Israel redirects Hellfire missiles "after US advice"
By Robert Fisk in Bsalim, Lebanon
6 May 2000
Plans to target Syrian military inside Lebanon are shelved after ambassador's intervention to keep fragile peace process alive
Did the American ambassador to Israel decide the target of Israel's bombardment of Lebanon yesterday? Incredible as it seems, Martin Indyck's intervention appears to have done just that. By urging Israel to suspend a plan to attack Syrian facilities in Lebanon during its latest attack on the country's civilian infrastructure, the plea led to the bombing raids - with American-made missiles - on Lebanese power stations.
In the rubble of this smouldering Lebanese electricity plant yesterday, I found the remains of the American-made rockets that destroyed at least $2m of transformers, installed only four years ago by the French government. Fired by the Israelis a few hours earlier, they were Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, made by Boeing-Lockheed at its plants in Georgia and Florida.
Even more extraordinary, however, is the report that the US ambassador to Tel Aviv intervened on the targeting. Impeccable diplomatic sources have told The Independent that the Israelis originally intended to retaliate for Thursday's Hizbollah rocket attacks across the border by hitting installations belonging to Syria's 21,000 troops in Lebanon.
But hours before the air assaults were to begin, these sources say, Martin Indyck, the US ambassador to Israel, appealed to the Israelis to spare Syrian targets - on the basis that their destruction might make a reopening of SyrianIsraeli peace talks impossible. As a result, the Israeli air force instead targeted Lebanese civilian objectives, including the Bsalim power station.
The report of Mr Indyck's intervention - and the diplomatic source is connected to the highest authorities - is remarkable. That a US ambassador can, in effect, decide the target of Israel's bombs is one thing. But Mr Indyck also happens to be the former head of Aipac, the most powerfulJewish-Israeli lobby group in the United States. He has frequently intervened in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but never - so far as has been recorded - in Israel's military adventures in Lebanon.
Nor is there any doubt about the American missiles. The Israelis admit they fired five rockets at the Bsalim switching station in the mountains above Beirut. I tore the manufacturers' computer coding off one missile fuselage, whose Lot number was MGP976801. The "M" shows it was once sold by the Boeing company to the US Marine Corps; indeed, it appears to be part of a batch given to Israel in 1991 as a quid pro quo for not joining in the Gulf War against Iraq. One of the same set of Hellfire 114C missiles - with similar manufacturers' codes - was fired by the Israelis into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996, killing four children and two women.
The Israelis destroyed four of the nine electrical transformers at Bsalim. "They are leaving the others for later," a young power worker muttered with fury. "They can hit what they want here. How can we possibly retaliate?" Clouds of toxic smoke drifted down from the burnt-out equipment, its power lines dangling impotently, its heavy iron punctured by rocket holes.
It is in the cynical and preposterous nature of the war in Lebanon that dates and details become confused - often deliberately - by the protagonists. It is therefore important to remember that the staff at the Bsalim switching station - which converts 110 into 220 volts after receiving power from the Lebanese national grid - saw Israeli troops stealing maps of the facility from their offices at Bsalim during Israel's 1982 siege of Beirut. Fourteen years later, these maps were put to use when the Israelis staged their first bombing attack on Bsalim after six Israeli occupation soldiers were killed in southern Leban-on. France rebuilt the station with Italian equipment.
Yesterday's early-morning raid followed the Katyusha attacks on the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, which killed an Israeli soldier and wounded at least 16 civilians. But these Hizbollah attacks were retaliation for two earlier Israeli assaults on Lebanese civilians. In the first of these, 16 Lebanese civilians were wounded and in the second two Lebanese Christian women - one of them 80 years old - were killed by an Israeli shell. Their corpses were found at dawn on Thursday.
With the single exception of the dead Israeli soldier, the targets of both the Hizbollah and the Israelis were civilian. And the Bsalim power station was in a Christian area of Lebanon. It is believed to be the first time that Muslim Hizbollah guerrillas have retaliated for the deaths of Christian civilians in Lebanon, traditionally sympathetic to Israel.
Israel also badly damaged an electricity switching station at Badawi outside the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and attacked the village of Britel in the Bekaa Valley.
When a flurry of Katyushas were again fired over the border yesterday morning, the Israelis air-raided two villages just outside the United Nations area of operations in southern Lebanon. All in all, a dangerous, expensive 24 hours of warfare. Millions of dollars of damage have been caused to Lebanon's infrastructure, much of the country is without power - and Israel's chances of a peaceful withdrawal from southern Lebanon this spring are further away than ever.
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