'How can we stand by and allow this to go on?'
By Robert Fisk
Independent" -- -- They wrote the names of the dead
children on their plastic shrouds. "Mehdi Hashem, aged seven - Qana,"
was written in felt pen on the bag in which the little boy's body
lay. "Hussein al-Mohamed, aged 12 - Qana',' "Abbas al-Shalhoub, aged
one - Qana.'' And when the Lebanese soldier went to pick up Abbas's
little body, it bounced on his shoulder as the boy might have done
on his father's shoulder on Saturday. In all, there were 56 corpses
brought to the Tyre government hospital and other surgeries, and 34
of them were children. When they ran out of plastic bags, they
wrapped the small corpses in carpets. Their hair was matted with
dust, most had blood running from their noses.
You must have a heart of stone not to feel the outrage that those of
us watching this experienced yesterday. This slaughter was an
obscenity, an atrocity - yes, if the Israeli air force truly bombs
with the "pinpoint accuracy'' it claims, this was also a war crime.
Israel claimed that missiles had been fired by Hizbollah gunmen from
the south Lebanese town of Qana - as if that justified this
massacre. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, talked about "Muslim
terror" threatening "western civilisation" - as if the Hizbollah had
killed all these poor people.
And in Qana, of all places. For only 10 years ago, this was the
scene of another Israeli massacre, the slaughter of 106 Lebanese
refugees by an Israeli artillery battery as they sheltered in a UN
base in the town. More than half of those 106 were children. Israel
later said it had no live-time pilotless photo-reconnaissance
aircraft over the scene of that killing - a statement that turned
out to be untrue when The Independent discovered videotape showing
just such an aircraft over the burning camp. It is as if Qana -
whose inhabitants claim that this was the village in which Jesus
turned water into wine - has been damned by the world, doomed
forever to receive tragedy.
And there was no doubt of the missile which killed all those
children yesterday. It came from the United States, and upon a
fragment of it was written: "For use on MK-84 Guided Bomb BSU-37-B".
No doubt the manufacturers can call it "combat-proven" because it
destroyed the entire three-storey house in which the Shalhoub and
Hashim families lived. They had taken refuge in the basement from an
enormous Israeli bombardment, and that is where most of them died.
I found Nejwah Shalhoub lying in the government hospital in Tyre,
her jaw and face bandaged like Robespierre's before his execution.
She did not weep, nor did she scream, although the pain was written
on her face. Her brother Taisir, who was 46, had been killed. So had
her sister Najla. So had her little niece Zeinab, who was just six.
"We were in the basement hiding when the bomb exploded at one
o'clock in the morning,'' she said. "What in the name of God have we
done to deserve this? So many of the dead are children, the old,
women. Some of the children were still awake and playing. Why does
the world do this to us?"
Yesterday's deaths brought to more than 500 the total civilian dead
in Lebanon since Israel's air, sea and land bombardment of the
country begun on 12 July after Hizbollah members crossed the
frontier wire, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two
others. But yesterday's slaughter ended more than a year of mutual
antagonism within the Lebanese government as pro-American and
pro-Syrian politicians denounced what they described as "an ugly
Thousands of protesters attacked the largest United Nations building
in Beirut, screaming: "Destroy Tel Aviv, destroy Tel Aviv," and
Lebanon's Prime Minister, the normally unflappable Fouad Siniora,
called US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ordered her to
cancel her imminent peace-making trip to Beirut.
No one in this country can forget how President George Bush, Ms
Rice, and Tony Blair have repeatedly refused to call for an
immediate ceasefire - a truce that would have saved all those lives
yesterday. Ms Rice would say only: "We want a ceasefire as soon as
possible,'' a remark followed by an Israeli announcement that it
intended to maintain its bombardment of Lebanon for at least another
Throughout the day, Qana villagers and civil defence workers dug
through the ruins of the building with spades and with their hands,
tearing at the muck until they found one body after another still
dressed in colourful clothes. In one section of the rubble, they
found what was left of a single room with 18 bodies inside. Twelve
of the dead were women. All across southern Lebanon now, you find
scenes like this, not so grotesque in scale, perhaps, but just as
terrible, for the people of these villages are terrified to leave
and terrified to stay. The Israelis had dropped leaflets over Qana,
ordering its people to leave their homes. Yet twice now since
Israel's onslaught began, the Israelis have ordered villagers to
leave their houses and then attacked them with aircraft as they
obeyed the Israeli instructions and fled. There are at least 3,000
Shia Muslims trapped in villages between Qlaya and Aiteroun - close
to the scene of Israel's last military incursion at Bint Jbeil - and
yet none of them can leave without fear of dying on the roads.
And Mr Olmert's reaction? After expressing his "great sorrow", he
announced that: "We will not stop this battle, despite the difficult
incidents [sic] this morning. We will continue the activity, and if
necessary it will be broadened without hesitation." But how much
further can it be broadened? Lebanon's infrastructure is being
steadily torn to pieces, its villages razed, its people more and
more terrorised - and terror is the word they used - by Israel's
American-made fighter bombers. Hizbollah's missiles are
Iranian-made, and it was Hizbollah that started this war with its
illegal and provocative raid across the border. But Israel's
savagery against the civilian population has deeply shocked not only
the Western diplomats who have remained in Beirut, but hundreds of
humanitarian workers from the Red Cross and major aid agencies.
Incredibly, Israel yesterday denied safe passage to a UN World Food
Programme aid convoy en route to the south, a six-truck mission that
should have taken relief supplies to the south-eastern town of
Marjayoun. More than three quarters of a million Lebanese have now
fled their homes, but there is still no accurate figure for the
total number still trapped in the south. Khalil Shalhoub, who
survived amid the wreckage in Qana yesterday, said that his family
and the Hashims were just too "terrified" to take the road out of
the village, which has been attacked by aircraft for more than two
weeks. The seven-mile highway between Qana and Tyre is littered with
civilian homes in ruins and burnt-out family cars. On Thursday, the
Israeli Army's Al-Mashriq radio, which broadcasts into southern
Lebanon, told residents that their villages would be "totally
destroyed" if missiles were fired from them. But anyone who has
watched Israel's bombing these past two weeks knows that, in many
cases, the Israelis do not know the location in which the Hizbollah
are firing missiles, and - when they do - they frequently miss their
targets. How can a villager prevent the Hizbollah from firing
rockets from his street? The Hizbollah do take cover beside civilian
houses - just as Israeli troops entering Bint Jbeil last week also
used civilian homes for cover. But can this be the excuse for
slaughter on such a scale?
Mr Siniora addressed foreign diplomats in Beirut yesterday, telling
them that the government in Beirut was now only demanding an
immediate ceasefire and was not interested any longer in a political
package to go with it. Needless to say, Mr Jeffrey Feltman, whose
country made the bomb which killed the innocents of Qana yesterday,
chose not to attend.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited