Killing a nation, one airstrike at a time

From Beirut to the Beqaa Valley to the south, Israel is methodically smashing Lebanon into the dust. A report from the ground.

Published July 20, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

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.

But on the most recent trip, the Hezbollah guys look tired and more than a bit tense. The devastated area seems even bigger and barricades have been set up along with roadblocks of rubble, concrete blocks knocked off of bombed highway overpasses. The fighters are less willing to chat or allow pictures.

"Just keep moving, it's not safe and no pictures," one fighter tells me at one such roadblock. His face looks tired and resigned. Not ready to give up after seven nights of taking it on the chin from an unseen enemy whose bombs rarely miss, but not ready to sing any songs either.

The relentless Israeli pounding has displaced 500,000 people across Lebanon, according to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Some have gone to the Beqaa Valley, others to the mountains, to Syria, and to schools. It's hard to nail down a figure because so many people have gone to their families due to cut roads. Beirut is not swamped, but it is full.

The south is almost completely cut off from the rest of the country. Israeli bombing has destroyed not only all the modern postwar highways but also the secondary roads and bridges through the southern Beqaa Valley and Chouf Mountains. Reporters who venture in -- and some estimates put it at 12 hours to get into the besieged ancient Crusader city of Tyre, if you manage to get there at all -- do not come back out, at least for now, and neither do any refugees. Much of the population of southern Lebanon has left for Beirut or other parts of the country, but in a school in central Beirut, the refugees tell me that no one new has come since Saturday and there is still room. People just can't get out and have to take their chances under what is clearly heavy bombardment.

The refugees sleeping in the middle school classrooms are pretty irritated at the Western media. All of them are Shiite and the total lack of fighting-age men gives the impression that these are Hezbollah-related families, although they don't really want to talk about that. They have been watching CNN International's coverage of the war and are convinced that it's biased against the civilians of Lebanon, who have been dying at a rate 10 times greater than their Israeli counterparts.

"All we see are Israelis in their bunkers talking about how terrified they are that Hezbollah rockets are aimed at civilians. What about our civilians?" asks Mohammed, who looks to be about 12 and speaks almost perfect English as he sits with his mother and young sisters.

"They are bombing civilians from Tyre to Baalbek [in the northern Beqaa Valley]. Do we not count?" he says. "Why does CNN only tell the story of the Jews? They had better not come to this school because they don't want people to know what the Israelis are doing to us."

Mohammed says Hezbollah did nothing wrong when it crossed the border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. He claims the soldiers were an occupying force, although they were actually taken captive in pre-1967 Israel. He also repeats the familiar charge that the Israelis occupy the Shebaa Farms, a tiny area that almost no one in Lebanon except for Hezbollah supporters considers anything more than a tiny sliver of Syria.

But Mohammed is spot on about Israelis targeting civilian infrastructure. The IDF seems intent on breaking the back of Lebanon as a viable country. Whether this is just a reflexive act of rage, a demonstration of Israel's "deterrent capability," or a strategic attempt to make the Lebanese suffer so much they turn against Hezbollah -- and it is probably all three -- in the long run, it could be a massive mistake. Countries rarely collapse into stability. The last time Israel tried to rearrange Lebanon's power structure was when Ariel Sharon invaded it in 1982, launching a disastrous war that further devastated Lebanon and is widely considered in Israel to be one of its greatest debacles.

For all their claims that this is a war against "terrorists," the Israelis have been relentlessly bombing targets that are totally civilian in nature. Besides the ports, airports, highways and bridges across the country, they have also pounded dairy farms, grain silos and flatbed trucks wherever they can find them -- just on the off chance they might be carrying rockets or weapons.

The range of targets deemed "terrorist" by the Israelis becomes abundantly clear on a trip out of Beirut through the Beqaa Valley up to the Roman ruins and town of Baalbek, a combination tourist town and Hezbollah nerve center. Gas stations, industrial buildings, farms have all been hit. Many Lebanese believe that the Israelis are bombing employers of Hezbollah -- which is pretty much anyone in the valley -- to deny them jobs later.

After cresting the Mount Lebanon range that separates Beqaa from the coast, there's a panoramic view of the valley and its miles of farmland and small towns stretching out as far as the eye can see. On the far side of the valley looms the Anti-Lebanon Range which separates Lebanon from Syria. Once considered by the West to be as synonymous with terrorism as Afghanistan was and Iraq is today, Beqaa has long ago traded most of its terrorist training camps for vineyards, restaurants and high-end hotels catering to tourists of every stripe. Baalbek once was a base for Iranian Revolutionary Guards in town to train Hezbollah fighters in the 1980s, but today the revolutionaries have been replaced by Arabs in traditional outfits who will take your picture on a camel while you're on a break from exploring the stunning Roman ruins.

This was Baalbek until last week, when the fighter jets once again returned to Beqaa in search of Hezbollah's training centers, bunkers and other targets. Hezbollah is centered in south Lebanon, but it was born here in the north Beqaa, where the group could organize and train away from the Israeli occupation of the border areas. And with the yellow and green flags of Hezbollah fluttering from every light post and power line once you get past the Christian town of Zahle, it's clear that the arrival of the tourists has not driven them out.

Today the valley, normally bustling with tourists, is deadly quiet except for the sound of jet engines and explosions, which throw up great clouds of smoke and dust along various ridgelines. The highway is deserted save for the occasional car driving at breakneck speed to get to the safety of the Christian towns. The U.S. and Israel call this a war on terror and not Islam, but the Lebanese don't believe them: Shiite areas need to be left quickly and Christian areas get hit a lot less.

As we draw closer to Baalbek, the road gets even more deserted and buildings along the side of the road show significant damage. Gas stations and even a huge dairy farm have been blasted to rubble. Inside the town itself, there are no tourists at the famed ruins and the streets are clear of all but men who are obviously part of Hezbollah.

"You really shouldn't be around here," says Abu Ali, a Hezbollah commander carrying boxes out of an empty restaurant. "They are bombing everything today."

He explains that all the civilians have left town, some for the mountains around Syria. We're welcome to go and take a look at the refugees, which as the commander he can authorize. "But I really would not go; they are bombing that area all the time. Many civilians are dead and their cars burned. We had the civilians leave Baalbek for the smuggling roads (up in the mountains) but up there they are a target."

Ali says the Israelis do not bomb here much during the day. He readily admits that the flattened buildings scattered around the area are Hezbollah offices and facilities.

In the town center, at a bakery, the handful of remaining people look exhausted and furious. They are clearly Hezbollah officials, fighters and sympathizers and are more wary of outsiders than the guys in Beirut. When one journalist says he is from Canada, they immediately ask him what city or province he is from, checking to see if he is lying about his nationality. (I am on assignment for the German magazine Stern as a photographer so I let them assume I'm German; if they speak German I explain I'm an Irish freelancer. I do lie a little for access reasons and to preempt the 30-minute lecture about America's Middle East sins. I'm not worried about the safety issue yet. The Hezbollah leadership knows me and knows I'm American so I try to be honest.)

"No one can bring food into the Beqaa; they plan to starve us," says one man who does not give his name. "This is the plan to destroy Hezbollah." All around him, men nod at perhaps the only point on which they would agree with Israeli officials.

The whole place is eerie and seems almost desperate.

But not all civilians have left. Just outside of town the Milhem family, a clan of Sunni Muslim farmers who also have a camel that tourists can photograph, are having lunch and drinking coffee in their lovely garden, surrounded by jasmine and lemon trees. It's an idyllic scene except for the occasional explosion off in the distance.

Mohammed Milhem, 29, lost a leg to an Israeli bomb when he was 5. A jet fighter dropped a bomb on him and his brother while they were tending sheep. He ruefully recalls that the bomb killed a lot of sheep, a fact that seems almost as important to him in retelling the story as the loss of his leg. He's a farmer and herder and livestock are important to him.

Mohammed is fairly calm about the whole thing and expresses less hatred for Israel than a stoic expectation that they will keep attacking -- as, in his experience, they have always done.

"There is fear in war and everyone here only has one thing in their mind, 'They have arrived,'" he says. "But this time, they are very precise at hitting the Hezbollah targets. I live here in Beqaa and don't know anything about Hezbollah, where they live or train, but the Israelis do. It's impressive."

He says that most families have fled to the safety of Christian villages up in the hills or are tending their fields and livestock during the day and sleeping in caves at night.

He's convinced that Israel wants war on Islam or Lebanon because they have been hitting ports and targets in places with no relationship at all to Hezbollah -- Christian and Sunni areas that historically have terrible relationships with the group.

Although he is normally not a supporter of Hezbollah, because of Israel's attack on Lebanon he has emotionally aligned himself with the group. "I won't align with Israel. I will not turn my back on my land," Mohammed says.

But he also holds Hezbollah responsible for what has happened and expects them to get results: the release of Lebanese prisoners and the return of Shebaa Farms. Then he says he can live in peace, and even forgive the loss of his leg. But he will not forgive Hezbollah allowing Lebanon to be bombed if it capitulates without gaining something.

"If Hezbollah abides by what the Israelis want then they will lose my support," he says. "For them to take the soldiers, start this war and all this and then give them back without getting anything, no way. I will not forgive them."

A strange sense of déjà vu hangs over Lebanon, even for those of us too young to have covered the civil war from 1975 to 1990. I was working in Haret Hreik last week with two other photographers when the Hezbollah guys started yelling that Israeli jets were coming. The previous night, the Israelis had dropped, by my count, at least 18 large bombs into that neighborhood in a three-hour period and much of the place lay in ruins. As we ran for the car through the smoke and mist, I could hear the radio. Radio stations here have reverted to news updates every 15 minutes and we all quieted down in the car so we could hear the latest news from our own neighborhoods, or from the southern cities of Tyre or Sidon. This road hit ... that bridge bombed ... these civilians killed ... that neighborhood devastated ... that city attacked. Between these essential broadcasts, the stations have taken to playing the famous Lebanese diva Fayrouz, whose hauntingly beautiful voice, singing in Arabic to Western-style classical music, served as the soundtrack to the lives of the civil war generation.

Just as we hit the car and sped away from the danger, I looked out to the deserted streets, craters and gloomy smoke-filled air and was filled with the strange sense that I had done this before. The bombs exploded just a few minutes after we left, the sound of the explosions mingling with the singer's yearning voice. After 30 years and so much blood and suffering, the people of Lebanon are back where they started, listening to Fayrouz while Israeli bombs fall. In the Middle East, it seems, history is a nightmare that keeps repeating itself.

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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