Published: 31 July 2006
They wrote the names of the dead children on their plastic shrouds. " Mehdi Hashem, aged seven Qana," was written in felt pen on the bag in which the little boy's body lay. "Hussein al-Mohamed, aged 12 Qana", "Abbas al-Shalhoub, aged one Qana.'' And when the Lebanese soldier went to pick up Abbas's little body, it bounced on his shoulder as the boy might have done on his father's shoulder on Saturday. In all, there were 56 corpses brought to the Tyre government hospital and other surgeries, and 34 of them were children. When they ran out of plastic bags, they wrapped the small corpses in carpets. Their hair was matted with dust, most had blood running from their noses.
You must have a heart of stone not to feel the outrage that those of us watching this experienced yesterday. This slaughter was an obscenity, an atrocity yes, if the Israeli air force truly bombs with the " pinpoint accuracy'' it claims, this was also a war crime. Israel claimed that missiles had been fired by Hizbollah gunmen from the south Lebanese town of Qana as if that justified this massacre. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, talked about "Muslim terror" threatening " western civilisation" as if the Hizbollah had killed all these poor people.
And in Qana, of all places. For only 10 years ago, this was the scene of another Israeli massacre, the slaughter of 106 Lebanese refugees by an Israeli artillery battery as they sheltered in a UN base in the town. More than half of those 106 were children. Israel later said it had no live-time pilotless photo-reconnaissance aircraft over the scene of that killing a statement that turned out to be untrue when The Independent discovered videotape showing just such an aircraft over the burning camp. It is as if Qana whose inhabitants claim that this was the village in which Jesus turned water into wine has been damned by the world, doomed forever to receive tragedy.
And there was no doubt of the missile which killed all those children yesterday. It came from the United States, and upon a fragment of it was written: "For use on MK-84 Guided Bomb BSU-37-B". No doubt the manufacturers can call it "combat-proven" because it destroyed the entire three-storey house in which the Shalhoub and Hashim families lived. They had taken refuge in the basement from an enormous Israeli bombardment, and that is where most of them died.
I found Nejwah Shalhoub lying in the government hospital in Tyre, her jaw and face bandaged like Robespierre's before his execution. She did not weep, nor did she scream, although the pain was written on her face. Her brother Taisir, who was 46, had been killed. So had her sister Najla. So had her little niece Zeinab, who was just six. "We were in the basement hiding when the bomb exploded at one o'clock in the morning,'' she said. "What in the name of God have we done to deserve this? So many of the dead are children, the old, women. Some of the children were still awake and playing. Why does the world do this to us?"
Yesterday's deaths brought to more than 500 the total civilian dead in Lebanon since Israel's air, sea and land bombardment of the country began on 12 July after Hizbollah members crossed the frontier wire, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others. But yesterday's slaughter ended more than a year of mutual antagonism within the Lebanese government as pro-American and pro-Syrian politicians denounced what they described as " an ugly crime".
Thousands of protesters attacked the largest United Nations building in Beirut, screaming: "Destroy Tel Aviv, destroy Tel Aviv," and Lebanon's Prime Minister, the normally unflappable Fouad Siniora, called US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ordered her to cancel her imminent peace-making trip to Beirut.
No one in this country can forget how President George Bush, Ms Rice, and Tony Blair have repeatedly refused to call for an immediate ceasefire a truce that would have saved all those lives yesterday. Ms Rice would say only: "We want a ceasefire as soon as possible,'' a remark followed by an Israeli announcement that it intended to maintain its bombardment of Lebanon for at least another two weeks.
Throughout the day, Qana villagers and civil defence workers dug through the ruins of the building with spades and with their hands, tearing at the muck until they found one body after another still dressed in colourful clothes. In one section of the rubble, they found what was left of a single room with 18 bodies inside. Twelve of the dead were women. All across southern Lebanon now, you find scenes like this, not so grotesque in scale, perhaps, but just as terrible, for the people of these villages are terrified to leave and terrified to stay. The Israelis had dropped leaflets over Qana, ordering its people to leave their homes. Yet twice now since Israel's onslaught began, the Israelis have ordered villagers to leave their houses and then attacked them with aircraft as they obeyed the Israeli instructions and fled. There are at least 3,000 Shia Muslims trapped in villages between Qlaya and Aiteroun close to the scene of Israel's last military incursion at Bint Jbeil and yet none of them can leave without fear of dying on the roads.
And Mr Olmert's reaction? After expressing his "great sorrow", he announced that: "We will not stop this battle, despite the difficult incidents [sic] this morning. We will continue the activity, and if necessary it will be broadened without hesitation." But how much further can it be broadened? Lebanon's infrastructure is being steadily torn to pieces, its villages razed, its people more and more terrorised and terror is the word they used by Israel's American-made fighter bombers. Hizbollah's missiles are Iranian-made, and it was Hizbollah that started this war with its illegal and provocative raid across the border. But Israel's savagery against the civilian population has deeply shocked not only the Western diplomats who have remained in Beirut, but hundreds of humanitarian workers from the Red Cross and major aid agencies.
Incredibly, Israel yesterday denied safe passage to a UN World Food Programme aid convoy en route to the south, a six-truck mission that should have taken relief supplies to the south-eastern town of Marjayoun. More than three quarters of a million Lebanese have now fled their homes, but there is still no accurate figure for the total number still trapped in the south. Khalil Shalhoub, who survived amid the wreckage in Qana yesterday, said that his family and the Hashims were just too "terrified" to take the road out of the village, which has been attacked by aircraft for more than two weeks. The seven-mile highway between Qana and Tyre is littered with civilian homes in ruins and burnt-out family cars. On Thursday, the Israeli Army's Al-Mashriq radio, which broadcasts into southern Lebanon, told residents that their villages would be "totally destroyed" if missiles were fired from them. But anyone who has watched Israel's bombing these past two weeks knows that, in many cases, the Israelis do not know the location in which the Hizbollah are firing missiles, and when they do they frequently miss their targets. How can a villager prevent the Hizbollah from firing rockets from his street? The Hizbollah do take cover beside civilian houses just as Israeli troops entering Bint Jbeil last week also used civilian homes for cover. But can this be the excuse for slaughter on such a scale?
Mr Siniora addressed foreign diplomats in Beirut yesterday, telling them that the government in Beirut was now only demanding an immediate ceasefire and was not interested any longer in a political package to go with it. Needless to say, Mr Jeffrey Feltman, whose country made the bomb which killed the innocents of Qana yesterday, chose not to attend.