25 February - 3 March 1999
Issue No. 418
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Final blow to a dying villageBy Zeina Khodr
Nine-year-old Mohamed is among the 100 residents left in Lebanon's southern village of Arnoun, which Israel last week effectively annexed to its illegitimate "security zone". "I'm not scared," he said defiantly, as he stood behind the barbed wire now encircling the village.
Along with the barbed wire, the village has been made a no-go area by landmines laid by Israeli troops manning a position overlooking the village. An earth barricade blocks the entrance to the village and road signs in Arabic and Hebrew read: Caution -- Mines, and Stop -- Border.
This is not the first time the village, half of which lies in the occupied zone and the other half in a no-man's land, has been subjected to Israeli aggression. Before Israel carved out the zone in 1985, Arnoun had a population of 3,000 but, over the years, residents, fed up with the worsening conditions, fled and settled in other parts of the country. Israeli troops have often set up checkpoints at the entrance to the village, searched homes and detained residents they accuse of helping the Hizbullah resistance movement. In December, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) bulldozed 20 homes after suspecting they were being used by Hizbullah.
Now, the few women, children and elderly that remain are short of basic supplies. "Why did you leave us? We need help, we do not have water, food or medicine," a woman screamed as a number of beleaguered residents peered across the divide of barbed wires and mines. "One man here desperately needs medical treatment."
The Lebanese government has filed a complaint to the cease-fire monitoring committee, made up of representatives from Lebanon, Syria, Israel, France and the United States, but it is unlikely that the group, which was set up after Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation against southern Lebanon in 1996, will be able to change the realities on the ground. Sources said the most it can do is condemn Israel's action. An understanding reached after Grapes of Wrath bans attacks on and from civilian areas but allows the resistance to launch attacks against Israeli occupation troops and their local allies.
Lebanese villagers stand behind barbed wire along with signs warning of mines in the village of Arnoun (photo: AP)
"Israel's assertions that it wishes to withdraw from Lebanon sound absurd as it annexes yet another village," said Prime Minister Selim Al-Hoss on Sunday during a visit to Cairo. Other Lebanese officials said Israel's move is designed to put more pressure on the Lebanese government to accept its security conditions for withdrawal from the south. But Beirut, backed by Arab countries, insists on an unconditional withdrawal according to the United Nations Security Council resolution 425.
Israel, meanwhile, has rebuffed claims that its recent move is tantamount to occupation, preferring to describe it as a "technical adjustment". Furthermore, it argues the fence was erected to protect the villagers from Hizbullah.
One resident, however, said the only protection they need is from the Israelis, who have harassed them over the years. "If it is not an occupation, then we should be able to enter and leave the village freely," the resident said.
This reporter, accompanied by a television crew, tried to enter the village at a point where there were no landmines. One person managed to get across the barbed wire but as the rest of the group attempted to cross, IDF troops positioned on a hilltop above the village fired several bursts of machine gun fire. The message was clear: Do not enter. We quickly left the area, leaving behind residents who had expressions of fear, anger and bewilderment on their faces.
"If this is not occupation, then what is?" Deputy Yassin Jaber told the Weekly on the sidelines of a demonstration denouncing the annexation. "A few weeks ago, Israeli troops bulldozed homes in the village. They have been using all kinds of pressure on its inhabitants and now they have placed barbed wire around the village. The people cannot enter and leave."
Hizbullah has denounced the annexation of the village and vowed to continue its struggle. "Israel has been suffering major military setbacks at the hands of the resistance. It has run out of military tactics and thinks that it can weaken us by annexing the village," Hizbullah's official in south Lebanon, Sheikh Nabil Kawook, told the Weekly. "But we will not remain quiet."
Hizbullah Deputy Mohamed Raad described Israel's move as a "manifestation of the upcoming Israeli election".
For years, the IDF has prohibited cars to enter the area. Residents of the village have to make the three-kilometre journey to the Kfar Tibnit border crossing on foot, along an overgrown track. "What do you want us to do?" one resident screamed. "Our children go to schools in Nabatiyeh [which is not in the zone]. They will have to walk a long distance and then take a taxi to their schools. This is not a way of life. What if one of us gets sick at night?"
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to bring in some food and medicine to the inhabitants over the weekend, but it is only a matter of time before most of the remaining residents abandon the village. According to Lebanese sources, depopulating the village may be one of Israel's objectives. "Israel thinks that the civilians there have been assisting the resistance," one observer told the Weekly. "If it empties the village, Israeli troops will be able to strike freely at resistance guerrillas as they attempt to launch attacks."
Lebanon's Premier Al-Hoss said Israel is challenging the international community with this latest aggression and that Lebanon has sent a letter of protest to the United Nations Security Council. But, judging by the previous lack of reaction to Israeli aggressions against Lebanon, the international community is expected to remain silent. It is unlikely Israel will come under any pressure to reverse its decision regarding Arnoun. Furthermore, the American ambassador to Lebanon, David Satterfield, has already downplayed Lebanon's complaints. "The monitoring group is the best forum for discussing the conflict in the south," Satterfield said.