Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 July 2006
Issue No. 804
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Beirut burns

Israel has put the clock back several decades in Lebanon. And it only took seven days, Lucy Fielder reports

Click to view caption
Shia citizens flee their homes in southern Beirut after an Israeli raid; Journalists working in Lebanon face exceptional dangers; Lebanese civil defence members carry the bodies of 18 civilians from the southern village of Marwahin, including nine children, killed when an Israeli missile struck a car and a mini-bus

What a difference a week makes. Israel has bombed Lebanon back to the civil war era. At least a couple of hundred Lebanese civilians will never see the tortuous rebuilding effort that will have to start, again, when this tiny Mediterranean country clambers back to its feet. Lives have been snuffed out in their infancy. Lebanon's south, just six years after shaking off Israeli occupation, has witnessed apocalyptic scenes that the Lebanese prayed they would never see again. Last weekend, the only battles most Lebanese were caught up in involved the World Cup, or making ends meet.

One week, and Lebanon became once again a country of cars packed with people and belongings, of suitcases, of makeshift refuges. Some Lebanese are opening their homes to the shell-shocked displaced, others locking them firmly and setting off for Syria, the mountains or abroad for those lucky enough to have dual nationality. About half a million people lived in that dusty, deserted ghost town of Al-Dahiyeh -- Beirut's mainly Shia southern suburbs. After constant pounding by Israeli forces, the sound of bombs flattening the Hizbullah stronghold, of whole apartment buildings collapsing, have become chillingly familiar in the capital. The Israelis have blockaded the city, destroying roads, bridges, the airport and port.

In one week of Israeli attacks, 235 people have been killed, all but 27 of them civilians, and hundreds injured. Hizbullah rockets on the north of Israel have killed 25 Israelis, including 13 civilians, and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah promises his supporters more such "surprises". In Lebanon, each day brings news of civilian deaths in Israeli bombings. Whole families have been wiped out in southern Lebanon. In the village of Marwaheen, 20 people were incinerated when an Israeli missile hit their van. A spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force in the south, Milos Strugar, told Reuters they were among 100 people who went to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) centre for shelter after Israel dropped leaflets on their village giving them hours to leave. They were turned away because UNIFIL could not confirm the threat. Half the victims were children or teenagers. Israel's strikes are concentrated on areas populated by the Shia, Lebanon's largest sect and the one who bore the brunt of Israel's occupation.

Lebanon is divided over whether such deaths are Hizbullah's responsibility or Israel's. Many in the Christian and Sunni capital and northern areas are incensed at the destruction of the economy, tourism and the fragile calm that reigned this year. Their calls for Hizbullah to lay down its arms are likely to get stronger, echoing those of the world outside. Others, too are hardening their positions, either supporting Hizbullah to the end or at least hoping their vengeful, militarised southern neighbour is driven home to lick its wounds and think again.

Summer holidays ended early in Beirut this year. Schools have opened their doors and children have turned up with their parents and relatives in tow and whatever they were wearing or could carry. In this one week, Israeli bombing displaced an estimated 600,000 people, says Ayad Al-Mounzer, spokesman for the Lebanese Red Cross. "There aren't any statistics yet but these estimates are based on the populations of the areas they left," he says.

Kawkab Skaff was driven from her makeshift home in the area of Ouzai when Israel struck the airport and nearby bridge on the first night of bombing. "We were asleep in our beds when there were two explosions right by us, they were firing from the ship. The smoke from the airport was everywhere," she said at the Zahiya Qaddura School in western Ras Beirut. "We were all women and children in the houses, there was no army. They're hitting normal people." That night Skaff lost her home for the second time in her life. She fled the southern city of Tyre in 1982 when the Israelis invaded and never did get a proper house. What Israeli bombs destroyed last Thursday was a shack of corrugated iron. Her family and neighbours slept on the street the first night; then found their way to the school when it opened.

"We came out of the house and neighbours, God protect them, who had cars took us with them. Then they fired at us on our way, in vans and cars, they were killing people on the road," Skaff said. Most of the people in the schools are women and children playing in bare, fly-ridden rooms. Relief workers have mobilised to bring mattresses and essential supplies, but the volume of newcomers each day is overwhelming and some have to sleep outside at Sanayeh Gardens awaiting a place.

At Ramieh School in the Christian neighbourhood of Karantina, Soumayeh Salameh was taking care of her twin granddaughters, Maya and Lin. They and the babies' mother were evacuated from the southern suburbs' Sahel Hospital when the airport bridge over the road was bombed and the windows fell in. "There's no proper bathroom to wash them in, no clothes for them to wear," she says. Their mother is awaiting blood in the hospital over the road, but the newborns were not allowed in with her.

Hizbullah knew its capture of two Israeli soldiers and killing of eight on 12 July would prompt retaliation; it went so much further than most of the tit-for-tat border skirmishes of the past few years since Israel withdrew in 2000. But it was a shock for most Lebanese to wake up the next day to news Israel had bombed the airport and killed scores of civilians in the south. Then overnight on Thursday the southern suburbs received their first pounding, which killed three people while destroying bridges and roads. Israeli jets tore through the sound barrier over central Beirut. In the following days, the gleaming, rebuilt downtown became a ghost town. The Gulf Arab tourists the country had been banking on all year fled in the first days and took their petrodollars with them.

This ever news hungry nation is now glued to its TVs when there is electricity, radios when there is not. Bombing the fuel supply has been part of the exhaustive, systematic destruction, and blackouts are common, though in some areas more than others. Queues stretched out of petrol stations in the first few days; supermarket shelves empty rapidly of food, candles and bottled water. In a small grocer's in the central Beirut neighbourhood of Ras Al-Nabeh, the owner, Abu Othman, has stayed true to his reputation for sourcing the best local fruit and vegetables but the stock is dwindling. "We're still getting them but it's getting harder," he says. "They're shooting at the delivery vans on the road, it's getting dangerous."

Israel has bombed grain silos and food suppliers, including a dairy factory, as well as the supply roads from the breadbasket Bekaa Valley and the ruined south. There's enough food for now, but it's not clear how long it will last given the blockade has stopped the imports that make up the bulk of what the Lebanese eat.

Lead economist Sami Atallah of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies is incredulous about the scale of the devastation wrought by the bombing. "They're taking this opportunity to destroy the last 16 years of rebuilding. We're almost back to 1990, if not before," he said.

This tiny country of about three million people has a debt of $40 billion, one of the highest debts per capita in the world. Atallah said conservative estimates, after one week of bombing, put the rebuilding of the infrastructure so far at about $5 billion, which doesn't include re-housing the displaced or rebuilding the pulverised Al-Dahiyeh district. More borrowing will be unsustainable, he says.

"The whole infrastructure is in flames. The Israelis are bringing Lebanon to its knees," he said.

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