Robert Fisk in Beirut: 'If our Prime Minister is crying, what are we to do?'

The Independent

Published: 17 July 2006

You could see the Israeli missiles coming through the clouds of smoke, hurtling like thunderbolts into the apartment blocks of Ghobeiri, the crack of the explosions so loud that my ears are still singing hours later as I write this report.

Yes, I suppose you could call this a "terrorist" target, for here in these mean, fearful streets is - or rather was - the Hizbollah headquarters. Even the movement's propaganda television station, Al-Manar, lay a pancaked ruin in the street, its broadcasts still being transmitted from the station's bunker beneath the rubble. But what of the tens of thousands of people who live here?

The few who were not lying in their basements ran shrieking through the streets - not gunmen, but women with screaming children, families holding suitcases, desperate to leave the heaps of broken buildings, entire apartment blocks smashed to bits, the roadways covered in smashed balconies and torn electrical wires. "You don't have to help the resistance," Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, told the Lebanese on television last night. "The resistance is on the front line and the Lebanese are behind them."

Untrue, of course. It is the Lebanese - and their 130 dead, almost all civilians - who are also on the front line. In Israel, 24 have been killed, 15 of them civilians. So the exchange rate for death in this filthy war is now approximately one Israeli to five Lebanese. So many Lebanese have now fled Beirut for Tripoli in the north of Lebanon, or for the Bekaa Valley in the east - or to Syria - that Beirut, where one and a half million people live, is a ghost city, its remaining residents sitting in their homes amid the hopelessness of all those who believed that this country was at last emerging from the shadows of its 15-year civil war. It was Nasrallah who said that there are "more surprises to come", and the Lebanese fear that the Israelis, too, have some more surprises for them.

I watched one of these from my sea-front balcony at dusk on Saturday, an American-made Apache helicopter turning three times over the Mediterranean before firing a single missile - perfectly visible, with smoke pouring from the tail - that smacked into Beirut's brand new lighthouse on the Corniche in a cloud of brown muck. So what was this for? Another "terrorist" target, I suppose. Like the gas stations bombed in the Bekaa Valley. Like the convoy of 20 civilians incinerated in an Israeli air-raid on Saturday after being ordered - by the Israelis themselves - to leave their home village on the border.

Last night, Hizbollah's missiles - after killing 10 Israelis in Haifa - were falling on the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, setting the forests alight, and on the Israeli city of Acre. The Syrians warned of an "unlimited" response if Israel attacked them - the Israelis have been saying, untruthfully, that Syrian troops and Iranians are present in Lebanon, helping Hizbollah in their battle - and the preposterous response of the G8 summit was greeted with despair. Tony Blair, who is now also, it seems, the Minister of Root Causes, believes Syria and Iran are behind the original Hizbollah attack. He is right. But it is to Damascus that the West will have to go to switch this dirty war off.

Certainly, the powerless Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, cannot do so. With his government accused by Israel of responsibility for Wednesday's capture of two Israeli soldiers - a claim as preposterous as it is wrong - he went on television in tears to appeal to the United Nations to arrange a ceasefire for his "disaster-stricken nation". The Lebanese appreciated the tears, but those tears are unlikely to have had President Bush shaking in his boots. Churchill in 1940, Siniora - a sincere and good man, uncorrupted by Lebanese politics - is not. "If our Prime Minister is crying," one Lebanese woman astutely pointed out to me yesterday, "what is the civilian population of our country supposed to do?"

But where are the other supposed political titans of Lebanon? What is Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri - who rebuilt the Lebanon which Israel is now destroying - doing in Kuwait, chatting to the Kuwaitis about his country's predicament? The Kuwaiti army is scarcely going to come to defend Lebanon. Why isn't Hariri the son on his private jet to the G8 summit in St Petersburg to demand of President Bush that he protect the democratically-elected government and the nation he praised for its "cedar revolution" last year? Or doesn't democracy matter when Israel is smashing Lebanon? Answer: no, it doesn't.

UN Security Council Resolution 1559 demanded a Syrian retreat from Lebanon - which was accomplished - but it also demanded the disarming of Hizbollah, which was definitely not accomplished. Many here suspected that 1559, designed by the French and the Americans, was intended to weaken Lebanon and prepare it for a peace treaty with Israel. Well, not any more. It was the Lebanese President, Emile Lahoud, who still cravenly follows Syria's line - he is, after all, Syria's man - who said yesterday that Lebanon "will never surrender". Lahoud as Churchill. There is something obscene here.

Nasrallah, meanwhile, told the Israelis that: "If you do not want to play by rules, we can do the same." It was a grim little threat that was obviously meant to counter Ehud Olmert's equally grim little threat that there would be "far-reaching consequences" for the missile attack on Haifa. Nasrallah's televised argument - that Hizbollah originally wished to confine all casualties to the military - will not wash with Israel, but may encourage those many Lebanese who were originally outraged by Hizbollah's attack across the border on Wednesday, only to be silenced by the cruelty of Israel's response.

"This is the last struggle of the 'umma'," Nasrallah said, the "umma" being the Arab "homeland". Alas, that is what the Arab leaders said when they joined Lawrence of Arabia's battle against the Ottoman empire in the First World War. It is always the "last struggle".

The weapons of war

Fajr-3 missile

An Iranian-built rocket with range of 45km which can carry a 45kg warhead. Israel accused Hizbollah of firing 240mm Fajr-3 missiles against Haifa. Iran denies supplying the missiles to Hizbollah

Fajr-5 rocket

Longer-range version of Fajr-3 that can strike targets up to 72km away

Raad missile

Iranian-built missile with range of 120km. Could reach central Israel. Israelis accused Hizbollah of firing Raad ("Thunder") missiles yesterday. Hizbollah said last week it had fired Raad for the first time

Katyusha

Previously the Hizbollah missile of choice, the Russian-designed Katyushas have a range of 22km and variable accuracy. Israel accused Syria of supplying Hizbollah with a longer-range model

Kassem

Rockets with range of up to 10km, used by Hamas guerrillas in Palestinian-ruled Gaza. Israeli town of Sderot has been a frequent target of the notoriously inaccurate missiles

F-16 fighter

The US-made "fighting Falcon" is a multi-role fighter which has been dropping quarter-ton bombs on targets in Lebanon