Robert Fisk: On a Red Cross mission of mercy when Israeli air force came calling

The Independent

Published: 28 July 2006

It was supposed to be a routine trip across the Lebanese killing fields for the brave men and women of the International Red Cross. Sylvie Thoral was the "team leader" of our two vehicles, a 38-year-old Frenchwoman with dark brown hair and eyes like steel. The Israelis had been informed and had given what the ICRC likes to call its "green light" to the route. And, of course, we almost died.

Trusting the Israeli army and air force, which are breaking the Geneva Conventions almost every day, is a dodgy business.

Their planes have already attacked - against all the conventions - the civil defence headquarters in Tyre, killing 20 refugees. They have twice attacked truckloads of refugees whom they themselves had ordered from their villages.

They have already attacked two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances in Qana, killing two of the three wounded patients inside and injuring all the crew - a clear and apparently deliberate breach of Chapter IV, Article 24 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

But the ICRC must put its trust in the Israeli military and so off we sped from southern Lebanon for Jezzine to the sound of gunfire, under the crumbling battlements of the crusader castle at Beaufort, through the ghostly, shattered streets of Nabatiyeh, bomb craters and crushed buildings on each side of us.

To cross the Litani river, we had to drive through the water, listening for the howl of airplane engines, one eye on the road, one on the sky. Sylvie and her comrades - Christophe Grange from France, Claire Gasser from Switzerland, Saidi Hachemi from Algeria and two Lebanese colleagues, Beshara Hanna and Edmund Khoury - drove in silence.

There were fresh bomb craters on the highway north of Nabatiyeh - the attacks had come only a few hours earlier, a fact we should have thought more about. Pieces of ordnance littered the roads, shards of wicked shrapnel, huge chunks of concrete. But we had had that all-important "green light" from Tel Aviv.

The ICRC teams may be the only saviours on the highways of southern Lebanon - their reticence in criticising anyone, including the Israelis and Hizbollah is a silence worthy of angels - although their work can attack their emotions as surely as an air strike. Only a day earlier, they had driven to the village of Aiteroun scarcely a mile from the Israeli army's disastrous assault on Bint Jbeil. In each "abandoned" village on the way, a woman would appear, then a child and then more women and the elderly, all desperate to leave.

There were perhaps 3,000 of them and, last night, Sylvie Thoral was trying to arrange permission for an evacuation convoy. The Israelis are promising the Lebanese much worse than the punishment they have already received - well over 400 Lebanese civilians dead - for Hizbollah's killing of three Israeli soldiers and the capture of two others. But still the Israelis have suggested no "green light" for Aiteroun.

"They were begging us to take them with us and we had no ability to do that," Saidi says with deep emotion. "Their eyes were filled with tears."

ICRC workers in Lebanon travel without flak jackets or helmets - their un-militarised status is something they are proud of - and driving with them in the same condition was an oddly moving experience.

They live - unlike the Israelis and their Hizbollah antagonists - by the Geneva Conventions. They believe in them when all others break the rules. But yesterday, when we reached the town of Jarjooaa, the ICRC in Beirut told us to turn back. The Israelis were bombing the road to the north and so we gingerly reversed our cars and started back down the hills to Arab Selim. The highway was empty and we had almost reached the bottom of a small valley.

I was reflecting on a conversation I had just had on my mobile phone with Patrick Cockburn, The Independent's correspondent who has just left Baghdad. Our guardian angels were working so hard, he said, that he was fearful they would form a trade union and go on strike.

That's when five vast, brown, dead fingers of smoke shot into the sky in front of us, an Israeli air-dropped bomb that exploded on the road scarcely 80 metres away with the kind of "c-crack" that comic books express so accurately, followed by the scream of a jet. If we had driven just 25 seconds faster down that road, we would all be dead.

So we retreated once more to Jarjooaa and parked under the balcony of a house where two women and three children were watching us, waving and smiling.

Sylvie was silent but I could see the rage on her face. The Israelis, it seemed, had made an "error". They had misread the route - or the number - of our little convoy. "How can we work like this? How on earth can we do our work?" Sylvie asked with a mixture of anger and frustration. On all the roads yesterday, I saw only three men whom I suspect were Hizbollah - no respecters of the Geneva Conventions they - driving at high speed in a battered Volvo. They can cross the rivers of Lebanon at will - just as we did - by circling the bomb craters and crossing the rivers. So what was the point in blowing up 46 of Lebanon's road bridges?

An old man approached us carrying a silver tray of glasses and a pot of scalding tea. Generous to the end, under constant air attack, these fearful Lebanese were offering us their traditional hospitality even now, as the jets wheeled in the sky above us. They asked us in to the house they had refused to leave and I realised then that these kind Lebanese people - unarmed, unconnected to Hizbollah - were the real resistance here. The men and women who will ultimately save Lebanon.

But before we abandoned our journey and before Sylvie and her team and I set off back to their base in the far and dangerous south of Lebanon, a man carrying a bag of vegetables walked up to Beshara Hanna. "Please move your cars away from my home," he said. "You make it dangerous for us all."

And the shame of this shook me at once. The Israeli attack on the Qana ambulances - their missiles plunging through the red crosses on the roofs - had contaminated even our own vehicles. He was just one man. But for him, the Israelis had turned the Red Cross - the symbol of hope on our roofs and the sides of our vehicles - into a symbol of danger and fear.

The laws of war

The laws of war, as the Geneva Conventions are sometimes known, often may seem like a lesson in absurdity. But for centuries countries have adhered to central principles of combat.

At the start of this conflict, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said: "Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians."

The rules of war state:

* Wars should be limited to achieving the political goals that started the war (and should not include unnecessary destruction).

* Wars should be ended as quickly as possible.

* People and property should be protected against unnecessary destruction and hardship.

The laws are meant to :

* Protect both combatants and non-combatants from unnecessary suffering.

* Safeguard human rights of those who fall into the hands of the enemy: prisoners of war, the wounded, the sick and civilians.

* Prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians. But no war crime is committed if a bomb mistakenly hits a residential area.

* Combatants that use civilians or property as shields are guilty of violations of laws of war.