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Slaughter in Baalbek

The Family That Stays Together Dies Together

by ROBERT FISK

An attack on a hospital, the killing of an entire Lebanese family, the seizure of five men in Baalbek and a new civilian death toll – 468 men, women and children – marked the 22nd day of Israel’s latest war on Lebanon.

The Israelis claimed that helicopter-borne soldiers had seized senior Hizbollah leaders although one of them turned out to be a local Baalbek grocer. In a village near the city, Israeli air strikes killed the local mayor’s son and brother and five children in their family.

The battle for Lebanon was fast moving out of control last night. Lebanese troops abandoned many of their checkpoints and European diplomats were warning their colleagues that militiamen were taking over the positions. Up to 8,000 Israeli troops were reported to have crossed the border by last night in what was publicized as a military advance towards the Litani river. But far more soldiers would be needed to secure so large an area of southern Lebanon.

The Israelis sent paratroopers to attack an Iranian-financed hospital in Baalbek in the hope of capturing wounded Hizbollah fighters but, after an hour’s battle, got their hands on only five men whom the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, later called "tasty fish". The operation suggests what Hizbollah has all along said was the purpose of the Israeli campaign: to swap prisoners and to exchange Hizbollah fighters for the two Israeli soldiers who were captured on the border on 12 July.

Hizbollah continued to fire dozens of missiles over the border into Israel, killing one Israeli and wounding 21, with Israeli artillery firing shells back into Lebanon at the rate of one every two minutes. For the first time, a Hizbollah rocket struck the West Bank as well as the Israeli town of Beit Shean, the longest-range missile to have been fired so far. Yet still the West seems unable to produce an end to a war which is clearly overwhelming both Hizbollah and the Israelis.

Hizbollah obviously has far more missiles than the Israelis believed – there is not a town in northern Israel which is safe from their fire – and the Israeli army apparently has no plan to defeat Hizbollah other than the old and hopeless policy of occupying southern Lebanon. If Hizbollah had planned this campaign months in advance – and if the Israelis did the same – then neither side left room for diplomacy.

The French have wisely said they will lead a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon only after a ceasefire. And to be sure, they will not let this become a Nato-led army. France already has a company of 100 soldiers in the UN force in southern Lebanon, whose commander is himself French, but Paris, after watching the chaos in Iraq, has no illusions about Western armies in the Middle East.

Outside the shattered Dar al-Hikma hospital in Baalbek yesterday stood two burnt cars and a minivan, riddled with bullet-holes. Hizbollah, it seems, fought the Israelis there for more than an hour. The hospital, which includes several British-manufactured heart machines, was empty when the Israeli raid began and was partly destroyed in the fighting.

The Lebanese army, which has tried to stay out of the conflict – heaven knows what its 75,000 soldiers are supposed to do – was attacked again by the Israelis yesterday when they fired a missile into a car which they claimed was carrying a Hizbollah leader. They were wrong. The soldier inside died instantly, joining the 11 other Lebanese troops proclaimed as "martyrs" by the government from a logistics unit killed in an Israeli air raid two weeks ago.

The obscene score-card for death in this latest war now stands as follows: 508 Lebanese civilians, 46 Hizbollah guerrillas, 26 Lebanese soldiers, 36 Israeli soldiers and 19 Israeli civilians.

In other words, Hizbollah is killing more Israeli soldiers than civilians and the Israelis are killing far more Lebanese civilians than they are guerrillas. The Lebanese Red Cross has found 40 more civilian dead in the south of the country in the past two days, many of them with wounds suggesting they might have survived had medical help been available.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.