Bombs over Beirut

The killing of civilians in Lebanon's capital has citizens once opposed to Hezbollah outraged by what they see as Israel's indiscriminate bombing.

Published August 9, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Hasan Kang didn't want to look in the cooler, but he had to identify the body of his son, Ahmed, who was killed Monday night when an Israeli missile struck a five-story apartment building in Beirut's Chiyah neighborhood. The 13-year-old Ahmed was crushed in the building's violent collapse. Just seconds before the missile hit, he had taken a break from playing soccer and walked toward the building to buy ice cream. Twenty other bodies had come out of the rubble by Tuesday evening, and rescue workers said as many as 26 more could be underneath the pancaked concrete floors.

The damage to Ahmed's body was so extensive that the elderly woman who attended the "refrigerator," or morgue, didn't pull the body tray completely out. In the deathly quiet of the cold, dank room, Hasan's two friends carefully unwrapped the top of the white shroud stained with the young boy's blood. Still not wanting to look directly at his son, Hasan, a security guard for the Kuwaiti Embassy, dipped his head toward his son's face and let out a horrible cry of anguish.

Beirut has been heavily bombed in the past few weeks, but the Monday evening strike shocked many in the city by its apparent arbitrariness. The Chiyah neighborhood is home not to members of the anti-Israel Hezbollah Party but its secular Shiite rivals, the Amal movement. Having apparently underestimated the tenacity and preparedness of Hezbollah fighters, the Israel Defense Forces appear to be frustrated and, in the eyes of many Lebanese, are lashing out with deadly abandon at an increasingly random range of targets.

"They cannot win against the Hezbollah fighters, so they are killing civilians now," said an angry man who only gave his name as Andre. He lived about 50 yards from the collapsed building in Chiyah and was thrown from his chair when the missile hit. "This is their logic of terrorism against the Lebanese people. Even people who have nothing to do with Hezbollah can now be killed. Who are the terrorists? Where are they?"

Andre and many other Lebanese say they are living in constant fear of an attack. Cars on southern roads are assumed to be holding Hezbollah fighters, so anyone driving south of the Litani River risks the danger of being killed in an assault. An apartment building in Qana may have had missiles fired from it, so the IDF leveled it. Bridges connecting Lebanon's cities could have transported weapons for terrorists and so had to be destroyed. Apartment buildings in Haret Hreik were home to people who don't fight for Hezbollah but supported them, so bombs flattened a square mile of the dense buildings. A dairy farm in the Beqaa Valley employed numerous Shiite men who tended to support Hezbollah, and so it too was bombed.

Politically, the bombing has backfired, as the people most likely to support an international campaign to pressure Hezbollah into disarming -- Lebanon's Christian, Sunni and Druze populations -- find themselves under fire from their southern neighbor, and, they say, abandoned by the Western powers they have long tried to emulate. Political analysts in Beirut declare that Hezbollah is positioned to capitalize on the mood shift and entrench itself in Lebanese society.

"Since Israel could not and probably cannot have a real decisive victory, Hezbollah will claim a huge victory here," said Mohammed Qabani, a member of the Lebanese Parliament representing Beirut's Sunni community, and a political rival to Hezbollah. "Even if all of Lebanon is destroyed, Hezbollah will have won." Qabani added that the Israeli response has damaged the work done in the past two decades to isolate Hezbollah politically. As Lebanon sought to solidify its independence, Hezbollah lost its influence by keeping close ties with Syria and maintaining its weapons. Criticism of Hezbollah came to a head on July 12, when it captured two IDF soldiers. But people's distrust of Hezbollah is being eclipsed by Israel's widespread bombing.

"There was criticism of Hezbollah for the 'arrest' of two IDF soldiers, but over time it became clear that this is an aggressive project to redraw the map of the Middle East," said Qabani, who then offered his own rather farfetched theory behind Israel's heated assault. "Lebanon is the only country in the Arab world that could be an economic competitor to Israel in tourism, high-tech and banking, so now people think it's this capability Israel wants to destroy," he said. "Israel thinks these attacks pressure us to isolate Hezbollah, but it doesn't work anymore. We still have those fears and suspicions of each other, but they're set aside while an enemy bombs us."

One political commentator, known to have ties to Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, went so far as to say the group is willing to negotiate a regional peace plan with Israel. Sitting at a Beirut hotel bar, Ibrahim Moussawi wears a neat suit with no tie and speaks English well. He has a Ph.D. in theology and works as a news analyst for al-Manar, Hezbollah's 24-hour news station. "Hezbollah has always been ready to negotiate," he said. "It was ready immediately, according to Nasrallah, so why should that change now?"

Moussawi said that efforts by the Bush administration and Israel to paint the group as religious fanatics akin to al-Qaida is unfair. "Hezbollah is a reasonable organization," he said. "They believe Islam is the best way to live and govern but they harbor no delusions about turning Lebanon and its other 17 sects into an Islamic state. A majority of Lebanon is Shiite, but being strong is not the same as being the whole country. They respect that other people are different." Moussawi dismissed security as a motive for Israel's warfare. "This is revenge for their defeat in 2000," he said, referring to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon that year. "And it is part of America's foreign policy to pressure Iran over the nuclear issue. This is Israel being forced to do America's bidding."

Regardless of the truth of Moussawi's claims, his rhetoric is embraced by many Lebanese incensed by the increasing tempo of Israel's bombing campaign. On Sunday, after hearing a barrage of rockets rain down on areas surrounding Tyre, my driver and I fled before the Israeli response closed off the city. Leaving town we passed through a banana plantation where a makeshift bridge served as the last route over the Litani River that bisects south Lebanon. At the bridge, a convoy from the World Food Program headed into Tyre pushed us to the side of the road. Taking shelter under some trees with scared Lebanese soldiers, we could hear Israeli planes and drones overhead. An explosion sounded in the distance as one of the drones fired missiles into Tyre.

After the convoy passed, we sped away from danger into the relative safety of the north. It was only later that I learned what had transpired in that grove just minutes after we left. The convoy itself was hit, wounding a driver and killing the occupant of a nearby van. The bridge and banana plantation were completely destroyed. A series of airstrikes destroyed five cars of people trying to flee Tyre before the siege got worse.

Southern Lebanon is now completely off limits. Two major relief agencies have been told by the Israelis that any vehicles seen south of the river will be destroyed. The city of Tyre itself is completely out of gas so there's not much chance people could leave anyway, but now relief supplies cannot come in. Hospitals are running out of medicine and fuel for their generators. Bodies are being dumped in mass graves because funerals are too dangerous.

In Beirut, things are not much better. The city is on its last gasp of gasoline. A three-hour wait gets you about 10 liters, and even that limited availability is expected to end in a few days. Electricity is growing more erratic and generators are running out of fuel, putting even hospitals at risk. Most have stopped accepting non-emergency patients to conserve resources for the badly wounded. Meanwhile, as the pace of airstrikes picked up, rescue crews in Chiyah planned to work through another night, pulling bodies out of the rubble.

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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