[Beirut, Lebanon] The man from the press office of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora couldn’t care less.
“What’s important now is not the visit of the secretary of state; all that counts now is coverage of the massacre of Qana to get quick aid for the survivors into the town,” he tells me on the morning of this third Sunday of the new Lebanon War.
An Israeli missile had struck an apartment building in the southern town of Qana in the early hours of the day – at least 50 people died, one third of them children, according to wire reports.
Only four months ago, a friend and I strolled peacefully through this little mountain town that lies only a 20-minute drive away from Lebanon’s most southern port of Tyre. Jesus of Nazareth supposedly turned water into wine here some 2,000 years ago. After a while Jimmy, a local tour guide, spotted us. He showed us the remains of a United Nations barracks destroyed by Israeli missiles almost exactly a decade earlier, in April 1996. One hundred and nine people died back then, causing international outrage against the Jewish state’s operation in the then occupied south of the country, cynically dubbed “Grapes of Wrath” by the Israeli military command.
Today, I cannot reach Jimmy on his mobile phone. A voice speaking over soft music asks me to try again later, something quite common since the Israeli offensive – triggered by the capture of two Israeli soldiers by the militia of the Shi’ite “Party of God,” Hizbullah – against targets all across Lebanon started 19 days ago,
A poll conducted on behalf of Beirut’s daily Al-Safir, published in the middle of last week, showed that almost a third of the 800 Lebanese citizens interviewed were against the kidnapping. On the other hand there is a strong 86.9 percent majority throughout all sects which support “the confrontations carried out by the resistance against the Israeli aggression against Lebanon.” Even 80.3 percent of the Christians surveyed supported the self-declared “resistance” of Hizbullah.
The extent of the Israeli offensive has put aside all differences, which normally run through this divided society, at least for the time being. Thousands streamed to the Riad al-Solh square in front of the headquarters of the United Nations in Central Beirut Sunday noon, a sea of Hizbullah flags with the green machine gun on a yellow background symbolizing the “resistance’s” armed struggle against the Israelis which led to the occupation forces’ withdrawal from the country in May 2000.
The outrage against the second massacre in Qana in a decade is likely to draw even more skeptics into the arms of the party, which has two ministers in Siniora’s government and 14 deputies in parliament.
The previous months had shown a quite different picture. Outspoken critics of Hizbullah’s “state within a state” in the south of the country, such as Walid Jumblat, openly blamed Hizbullah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah for drawing Lebanon into a “proxy war,” which the theocratic Iranian regime of Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad wanted to launch against Israel.
The chief of the Progressive Social Party and political head of the majority of the Lebanese Druze hasn’t backed down an inch from this position since the new Lebanon War started, arguing that Nasrallah took the whole Lebanese people hostage when his militia men kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers almost three weeks ago.
But the victims speak a different language. In Beirut’s Sanayeh Park, one of the few green oases in this city of cars, for example, maybe a hundred people have found refuge since the bombings started on July 12. And many of them immediately turn the conversations about their own plights into propaganda statements for Hizbullah.
“I don’t care if we don’t get enough to drink – as long as Sheikh Nasrallah wins this battle for us, everything will be fine,” an elderly woman declares. She doesn’t even have a mattress to sleep on at night.
Fifteen months after the short movement of the “Beirut Spring,” which CNN dubbed the “Cedar Revolution,” but is known as the “Independence Intifada” amongst Lebanese activists, the Israeli war against the country chokes off all hope of a more democratic development. Political analysts such as Nabil Dajani, sociologist at the American University of Beirut (AUB), believe that “the longer the conflict with Israel lasts, the stronger the support for Hizbullah will get.”
The room for political manouvering for the forces for the “Beirut Spring” thus becomes smaller and smaller. Last year it was they who denounced Hizbullah’s partnership with Syria and Iran; this year they feel abandoned by an international community which not long ago enthusiastically supported the democratic “Cedar Revolution,” but now apparently is not able to stop the ongoing Israeli attacks against the civilian population.
What Israel is earning now is, in a way, new grapes of wrath for generations to come.
Iman Humaidan Younis, a Lebanese novelist, who is not afraid to demand something still unthinkable for many Lebanese – peace negotiations with Israel – puts it this way: “I believe that Israel is a heartless, cold, blind power, which uses violence without any sense of humanity against civilians. That at least is the Lebanese experience since 1967.”
The Media Line’s Jerusalem Bureau adds: Israel suspended its air strikes on Lebanon for a period of 48 hours as of 2 a.m. local time Monday, and will allow corridors to be opened through which those who want to flee southern Lebanon for the north can pass. Humanitarian relief will be allowed into Lebanon through land, sea and air channels. The announcement of the unilateral suspension of hostilities was made in Jerusalem by U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli rather than by an Israeli spokesman, underscoring the intense pressure on Israel from the United States after Israeli missiles fired from warplanes destroyed a building in the village of Kafr Qana, killing 56, including 37 children. Although international reaction to the incident has been severe, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to press on with the operation aimed at crushing the Hizbullah terrorist organization. A spokeswoman said, "Israel takes full responsibility" for the incident and promised an investigation. Israel has, however, charged that Hizbullah bears responsibility for firing Katyusha rockets from amid the civilian population.
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