Smoke signals from the battle of Bint Jbeil send a warning to Israel
By Robert Fisk
Independent" -- -- Qlaya, Southern Lebanon -- Is it
possible - is it conceivable - that Israel is losing its war in
From this hill village in the south of the country, I am watching
the clouds of brown and black smoke rising from its latest disaster
in the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil: up to 13 Israeli soldiers dead,
and others surrounded, after a devastating ambush by Hizbollah
guerrillas in what was supposed to be a successful Israeli military
advance against a "terrorist centre".
To my left smoke rises too, over the town of Khiam, where a smashed
United Nations outpost remains the only memorial to the four UN
soldiers - most of them decapitated by an American-made missile on
Tuesday - killed by the Israeli air force.
Indian soldiers of the UN army in southern Lebanon, visibly moved by
the horror of bringing their Canadian, Fijian, Chinese and Austrian
comrades back in at least 20 pieces from the clearly marked UN post
next to Khiam prison, left their remains at Marjayoun hospital
In past years, I have spent hours with their comrades in this UN
position, which is clearly marked in white and blue paint, with the
UN's pale blue flag opposite the Israeli frontier. Their duty was to
report on all they saw: the ruthless Hizbollah missile fire out of
Khiam and the brutal Israeli response against the civilians of
Is this why they had to die, after being targeted by the Israelis
for eight hours, their officers pleading to the Israeli Defence
Forces that they cease fire? An American-made Israeli helicopter saw
In Bint Jbeil, meanwhile, another bloodbath was taking place.
Claiming to "control" this southern Lebanese town, the Israelis
chose to walk into a Hizbollah trap. The moment they reached the
deserted marketplace, they were ambushed from three sides, their
soldiers falling to the ground under sustained rifle fire. The
remaining Israeli troops - surrounded by the "terrorists" they were
supposed to liquidate - desperately appealed for help, but an
Israeli Merkava tank and other vehicles sent to help them were also
attacked and set on fire. Up to 17 Israeli soldiers may have died so
far in this disastrous operation. During their occupation of Lebanon
in 1983 more than 50 Israeli soldiers were killed in just one
The battle for southern Lebanon is on an epic scale but, from the
heights above Khiam, the Israelis appear to be in deep trouble.
Their F-16s turn in the high bright sun - small, silver fish whose
whispers gain in volume as they dive - and their bombs burst over
the old prison, where the Hizbollah are still holding out; beyond
the frontier, I can see livid fires burning across the Israeli
hillsides and the Jewish settlement of Metullah billowing smoke.
It was not meant to be like this, 15 days into Israel's assault on
Lebanon. The Katyushas still streak in pairs out of southern
Lebanon, clearly visible to the naked eye, white contrails that
thump into Israeli's hillsides and border towns.
So is it frustration or revenge that keeps Israel's bombs falling on
the innocent? In the early hours two days ago, a tremendous
explosion woke me up, rattling the windows and shaking the trees
outside, and a single flash suffused the western sky over Nabatiyeh.
The lives of an entire family of seven had just been extinguished.
And how come - since this now obsesses the humanitarian
organisations working in Lebanon - that the Israelis bombed two
ambulances in Qana, killing two of the three wounded inside. All the
crews were injured - one with a piece of shrapnel in his neck - but
what worried the Lebanese Red Cross was that the Israeli missiles
had pierced the very centre of the red cross painted on the roof of
each vehicle. Did the pious use the cross as their aiming point?
The bombardment of Khiam has set off its own brush fires on the
hillsides below Qlaya, whose Maronite Christian inhabitants now
stand on the high road above like spectators at a 19th century
battle. Khiam is - or was - a pretty village of cut-stone doorways
and tracery windows, but Israel's target, apart from the obviously
marked UN position whose inhabitants they massacred, is the
notorious prison in which - before its retreat from Lebanon in 2000
- hundreds of Hizbollah members and, in some cases, their families,
were held and tortured with electricity by Israel's proxy militia,
the South Lebanon Army.
This was the same prison complex - turned into a "museum of torture"
by the Hizbollah after the Israeli retreat - that was visited by the
late Edward Said shortly before his death. More important, however,
is that many of the Hizbollah men originally held prisoner here were
captives in cells deep underground the old French mandate fort.
These same men are now fighting the Israelis, almost certainly
sheltering from their fire in the same underground cells in which
they languished, perhaps even storing some of their missiles there.
In Marjayoun, next to Qlaya, once the SLA's headquarters, Lebanese
troops are trying to prevent Hizbollah guerrillas using the streets
of the Greek Catholic town to fire yet more missiles at Israel.
Seven-man Lebanese army patrols are moving through the darkened
roads of both towns at night in case the Hizbollah brings yet more
Israeli bombs down on our heads.
In Beirut, one observes the folly of Western nations with amusement
as well as horror, but, sitting in these hill villages and listening
to how the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, plans to reshape
Lebanon is clearly a lesson in human self-delusion. According to US
correspondents accompanying Ms Rice on her visit to the Middle East,
she is proposing the intervention of a Nato-led force along the
Lebanese-Israeli border for between 60 and 90 days to assure that a
ceasefire exists, the deployment of an enlarged Nato force
throughout Lebanon to disarm Hizbollah and then the retraining of
the Lebanese army before its own deployment to the border.
This plan - which, like all American proposals on Lebanon, is
exactly the same as Israel's demands - carries the same depth of
conceit as that of the Israeli consul general in New York, who said
last week that "most Lebanese appreciate what we are doing".
Does Ms Rice think the Hizbollah want to be disarmed? By Nato?
Wasn't there a Nato force in Beirut which fled Lebanon after a group
close to the Hizbollah bombed the US Marine base at Beirut airport
in 1983, killing 241 US servicemen and dozens more French troops a
few seconds later? Does anyone believe that Shia Muslim forces will
not do the same again to any Nato "intervention" force? The
Americans are talking about Egyptian and Turkish troops in southern
Lebanon; Sunni Muslims ruling Shia territory.
The Hizbollah has been waiting and training and dreaming of this new
war for years, however ruthless we may regard the actions. They are
not going to surrender the territory they liberated from the Israeli
army in an 18-year guerrilla war, least of all to Nato at Israel's
Yesterday's assault on the Israeli army in Bint Jbeil proved that.
The problem is that the US sees this slaughterhouse as an
"opportunity" rather than a tragedy, a chance to humble Hizbollah
supporters in Tehran and help to shape the "new Middle East" of
which Ms Rice spoke so blithely this week.
It is Israel which is running out of time in southern Lebanon. Its
attacks have for the fifth time in 30 years placed it in the dock
for war crimes in Lebanon. The toll of Lebanon's civilian casualties
has reached 400. And still the US will not intervene to prevent the
carnage, even to call for a 24-hour ceasefire to allow the 3,000
civilians still trapped between Qlaya and Bint Jbeil - who include a
number of foreign nationals - to flee.
The only civilian walking those frightening roads to Qlaya was a
goatherd, guiding his animals around the huge bomb craters in the
tarmac. Talking to him, it emerged that he was almost stone deaf and
obviously could not hear the bombs. In this, it seemed, he has a lot
in common with Condoleezza Rice.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited