Lebanese Flee Villages Under Israeli Assault
Forced exodus to Beirut is Israel's aim; no side heeds US call for cease-fire
TYRE, LEBANON — MUSTAFA DARWISH was driving wounded neighbors and the remains of his son to the hospital when an Israeli rocket fired from a helicopter gunship landed near his car, and put him in a hospital himself.
Lying in bed, his left leg bandaged and his white walrus mustache bristling, Mr. Darwish is one of the more fortunate residents of the south Lebanese villages that have borne the brunt of Israeli artillery and aerial assaults over the past five days. (Impact on peace talks, Page 6.)
Two of the other 14 villagers who had sheltered with him for two days and nights in the basement of a house in Al Qulayla, five miles southeast of the port of Tyre, were killed Tuesday night when four Tow missiles left the supposed haven a wreck.
But the attack on the village, which killed at least six people, sent the message the Israelis had intended: All civilians should leave the area. Once home to about 4,000 people, Al Qulayla was deserted yesterday. Only 15 inhabitants unable or unwilling to leave their homes were still cowering where they could while Israeli helicopter gunships continued to blast the village in search of suspected Hizbullah guerrillas.
An estimated 250,000 people have fled south Lebanon since the Israeli assault began July 25, responding to Israel's plan to "create pressure on the Lebanese government [to rein in the Iran- ian-backed Hizbullah, or Party of God] by having as many refugees as possible gathered around Beirut," as Israeli Army spokesman Michael Vromen said yesterday.
There were few signs yesterday that Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was heeding President Clinton's call on Wednesday for an end to the cross-border raids. The boom of heavy artillery echoed through the empty valleys, and the "phut" of Katyusha rockets fired by the radical Hizbullah gunmen could be heard from the long grass in open fields.
If the pace of Katyusha attacks aimed at northern Israel was not slowing, it was unclear whether this was a deliberate policy by Hizbullah's leadership in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. Israel's fierce retaliation against Hizbullah "has certainly disrupted [their] lines of communication," said one officer with UNIFIL, the United Nations Observer Force in southern Lebanon. "There are a lot of cowboys around who can fire off Katyushas whenever they like. I am not sure how easily the Lebanese government or Sy ria can control them now."
With only 300 to 400 active Hizbullah guerrillas in south Lebanon, according to both Israeli and UNIFIL estimates, Israeli gunners and pilots are finding them hard to hit, as they move easily transportable Katyusha launchers from mountainside to mountainside. An Israeli Army spokesman yesterday claimed "a relatively high degree of accuracy" in targeting Katyusha launches, but declined to say how many had been hit.
Ninety people have been killed in Lebanon since July 25, and 500 have been wounded, according to Lebanese police figures. It is not known how many of these are Hizbullah fighters, but the majority are clearly civilians.
In the UNIFIL area, "18 people have been killed, and we estimate that not more than three or four were not civilians," one UNIFIL officer said.
Israel says its Army is retaliating for increasing Katyusha attacks on Israeli territory, striking at Hizbullah bases and positions in south Lebanon. Most of the damaged village houses that a group of reporters visited in the region yesterday, however, appeared to be ordinary homes. "What the Israelis call a base or position is usually a Hizbullah guy's home, where he lives with his wife and kids, and hangs his Kalashnikov in the basement," explains UNIFIL spokesman Capt. Michael Lindcall.
Israel has admitted errors in its attacks, most noticeably on UN positions. Two 155-mm Howitzer rounds landed in a compound belonging to UNIFIL's Irish battalion yesterday, but caused no casualties.
"Artillery fire is more of a random question because of the difficulties of long-range targeting," Captain Vromen ex-plained.
"Either we have to doubt [the Israelis'] professionalism as soldiers or there is another explanation," a UNIFIL officer said.
Among the Lebanese population, the affects of the week's attacks are unclear, despite Israel's hopes that the violence will convince Lebanese villagers to demand that Hizbullah guerrillas leave their area.
"I blame Israel first," says Sherif Sharaf Al-Din, a real estate agent in Tyre. "Israel wants to make peace by force, to get all the people here to leave. But we are not leaving, we are not going. This is my country, that's all."
Most of Mr. Din's neighbors, however, have fled north since the Israeli backed South Lebanon Army warned Tyre residents to leave on Wednesday morning. Only 20 percent of the 80,000 inhabitants have stayed, according to a senior police source.