course included participants from the Mediterranean Dialogue, of which Israel is a member.

After receiving the invitation to speak on non-state security actors, Saad-Ghoreyab expressed concerns about the possible presence of Israeli military personnel at her presentation, citing Lebanese law, which forbids contact with Israeli citizens. 

Florence Gaub, writing on behalf of the NATO Defense College, responded by assuring Saad-Ghorayeb that "we are not under Lebanese law and invite academics in their private capacity. ... It is for this reason that we have been able, in the past, to invite scholars from very different backgrounds and to ensure frank discussions, even among Israelis and Arabs, and even among Israelis and Lebanese."

Gaub went on to say that if the presence of Israelis is "not surmountable" to Saad-Ghorayeb, the group would be unable to host her. Saad-Ghorayeb responded, emphasizing her refusal to circumvent Lebanese law.

What followed was a heated exchange between Saad-Ghorayeb and several administrators, including the dean of academic affairs, Dr. Grant Hammond, who, at one point, accidentally included Saad-Ghorayeb in an  internal e-mail in which he called her complaint against Graub an "unjust, vitriolic piece of academic claptrap."

In a response that was also posted on Cobban's blog, Hammond maintained that the affair was a "misunderstanding" between Gaub, who was not familiar Lebanese law, and Saad-Ghorayeb, who was not familiar with the Mediterranean Dialogue member countries. Hammond declined to comment when contacted by The Times.

Saad-Ghorayeb said that in the past, conference organizers have been sensitive to her concerns. She added that it was not merely the presence of Israelis, but of Israeli military personnel, with whom she would be forced to interact during an hourlong question-and-answer session, that she objected to.

"I don't ask 'will Israelis be present?' in a normal academic setting," she told The Times.

Although Saad-Ghorayeb is sought out for her general expertise on Hezbollah, she says she does not consider herself a military expert and that her exchange with the NATO Defense College  "confirms my perception that I have been invited as someone who is tagged as 'close to Hezbollah.' "

Saad-Ghorayeb has often been cited in the Western press as an analyst "close to Hezbollah," a description she objects to strongly. She also has been accused by fellow academics of sympathizing with the party.

Saad-Ghorayeb said this perception is based on her long-standing, good relations with the party, which has afforded her access to the highly organized and normally tight-lipped organization. She said she was originally introduced to Hezbollah officials by her father, Abdo Saad, a well-known pollster with connections to all the major parties in Lebanon.

Mousawi confirmed that Saad-Ghorayeb has no official connection to the party and called on all Lebanese to continue the boycott of Israel at every level.

"We’re talking about the official position of the Lebanese state," said Mousawi when asked whether he thought academic freedom should supersede politics. "This is the law and every Lebanese is expected to obey."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. Credit: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace