DAMASCUS: Lebanon is under military attack. For the past week, the country has endured a brutal campaign of violence at the hands of Israeli planes and artillery. The Lebanese government estimates that roughly 300 people have lost their lives since Israel began its attacks, which have essentially dismantled the public infrastructure of the country.
The latest round of fighting began on Tuesday, July 11, when two Israeli soldiers were captured by Hezbollah, the armed political organization credited liberating southern Lebanon from Israeli occupation in 2000. In return for the release of the Israeli soldiers, Hezbollah demanded the release of the hundreds of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails who in some cases have remained in prison for over 20 years.
In response to the request for a prisoner exchange by Hezbollah, Israel has launched an all-out war on the Lebanese people, inflicting far-reaching misery, and capturing the world’s attention.
Israeli missile strikes have knocked out most of the bridges in the country, all three runways of Beirut’s international airport, major highways, power plants, cell phone communication towers and sea ports throughout the country.
Countless thousands are currently fleeing the Israeli military bombardment of Lebanon. All land borders to Syria have become escape routes for Lebanese and foreign nationals attempting to flee the country. The majority of Lebanese who are unable to escape are faced with an unprecedented attack on Lebanon’s civilian population, national infrastructure and political resistance movements.
Witnessing a country’s destruction
For the first week of the violence, I remained in Beirut as a witness to vast human suffering imposed on the nation. From the Hamra district in central Beirut, explosions could be heard throughout the night as the blaring sirens of ambulances racing through the city with the countless wounded in the Israeli missile strikes illustrated the realities of full-out war.
Witnessing Israel’s attack on Lebanon is unforgettable. On the second night of bombing I called to check on friends in the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj el-Barajneh, within the southern suburbs of Beirut—Hezbollah’s political stronghold—which was under attack.
“People in the camp are remembering the 1982 Israeli invasion,” said Samir Mahmoud, a Palestinian refugee, “although what we experienced throughout the civil war and past invasions gives us strength to continue.”
Beirut’s southern suburbs have become a rubble-strewn ghost town. After three days of consistent bombing, a friend from the area fled the bombing to stay at my Beirut apartment.
“Hezbollah is winning!” exclaimed my friend Mohammed. “They aren’t an official military army, but they are professional and have been consistently hitting Israeli military targets.”
Despite Hezbollah’s Islamic origins, many secular Lebanese that I have gotten to know in my previous visits to Beirut support and respect the armed political party.
In an attempt to crush Hezbollah, Israel has imposed a full-out land, air and naval siege on Lebanon, as the bombings the Beirut international airport, all major highways and the blockade of all naval traffic have isolated Lebanon completely.
Throughout the first three days of bombing I placed numerous unanswered phone calls to the Canadian Embassy in Beirut in an attempt to register my presence in Lebanon. It seemed that Canadian officials decided to take a vacation in the face of the Israeli assault, perhaps reflecting the Canadian governments’ position on Israeli attack.
In the increasing terror of Israeli missile strikes on Lebanon, I, along with thousands of others, decided to flee as the bombs began to strike closer to central Beirut. As major roads leading out of Lebanon have been targets of Israeli military strikes, the land route to Syria was jarring.
As we drove to Syria in a crammed taxi from Beirut at maximum speed down Lebanon’s northern highways, we sped past various bombing sites, including the main commercial ports of Beirut and Tripoli. The Syrian border was chaos, filled with thousands of Lebanese fleeing their homeland. After hours of line-ups and refugee queues, we arrived in Syria.
Speeding down the Syrian highways to Damascus, the Lebanese radio stated news that the northern Lebanese highway—the highway we had just taken to flee—had been hit by Israeli missiles.
Refugees in their own land
Throughout the first days and nights of Israel’s attack, military planes buzzed in the skies over the capital and missiles hit Beirut’s southern suburbs, creating widespread destruction to Hezbollah’s urban political base.
In Haret Hreik, an area in south Beirut, many housing complexes, local stores, gas stations and roads have been obliterated by air strikes. In the capital’s centre, refugees fleeing the bombardment tell stories of terror. City parks have become refugee camps for the thousands fleeing the affected areas.
“Israel is hitting anywhere and everywhere in our neighborhoods,” shouted a refugee sleeping in Sanayeh Garden, a public park in the central Hamra district of Beirut. “Our situation is rotten—since the beginning of the bombing we have been going from one place to the other, moving with all of our children.”
Sanayeh Garden is one of many places of refuge for the thousands of internal refugees of Lebanon. Masses of people are sleeping in the open air, between mattresses on the dirt and Israeli warplanes in the sky. Last week I shared cigarettes and tea with refugees in Sanayeh Garden in Beirut, discussing the realities of their predicament and their perspectives on the war.
“I have a question to ask Bush. Where is the democracy he talks about?” stated another internally displaced refugee. “Thousands of us are fleeing south Beirut, running away from the random bombings that are hitting the women, the children and the elderly. How does the U.S. still encourage the democracy of Israel, the same one that is doing this to us Lebanese today and that stole Palestine?”
“We are now living in a miserable situation. Personally, I don’t have anywhere to sleep,” explained one refugee named Ali from southern Beirut. He joked: “Bush, can I maybe come and sleep at your place? Or maybe you can come and take my place and sleep here and then you will really understand the facts on the ground in Lebanon today.”
Civilians in the middle
“The last update we have from the Lebanese authorities suggests 65,000 people could be displaced,” stated Hicham Hassan, spokesperson of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Beirut in a recent interview. “It’s now a more difficult situation because bombings have increased and there’s little information available. People are stranded, and villages in the south are isolated from one another and the rest of the country.”
Southern Lebanon, occupied by Israel until 2000, has been worst hit by the Israeli military assault. Towns such as Nabatiyeh, Khiam and Tyre have experienced widespread destruction and death.
Multiple targeted killings of Lebanese civilians have taken place in southern Lebanon.
On Saturday, July 16, 21 civilians were killed in a one-minute massacre when Israeli warplanes bombed a bus carrying refugees near the city of Tyre–after they were told by the Isreali military to evacuate. This targeted killing was widely reported on by the Arabic press, including detailed coverage on Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya TV. The Red Cross of Lebanon also confirmed the civilian bus massacre.
Simply put, the Canadian government has reacted quickly to the war on Lebanon by offering their full political support to Israel in the first days of the military offensive. International political support from Canada and the U.S. is crucial to Israeli military actions in Lebanon, as it provides political legitimacy to a military campaign that, from the ground in Lebanon, could be called state terrorism.
Stefan Christoff is a regular contributor to the Electronic Intifada, media activist and community organizer in Montreal involved with the Lebanon solidarity project Tadmaon!. This article originally appeard in the Montreal based weekly newspaper the Montreal Mirror. You can reach Stefan at: christoff[at]resist.ca