Upon arrival in Beirut in early August, 2006, Michael Birmingham met Abu Mustafa. Michael is an Irish citizen who has worked with Voices campaigns for several years. Abu Mustafa is a kindly Lebanese cab driver.
Having fled his home in the Dahiya neighborhood which was being heavily bombed, Abu Mustafa was living in his car. Abu Mustafa joked that he sometimes went back to his home in the already evacuated area of the Dahiya, just to take a shower or sometimes a proper nap. His family was living with relatives in a safer area. Toward the end of the war, Israeli bombs blasted buildings quite near his home. He tore out of the suburb in his cab and made that his home until we met him again on August 15th. hundreds of people, including parents walking hand in hand with toddlers, process silently along streets lined by wreckage. Even the small children looked extremely sad and grim.
Before the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Iraq in 2003, a contingent of peace activists living in Baghdad hung huge banners at various locales stating, “To bomb this place would be a war crime.”
On Dahiya’s streets, we saw the sequel, banners that said “Made in the U.S.A.” in Arabic and English, detailing U.S. complicity in manufacturing and shipping the weapons that demolished homes, gas stations, shopping malls, overpasses, clinics, the town square, ….block after block of ruin.
On the fourth floor of a five-story apartment building, a father and his daughters scooped up successive loads of broken glass and pitched them onto the sidewalk below. They called out a warning before each load came crashing down. You have to start somewhere.
On August 17 and 18, two men, both named Mohammed and both in their twenties, took Michael, Ramzi Kysia, Farah Mokhtarazedei, and me to towns and villages south of the Litani River. In each of the towns we visited, we saw appalling wreckage. Nowhere could we see military targets.
In Sriefa, the town center was almost completely destroyed. Residents told us that five or six F-16s bombed the area on July 19th, destroying ten houses, many of them three story buildings. We stared at the rubble, spotting household items, – a child’s high chair, a weaving loom, a toy plastic television.
Neighbors had buried nine corpses in shallow graves when it was too dangerous to be outside for any length of time. On the outskirts of Sriefa, as a handful of women and youngsters watched, workers exhumed the bodies and placed them in plastic body bags which were then wrapped in green shrouds and laid in wooden coffins. Workers sealed the lids and then wrapped the coffins in flags. These slain men were communists. The flags bore dual symbols for Lebanon and the Lebanese communist party.
Later, we watched a long funeral procession pass, carrying 25 of the 40 people killed in Sriefa. Uniformed men, marching, led the procession. Women followed, clutching one another in grief, next boys bearing flags, and finally the coffin-bearing vans, each with pictures of the brothers, fathers, and sons that would be buried.
Abbas Najdi stopped to talk with us on a street in Sriefa and then invited us to his home. During the bombing, his wife and children left Sriefa, but Abu Abbas, age 78, decided to stay. He wanted to watch over his home and the family’s sole source of income, the “tabac” which was carefully stored in a shed below the second story where they lived. Fortunately, he had decided to sleep on the ground floor during the first night of bombing. The back part of his home, their sleeping room, took a direct hit. Debris from a collapsing building across the street blocked the Najdi family’s front door, trapping Abu Abbas inside for two days. Neighbors eventually freed him. Abu Abbas’s left leg was injured by flying glass, but he felt very lucky to have survived at all. Unluckily, his entire tabac crop was burnt, the harvest of one year’s labor.
Before we left the Najdi family, one of the daughters, Zainab Najdi, a University student, stood to say goodbye and then laughed. “My pants are falling down,” she explained, still graceful as she pulled them up. “I am ‘daifah’” –the Arabic word for thin or weak. Her loose clothes disguised how thin she is, but when we embraced, I could nearly encircle her waist with my hands.
On the morning of the 18th, explosions awakened us. I thought the cease fire had ended. Our hosts reassured us that the Lebanese army was blowing up explosives. In the garden outside the home where we stayed, the local Hezbollah municipal leader spotted three unexploded cluster bombs. We had nearly driven over two cluster bombs lying on the road the previous day. The sound of each blast destroying hideous bombs was oddly comforting. You have to start somewhere.
Many people we talk to in Lebanon understand that the majority of Israelis urged their government to fight this war once it began. Did the proponents of war, in Israel, understand that there is no sign of a military target in the villages of southern Lebanon where homes, schools, clinics, grocery stores and children’s playgrounds have been destroyed?
On August 18th, Anthony Cordesman published a working draft of a report called “Preliminary Lessons of Israeli-Hezbollah War.” I read excerpts of it in commentary written by Helena Cobban. Cordesman, a seasoned military strategist, writing about the Israeli Air Force bombardment of Lebanon, remarks that “the air campaign continued to escalate against targets that often were completely valid but that sometimes involved high levels of collateral damage and very uncertain tactical and military effect. The end result was to give the impression Israel was not providing a proportionate response, an impression compounded by ineffective (and often unintelligible) efforts to explain IAF actions to the media.
I honestly don’t understand. Why is a target completely valid if it involved high levels of collateral damage, that is to say high levels of civilians who are maimed and killed, of civilian infrastructure ruined, of families rendered homeless, penniless, jobless and hungry? Cordesman states that there was uncertain tactical and military effect. Before completing the draft, I wish that Mr. Cordesman could stand for just five minutes at one intersection in the small city of Bint Jbail. He would see certain usage of conventional military weapons used against a civilian population. He would see certain evidence of a war crime. Turn in one direction and you see the remains of a school building, some desks and chairs still aligned in careful rows, visible because a whole side of the building is demolished. In another direction, a damaged stadium. Next to it, a field where 30 rockets killed a flock of sheep. One man managed a chuckle, telling us that 2 million dollars was spent to kill these sheep, that these must have been the most costly sheep in all of Lebanon. On the 27th and 28th of July, 100 bombs fell between two mosques in Bint Jbail within 11 minutes. At one point, the Israelis bombed for 11 hours straight. Then there was a break and they bombed for 21 hours until most of the town was completely destroyed.
It’s estimated that about 60,000 people lived in Bint Jbail.
Of what military value, as a target, is a school, an entire block of residences, a town square, a favorite swimming hole? Why is it strategically valuable to drop many hundreds of cluster bombs that fall in gardens and along roadsides between small farming villages?
The residents of Bint Jbail and other southern Lebanese cities as well as those who lived in the Dahiya and in Baalbeck had jobs, homes, and basic securities just a little over a month ago. Now, billions of euros and other currencies, along with ingenuity, resources, talents, will be directed toward aid and recovery. Such aid might have been helping relieve suffering elsewhere in the world had this war not “escalated.”
Both legally and rationally, you cannot say “everyone living there is Hezbollah. You can’t just walk away from the appalling damage and say, they were warned. Or can you? Can a state get away with it, backed up by other world bodies?
If that’s the case, then ordinary people bear a grave responsibility to demand that leaders own up to war crimes. Yes, finding a proportionate response to war crimes when so much power is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, many of them reckless and dangerous leaders of the United States and Israel, is a daunting task. But let’s think of the people finding courage to return and rebuild, let’s think of those trying to demine and clear out the cluster bombs, let’s think of the parents trying to help children orient themselves to a vastly insecure world. With them, we might acknowledge, you have to start somewhere.