New urgency for Lebanon cease-fire

An Israeli bomb kills at least 54 civilians in Lebanon, adding pressure on US diplomacy.

Israel's bombing of a civilian building Sunday in Qana, which killed at least 54 civilians, 37 of them children, has almost overnight turned up international pressure for the US to urge Israel toward an immediate cease-fire with Lebanon.

Sunday's strike in south Lebanon bore tragic similarities to a 1996 Israeli attack in the same town – another attempt to crush Hizbullah – that killed more than 100 civilians. International outcry then forced a cease-fire agreement within days.

While Sunday's attack was the single deadliest event in the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas in the 19-day-old war, it remains uncertain whether it will compel another cease-fire.

But the mounting civilian death toll has forced Washington and Tel Aviv to reassess what had been the conventional wisdom until a few days ago: that Israel should be given time to degrade Hizbullah's military capabilities.

Israeli officials quickly apologized for the deaths of innocent people Sunday, saying that the area was targeted because it had been used by Hizbullah.

Prime Minister Olmert expressed "great sorrow" for the attack, but blamed Hizbullah – and said villagers had been asked to flee. Mr. Olmert also said he was "not going to rush" into a cease-fire without achieving "the main goals," adding, "this also requires the maturation of the diplomatic process and reaching a detailed agreement regarding the stationing of forces that will secure the areas from which Israel" has been fired on.

Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal called for more resistance against Israel in response to Sunday's attack on the Lebanese village. "The only response to this ugly massacre is an acceleration of the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine," Mr. Meshaal told Reuters.

Just this weekend, a light at the end of the tunnel had begun to appear, with a whirlwind of diplomatic meetings suggesting that a deal could be in the works. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Israel Sunday to press for a cease-fire. She is scheduled to return to Washington Monday.

Any deal is expected to include an exchange of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel in return for Israel's two soldiers captured on July 12th, and the creation of a new international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. Israel also views a potential disarming of Hizbullah, as called for in UN Resolution 1559, with paramount importance.

Some Middle East observers say they are not optimistic that the US will be successful in brokering a cease-fire, despite the bloodshed, and say that Ms. Rice will have a difficult time bringing others to the table because the deteriorating regional image of the US.

"The US has lost a lot of its credibility as an honest broker," says Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanon expert at Chatham House of the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.

"What we've seen is not a reversal of American policy. It's very obvious that [Rice] is still supporting the Israeli operation, and that means she will not be able to declare any cease-fire at this stage. I see it as a complete deadlock, because a cease-fire now means that Israeli military operations continued for 18 days with nothing to show except destruction and causalities, and that would be a failure for them."

In Qana Sunday, members of two extended families were killed when an Israeli jet dropped two bombs on the house in which they were sheltering, destroying most of the building and crushing the victims under rubble and dirt. Only eight people managed to survive the massive double blast.

The half-finished three-story house belonged to Abbas Hashem and lay at the end of a narrow lane. The Hashem family and their close neighbors, the Shalhoubs, had moved onto the ground floor of the unfinished building 10 days earlier, hoping that a large pile of dirt and sand for construction would help protect them from the heavy artillery bombardments and repeated air strikes in and around Qana.

Although most residents of this village of some 12,000 people had already fled to the town of Tyre on the coast six miles to the west or headed further north, the Shalhoub and Hashem families had found themselves cut off.

"We couldn't get out of our neighborhood because there are only two roads leading out and the Israelis bombed them both several days ago," says Mohammed Shalhoub, who was recovering from Sunday's bombing in Tyre's government-run hospital.

He says that conditions in the make-shift bomb shelter were difficult. They had little water and food and there was no bathroom. Both families were asleep when the two bombs dropped on the building in rapid succession at 1 a.m.

"I felt the blast throw me across the room. I was buried under the rubble along with the martyrs," Mohammed says.

Mohammed's wife, Rabab, hauled him clear of the debris and rescued their son, Hassan, 4, but Zeinab, their six-year-old daughter was left dead under the rubble.

Further air strikes and heavy artillery bombardments during the night that destroyed at least four other houses in the Qana neighborhood, meant that it was another six hours before the rescue services could reach the stricken village.

The Hashem house, a typical Lebanese home of a reinforced concrete frame and cinder block walls, leaned at a perilous angle Sunday, threatening to collapse, as Lebanese Civil Defense workers climbed gingerly into the building to recover the dead. Two soldiers used spades to carefully dig away at a pile of dirt under which most of the victims were buried.

Throughout the morning under a blazing sun, sweating rescue workers removed the bodies from the house. Most of them were children under the age of 12.

"They suffocated under the dirt," says Sami Yazbek, the head of Tyre's Lebanese Red Cross unit.

Kamil Sleiman and Ibrahim Skayki, residents of nearby villages, said they heard the news on television and had come to help. "We lost seven people in Ain Baal," Mr. Skayki says, adding that his carpentry business was destroyed in the first of many air raids on the village since the war began on July 12. "I lost my work and I had debts to pay, but it's a sacrifice for the resistance," he says.

Amid the despair and the grim task of removing the victims, there is deep anger at what many here regard is the callous indifference of the West.

"We will never wave the white flag. We won't retreat," says Shalhoub, a survivor at the hospital. "I say to the West, this is not the kind of freedom and democracy we want."

Shalhoub's cellphone rings constantly. He answers and reels off a list of names of people who died or survived.

"Najwa was injured, Zeinab was martyred," he says. On mentioning the name of Zeinab, his daughter, he chokes and begins weeping while a woman places a comforting arm across his shoulder.

Same story, 10 years earlier

The full version of this article appeared in the April 22, 1996, issue of the Monitor.

QANA, SOUTHERN LEBANON – 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.

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 Middle East 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 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. 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.

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."

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.

After the Qana massacre, Lebanon was united in grief. Saturday, on Hamra Street – an exclusive shopping area in Beirut – Hizbullah workers were collecting money from motorists to feed the refugees.

A 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."

– Mike Theodoulou

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