When is a civil war a civil war? A bomb a week? A street battle a month? For after yesterday's funerals in Beirut, this question is no longer academic. Eight Shia Lebanese Muslims were killed in just two hours in the Mar Mikael district of the city in a shootout involving unknown assailants in - and this is the most sinister part of the carnage - the very streets where the 15-year Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975. Then it was a busload of Palestinians ambushed on their way home from the Tel el-Zaatar refugee camp. On Sunday night, it was a large group of Lebanese Muslims protesting against high prices and power cuts.
Did the Lebanese army shoot the eight dead? It appears that soldiers may have shot one of them by accident. But since one of the victims was the Amal militia's liaison officer with the national army, it seems unlikely that soldiers would have opened fire on him. Were there Christian snipers east of Mar Mikael? Soldiers certainly shot at snipers in the darkness around the Maronite church as bullets crackled around them.
Hizbollah - at least five of the dead appeared to be its supporters - made statements which half-blamed the national army for "firing indiscriminately on the demonstrators", even calling on the army to "disclose the criminal element which killed innocent civilians". But since the largest community represented in the Lebanese army are Shia, the idea that they would fire on their own co-religionists seems a little far-fetched. In the ugly sectarian riots a year ago, even when gunmen appeared on the streets, the army killed not a single Lebanese.
So what are we to learn of this new and frightening violence in Beirut? The first, grim lesson is that there were hundreds of "civilians" on the streets around Mar Mikael - Christians and Muslims alike - carrying weapons. Everyone knows that Beirutis kept their civil war weapons.
Indeed, I was trying to recall a few days ago if I knew anyone (apart from me) who doesn't keep a gun in their home; I could think of only four people. But to see them on the streets, carrying firearms, showed just how close we are to the edge of the volcano. The second and perhaps more disturbing lesson is that the incidents of violence in Beirut are growing closer together. A bomb every two months - a street battle every six months - may be sustainable.
But the Lebanese had scarcely buried the five dead from last week's massive car bomb when the victims of Sunday's fighting were being ritually washed and prepared for the grave. Captain Wissam Eid, the young army captain murdered in last week's car bomb, it now transpires, was the security authority's top expert on tracing mobile phone calls. Today, the mobile phone is the assassin's best friend (along with his bomb and the fidelity of his gruesome friends). So Eid's killing was a body-blow from the assassins of Lebanon.
The Arab League came trotting out with its latest plea for peace in Lebanon yesterday, promising to send the infinitely hopeless and boring secretary general, Amr Mousa, back to Beirut to talk to all the usual suspects. The reality, of course, is that the league is even less capable of bringing peace to Lebanon than the United Nations, and everyone in Beirut knows that General Michel Sleiman, the Lebanese army commander, would be acceptable as president for all sides in the country.
We are now awaiting the 13th attempt to elect the poor man, all pretending this is a Lebanese problem when they all along know that the violence in this country is dictated by the continuing conflict between Washington and Tehran. Thus is the fate of Lebanon.
© 2008 The Independent