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Shukrallah Karam: a hero and healer of south Lebanon

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Thirty-nine years ago, on 17 February 1977, Shukrallah Karam, 63, the only resident physician in the south Lebanese town of Khiam, where he was raised, was doing what he did best — tending to the sick and wounded at his house-turned-makeshift-clinic. Outside, Israeli tanks and troops were approaching on one of their many incursions into Lebanon.

Karam’s wife Wadad and their six children had fled to Beirut and pleaded with him to join them there. But Karam, a former mayor of Khiam, was determined to stay. “How can I have peace of mind when I am surrounded by thousands of miserable people?” he wrote. “Who would take their temperature and listen to their heartbeat?” Later that day, Israeli agents shot him dead.

A year later, south Lebanon fell under Israeli occupation. Karam’s town became home to the notorious Khiam prison, where hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians were locked up and tortured. It bore witness to a brutal occupation that lasted until 2000.

Karam’s assassination marked the end of a distinguished career of public service to the residents of Khiam and surrounding villages. The poor people’s doctor, as he was known, was a community leader who used medicine and social activism as a weapon against local injustice and foreign oppression. His story sheds light on the largely neglected fight of the ordinary people of southern Lebanon at a time when armed struggle was far from the unified and formidable force that it has turned into today under Hezbollah. Karam’s actions and beliefs embodied the secular politics of national unity and economic development that animated progressive forces in Lebanon prior to the civil war in 1975, before they were gradually replaced by virulent sectarianism.

Karam obtained his medical degree in surgery from the American University of Beirut in 1937 when Lebanon was still under French rule. Unlike most of his peers, who sought success in Beirut or other Lebanese cities, Karam decided to return to Khiam and attend to the needs of southerners, who were marginalized by an indifferent central authority. He helped improve the health and welfare of southerners, operating from his home, or roaming the region, initially on a horse loaded with medicine and later in his car, to treat peasants and workers.

By the early 1950s, Karam had become a household name. In 1956, Ali Hamdan, 15, had been tilling at nearby Shebaa farms when his pickaxe hit a rock and a thin metal shard split off and settled in his right eye. “I lost vision in my eye and when I used a primitive treatment with tea drops things got worse,” he remarked decades later. After a two-hour trek, the doctor had operated on his eye: “He refused to charge my parents a penny for the visit or the operation and told them to use the money to buy eye drops and a cream. As you see, I am okay and I don’t wear glasses.”

Karam’s public service blurred the lines between private and public life. This left a strong imprint on his eldest son, also Karam, who became an accomplished physician in his own right and then health minister in 1998. As a child, Karam Jr admired his father’s vocation but lamented the price: “Rare were the meals that we did not share with patients, who frequently showed up in our private quarters and bedrooms. [My father’s] complete devotion, like taking no vacations, supplying the needy with medications, tending a dying patient for hours on end, made any later sacrifices of my own seem trivial.”

In times of war, Karam was no less committed to saving lives. Before Lebanon’s independence he had opposed French occupation. Even so, during WWII, his willingness to treat the wounded of all stripes on the battlefield earned him an accolade from the allied forces. He turned it down and suggested donating the money to those in need. During the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, Karam, staunchly opposed to Zionist plans in Palestine, was on the frontline. In 1948, he turned his house into a field hospital and welcomed Palestinian refugees fleeing Israeli attacks and wounded Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon. In 1967, he headed to Mount Hermon where he supplied medical aid to Syrian fighters.

Following the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Karam tried to prevent Khiam from getting caught up in the internecine conflict between Lebanese and Palestinians. But the Israeli authorities tried to win the support of the Lebanese by setting up a “goodwill wall” on the borders which offered free treatment to Lebanese citizens. Aware that this move aimed to sow divisions, Karam drove to the border crossing and offered free treatment to stop people seeking Israeli aid.

According to his son, Karam’s presence hindered Israel’s plans to divide and conquer. “He was the only physician in Khiam. People solicited his medical services but also his social advice. He was widely known as a warrior for all national causes and a stout opponent of the occupation of Palestine. His political influence on the region’s youth and ordinary citizens was all too obvious. So they decided to take him out.”

Shukrallah Karam seen right behind Ahmad & Kamel el Asaad (father & son, both speakers of parliament house) a delegation to welcome President of the United Arab republic Gamal Abdel Nasser's visit to Damascus, 1958.

Shukrallah Karam is seen fifth from left, behind fez-wearing Ahmed el Asaad and his son Kamel (both speakers of parliament house), in a delegation to welcome President of the United Arab republic Gamal Abdel Nasser’s visit to Damascus, 1958

Karam’s influence came from his political understanding of humanitarian work. “His struggle for citizens’ rights, freedom from oppression and social equality were part of his beliefs,” his son says. Karam avoided party politics but advocated popular political causes. In the 1950s, he was a proponent of the pan-Arab nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Lebanon, he forged a strong relationship with the progressive leftist leader Kamal Jumblatt. In the village, he helped found the Khiam Cultural and Social Club in 1974, a project ahead of its time, before civil society had become a popular concept. But then civil war broke out, and three years later Israeli invasion nipped the club’s potential in the bud. The liberation of Khiam in 2000 revived interest in the project and people were finally able to openly celebrate the doctor’s legacy. And in 2012, following fundraising efforts by Karam Jr and others, a new complex was built, named after the doctor. It boasts dozens of annual cultural activities including poetry sessions, painting exhibitions, and foreign language classes.

Almost 40 years after the doctor’s death, Karam Jr reflects on his father’s decision to stay behind in Khiam: “It saddened me to no end [but] I did not expect otherwise.” He recalled how, before his death, the father used to listen to  Adagio by Albinoni on the radio: “Whenever I hear that music, I see him holding his head in his palms and following the news.”

This piece first appeared on Le Monde Diplomatique earlier this week and is republished with its permission and that of the author.

About Hicham Safieddine

Hicham Safieddine is a post-doctoral fellow of History at Rice University; he co-founded Al-Akhbar English and is online editor of The Legal Agenda’s English page.

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  1. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson on February 21, 2016, 11:18 pm

    RE: “Thirty-nine years ago, on 17 February 1977, Shukrallah Karam, 63, the only resident physician in the south Lebanese town of Khiam, where he was raised, was doing what he did best — tending to the sick and wounded at his house-turned-makeshift-clinic. Outside, Israeli tanks and troops were approaching on one of their many incursions into Lebanon… Later that day, Israeli agents shot him dead… According to his son, Karam’s presence hindered Israel’s plans to divide and conquer. “ ~ Hicham Safieddine

    MY COMMENT: It’s was all going ‘according to (Ariel Sharon’s) plan’!*

    * SEE: “The War of Lies”, by Uri Avnery, gush-shalom.org 09/06/12

    [EXCERPTS] Thirty Years ago this week, the Israeli army crossed into Lebanon and started the most stupid war in Israel’s history. It lasted for 18 years. About 1500 Israeli soldiers and untold numbers of Lebanese and Palestinians were killed.

    Almost all wars are based on lies. Lies are considered legitimate instruments of war. Lebanon War I (as it was later called) was a glorious example.

    From beginning to end (if it has ended yet) it was a war of deceit and deception, falsehoods and fabrications.

    THE LIES started with the official name: “Operation Peace in Galilee”.

    If one asks Israelis now, 99.99% of them will say with all sincerity: “We had no choice. They launched katyushas at the Galilee from Lebanon every day. We had to stop them.” TV anchormen and anchorwomen, as well as former cabinet ministers have been repeating this throughout the week. Quite sincerely. Even people who were already adults at the time.

    The simple fact is that for 11 months before the war, not a single shot was fired across the Israeli-Lebanese border. A cease-fire was in force and the Palestinians on the other side of the border kept it scrupulously. To everybody’s surprise, Yasser Arafat succeeded in imposing it on all the radical Palestinian factions, too.

    At the end of May, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon met with Secretary of State Alexander Haig in Washington DC. He asked for American agreement to invade Lebanon. Haig said that the US could not allow it, unless there were a clear and internationally recognized provocation.

    And lo and behold, the provocation was provided at once. Abu Nidal, the anti-Arafat and anti-PLO master terrorist, sent his own cousin to assassinate the Israeli ambassador in London, who was grievously wounded.

    In retaliation, Israel bombed Beirut and the Palestinians fired back, as expected. The Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, allowed Sharon to invade Lebanese territory up to 40 km, “to put the Galilee settlements out of reach of the katyushas.”

    When one of the intelligence chiefs told Begin at the cabinet meeting that Abu Nidal’s organization was not a member of the PLO, Begin famously answered: “They are all PLO”.

    General Matti Peled, my political associate at the time, firmly believed that Abu Nidal had acted as an agent of Sharon. So do all the Palestinians I know.

    The lie “they shot at us every day” has taken such a hold on the public mind that it is nowadays useless to dispute it. It is an illuminating example of how a myth can take possession of the public mind, including even of people who had seen with their own eyes that the opposite was true.

    NINE MONTHS before the war, Sharon told me about his plan for a New Middle East. .

    . . . Sharon had a dangerous mental mixture: a primitive mind unsullied by any knowledge of (non-Jewish) history, and a fatal craving for “grand designs”. . .

    . . . His design for the region, as told me then (and which I published nine months before the war), was:

    1. To attack Lebanon and install a Christian dictator who would serve Israel,
    2. Drive the Syrians out of Lebanon,
    3. Drive the Palestinians out of Lebanon into Syria, from where they would then be pushed by the Syrians into Jordan.
    4. Get the Palestinians to carry out a revolution in Jordan, kick out King Hussein and turn Jordan into a Palestinian state,
    5. Set up a functional arrangement under which the Palestinian state (in Jordan) would share power in the West Bank with Israel.

    Being a single-minded operator, Sharon convinced Begin to start the war, telling him that the sole aim was to push the PLO 40 km back. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://zope.gush-shalom.org/home/en/channels/avnery/1339170910/

  2. kalithea
    kalithea on February 22, 2016, 1:38 am

    It’s astounding how Zionism changes the geo-political aspect of the Middle East for the worst. Zionism can only survive on chaos, bloodshed and fascist rule.

    Any, morally conscientious person or persons who oppose it are destroyed. Israel will know only the enemies it creates in its midst.

    This man Karam is truly a man who honored his people with his service. Zionism kills all hope.

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