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"What in the name of God have we done to deserve this?"
War crimes in Lebanon

August 11, 2006 | Page 7

ALAN MAASS reports on the toll of Israel's war on Lebanon--and the threat that the worst is yet to come.

THE TERRIBLE symbol of the Israeli onslaught in Lebanon is the dozens of bodies--men, women, children, infants--excavated from a demolished building in the village of Qana.

At least 28 people--initial reports estimated twice this number--died in the early morning hours of July 30 when Israeli missiles slammed into a three-story house on the outskirts of the town. Two extended families, the Shalhoubs and Hashems--too poor and too fearful to make the seven-mile journey over demolished roads to the port city of Tyre--had taken refuge there.

"What in the name of God have we done to deserve this?" survivor Nejwah Shalhoub said to Independent reporter Robert Fisk from her hospital bed. "So many of the dead are children, the old, women. Some of the children were still awake and playing. Why does the world do this to us?"

As painful as the details of the Qana massacre are, they are by now only a small chapter in the catastrophe Israel is causing in Lebanon.

As of early August, Lebanese authorities said that at least 1,000 people had been killed in Israel's assault--with civilians accounting for the vast majority of victims. This body count is almost certainly an underestimate, since whole villages have been cut off from all communications by the onslaught, and untold numbers of dead lie uncounted in the rubble of buildings demolished by missile strikes.

By contrast, the number of Israeli dead is well below 100, and most of these casualties were members of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), killed in combat.

Israeli air strikes and artillery volleys flattened homes and apartment buildings across Lebanon, and destroyed roads, bridges, power facilities, gas stations and factories that produce milk, pharmaceuticals and other essential goods.

As August wore on, the threat of greater violence loomed as the IDF stepped up attacks with ground forces. Despite the mounting death toll, Israeli officials vowed to eliminate the threat posed by Hezbollah, the political organization whose armed fighters have defended Southern Lebanon against Israel for a generation.

With the potential of worse violence to come, untold numbers of people faced the same deadly dilemma as the victims of Qana--travel on roads continually bombed by the IDF or stay behind in ruined villages, with supplies of food dwindling and still vulnerable to Israeli attack.

By early August, the number of Lebanese who had fled for their lives was nearing 1 million--some one-quarter of the country's population. The refugees end up in makeshift camps in and around Beirut, their future is uncertain. "I don't want to die," 4-year-old Jamal told a reporter for Britain's Independent newspaper. "I want to go to school." Another child nearby asked, "Mommy, what is a massacre?"

International relief organizations warned of a humanitarian crisis. At the beginning of August, for example, air strikes against bridges along the main highway linking Beirut to Syria stalled a United Nations (UN) truck convoy carrying 150 tons of relief supplies.

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ACCORDING TO Israel and its defenders in Washington, all this devastation should be blamed on Hezbollah.

On July 12, Hezbollah fighters carried out a border raid, killing several Israeli soldiers and capturing two others, who the group hoped to trade for Hezbollah fighters held in Israeli jails.

Israel seized on the operation as a pretext for launching a long-planned war aimed at destroying Hezbollah, which led the successful resistance movement that drove Israel out of Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation. Once Israel began its air campaign, Hezbollah made good on its threat and launched volleys of rockets at northern Israel, reaching as far as the port city of Haifa.

According to the priorities of the Israeli and U.S. governments, the lives of two captured Israeli soldiers are worth 1,000 Lebanese killed in three weeks of air strikes, at least as many injured and maimed, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote in a column, "How much longer will the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers be allowed to justify the kidnapping of the entire nation of Lebanon?...How much longer will we continue to believe the story of this attacked attacker, which practices terrorism because it has the right to defend itself from terrorism?"

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SET AGAINST this backdrop, the images of the Qana massacre provoked fury around the world.

Most of the victims weren't killed in the initial blast, but were buried alive and suffocated in the rubble. At dawn, Red Cross workers tried to make it to the village with rescue equipment, but had to turn back three times because of Israeli shelling.

The aftermath was a nightmare unlike anything the reporters who covered it had seen. "[A]nother child was pulled from under the rubble, and another followed, and then another," reported the Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. "You go a little crazy when you see little body after little body coming up out of the ground. I looked around me, and all I could see in the house was the detritus of their short lives--big plastic bags filled with clothes, milk cans, plastic toys and a baby carriage."

These fragments of ordinary life are all anyone found in Qana--despite the initial IDF claim, immediately taken up by CNN and other U.S. cable news networks, that Hezbollah fighters had located a rocket launcher in the village. Within days, the IDF had to admit that it couldn't prove its charge, and human rights organizations confirmed that their investigations found no sign of launchers.

Indeed, the kind of missiles being fired at Israeli cities by Hezbollah can't be launched from inside buildings without causing the instant death of the launch crew and the destruction of the missile itself. Yet Israeli attacks have leveled thousands of buildings classified as "terrorist infrastructure."

Anger at the Qana attack erupted in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, with thousands of people turning out in the city's main square. A group of demonstrators surrounded the offices of the UN, smashing windows and demanding action.

Supposedly under pressure from the U.S. government, Israeli officials promised a 48-hour "suspension" of air strikes while international investigators gathered evidence in Qana. But within hours of a U.S. official announcing the supposed halt in bombing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself declared, "There is no ceasefire, and there will be no ceasefire in the coming days"--and Israeli jets struck new targets in Southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, as Independent journalist Robert Fisk wrote, "[T]here was no doubt of the missile which killed all those children yesterday. It came from the United States, and upon a fragment of it was written: "'For use on MK-84 Guided Bomb BSU-37-B.'"

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QANA IS one slaughter among many. Five days after the atrocity, on August 3, an Israeli air strike--supposedly targeting "terrorist supply routes" near the Syrian border--murdered 28 farmworkers loading fruit and vegetables in the village of Qaa.

IDF spokespeople claim Israeli forces are trying to reduce civilian casualties--for example, by sending soldiers into villages on the border and dropping leaflets from planes to warn of impending attacks.

But this only shows how Israel's assault is meant to terrorize the Lebanese population as a whole. For example, according to the Washington Post, a village along the border with Israel--predominantly Sunni Muslim, and thus not a stronghold of Hezbollah, with its base among the Shia--has received a daily visit from an Israeli solider, yelling his message through a loudspeaker: "Get out of this town, or we'll bring the houses down on your head."

In early August, press reports described a "fierce fight for every yard" as Israel's ground offensive in portions of Southern Lebanon began to escalate.

A few days earlier, after Olmert declared that a lull in rockets fired at northern Israel was evidence that air strikes had succeeded in wiping out Hezbollah, the resistance group responded by launching its largest-yet number of rockets at Israel.

As Israel carried out smaller-scale raids in apparent preparation for the long-expected ground assault, Hezbollah fighters were able to inflict far greater casualties than expected, and Israeli forces faced fierce battles as soon as they tried to cross the border.

But this military success for Hezbollah takes place against the backdrop of the much wider killing and devastation of Israel's assault. "Israel says they've destroyed the infrastructure of Hezbollah," the resident of one southern village told the Washington Post. "What has been destroyed are the houses, the lives of civilians, the bridges and the roads."

Throughout Lebanon, anger and bitterness at the Israeli war is directed equally at the U.S. government. The claims of Bush administration officials that the U.S. was seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict fooled no one, because the truth is so obvious.

"Never has the U.S. so blatantly and openly endorsed an Israeli aggression," author and veteran activist Gilbert Achcar said in an interview in the British magazine Socialist Outlook. "The Israeli army is doing the military work while the U.S. is doing the diplomatic work, blocking ceasefire resolutions and buying Israel the time needed to fulfill its military objectives, while supplying it with the needed weaponry."

People across the Middle East have drawn this conclusion. On August 4, more than 100,000 people took to the streets in Baghdad for a demonstration called by radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr to show solidarity with the Lebanese and protest the Israeli-U.S. assault.

Protesters pointed out to reporters that the same weapons used against Iraqis during Operation Shock and Awe were being dropped on the Lebanese--only from Israeli warplanes.

With the threat of Israel escalating its war on Lebanon, the need for U.S. activists to speak out against the slaughter--and Washington's support for it--is urgent.

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