BEIRUT — Apart from the thundering of Israeli jets, it is silent in Haret Hreyk, a normally lively neighbourhood in south Beirut, in which most of Hizbullah’s offices are located. Shops are sealed, homes are closed and most inhabitants have left.
Israeli planes have dropped flyers warning people to stay away from areas in which “Hizbullah is present and active”. During the last few days, several Hizbullah buildings have been hit by Israeli missiles, including the Al-Manar television station, mouthpiece of Lebanon’s Shi’ite Party of God. “Hizbullah evacuated all buildings last Thursday,” said one remaining shopkeeper.
Other areas have been targeted as well. On Saturday, Israel bombed the harbours of Beirut and Jounieh, a major Christian town north of the capital.
Situated on the edge of Haret Hreyk and neighbouring Rowaize, a densely populated area close to a Hizbullah building, a bridge was bombed, while all the facades of shops and residential buildings within a 100-metre radius were destroyed. The attack took place late at night, with residents reporting that two people were killed.
“Hizbullah attacked an Israeli army post, not civilians,” said Abou Fadi, standing in front of his windowless furniture shop. “But Israel is bombing shopkeepers. Let soldiers fight soldiers.”
“Come to my shop,” shouted his neighbour Ali, the owner of a small lingerie store next door. “These are my Katusha rockets,” he said, gesturing to a flowery pyjama top and a purple lady’s gown.
According to Tel Aviv, the bombardment was launched in response to the capture of two of its soldiers by Hizbullah and the killing of eight others in southern Lebanon on 12 July. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has stated that Israel will not stop targeting Lebanon until its soldiers are released and until Hizbullah halts all military activity against the Jewish state.
On Sunday, Hizbullah reportedly fired rockets at the Israeli coastal city of Haifa, in which at least eight people were killed, according to international media reports.
South bears the brunt
According to the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health, at least 93 people have been killed by Israeli barrages so far, all but two of them civilians. Most victims fell in the south of the country, where Hizbullah is concentrated.
On Saturday, Israeli warplanes targeted a van packed with people fleeing the southern village of Marwaheen, killing 15 and seriously injuring six. “The villagers were divided about what to do,” recalled United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) spokesman Richard Morzynski. “One group decided to drive directly to Tyre and were hit by an Israeli missile.” UNIFIL says it is helping evacuate villagers whose lives are in danger.
Asia Hemadeh Rammal, a 20-year-old housewife from the southern town of Doueir, said that Israeli warplanes had “relentlessly” attacked the area since 12 July. She added that roads linking Doueir to the main southern town of Nabatieh were “partially cut off, and the same applies to other villages”.
Rammal went on to note that electricity was being rationed and that “people have been hoarding food and fuel in case the attacks continue”. Rammal’s husband, Imad, who works as an electrical engineer at the southern Zahrani power plant “has to drive all the way from Doueir to Zahrani at night – under attack from missiles – to complete his shift”, she explained.
On 12 July, an entire family of 10 was killed in a single Israeli strike on Doueir. A water factory in the southern town of Yarin was also hit.
Personal Representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Lebanon, Geir Pederson, expressed concern over “Israel’s heavy attacks and the escalation that has taken place across the Blue Line”. He also voiced worry that Israel’s air and sea blockades would “increase the hardship of the civilian population in Lebanon”.
No evacuation plan
So far, no government evacuation plan has been announced. Most inhabitants of Haret Hreyk have left the area for south Beirut or the eastern Bekaa Valley, although there are currently no reliable displacement figures.
According to International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Hisham Hassan, the biggest problem is the lack of infrastructure. “The Israeli army is targeting all major bridges and roads. People can’t leave,” said Hassan. “Besides, where would they go? Most of them have relatives in south Beirut, but that’s bombed as well.”
“We have two staff members in the south, but they can hardly move,” Hassan continued. “The same is true for the Lebanese Red Cross, which can’t reach effected areas. Several villages are now completely cut off from the outside world.” The Lebanese Red Cross currently has some 620 people working in the south, along with 206 ambulances and three operation facilities.
UNIFIL’s Morzynski confirmed this. “People are simply unable to move, even over small distances. All roads are blocked.”
Satellite news channel Al-Arabiya quoted the Lebanese Health Minister as saying that there were only enough medical supplies in the country to last for two weeks.
Calls for human rights
International organisations have called on both parties to respect international humanitarian law and to differentiate between civilian and military targets. The Swiss-based ICRC urged Israel to guarantee the protection of ambulances and emergency workers in the region.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that attacks on civilians – or acts intended to intimidate civilians – violate international humanitarian law and may constitute war crimes, even if carried out in retaliation for earlier attacks. “Hizbullah and Israel must make protecting civilians the priority and direct attacks only at military targets,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division.
According to international humanitarian law, armed forces must distinguish between combatants and civilians at all times.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour underscored Annan’s condemnation of all actions that target civilians or which unduly endanger them. Annan stressed that, while Israel has legitimate security concerns, international humanitarian law requires that parties to conflicts refrain from attacks against civilians.
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