What I am watching in Lebanon each day is an outrage

By Robert Fisk in Mdeirej, Central Lebanon

The Independent

Published: 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.