10 - 16 August 2006 Issue No. 807
Will never surrender
Help is blocked from reaching those who most need it, but the Lebanese endure and resist, writes Serene Assir from Beirut
CRIMINAL DESTRUCTION: Israeli air strikes have systematically targeted civilian infrastructure in a campaign that amounts to illegal collective punishment. Over 100 bridges have been destroyed in aerial bombing by Israeli war planes in the last month, including the Airport Bridge in the southern suburbs of Beirut (top left), the Damur Bridge in the south (top right), the Fidar Bridge in Halat (bottom left) and a bridge in Akkar in the north (bottom right). Because of the destruction, critical supplies of humanitarian aid are not reaching displaced civilians. A humanitarian disaster is gathering pace that could lead to a greater loss of life than Israel's brutal military offensive
It is beyond doubt, one month into Israel's rampage in Lebanon, that the dire humanitarian situation the Lebanese civilian population is enduring -- particularly though not exclusively in the south -- is intended. Not only have up to 1000 Lebanese been killed so far, but another million have been forced to leave their homes under the extreme pressure of relentless bombing. According to the United Nations, one third of the casualties and 45 per cent of the displaced have been children.
Perhaps in our destruction-saturated world, such statistics have begun to lose meaning to those at the top of the food chain. Is this why those who have survived the bombings -- miraculously, given the viciousness of Israel's daily attacks -- are being hounded even as they flee for apparently safer areas?
On the night of 7 August at least 29 people were killed and 75 injured in the massacre at the Shia district south of Beirut. Bordering the dahiye, or southern suburb of the city, it had become a refuge for those fleeing the bombing of an area mainstream media has been all too happy to refer to continually as Hizbullah's "stronghold", as though that gave the total destruction of the urban landscape some sort of legitimacy.
Now Shia residents, like their counterparts from the dahiye, have started to flee for safety in the Sanayieh Park in central Beirut, where hundreds of people from across the south of Beirut have sought a semblance of refuge out in the open. Only a semblance is offered because, according to volunteers with the Samidoun group that caters for the displaced, in 1982 Israel blew up, using vacuum bombs, a building near the very same park where then Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat was holding a meeting.
Very aware of Israel's repeated targeting of civilian infrastructure and residential areas -- all on the pretext that Hizbullah uses civilians as "human shields" -- victims of forced displacement are growing increasingly anxious as it becomes increasingly evident that there are few places for them to go. "Now, people here in Sanayieh are very worried that they too will become the targets of aerial bombing," said Ali, a volunteer with Samidoun. There is, however, an extraordinary strength of spirit among those suffering the consequences of Israel's campaign of terror in Lebanon. "We are ready. If God wills us all to die here, then so be it. People have fled far enough, enough times."
Meanwhile, the well-documented lack of water, food and basic supplies such as mattresses in areas where the displaced are living -- and even more so in the south -- remains unaddressed. "At best, there are three of us to a mattress," said Umm Ahmed, who fled with members of her immediate and extended family from the dahiye to a school in Beirut. "And meals are short. Many nights, our children go to bed hungry." Calls for donations have been met with promises, but also with genuine efforts by local civil society and the international humanitarian community to ease the strain of the bombings. Representatives of international aid agencies have lauded the efforts of local non-governmental organisations and the rapid mobilisation of volunteers in an attempt to face the escalating rampage.
However, UN aid agencies and the Lebanese Red Cross are persistently citing access as a major obstacle. Most problematic has been Israel's open threat that any moving vehicle south of the Litani River will be considered a target, effectively closing off the area to any possible movement of aid convoys. Meanwhile, addressing the shortage of essential medicines has been rendered practically impossible by Israeli demands that all convoys be uncovered. Covered convoys could presumably bear Hizbullah arms. The impact of the demand lies in the fact that many medicines, such as basic vaccines for children and insulin for diabetics, need to be transported in refrigerated trucks, or else they lose their efficacy. Hundreds of patients with chronic illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, kidney disease and diabetes are already living in unsanitary conditions, failing to meet their dietary requirements, and are unable to receive necessary treatment.
Not to mention, of course, the continuing air, land and sea blockade, rendering the question of fuel and how long it will last a crucial one. At the time of writing, it remained unclear whether Israel would grant clearance to a shipment of oil arriving from Turkey by sea to disembark. "But even if we do receive oil," said one Beirut taxi driver, "it'll run out again very soon should the embargo not end." And then there is the question of power: as electricity becomes an increasing rarity in the south, it is reported that should fuel supplies completely run out, hospitals will last a maximum of two weeks before they are forced to shut down.
Unless there is an immediate ceasefire what we are witnessing now will be dwarfed by the humanitarian crisis to come. The signal from Israel to the Lebanese population is clear. On 8 August, Israel expanded the parameters of its psychological war to include phone calls to random homes of Beirut residents, warning them that Hizbullah is to blame for the destruction of Lebanon. The intention -- to break and divide the country -- is clear.
But despite of the agony of the Lebanese, the plan is failing. Beyond the material desperation that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are suffering is a profound spirit of resistance. Sitting in a school in Beirut in which she has found temporary refuge, Fatmeh, aged 13, smiles as she tells the story of the day Israel started to bomb Bint Jbeil, her hometown in South Lebanon. "That was the day when I was supposed to start my holiday," she said. "Instead, my family decided to flee the south, and for us to make our way to Beirut. It is very, very dangerous in the south. All I brought along is the dress I wanted to wear to celebrate the end of the school year. Instead, I will wear it to celebrate the day of victory."