Israeli Attacks Unite Lebanese
Raids on rebels and civilians were familiar, but a united Lebanese response was not
BEIRUT — ISRAEL'S six-day blitz of south Lebanon has left a legacy of massive destruction and dislocation and dealt a heavy blow to Lebanon's reconstruction efforts - but has also given the country a new sense of self-confidence and national unity.
The physical fallout from the Israeli strikes surpassed anything that south Lebanon has endured in such a short time since the Lebanese crisis first erupted in 1975. Government officials say that in the space of just a few days, more than 400,000 people fled the south for Beirut and elsewhere, often taking with them only the clothes they were wearing.
At least 130 people were killed and some 450 others wounded, the vast majority of them civilians, officials say. At least 55 towns and villages were badly damaged by the 22,000 artillery shells and the 1,000 aerial bombs and rockets fired by the Israelis or their local militia proxies in the border "security zone."
Preliminary estimates say the damage to property and infrastructure runs into scores of millions of dollars at a time when the Beirut government was already trying to raise cash for its reconstruction and rehabilitation programs.
"The scale, the intensity, and the duration of the shelling and the activities that went on for six days have been unprecedented by anything that has happened here since 1978," says Col. John Martin, commander of the Irish battalion of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the south, known as UNIFIL.
"This exodus has been bigger than during the Israeli incursion of 1978 and the invasion of 1982," agrees Lebanese Health Minister Merwan Hemadeh, who played a key role in the government's efforts to cope with the deluge of refugees.
"It was a systematic depopulation, planned and executed by ruthless military means," he asserts.
The Beirut government faces the test of coping with the economic and humanitarian aftermath of the Israeli campaign.
But many Lebanese believe the way the government and people dealt with the crisis means the country has already passed a vitally important test of its national unity.
Waves of refugees have been sent rolling northward from the mainly Shiite Muslim villages of south Lebanon many times since the Lebanese crisis broke out in 1975. Previous challenges have found the Beirut government of the day divided within itself, reflecting sharp divisions within the country's communities.
Israel's 1982 invasion was carried out in collusion with hard-line Christian factions, whose leader, Bashir Gemayel, was lifted to power by the Israeli intervention, though he was assassinated before he could assume the presidency.
But Beirut's politics have changed greatly since then. The current government, closely tied to Syria, includes Christian elements who once had a quite different outlook.
Information Minister Michel Samaha, who now reads out Cabinet communiques excoriating Israel, was once a prominent figure in Gemayel's Phalangist Party.
Elie Hobeiqa, who was named by Israel's Kahan Commission report as a key figure in the Christian militia's massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the 1982 invasion, is now a government minister and member of the emergency Cabinet committee set up to cope with last week's crisis.
For the first time, a unified Lebanese government and its Army took concrete measures to cope with the refugee flood. The Army forces in the south also did not hesitate to return Israeli fire and use anti-aircraft guns against Israeli planes.
Past waves of refugees from the south have hit Beirut and other cities such as Sidon haphazardly, creating chaotic scenes as squatters took over empty apartments and unfinished buildings.
This time, there was little chaos. Schools and other government buildings in Beirut and elsewhere were turned over to the displaced. Food and medical attention were arranged by the authorities, though in Beirut's southern suburbs, Hizbullah (Party of God) organized much of the relief effort, with other groups vying to boost their status by also providing services.
The government's cohesive response reflected an unprecedented sense of national unity that spread even to the most hard-line Christian quarters. Supporters of the exiled Maronite Gen. Michel Aoun collected money to provide mattresses and food for the refugees.
Samir Geagea, leader of the now-disbanded Christian "Lebanese Forces" militia, declared that all his movement's resources were at the state's disposal in the struggle for Lebanon's integrity and sovereignty - although it is not included in the government.
With this kind of unity behind it, the Beirut government stood firm against Israel's demand that Hizbullah be disarmed and disbanded.
"I was very proud of Lebanon's stand," says Munir Shammaa, a Beirut physician. "I feel this could be the beginning of an authentic national unity. I think we are achieving the prerequisites of a real country. I can smell it in the air."
"We pressured Hizbullah to stop the Katyusha attacks across the border, which we have never supported," says Health Minister Hemadeh. "But as long as we do not have a real Israeli commitment to withdraw from occupied Lebanese territory, we cannot stop legitimate acts of national resistance on Lebanese territory. We cannot act as policemen for the Israeli occupation."
It appears that all Israel got out of Lebanon was an understanding that Hizbullah would stop firing Katyushas - which were fired in earnest after the massive Israeli campaign began, triggered by the death of five Israeli soldiers inside occupied south Lebanon two weeks earlier. Both Israelis and Hizbullah say they expect attacks on the Isreali-imposed "security zone" to continue.
"All Israel got was retribution, with no political payoff," says one observer. "It may even have boosted Hizbullah's status, though that remains to be seen once the villagers see the damage wreaked on their homes. It has certainly enhanced Syria's standing with the Americans as a regional broker."
Israel's self-confessed strategy of punishing the civilians in order to pressure the politicians in Beirut and Damascus has also created bitter hatred against Israelis among south Lebanese villagers, most of whom simply want to be left in peace.
"Israel has shown that it's a criminal state," a woman from the Christian quarter of the hard-hit south Lebanese town of Tibnin said as she sheltered with her four children in the basement of the government hospital. "All the houses they have hit are civilian homes belonging to ordinary people; they have nothing to do with Hizbullah."
There is also disappointment that the attacks came at a time when Lebanon's reconstruction was starting to gather pace after more than two years of peace in most of the country. Many Lebanese emigres were returning home for the summer, and even a few summer visitors had appeared.