Summer of shelling

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

AFTER AN ISRAELI air strike in the southern suburbs of Beirut on July 28, a toppled apartment building lies in the rubble next to other destroyed buildings. -

AFTER AN ISRAELI air strike in the southern suburbs of Beirut on July 28, a toppled apartment building lies in the rubble next to other destroyed buildings. -

From the war zone in Lebanon, an account of the distress and the relief effort.

SOON after sunrise, ever since the conflict began after the Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on July 12, cars line up at the main border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. They are filled with people fleeing the brutal war that has ousted them from their land in southern Lebanon. Most of the cars are downmarket old models, but there are also the BMWs and the Mercedes Benzes. Behind the cars are buses, whose numbers have gone up of late despite Israeli warnings that it would target all heavy vehicles as they could be transporting weapons and other supplies for the Hizbollah.

While the Israeli threat of bombing large-sized vehicles is not an empty one, the increasing number of buses indicates a worsening of the situation in southern Lebanon. Along the road from Beirut to the Syrian border, on which this correspondent travelled, charred remnants of buses, four-wheel drives and a few cars can be seen. Their numbers increase after Zahle, a town close to the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley.

Israel has targeted Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley for extensive aerial bombardment. The town is a Hizbollah stronghold and houses some of its sensitive installations, including the relay tower of Al Manar Television that the Hizbollah runs. The town is famous for its historical Roman ruins, which include temples to Bachhus, Jupiter, Venus and Sun. These ruins are the venue of the acclaimed Baalbeck International Festival, which is held every year and celebrates music, dance and theatre from all over the world.

From the border, Syria's capital Damascus is less than an hour away. Always a bustling city, Damascus has been overflowing with people and vehicles since the start of hostilities. Almost 100,000 Lebanese refugees have arrived there, yet the city seems to be coping remarkably well. "I have not had to open a full-fledged refugee camp because so far there has been no requirement," Khaled Erksoussi, vice-president of the Damascus branch of the Red Crescent told Frontline. The Red Crescent has opened shelters, mainly in schools, orphanages and convents, but has had to accommodate only 3,500 people so far.

Aid workers say the initial response from the local population has been remarkable. A large number of Syrian families have opened their homes to the refugees. Consequently, the atmosphere in the Syrian capital is far from gloomy as of now. For instance, juice bars and cafeterias selling Arabic bread and Shawarma sandwiches on the popular May 29 Street x a major landmark in Damascus x are doing roaring business. Many of the consumers are Lebanese. Hotel rooms are full, partly because some of the Arab tourists who were in Lebanon when the war broke continued their "holiday" in Syria. Some of the displaced but affluent Lebanese have also taken rooms for an extended duration.

In contrast, the refugee situation inside Lebanon appears much grimmer. This is partly because the bulk of the 800,000 displaced people are estimated to be inside the country. A large number fled to Tyre, but extensive bombing of the city forced them to head further north to Beirut or the mainly Sunni city of Tripoli. A significant number, however, have been trapped in villages in the battle zone, unable to flee because of the fighting.

Many southern villages and towns are experiencing a severe humanitarx ian crisis. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a report that disposal of dead bodies has become a problem. This is because few people wish to venture out in the open fearing Israeli air strikes. For the same reason, many bodies are still trapped under the rubble of bombed-out buildings.

In Beirut, many refugees have descended on parks, while others have been accommodated in schools, which are free on account of the summer vacation. Many of the refugees appear traumatised because of the unrelenting aerial bombardment and shelling by the Israeli artillery.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based rights group, has accused Israel of using cluster bombs in a populated area x a practice that it says could violate international humanitarian law. The group says that these munitions, which break up into bomblets and spread over a wide area, were used in the border village of Blida, killing one person and injuring 12.

One of the problems associated with cluster bombs is that some of the bomblets fail to explode and can go off on impact at a later stage. "Our research in Iraq and Kosovo shows that cluster munitions cannot be used in populated areas without huge loss of civilian life," HRW executive director Kenneth Roth was quoted as saying. Experts in international law maintain that the use of cluster bombs is not banned. But they agree that there is a strong case for calling its use in populated areas a violation of international humanitarian law.

Hospitals in southern Lebanon have also reported that some of the victims of the bombing had phosphorous burn injuries. The Associated Press quoted a surgeon at the hospital in Tyre as saying that some of the patients had burns caused by phosphorus incendiary weapons. The Geneva Conventions ban the use of white phosphorous weapons against civilians and military forces deployed in civilian areas.

Aid blockade

Unlike many earlier conflicts, the conventional methods of sending aid to the affected have proved inadequate so far. This is because all aspects of transmission of aid have come under fire. Beirut airport, the country's only inx ternational airport, was bombed during the first few days of the war. Consequently, aid supplies by air have remained blocked. Road links between Syria and Lebanon have degraded significantly and Israel's threat to bomb heavy vehicles has made it difficult for trucks to carry relief to Lebanon. Aid agencies pointed out that they had difficulty finding truck drivers who would ferry aid. Besides, Israel's blockade of the Lebanese coastline has prevented relief ships from docking.

There have been reports of Red Crescent ambulances coming under attack in the south. According to the Lebanese Red Crescent Society, there have been five "security incidents" since July 12. On July 23, two of its ambulances were attacked despite bearing the medical emblem and flashing lights. It is estimated that Israeli air strikes have hit more than 10 ambulances, resulting in several civilian deaths.

With supplies hampered and safe-passages largely unavailable, the pattern of aid distribution is changing rapidly. In Beirut, the Hizbollah, known for its extensive charity network there prior to the war, has stepped in to distribute food and other essential supplies. Local non-government organisations, churches, mosques and individuals have also got involved in a much bigger way than would have otherwise been the case.

By offering stiff resistance to Israel and, on occasion, adopting offensive tactics, something which no other Arab group has done recently, the Hizbollah has gained enormous popularity among large sections in Lebanon and in the region. In Damascus, cars bearing yellow Hizbollah flags are a common sight and hoardings of Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah have been positioned at prominent intersections. The rear screens of many vehicles have Nasrallah's pictures juxtaposed with that of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

A diplomat who did not wish to be named told Frontline that three incidents in this war had boosted the Hizbollah's profile, both internally and internationally. The first was the attack on the Israeli warship in Lebanese waters using an Iranian anti-ship missile. This attack apparently jolted the Israelis, who did not envisage such an eventuality. The second was the Hizbollah rocket attacks on the Israeli industrial hub of Haifa. Israel responded with heavier air strikes and offensive ground manoeuvres in a bid to deny the Hizbollah the "launching pads" to fire its rockets. However, the effort did not yield significant results, prompting growing domestic criticism of the handling of the war by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz. The third was the Hizbollah attack on a secret Israeli command and control facility on Mount Meru.

The killing of nine Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah fighters on July 26 during the battle for the control of Bint Jbeil town once again showed the group's ability to offer serious resistance. By establishing control on Bint Jbeil, Israel hopes to cross a major hurdle in the way of establishing a "security zone" where troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) can be deployed. Ehud Olmert said Israel sought to have a security zone extending 3.2 kilometres from the Lebanese border. Some analysts have said that Israel would like to exercise its military dominance until the Litani river which empties into the Mediterranean Sea north of Tyre.

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