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Grapes of Wrath-- Robert Fisk

"This is not just a military operation. It is an attempt to smash a country"

Witnesses the Israeli attack that left 'a land without people'


By Robert Fisk

The Independent, 15 April 1996
 

Mansuri, southern Lebanon -- It was heartbreaking. As the shells swished over the village, the last of its people came walking in tears through the long grass, out of basements, down the stone tracks from their poor cement houses towards the United Nations soldiers.

One young woman carried her two-month-old baby and clutched it to her breast in our car, her tears splashing on to the child's shawl. The oldest woman in the village sat next to her, well over 80, her lips and cheeks tattooed in the way girls adorned their faces in the days of the Ottoman empire. One man had wrapped his ears in bandages to deaden the crack of the Israeli artillery on the hill above.

North of us, across the orange orchards and villages of southern Lebanon on this beautiful spring afternoon, sprouted mushroom clouds of white and grey smoke as the Israeli jets worked over the little hamlets with their cheaply-built minarets and pot-holed roads.

All of Tyre was to be evacuated by dusk, the Israelis had ordered. This was to be a land without people. As the shells whizzed over us, a French UN colonel led an elderly woman in a bright blue "abaya" gown to our jeep. Once inside, she placed her front-door key on the fringe of her scarf, knotted it safely inside the material, and tucked it into her dress. Then she put her head in her hands.

All day, driving the hot, frightening roads of southern Lebanon, we had heard the news from Beirut. The Israelis had blown up the electricity switching station at Hazmieh, cutting electricity from much of the capital. Their jets had raided the southern suburbs of the city for the third time, attacking what the Israelis claimed -- and the word "claimed" needs to be repeated these days -- were Hizbollah offices. But the Israeli jets sweeping across Lebanon yesterday were on more than a military operation.

For what is happening in Lebanon today is a concerted attempt by Israel to smash this country, to enfeeble its government, to overwhelm its resources with up to half a million refugees, to cut its electricity supply system at the very moment when the nation is recovering from a horrific war in which Israel itself had been involved. Israeli-controlled radios in southern Lebanon were yesterday demanding further evacuations from villages north of Tyre and threatening to bomb road bridges. They have already closed Beirut port.

So Lebanon -- and the pattern of attacks and threats against the civilian population all point in this direction -- is to be impoverished and, if the port blockade continues, to be starved. And why? To persuade, as the Israelis claim, a vulnerable Lebanese government to disarm the Hizbollah and thus make more comfortable Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon? Or to make Lebanon weak enough to make peace with Israel, a separate peace which would isolate Syria, a peace made by a country that would be as weak as the PLO and Jordan were when they were brought to the table to talk to the Israelis?

And in the real world of Lebanon the simple question has to be asked. Would the Israelis have embarked on such a massive military operation at such enormous cost (albeit at the expense of the American taxpayer), just to avenge the wounding of five Israelis by Katyusha rockets, an assault that was itself retaliation for the killing of a Lebanese youth?

For weeks now, there have been hints from Israeli ministers that Lebanon should make a separate peace with Israel, that it should ignore Syria, that Syria should be isolated for its supposed intransigence in peace negotiations over the Golan Heights. For this war is a message to the Syrian leader, President Assad, a demonstration in its very backyard of what happens to those who do not want to make peace with Israel.

In any event, the Hizbollah are not beaten. Driving out to Mansuri through the shellfire yesterday, a clutch of Katyusha rockets swished upwards to our right from behind a stand of pine trees, the missiles aimed at the Israeli town of Nahariya. Within minutes, two Apache helicopters appeared in the sky above us like angry bees.

A pilotless drone reconnaissance aircraft buzzed ominously over us as we pulled up at the village to extract the last of its inhabitants. "We don't like to help the Israelis vacate the villages," Swedish UN Captain Mikael Lindval said as an unshaven man poured animal feed in a bucket in front of his tethered mule and patted the beast goodbye.

"But when the people want to leave because of the bombing, we try to help them."

In another country, with another UN convoy, I had watched the same scene only three years ago. Then, the UN officers said they felt as if they were helping the Serbs to "ethnically cleanse" the land by taking away the villagers.

Yesterday, in a village which boasts one mansion with a lawn as meticulous as a golfing green but with most of its homes mere concrete shacks, its lanes bordered by red roses and yellow flowers and trees of bitter- tasting peaches, we loaded the last of Mansuri's people aboard the UN lorries and took them from the village in which almost all of them had been born. And we were, of course, doing exactly as the Israelis would have wished.


 





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