Covid takes another hero | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Covid takes another hero

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Timur Goksel

Covid-19 is no respecter of persons. It infects rich and poor alike and kills persons who have both harmed and benefitted countries where they dwell. Last week the virus struck down Timur Goksel, a man of modest means who did his upmost to promote peace in Lebanon. He was the long-serving spokesman and political adviser of the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL), a university professor, and an advocate of conciliation between adversaries rather than warfare. This region needs men like Timur in our era of enduring warfare.

I call him Timur because he was a friend, a source of information on the situation in south Lebanon and in Lebanon itself, where for many years he lived and thrived. Journalists depended on Timur to arrange visits to UNIFIL contingents deployed along the conflicted border between Lebanon and Israel and for intelligent briefings on the state of play when violence erupted. That was his original job but he was upgraded to adviser to UNIFIL commanders, contributors and diplomats as he provided military, political, economic and social information about the ever changing drama in south Lebanon and forged useful connections with state and non-state players.

A Turkish citizen, Timur was a man from the region, a Muslim who could talk to and deal with Muslim non-state actors like Amal and Hizbollah, and a man who empathised with Lebanese civilians living in the conflict-ridden south. He also understood how the Lebanese political system worked and could manoeuvre within it to secure good outcomes for UNIFIL and the south. He considered peace-keeping “humanitarian work with a gun in your hands” and encouraged UNIFIL contingents to cultivate relations with local people by carrying out development and educational projects in their towns and villages.

One meeting with Timur stands out in my memory. On May 25, 2000, the day after Israel withdrew from south Lebanon after 22 years of occupation, I left Beirut at six in the morning for UNIFIL headquarters at Ras al-Naqoura. Nuha al-Radi, a well-known Iraqi painter and ceramist, had come along for the ride. We met Timur for coffee in his office at the early hour of seven. Timur dismissed Israeli predictions of anarchy and violence following the pull out and said the Lebanese army and security forces had moved into areas evacuated by the Israelis and UN troops have been deployed if needed to keep the peace.

Following our meeting with Timur, Nuha and I set off with our driver, Zein, on a tour of liberated border towns and villages. People were in the streets celebrating. Children handed out boiled sweets. At the Christian town of Ebl al-Saqi, a priest said fellow townspeople who had emigrated to the US and elsewhere could return. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came to the south that day to cheer liberation. Timur had contributed his mite to this deeply moving event that showed Lebanon at its best.

Born in Ankara in 1943, Timor was educated in Washington, DC, where his father served in the Turkish embassy, and in Turkey. He attended university in Ankara where he specialised in public administration and international relations. In 1968, he joined the UN information office in Ankara from where he was transferred for six months in 1979 to UNIFIL while Lebanon was in the grip of a civil war. He stayed for 24 years.

To make matters worse, Timor stepped into his tricky job shortly after Israel invaded south Lebanon to expel Palestinian forces from the border region. Israel employed the defected “Free Lebanon Army” commanded by Major Saad Haddad to battle Palestinian and Lebanese Shia Amal forces in an area from which 300,000 Lebanese civilians had fled. In a long interview with Manuela Paraipan carried by the World Security Network, Timur said, “UNIFIL was surrounded by wars — three or four at a time.” UNIFIL personnel had to be accompanied by the Israelis any time they wanted to move around, making the situation “uncomfortable” and impossible to go to Beirut without Israel’s permission.

Hizbollah arrived after Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation of Lebanon. UNIFIL “had problems” with the movement which considered peacekeepers foreign occupiers akin to the Israelis. Following the attack on the 1983 US Marine Corps barracks south of Beirut, UN personnel were barred from dealing with Hizbollah. Eventually its leadership signalled it wanted contact with Timur’s office and a civil — not warm — unofficial connection was formed. Timur’s ability to function among warring factions made him an asset. Contacts with Hizbollah remained unofficial as most Western powers have refused official connections with the movement because it opposes Israel and is tied to Iran.

Al-Monitor quoted the late British journalist Robert Fisk who described Timur as “perhaps the most powerful man in southern Lebanon” since he could “lift his phone and within five minutes call [Israel’s] northern front commander...and Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, chairman of the Hezbollah.”

Before his retirement in 2003, Goksel wrote, “Seven close calls including roadside bombs, a couple of suicide attacks and five too-damned-close firings including two with 120mm mortars on my office building, it is time. It has been one long roller-coaster ride, at times hair-raising but definitely memorable.”

After Timur retired, he remained in Beirut to become a founding editor of Al-Monitor’s coverage of events in Turkey and to teach at the American University of Beirut and other leading institutions. When I was in Beirut I would ring him and we would often meet for coffee at my hotel near the American University. Timur always had something enlightening to say about what was going on but felt frustrated over way Lebanese politicians always relied on outsiders to resolve their disputes and problems. “Lebanon is not independent,” he would say.

Years ago the politicians would rush to Damascus to settle their spats. Riyadh, Tehran and Washington became involved, complicating things. Today Paris is seen as Lebanon’s potential saviour. President Emmanuel Macron says Lebanon must form a non-partisan government of experts to rescue the country from decades of mismanagement and corruption and secure massive financial assistance. But, its entrenched sectarian elite has, apparently, declared independence from France and is determined to maintain control at the expense of a country ravaged by covid, economic collapse and political deadlock.


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