Israel’s latest attack on the poor

The aftermath of attacks by Israel on Lebanon 16 July 2006. (Peter Speetjens/IRIN)

16 July 2006

It was one in the morning in New York when I was finally able to speak to my cousin in Dahiyeh today. On the phone from California, my mother’s voice permeated with exhaustion and anxiety as she connected us. My family throughout the U.S. has been trying to get through to my cousin since Friday, only to find that the phone lines were out as we watched footage of her Beirut neighborhood ablaze.

It has been difficult not hearing her voice over the pass few days when all I see on the news is that Dahiyeh has been bombed repeatedly since Israel’s attack began on Wednesday. Yesterday I read that eighteen civilians were killed while trying to escape the Beirut suburb and became even more frantic and worried. I spent the entire day recalling the bombings I had witnessed while living in the occupied South.

I was relieved to learn that she was unharmed, but saddened to hear that she was still in the lower level of her apartment building. There had been reports that her neighborhood had been evacuated, as residents sought refuge in the North, but she hadn’t been able to escape. She, her family and neighbors are experiencing the heaviest bombings in Lebanon. Unable to sleep or eat, they are fatigued and traumatized.

Today she will try to leave with her one year old son to a city south of Beirut. She will join my grandmother and aunt in a village just north of Sidon (that’s if the bombings cease for a short period of time). She is scared to travel on the road between Beirut and Sidon, as it has already been bombed in several places. My voice shook as I spoke to her; petrol stations, pharmacies, shops, banks, apartment buildings and roads all around her have been hit by Israeli bombs. At a loss for words, I told her that I had written a piece about her and posted it on the Web. She asked if I thought she would be famous. We laughed then fell silent. We’ve always joked at the worst times; it’s the Lebanese way of coping.

With much difficulty, my grandmother and aunt were able to leave the South yesterday. It pains me to think of how many wars my grandmother has seen and escaped in her lifetime. During the occupation, her southern village was leveled to the ground and used as a base for the Israeli Defense Forces. Israeli soldiers have now crossed the Lebanese border.

Residents of our village are leaving for fear of running out of food; water is scarce and there are only four small grocery stores for a population of about 15,000 people. This is common throughout the South, as most depend on the cities for commerce (cities they are now cut off from). My grandmother and aunt have left the safety of our family’s bomb shelter to stay in a village on the coast. What appalling choices they have been given — seeking refuge in a building with no bomb shelter, in closer proximity to Israeli war ships, or remaining in a village where food is running out. The death toll in Lebanon is now 150 civilians, with the number of injured rising to 350.

International media coverage of the Israeli attack has been mostly superficial and full of political rhetoric, leaving close to 15 million Lebanese living outside the country uninformed of all that has transpired since Wednesday. It is upsetting to see that many reports from upscale areas of Beirut have downplayed the severity of the situation. Perhaps it’s because life in the North and in other parts of Beirut has been comparatively easier since the civil war ended in 1990. Although all who lived in Lebanon through the civil war and Israeli occupation suffered greatly, since the occupation of the South ended in 2000, it has been clear that the most politically and economically marginalized have been the Shia areas of Lebanon. These are the exact areas that have suffered continuous bombardment by the Israeli military over the past few days.

Before this latest attack on Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of people in the South and in Dahiyeh were still only given a few hours of electricity during the day; roads in villages remained unpaved and damaged from the Occupation. The reconstruction of the South has been slow, tainted by bureaucratic incompetence and apathy. Other neighborhoods of Beirut that were once filled with bullet ridden buildings on the brink of collapsing look as though they belong in European cities with outdoor cafes and posh nightclubs. The difference is unsettling and repulsive.

It should be of no surprise that Hezbollah has become a legitimate political party, having acquired several seats in Lebanon’s parliament through democratic election. Much of the civil infrastructures of Dahiyeh and the South depend on what services the party can provide to Lebanon’s impoverished Shia population. Hospitals, schools, orphanages and many other social services are provided in areas that the Lebanese government has neglected for years. Lebanese politicians may complain about the party’s popularity, but until other members of the government and their political parties stop squandering the nation’s money and aid and start caring for and protecting their nation, Hassan Nasrallah and his party will continue to gain public support.

17 July 2006

I spoke to my cousin again this morning. The Israeli Defense Forces are now demanding that civilians leave their villages in the South. Like Dahiyeh, the coastal cities of Sidon and Tyre have been set ablaze by Israeli bombs. Hundreds of thousands of residents will be displaced and more homes and buildings destroyed. Due to the endless bombing of the roads and highways south of Beirut, my cousin wasn’t able to join my grandmother and aunt, but was able to flee to another part of Lebanon. She is currently seeking refuge in a school that is housing 500 displaced civilians, mostly women and children. The school is with no running water. Many small children are sleeping on the floors of classrooms and hallways. In the classroom where she is staying there are forty-five women and their children. Little food is available; the displaced are being told that they might have to stay as long as a month.

Much of Dahiyeh and the surrounding neighborhoods have been leveled. As she was leaving her home yesterday, she was able to see the destruction of her neighborhood. What was once a bustling part of Beirut is now a ghost town that’s been flattened like a soccer field. The Israeli military has intensified its targeting of civilian areas where the majority of the residents are Shia Lebanese. Like the many political conflicts of Lebanon’s past, this latest Israeli attack is an attack on the poor.

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Maymanah Farhat is an art historian and specialist of modern and contemporary Arab art. She has lived three months out of the year in Dahiyeh and Southern Lebanon for the past twelve years. She is now based in New York.