Israeli Aerial Blitz Hardens Lebanese, Inflames Arab Opinion in Mideast

WHITE UN bulldozers tore at the twisted iron frames of two huts where most of the 101 Lebanese refugees were killed at the peacekeepers' base last Thursday.

Above an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship hung like a dragonfly to the west. Surrounding hills and valleys rumbled to the sound of incoming Israeli artillery shells. Hizbullah was continuing to fire Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Another tragedy did not seem impossible.

The fighting entered an 11th day yesterday, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher shuttled across the Mideast trying to broker an elusive cease-fire.

Nearly two weeks of fighting have left more than 150 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians. Another 400,000 Lebanese civilians have been displaced. Some 50 Israelis have been wounded.

The ferocity of Israel's disproportionate response has inflamed Arab opinion across the region and endangered the already fragile peace process.

Militarily, Hizbullah - the Party of God, which is backed by Iran and Syria - has survived the onslaught virtually intact, its leaders boasting that new recruits are signing up by the day.

Most people in impoverished southern Lebanon view Hizbullah as courageous "freedom fighters" struggling to liberate a broad swath of territory there occupied by Israeli forces as a self-styled security zone in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 425.

At a school in Sidon crammed with refugees from Israel's free-fire zone, it was impossible to find anyone who blamed Hizbullah for their misery.

"When the Israelis fire rockets on our children, we must respond," says Khaled Hussein, whose niece was one of four girls killed when an Israeli helicopter fired a rocket into an ambulance packed with refugees on April 13. "It was clearly marked as a village ambulance."

Minr Shour, a laborer from Tyre, his gray-stubbled jaw quivering with anger, says: "It's a massacre." Four children clutched at his shabby jacket. "What is their future? We have nothing to eat and nowhere to go," he adds, his fingers twitching on a set of worry beads.

For the UN's spokesman in Tyre, Mikael Lindvall, Qana was "a disaster waiting to happen." He accused Israel of deliberately hampering the UN's mercy missions to some 6,000 civilians marooned by the fighting: "We are constantly issuing protests to the Israelis over the shelling of civilian areas. They keep boasting about the accuracy of their artillery radars. But they don't seem to be working too well.

For a third day yesterday, the delivery of food, medicine, and other needed humanitarian supplies for the people of southern Lebanon was held up because Israeli gunboats were shelling the main coastal road, just north of Sidon, an area where Hizbullah has no presence.

In Tyre's Najem Hospital, where most casualties from Qana were taken, Shawie Balhas, a father of 12 was slamming his hand on the wall and waiting in a room where two of his daughters lay. Two of his sons were in another hospital. "I can't find the others; there are eight more, and my wife, Tamimi. They must all be dead," he sobs. He had sent them to Qana for safety.

The Lebanese government has accused Israel, which has been unable to crush the threat posed by Hizbullah, an elusive army of 600 mobile guerrillas, of using vicious tactics to blackmail Beirut into curbing the pro-Iranian movement.

First, the onslaught has overburdened the Lebanese authorities with several hundred thousand refugees, most of them now sheltered in schools: Easter school holidays have been extended to May 2 in order to free classrooms.

Second, Israel has targeted Lebanon's infrastructure just as the government is spending billions on reconstruction after the devastation of the country's 15-year civil war. Three power stations were hit last week, and Beirut's airport was in the firing line when Israeli aircraft hit suspected Hizbullah positions in the capital's Shiite-dominated southern suburbs.

Third, and even more alarming, government officials say Israel is trying to tear open the old sectarian wounds of the civil war. One power station hit on April 15 was at Bsaleem, five miles northeast of Beirut, in Lebanon's Christian heartland. It took just seconds to cause millions of dollars of damage and plunge Beirut into darkness. "We can thank Hizbullah for this," says Mary Khouri, a Maronite Catholic mother of two, who was surveying the damage: twisted pylon dangled from a web of torn cables over shattered concrete supports. The air was pungent with the smell of smoldering rubber. "Hizbullah should stop its futile resistance. We're all paying the price," Mrs. Khouri adds.

But after the Qana massacre, Lebanon was united in grief. Saturday, on Hamra Street - an exclusive shopping area in Beirut - Hizbullah welfare workers were collecting money from passing motorists to feed the refugees. A loudspeaker blared out praise for the "Katyusha rockets that are causing the ground to shake under the evil Zionist enemy."

Roughly 1 in 4 cars slowed to make donations. Traffic policemen and Lebanese Army soldiers also contributed. A well-manicured young Christian woman in a Pontiac lowered her window and shoved a bundle of notes into the hands of a surprised young Hizbullah man. A businessman sipping beer at a pavement cafe applauded her generosity. He was reading Beirut's French language L'Orient Le Jour newspaper where the lead article predicted that after the "crucifixion" at Qana would come the "resurrection of the nation of Lebanon."

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