The escalating civilian death toll in south Lebanon from Israeli airstrikes and artillery bombardments, and the inability to evacuate casualties, is causing mounting alarm to United Nations peacekeepers who have found themselves almost powerless to assist.
"This is the absolute priority for us," says Milos Strugar, senior adviser to the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known by its acronym as UNIFIL. The 2,000-strong peacekeeping force has been deployed in Lebanon since 1978, a buffer between Israel and Hizbullah and previously Palestinian militants. "It is really getting very, very bad. It's unbelievable."
The dead from Israeli airstrikes are left under the rubble of their former homes and with roads made impassable by gaping bomb craters, many of the wounded are dying untreated in beleaguered villages.
"I think all the casualties that can't reach us will die," says an exhausted Ahmad Mrowe, director of the Jabel Amel hospital in this southern Lebanese port city.
He said that one casualty that arrived in the morning had been ferried by eight different cars from the village of Siddiqine, each one driving from one bomb crater to the next. It took them eight hours to cover a distance that normally can be driven in 20 minutes.
Israeli airstrikes on Lebanon killed 56 civilians and a Hizbullah fighter Wednesday, the deadliest toll of the eight-day-old war. Tuesday night saw the heaviest concentration of rockets fired into Israel since the conflict began. A UNIFIL officer estimated that some 150 rockets had crossed the border.
Israeli troops, accompanied by bulldozers and tanks, staged three small incursions along the western sector of the border to destroy Hizbullah positions. They were attacked by Hizbullah fighters and there were reports that four Israeli soldiers were killed when a tank was destroyed by a missile.
At the Jabel Amel hospital were four women and one young man who arrived after their car had been targeted by an Israeli jet on a road near Bourgheliyeh, a village off the coastal road four miles north of Tyre. "Two bombs fell next to each other 15 meters in front of the car," says a shaken Jihad Daoud, as he anxiously watches his relatives being treated.
Dr. Mrowe, the hospital director, says that although they were running out of some medicines, the hospital was sufficiently equipped to continue treating patients for another 15 days. "But we only have enough food and drinking water to last another five or six days," he says. "We will stay anyway. We'll never leave. This hospital is like our village."
UNIFIL also is running perilously short on supplies. It was unable to send out any armored convoys Wednesday because of the intensity of the shelling and air raids in the vicinity of Tyre.
Although UNIFIL is in constant contact with the Israeli military, informing them of the movement of their convoys, they have not been spared from the onslaught. Two civilian staff members from Nigeria were assumed killed in an Israeli raid on Horsh, near Tyre. UNIFIL is declining to confirm their deaths until their bodies can be recovered. Two peacekeepers have been wounded. Wednesday, three Israeli artillery shells landed in a UNIFIL compound in Maroun al-Ras and their headquarters in Naqoura. No one was injured.
"We are caught right in the crossfire," Mr. Strugar says.
A series of quick loud bangs just east of the Rest House hotel sent refugees scurrying for cover. But the explosions were outgoing rockets fired by Hizbullah. Shortly afterward, the Arabic satellite TV channels watched by many refugees cramming the hotel announced that Haifa, 33 miles south of where the rockets were fired, had been struck again.
"Let them suffer as we are suffering," said one man out loud to mutters of agreement from his companions.
•Wire material was used in this story.