“You’re just a kid,” scoffed nonogenarian Ahmed Yehya al-Hajj when I told him I was sixty years old. “I have sons older than you and a grandson over fifty.”
Ahmed is fortunate to be alive, and not just because of his age. He was visitiing one of his many offspring in the village of Houla when the house was struck by an Israeli missile. First reports were that as many as sixty people may have died, but in fact there was only one fatality and several very serious injuries, some permanent. Still bad enough, for those affected.
The survivors showed me the remnants of the missile. They also shared the remnants of their hopes and dreams. Newlyweds had been living in the house, their furniture and wedding gifts now part of the rubble. Were there fighters in the building? No, just civilians, all members of the al-Hajj family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the same thing from different from different families in different places at different times. Is there a vast conspiracy among the million victims to pretend that they are all civilians? I doubt it. The more obvious and likely explanation is that civilian targets were the rule and military ones the exception.
On the ground across the street was one of the many destroyed water tanks that had been atop a house. Denial of access to water was a major strategic goal of the Israeli military. In most of the hundreds of towns and villages of the south, thousands of these tanks became targets. In Houla, the four main water towers were among the first casualties of the invasion. Pumps, generators and major plumbing arteries had also been targeted.
Of course, water was not the only target. Electricity, roads, bridges, schools and occasionally even hospitals and ambulances had come under attack. Israel’s defense is that these facilities get used by Hezbollah. That’s true, but if Hezbollah fighters breathe air, does that mean that air should be cut off to all areas in which they operate? This seems to be the logic of Israeli strategy. The result is massive “collateral” death and damage to civilians, since everything that sustains life can potentially be made to sustain fighters. Such logic fosters war crimes.
Houla is in fact known as the “village of martyrs”. (The terms is used to mean anyone who dies at the hands of the enemy, whether a combattant or not.) More than 100 were slaughtered by Israelis in 1948. They were placed in a mass grave now covered with trees but no markers. A monument in another section of town serves as a memorial. Another ninety villagers were killed during the Israeli invasion of 1982, during which a total of 17,500 Lebanese and Palestinians became the death toll in the space of three months. Nonetheless, there is competion for Houla’s title. Qana lost more than one hundred civilians to a single Israeli strike in 1996 and another 54 were reported killed by a guided missile last month. Other villages can make similar claims.
The need for sustenance works both ways, as well. We were shown a house where twelve Israeli soldiers were killed by four resistance fighters. The soldiers had decided to use a particularly comfortable house three nights in a row to eat, drink and sleep at night. During the soldiers’ daytime sorties, fighters got into the basement of the house, waited until most of the soldiers were asleep, and then went upstairs and slaughtered them all. Their bloodstains were still on the mattresses, floor and doors.
In the same village, an Apache helicopter fired a wire-guided missile into another house, killing two young mothers. Volunteers of our civil resistance group interviewed the survivors about their needs, especially baby clothing, diapers, formula and bottled water. We also met the four-year-old son of one of the women. He could not explain why he was unable to cry, but the relatives taking care of him say that he cannot sleep for more than a few hours at a time and generally refuses to talk his mother’s death. Chances are that he feels guilty for being alive and watching his mother die, according to the nurse in our group.
There is much more, of course. A middle-aged man in an undershirt and brown pants told me that he had had nothing else to wear for weeks, having barely escaped with his life when his house was hit. These experiences would have to be multipied many thousands of times, with at least a million directly affected and the entire population of Lebanon indirectly affected.
I have occasionally met with Hezbollah spokespersons, always respectful and grateful for our efforts. However, they never agree to be photographed. On the other hand, I have never encountered victims who did not want to speak on camera or have their photograph taken, which makes it exceedingly unlikely that any of them are Hezbollah, and which corroborates their reports that the damage is civilian.
Leaving Houla, we went to Beirut via the Beqaa valley, a route that took us by the border areas that I had visited as a guest of Mohammed el-Amine less than a week before the fighting started. At one point where the Lebanese and Israeli roads run next to each other with a fence in between, we saw two Israeli workers repairing the fence and a settler in a pickup driving opposite us, in the same direction. The tidy Israeli settlements with their red tile roofs were in stark contrast to the massive destruction on our side of the border.
We didn’t make it to Beirut. Khalil and Naim, members of the team who offered to take us, prevailed upon us to have dinner at their home in Libbayeh, atop the 1,200-meter peak of a mountain ridge at the edge of the valley. Opposite us to the East towered 2,800-meter Mt. Hermon (Jabal al-Shaikh) and to the West, on the other side of the valley, the Mount Lebanon range. On the way to this isolated community, we stopped at the home of a completely self-sufficient traditional farm housing approximately twenty family members preparing their barley crop. They had sheep, chickens, goats and a cow; all kinds of grains except rice; spring water, fruits, nuts and vegetables. A hunter passed by wearing a jacket of various shotgun shells, including a special one for either bear or Israeli armored vehicles (according to him).
Dinner at Khalil’s house was made from the most delicious and freshest ingredients, all grown and raised from the immediate surroundings. Fruit could be picked from the vines and trees in front of our eyes. Khalil’s father was the consumate host, allowing me to beat him at backgammon even though he is the village champion - or so he said. We ended up meeting half the town, watching Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on television, and sleeping in the cool air far from Beirut’s sweltering heat and humidity.
Not that Libbayeh was untouched by the invasion. An area outside the town had been used as a staging area for commandos striking Baalbek, and some of the roads had been cut. Libbayeh had been hit much more heavily during Israel’s last occupation from 1982 to 2000, and much had been damaged and destroyed during that time. The house in which we slept had in 2000 seen a missile that went entirely through it, whisking a gun from the hands of its owner and causing a broken finger as the only injury. Nonetheless, the wounds were still fresh and the townspeople very much on the alert.
We finally made it to Beirut the next day, and in a few hours there will be a meeting to discuss strategies for breaking the Israeli blockade of Lebanon. Currently no one comes or goes without Israeli permission. The plan is to defy Israel and assert Lebanese sovereignty rights by going without permission. The biggest obstacle right now is a boat willing to do it. However, we hope to solve this later today or tomorrow. I hope it happens soon, because I’m due to leave in a few days.
Paul Larudee is the former supervisor of a Ford Foundation project in Lebanon, a Fulbright-Hays lecturer to Lebanon and a contract U.S. government advisor to Saudi Arabia. He is one of seven volunteers of the International Solidarity Movement wounded by Israeli gunfire on April 1, 2002. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.