Killing a nation, one airstrike at a time
20-07-06 Suggested by: Jack of all Trades
* Photo by Mitchell Prothero
by Mitchell Prothero
From Beirut to the Beqaa Valley to the south, Israel is methodically smashing Lebanon into the dust. A report from the ground.
A man surveys the rubble of the Haret Hreik neighborhood after at least 18 bombs landed over a 12-hour period in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 16, 2006.
July 20, 2006 | BEIRUT, Lebanon
The war finally hit home for the Francophile Christians of East Beirut when they ran out of baguettes. It was at about the same time the first Israeli airstrikes hit the nearby upscale neighborhood of Ashrafiyah, as Israeli jet fighters put an end to a stationary well-digging truck they confused for a Hezbollah rocket launcher operating from one of the most far-right-wing, anti-Muslim neighborhoods this side of Provo, Utah.
"No baguettes until [someone] implements 1559," says Habib, my Christian grocer, who has a mangled left eye from his days as a gunman for a Phalange militia fighting alongside the Israelis against the Palestinians and other Muslim militias in Lebanon's brutal civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990 and whose epilogue continues sadly today.
He's talking about the United Nations resolution that calls for Syria to militarily depart from Lebanon (done) and the disarming of both Hezbollah and a slew of armed factions in the Palestinian refugee community (currently under way via laser-guided airstrikes).
"Now we must let [the Israelis] end Hezbollah," he continues. "They have started it and destroyed Lebanon. It has been cruel of them to do this, but it cannot be wasted. At least we can see them disarmed and then maybe there will be peace."
Early on, most Lebanese agreed that Hezbollah's operation to enter Israel and kidnap two Israeli soldiers was foolish and would draw a tough military response from the Israeli Defense Forces. Even Lebanese sympathetic to the group's aims admitted that it was an act of war (they denied that it was a terrorist act), but said that they hoped Israel would negotiate a release of the Hezbollah prisoners who have been held for years without trials in Guantánamo-style Israeli jails, a harsh legacy of Israel and its proxies' 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Nobody, except perhaps Hezbollah's top leadership, wanted a broad war couched in religious imagery. And even Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah was probably surprised at the ferocity of the Israeli attack.
The Israelis, and their backer the United States, have seized upon the border operation as a golden opportunity to savagely punish Hezbollah -- and much of Lebanon, while they're at it -- by air. Perhaps remembering it couldn't get the job done in 18 years of face-to-face fighting for control of south Lebanon, Israel has backed down from its earlier demand that Hezbollah be destroyed and disarmed and now seems to be settling for weakening Hezbollah, winning the return of its soldiers and establishing a security zone that will keep Hezbollah's rockets out of range of its border towns and cities.
But even as the Israelis have slightly softened their position, they have continued to smash not just Hezbollah, but Lebanon itself. An Israeli official promised to set the country back 20 years after the Hezbollah attack, and Israel is keeping its word. With the U.S. granting Israel another week to continue its attacks, anything that might conceivably be a Hezbollah asset, and many things that are not, are being bombed. Civilians, who are inevitably going to be killed by aerial bombardment, no matter how accurate, are deemed acceptable collateral damage. There are constant airstrikes against Hezbollah neighborhoods and military positions, Lebanese infrastructure (at least what remains of it) and occasionally against the Lebanese military, which is trying to stay out of the fight as much as possible but which Israel holds responsible for helping Hezbollah, including supposedly helping with a missile strike that severely damaged an Israeli destroyer. On Tuesday, Israeli planes struck a Lebanese army barracks in Kfar Chima near Beirut, killing 11 soldiers. They hit it because they had spotted Hezbollah forces transporting a two-stage missile nearby and were angry the Lebanese army had ignored a giant missile that could hit Tel Aviv being towed 200 meters outside its front gate.
Wednesday was Lebanon's bloodiest day yet. Israeli attacks killed 61 people, all but one of them civilians. Two hundred and ninety-seven Lebanese, all but a handful of them civilians, have been killed by Israeli bombs. Twenty-nine Israelis, most of them also civilians, have died.
On Tuesday morning, I made a trip deep into the heart of Haret Hreik, the southern suburb that is home to much of Hezbollah's political operations and leadership. In the last few days, the massive Israeli aerial bombardment appears to have begun to take a toll on the Shiite fighters.
So far Hezbollah has only admitted to suffering a handful of casualties. Hezbollah men are sleeping in public bunkers. There are also thought to be secret bunkers that hold the leadership. They have only a skeletal force in Haret Hreik, but seem to be able to muster lots of guys if they need them.
Entire blocks of the neighborhood have been destroyed, turned inside out, throwing a fine mist of concrete and white smoke over the landscape. The streets are empty save a handful of Hezbollah fighters armed with light weapons and walkie-talkies, moving around on foot and by scooter to secure official sites.
Two days ago, journalists venturing into the area were greeted almost warmly after a brief but intense credential check and discussion of nationality, and were allowed to work within certain guidelines: Specific buildings were off-limits. The handful of civilians entering to check on their mostly destroyed homes would regale reporters with an impromptu song and dance about how "God is the greatest" and how "With our blood and souls we will redeem you, Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah," while picking through the flotsam and jetsam of their now dispersed belongings. The mood was defiant, almost a little festive. The Hezbollah fighters and supporters felt elated at the chance to fight the Israelis, even if only with their own resilience and the pride of knowing their rocket-firing kin to the south continue to make sure northern Israel is also sleeping poorly and below ground.
Such visits would continue for a little while until the Hezbollah gunmen would suddenly run away, screaming, "Ef-attash, Ef-attash, yallah, yallah!" (Arabic for "F-16, F-16, let's go, let's go!") At this point there would be a mass sprint to the journalists' cars, where Lebanese drivers were sitting sweating in the summer humidity, listening out the open windows for the telltale sound of jet engines. Then it would be off at 100 miles an hour down the bombed-out streets of Beirut's airport road toward the relative safety of downtown, inevitably chased by the sound of bombs exploding behind.