THE HANDSTAND

JULY 2006

update : A Week with R.Fisk:
Published: 23 July 2006
Sunday 16 July
It is the first time I have actually seen a missile in this war. They fly
too fast - or you are too busy trying to run away to look for them - but
this morning, Abed and I actually see one pierce the smoke above us. "Habibi (my friend)!" he cries, and I start screaming "Turn the car round, turn it round" and we drive away for our lives from the southern suburbs. As we turn the corner there is a shattering explosion and a mountain of grey smoke blossoming from the road we have just left. What happened to the men and women we saw running for their lives from that Israeli rocket? We do not know. In air raids, all you see is the few square yards around you. You get out and you survive and that is enough.
I go home to my apartment on the Corniche and find that the electricity is
cut. Soon, no doubt, the water will be cut. But I sit on my balcony and
reflect that I am not crammed into a filthy hotel in Kandahar or Basra but
living in my own home and waking each morning in my own bed. Power cuts and fear and the lack of petrol now that Israel is bombing gas stations mean that the canyon of traffic which honks and roars outside my home until two in the morning has gone. When I wake in the night, I hear the birds and the wash of the Mediterranean and the gentle brushing of palm leaves.
I went to buy groceries this evening. There is no more milk but plenty of
water and bread and cheese and fish. When Abed pulls up to let me out of the car, the man in the 4x4 behind us puts his hand permanently on the horn, and when I get out of Abed's car, he mouths the words "Kess uchtak" at me. "Fuck your sister." It is the first time I have been cursed in this war. The Lebanese do not normally swear at foreigners. They are a polite people. I hold my hand out, palm down and twist it palm upwards in the Lebanese manner, meaning "what's the problem?". But he drives away. Anyway, I don't have a sister.
Monday 17 July
The phones are still working and my mobile chirrups like a budgerigar. Too many of the calls are from friends who want to know if they should flee Beirut or flee Lebanon or from Lebanese who are outside Lebanon and want to know if they should return. I can hear the bombs rumbling across Hizbollah's area of the southern suburbs but I cannot answer these questions. If I advise friends to stay and they are killed, I am responsible. If I tell them to leave and they are killed in their cars, I am responsible. If I tell them to come back and they die, I am responsible. So I tell them how dangerous
Lebanon has become and tell them it is their decision. But I feel great sorrow for them. Many have been refugees four times in 24 years. Today I am called by a Lebanese woman with Lebanese and Iranian citizenship and one child with a US passport and another with only a Lebanese passport. Her situation is hopeless. I suggest she travels to the Christian mountains around Faraya and try to find a chalet. It will be safe there. I hope. I come back from Kfar Chim where part of an Israeli missile or an aircraft wing has just partially decapitated the driver of a car. He looked so tragic, his head lolling forward in the driver's seat, just looking at all
the blood splashing down his body on to the floor. Abed was getting spooked because I spent too long at the scene. The Israelis always come back.
"Habibi, you took too long. Never stay that long again!" He is right. The
Israelis did come back and bombed the Lebanese army. Now my housemaid Fidele is spooked. She thinks it is too dangerous to travel from the Christian district of Beirut to my home since the Israelis blew the top off the local lighthouse 400 metres from my front door. Fidele is from Togo and makes fantastic pizzas (I recommend her Pizza Togolaisi to anyone) so I send Abed off to pick up her up and bring her to my home for one hour. She puts my dirty clothes in the washing machine, and after five minutes the power goes off and we have to take them all out and try again tomorrow.
Tuesday 18 July
At 3.45am, I wake to the sound of tank tracks and a big military motor
heaving away in the darkness. I go downstairs to find that the Lebanese army has positioned an American-made armoured personnel carrier in the car park opposite my home. It has been placed strategically under some palm trees, as if this will stop Israeli aircraft from spotting it. I don't like this at all and nor does my landlord, Mustafa, who lives downstairs. The Lebanese army is now an occasional target for the Israelis and this little behemoth looks like a palm tree disguised as a tank. Later in the morning, I call a general in the army who is a friend of mine and army operations calls me back to check the location. It takes an hour before they find the car park on their maps. Then I receive another call telling me that the APC is next to my home to prevent the Hizbollah from using the car park to launch another missile at an Israeli ship. The empty American Community School is just up my road.
The Lebanese army is defending us. The first French warship arrives to pick up French citizens fleeing Lebanon. It steams proudly past my balcony. Many French naval vessels are named after great military leaders, and this particular anti-submarine frigate is called the Jean-de-Vienne. I pad off to consult my little library of French history
books. Jean de Vienne, it turns out, was a 14th-century French admiral who raided the Sussex town of Rye and the Isle of Wight and who was killed - oh lordy, lordy - fighting in the Crusades against the Muslim Turks. A suitable ship to start France's evacuation of the ancient Crusader port of Beirut.
Wednesday 19 July
Now that the Israelis are destroying whole apartment blocks in the Shia
southern suburbs - there is a permanent umbrella of smoke over the seafront, stretching far out into the Mediterranean - tens of thousands of Shia Muslims have come to seek sanctuary in the undamaged part of Beirut, in the parks and schools and beside the sea. They walk back and forth outside my home, the women in chadors, their bearded husbands and brothers silently looking at the sea, their children playing happily around the palm trees.
They speak to me with anger about Israel but choose not to discuss the depth of cynicism of the Shia Hizbollah who provoked Israel's brutality by
capturing two of its soldiers. As well as the Hizbollah, the Israelis are now targeting food factories and trucks and buses - not to mention 46
bridges - and the bin men are now reluctant to pick up the rubbish skips
each night for fear their innocent rubbish truck is mistaken for a missile
launcher. So no rubbish collection this morning.
The local Beirut papers are filled with photographs that would never be seen in the pages of a British paper: of decapitated babies and women with no legs or arms or of old men in bits. Israel's air raids are promiscuous and - when you see the results as we now do with our own eyes - obscene. No doubt Hizbollah's equally innocent civilian victims in Israel look like this but the slaughter in Lebanon is on an infinitely more terrible scale. The Lebanese look at these pictures and see them on television - as does the rest of the Arab world - and I wonder how many of them are provoked to think of another 9/11 or 7/7 or whatever the next date will be.
What does war do to people? Later, I am talking to an Austrian journalist and idly ask what her father does. "He drinks," she says. Why? "Because his father was killed at Stalingrad."
I walk across with tea for the soldiers on the APC in the car park. They are all from Baalbek, Shia Muslims. They would never open fire on a Hizbollah missile crew. Then I return home from another visit to the southern suburbs and find they have gone, along with their behemoth. The first good news of the day. The minister of finance holds a press conference to talk of the billions of dollars of damage being done to Lebanon by Israel's air raids. "We have had pledges of aid from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar," he proudly announces. "And from Syria and Iran?" the man from Irish radio asks, naming Hizbollah's two principal supporters in the Muslim world. "Nothing," the minister replies dismissively.
Thursday 20 July
A bad day for messages. Phone calls from the States to tell me I am an
anti-Semite for criticising Israel. Here we go again. To call decent folk
anti-Semites is soon going to make anti-Semitism respectable, I tell the
callers before asking them to tell the Israeli air force to stop killing civilians. Then a fax from a Jewish friend in California to tell me that a
man called Lee Kaplan - "a columnist for the Israel National News", whatever that is - has condemned me in print for developing a "high-paid speaking career among anti-Semites". Unlike Benjamin Netanyahu and many others I can think of, I never take money for lecturing - ever - but to smear the thousands of ordinary Americans who listen to me as anti-Semites is outrageous.
Another fax from the editor of the forthcoming paperback edition of my book, apologising for bothering me at a "very difficult (sic) time" but promising to send me page proofs by DHL which is still operating to Beirut. I go downtown to check this with DHL. Yes, the man says, parcels for Lebanon are sent to Jordan and then in a truck via Damascus to Beirut. A truck, I say to myself. Ouch.
Friday 21 July
The Israelis have just bombed Khiam prison. An interesting target since this was the jail in which Israel's former proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, used to torture male prisoners by attaching electrodes to their penises and female prisoners by electrocuting their breasts. When the Israeli army retreated in 2000, the Hizbollah turned the prison into a museum. Now the evidence of the SLA's cruelty has been erased. Another "terrorist" target. The power comes back at home at 11pm and I watch Israel's consul general, Arye Mekel, telling the BBC that Israel is "doing the Lebanese a favour" by bombing Hizbollah, insisting that "most Lebanese appreciate what we are doing". So now I understand. The Lebanese must thank the Israelis for destroying their lives and infrastructure. They must be grateful for all the air strikes and the dead children. It's as if the Hizbollah claimed that Israelis should be grateful to them for attacking Zionism. How far can self-delusion reach?
Saturday 22 July
I have coffee in my landlord's garden and he climbs an old wooden ladder
into his fig tree and brings me a plate of fruit. "Every day it gives us our
figs," he tells me. "We sit under our tree in the afternoon and with the
breeze off the sea, it is like air conditioning." I look at his little paradise of pot plants and sip my Arabic coffee from a little blue mug. We watch the warships sliding into Beirut port. "What will happen when all the
foreigners have gone?" he asks. That's what we are all asking. We shall
find out this week.

What I am watching in Lebanon each day is an outrage

By Robert Fisk in Mdeirej, Central Lebanon

The Independent 15 July 2006

The beautiful viaduct that soars over the mountainside here has become
a "terrorist" target. The Israelis attacked the international highway
from Beirut to Damascus just after dawn yesterday and dropped a bomb
clean through the central span of the Italian-built bridge ? a symbol
of Lebanon's co-operation with the European Union ? sending concrete
crashing hundreds of feet down into the valley beneath. It was the
pride of the murdered ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, the face of a
new, emergent Lebanon. And now it is a "terrorist" target.

So I drove gingerly along the old mountain road towards the Bekaa
yesterday ? the Israeli jets were hissing through the sky above me ?
turned the corner once I rejoined the highway, and found a 50ft crater
with an old woman climbing wearily down the side on her hands and
knees, trying to reach her home in the valley that glimmered to the
east. This too had become a "terrorist" target.

It is now the same all over Lebanon. In the southern suburbs ? where
the Hizbollah, captors of the two missing Israeli soldiers, have their
headquarters ? a massive bomb had blasted off the sides of apartment
blocks next to a church, splintering windows and crashing balconies
down on to parked cars. This too had become a "terrorist" target.

One man was brought out shrieking with pain, covered in blood. Another
"terrorist" target. All the way to the airport were broken bridges,
holed roads. All these were "terrorist" targets. At the airport,
tongues of fire blossomed into the sky from aircraft fuel storage
tanks, darkening west Beirut. These too were now "terrorist" targets.
At Jiyeh, the Israelis attacked the power station. This too was a
"terrorist" target.

Yet when I drove to the actual headquarters of the Hizbollah, a tall
building in Haret Hreik, it was totally undamaged. Only last night did
the Israelis manage to hit it.

So can the Lebanese be forgiven ? can anyone here be forgiven ? for
believing that the Israelis have a greater interest in destroying
Lebanon than they do in their two soldiers?

No wonder Middle East Airlines, the national Lebanese airline, put
crews into its four stranded Airbuses at Beirut airport early yesterday
and sneaked them out of the country for Amman before the Israelis
realised they were under power and leaving.

European politicians have talked about Israel's "disproportionate"
response to Wednesday's capture of its soldiers. They are wrong. What I
am now watching in Lebanon each day is an outrage. How can there be any
excuse ? any ? for the 73 dead Lebanese civilians blown apart these
past three days?

The same applies, of course, to the four Israeli civilians killed by
Hizbollah rockets. But ? please note ? the exchange rate of Israeli
civilian lives to Lebanese civilian lives now stands at one to more
than 15. This does not include two children atomised in their home in
Dweir on Thursday whose bodies cannot be found. Their six brothers and
sisters were buried yesterday, with their mother and father. Another
"terrorist" target. So was a neighbouring family with five children who
were also buried yesterday. Another "terrorist" target.

Terrorist, terrorist, terrorist. There is something perverse about all
this, the slaughter and the massive destruction and the self-righteous,
constant, cancerous use of the word "terrorist". No, let us not forget
that the Hizbollah broke international law, crossed the Israeli border,
killed three Israeli soldiers, captured two others and dragged them
back through the border fence. It was an act of calculated ruthlessness
that should never allow Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to grin
so broadly at his press conference. It has brought unparalleled tragedy
to countless innocents in Lebanon. And of course, it has led Hizbollah
to fire at least 170 Katyusha rockets into Israel.

But what would happen if the powerless Lebanese government had
unleashed air attacks across Israel the last time Israel's troops
crossed into Lebanon? What if the Lebanese air force then killed 73
Israeli civilians in bombing raids in Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and Israeli
West Jerusalem? What if a Lebanese fighter aircraft bombed Ben Gurion
airport? What if a Lebanese plane destroyed 26 road bridges across
Israel? Would it not be called " terrorism"? I rather think it would.
But if Israel was the victim, it would probably also be World War
Three.

Of course, Lebanon cannot attack Tel Aviv. Its air force comprises
three ancient Hawker Hunters and an equally ancient fleet of
Vietnam-era Huey helicopters. Syria, however, has missiles that can
reach Tel Aviv. So Syria ? which Israel rightly believes to be behind
Wednesday's Hizbollah attack ? is not going to be bombed. It is Lebanon
which must be punished.

The Israeli leadership intends to "break" the Hizbollah and destroy its
"terrorist cancer". Really? Do the Israelis really believe they can
"break" one of the toughest guerrilla armies in the world? And how?

There are real issues here. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1559 ?
the same resolution that got the Syrian army out of Lebanon ? the Shia
Muslim Hizbollah should have been disarmed. They were not because, if
the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, had tried to do so, the
Lebanese army would have had to fight them and the army would almost
certainly have broken apart because most Lebanese soldiers are Shia
Muslims. We could see the restarting of the civil war in Lebanon ? a
fact which Nasrallah is cynically aware of ? but attempts by Siniora
and his cabinet colleagues to find a new role for Hizbollah, which has
a minister in the government (he is Minister of Labour) foundered. And
the greatest danger now is that the Lebanese government will collapse
and be replaced by a pro-Syrian government which could reinvite the
Syrians back into the country.

So there's a real conundrum to be solved. But it's not going to succeed
with the mass bombing of the country by Israel. Nor the obsession with
terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.



Marwaheen Massacre

By Robert Fisk

07/16/06 "
The Independent" -- -It will be called the massacre of Marwaheen. All the civilians killed by the Israelis had been ordered to abandon their homes in the border village by the Israelis themselves a few hours earlier. Leave, they were told by loudspeaker; and leave they did, 20 of them in a convoy of civilian cars. That's when the Israeli jets arrived to bomb them, killing 20 Lebanese, at least nine of them children. The local fire brigade could not put out the fires as they all burned alive in the inferno. Another "terrorist" target had been eliminated.

Yesterday, the Israelis even produced more "terrorist" targets - petrol stations in the Bekaa Valley all the way up to the frontier city of Hermel in northern Lebanon and another series of bridges on one of the few escape routes to Damascus, this time between Chtaura and the border village of Masnaa. Lebanon, as usual, was paying the price for the Hizbollah-Israeli conflict - as Hizbollah no doubt calculated they would when they crossed the Israeli frontier on Wednesday and captured two Israeli soldiers close to Marwaheen.

But who is really winning the war? Not Lebanon, you may say, with its more than 90 civilian dead and its infrastructure steadily destroyed in hundreds of Israeli air raids. But is Israel winning? Friday night's missile attack on an Israeli warship off the coast of Lebanon suggests otherwise. Four Israeli sailors were killed, two of them hurled into the sea when a tele-guided Iranian-made missile smashed into their Hetz-class gunboat just off Beirut at dusk. Those Lebanese who had endured the fire of Israeli gunboats on the coastal highway over many years were elated. They may not have liked Hizbollah - but they hated the Israelis.

Only now, however, is a truer picture emerging of the battle for southern Lebanon and it is a fascinating, frightening tale. The original border crossing, the capture of the two soldiers and the killing of three others was planned, according to Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader who escaped assassination by the Israelis on Friday evening, more than five months ago. And Friday's missile attack on the Israeli gunboat was not the last-minute inspiration of a Hizbollah member who just happened to see the warship.

It now appears clear that the Hizbollah leadership - Nasrallah used to be the organisation's military commander in southern Lebanon - thought carefully through the effects of their border crossing, relying on the cruelty of Israel's response to quell any criticism of their action within Lebanon. They were right in their planning. The Israeli retaliation was even crueller than some Hizbollah leaders imagined, and the Lebanese quickly silenced all criticism of the guerrilla movement.

Hizbollah had presumed the Israelis would cross into Lebanon after the capture of the two soldiers and they blew up the first Israeli Merkava tank when it was only 35 feet inside the country. All four Israeli crewmen were killed and the Israeli army moved no further forward. The long-range Iranian-made missiles which later exploded on Haifa had been preceded only a few weeks ago by a pilotless Hizbollah drone aircraft which surveyed northern Israel and then returned to land in eastern Lebanon after taking photographs during its flight. These pictures not only suggested a flight path for Hizbollah's rockets to Haifa; they also identified Israel's top-secret military air traffic control centre in Miron.

The next attack - concealed by Israel's censors - was directed at this facility. Codenamed "Apollo", Israeli military scientists work deep inside mountain caves and bunkers at Miron, guarded by watchtowers, guard-dogs and barbed wire, watching all air traffic moving in and out of Beirut, Damascus, Amman and other Arab cities. The mountain is surmounted by clusters of antennae which Hizbollah quickly identified as a military tracking centre. Before they fired rockets at Haifa, they therefore sent a cluster of missiles towards Miron. The caves are untouchable but the targeting of such a secret location by Hizbollah deeply shocked Israel's military planners. The "centre of world terror" - or whatever they imagine Lebanon to be - could not only breach their frontier and capture their soldiers but attack the nerve-centre of the Israeli northern military command.

Then came the Haifa missiles and the attack on the gunboat. It is now clear that this successful military operation - so contemptuous of their enemy were the Israelis that although their warship was equipped with cannon and a Vulcan machine gun, they didn't even provide the vessel with an anti-missile capability - was also planned months ago. Once the Hetz-class boats appeared, Hizbollah positioned a missile crew on the coast of west Beirut not far from Jnah, a crew trained over many weeks for just such an attack. It took less than 30 seconds for the Iranian-made missile to leave Beirut and hit the vessel square amidships, setting it on fire and killing the sailors.

Ironically, the Israelis themselves had invited journalists on an "embedded" trip with their navy only hours earlier - they were allowed to film the ships' guns firing on Lebanon - and the moment Hizbollah hit the warship on Friday, Hizbollah's television station, Al-Manar, began showing the "embedded" film. It was a slick piece of propaganda.

The Israelis were yesterday trumpeting the fact that the missile was made in Iran as proof of Iran's involvement in the Lebanon war. This was odd reasoning. Since almost all the missiles used to kill the civilians of Lebanon over the past four days were made in Seattle, Duluth and Miami in the United States, their use already suggests to millions of Lebanese that America is behind the bombardment of their country.
 

2006 Independent News and Media Limited

Beirut Waits

By ROBERT FISK

It's about Syria. That was the frightening message delivered by Damascus yesterday when it allowed its Hizbollah allies to cross the UN Blue Line in southern Lebanon, kill three Israeli soldiers, capture two others and demand the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

Within hours, a country that had begun to believe in peace--without a single Syrian soldier left on its soil--found itself once more at war.

Israel held the powerless Lebanese government responsible--as if the sectarian and divided cabinet in Beirut can control Hizbollah. That is Syria's message. Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's affable Prime Minister, may have thought he was running the country but it is President Bashar Assad in Damascus who can still bring life or death to a land that lost 150,000 lives in 15 years of civil conflict.

And there is one certain bet that Syria will rely on; that despite all Israel's threats of inflicting "pain" on Lebanon, this war will run out of control until--as has so often happened in the past--Israel itself calls for a ceasefire and releases prisoners. Then the international big-hitters will arrive and make their way to the real Lebanese capital Damascus, not Beirut--and appeal for help.

That is probably the plan. But will it work? Israel has threatened Lebanon's newly installed infrastructure and Hizbollah has threatened Israel with further conflict. And therein lies the problem; to get at Hizbollah, Israel must send its soldiers into Lebanon--and then it will lose more soldiers.

Indeed when a single Merkava tank crossed the border into Lebanon yesterday morning, it struck a Hizbollah mine, which killed three more Israelis.

Certainly Hizbollah's attack broke the United Nations rules in southern Lebanon--a "violent breach" of the Blue Line, it was called by Geir Pedersen, the senior UN official in the country--and was bound to unleash the air force, tanks and gunboats of Israel on to this frail, dangerous country. Many Lebanese in Beirut were outraged when gangs of Hizbollah supporters drove through the streets of the capital with party flags to "celebrate" the attack on the border.

Christian members of the Lebanese government were voicing increasing frustration at the Shia Muslim militia's actions--which only proved how powerless the Beirut administration is.

By nightfall, Israel's air raids had begun to spread across the country--the first civilians to die were killed when an aircraft bombed a small road bridge at Qasmiyeh--but would they go even further and include a target in Syria? This would be the gravest escalation so far and would have US as well as UN diplomats appealing for that familiar, tired quality--"restraint".

And prisoner swaps is probably all that will come of this. In January 2004, for example, Israel freed 436 Arab prisoners and released the bodies of 59 Lebanese for burial, in return for an Israeli spy and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.

As long ago as 1985, three Israeli soldiers captured in 1982 were traded for 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. So Hizbollah knows--and the Israelis know--how this cruel game is played. How many have to die before the swaps begin is a more important question.

What is also clear is that for the first time Israel is facing two Islamist enemies--in southern Lebanon and in Gaza--rather than nationalist guerrillas. The Palestinian Hamas movement's spokesmen in Lebanon yesterday denied that there was any co-ordination with Hizbollah. This may be literally true but Hizbollah timed its attack when Arab feelings are embittered by the international sanctions placed on the democratically elected Hamas government and then the war in Gaza. Hizbollah will ride the anger over Gaza in the hope of escaping condemnation for its capture and killing of Israelis yesterday.

And there is one more little, sinister question. In past violence of this kind, Syria's power was controlled by the Hafez Assad, one of the shrewdest Arabs in modern history. But there are those--including Lebanese politicians--who believe that Bashar, the son, lacks his late father's wisdom and understanding of power. This is a country, remember, whose own Minister of Interior allegedly committed suicide last year and whose soldiers had to leave Lebanon amid suspicion that Syria had set up the murder of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, last year. All this may now seem academic. But Damascus remains, as always, the key.

Robert Fisk is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk's new book is The Conquest of the Middle East. www.counterpunch.org