Hell in the Holy Lands

On the border with Lebanon a unit of elite Israeli commandos was sheltering from the heat of battle and the sun under a huge oak. Among them was Max, the son of an eminent Jewish lawyer in London. As the occasional Katyusha rocket flew overhead, he was checking text messages from his mother who feared for his safety.

Max, 24, had emigrated to Israel after graduating from Cambridge.

He was performing his national service when the capture of two Israeli soldiers in a raid by Hezbollah, the Islamic militant group based in Lebanon, ignited the current crisis.

Last week he found himself in the thick of the fighting as commando units struck into Lebanese territory in search of fortified bunkers built by Arab militants next to Israel’s northern border.

“My parents are obviously worried and keep texting me, but at the same time they are also very proud of me for defending the state of Israel,” said Max, who asked that his surname not be used in case there were reprisals against his family in London.

His parents had reason to fret. Despite more than a week of unrelenting Israeli bombardment of Hezbollah positions, Max’s Hornet battalion and several other units had run into serious trouble.

“We entered a scrubby area looking for Hezbollah rocket launchers,” said one of the commandos hunting the underground sites used by the militiamen to target northern Israeli cities.

The soldiers quickly found a steel trapdoor hidden by bushes. “We opened the door and discovered a well-equipped underground bunker with several rooms for up to 10 Hezbollah fighters,” the soldier said.

The bunker was empty, but as an Israeli soldier came back through the trapdoor, a Hezbollah sniper struck, killing him with a bullet through the eye.

“We were almost immediately ambushed. The Hezbollah know every rock and bush there,” said another of the soldiers. “We called in a chopper and it fired missiles. We used to fight the Palestinians, but these are a different breed of warriors, these Shi’ites.”

After a heavy gun battle, the Israeli commandos withdrew.

Another unit was operating nearby in the Lebanese border village of Maroun-a-Ras. Though it had been flattened by Israeli air attacks soon after its residents had fled, Hezbollah fighters remained in their bunkers, waiting for ground forces to arrive.

On Thursday afternoon, Major Benjamin Hillman led his Israeli unit straight into another ambush.

Both the major and one of his men were shot dead. When the remaining soldiers tried to turn back, they were ambushed again from another flank. Four more soldiers were killed.

It was only under heavy artillery cover and with the help of a tank unit that the remaining soldiers were able, two hours later, to scramble back to the Israeli side.

Resting by the towering oak tree, Max looked pale and tired as he stretched out his legs, still in his battle boots. He insisted he was ready to carry on fighting Hezbollah “to uproot them from their outposts”. But like many Israelis — and others — he was wondering how long that might take.

Any hope that air power alone could destroy the threat posed by Hezbollah had evaporated. The militants, long backed by Syria and Iran, were better armed, better organised and better dug-in than expected.

Israel, it emerged yesterday, has asked the US to rush through the delivery of precision-guided bombs, part of an arms deal agreed last year. Last week the move was swiftly agreed by the White House, and the weapons will be delivered within days. They are likely to include GBU-28s, 5,000lb laser-guided “bunker busters”.

This weekend thousands of troops are massing on the border, as Israel prepares to create a “sterile strip” between itself and its enemies. Neither Washington nor London appears in any hurry to see an early end to the fighting, which has killed more than 360 Lebanese and at least 34 Israelis, wounded thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and wreaked widespread devastation on southern Lebanon.

As Tony Blair loyally toed the White House line of allowing Israel a free hand, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, completed her leisurely preparations for a brief diplomatic tour of the region.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have all blamed Hezbollah for provoking the conflict, and Rice will reportedly be seeking to gather an “umbrella” of moderate Arab allies who could yet reinvigorate the American-led drive for democracy in the Middle East.

White House officials are using the term “umbrella” because “coalition” carries too many negative connotations of unresolved struggle in Iraq.

Rice will not leave Washington until later today, and it was clear from her pronounced lack of urgency that President George W Bush had torn up previous manuals for Middle East crisis intervention. The White House played down the seriousness of the Lebanon crisis, characterising the death and destruction as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”.

Officials argued that it was pointless to negotiate with Hezbollah and that only its eradication could create the necessary conditions for a durable political settlement. The crisis was “an opportunity, not a setback”, insisted one senior US official.

His words were echoed at 10 Downing Street, which said Britain and America were united in “seeking a sustainable peace . . . in which the paramilitaries’ tails did not wag the democratic dog”.

Only a few weeks ago, Beirut was the Middle East’s Miami — a hedonistic melting pot of business and beaches attracting visitors from all over the world to a city that had been for years a byword for urban destruction during the Lebanese civil war. New construction included an $80m hotel project by Philippe Starck, the avant-garde French designer, a luxury marina development, new shopping malls and spas.

“Beirut is a hive of activity,” a travel article in Wallpaper* magazine declared last month. “Maybe Lebanon is finally welcoming a time of peace and prosperity.”

Behind the glitz, however, the power of Hezbollah had been steadily growing throughout southern Lebanon. The group has had six years since Israeli forces withdrew in 2000 to consolidate its position and amass a dangerous arsenal.

Intelligence sources claim that a consignment of thousands of Katyusha rockets and other missiles was sent from Iran to Damascus airport in Syria last March. From there they were transported through Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to Hezbollah bases near the Israeli border.

Other sophisticated weapons in the hands of Hezbollah include an anti-ship cruise missile known as the C-802 — an Iranian-made variant of the Chinese Silkworm. One was used in an attack against an Israeli naval vessel on July 14.

Israeli forensic experts say they have also established that a 220mm rocket used in an attack on Haifa last Sunday was made in Syria. The warhead was said to have been filled with ball-bearings — a commonplace terrorist tactic but unheard of in missile warfare.

It was largely because the Israeli military sensed that the threat from both Hezbollah and Iran was growing — not least because of Tehran’s continuation of a nuclear programme that could be used to make bombs — that Tel Aviv reacted so forcefully after eight of its soldiers were killed and two seized on the border 11 days ago.

Israel decided that a show of force was necessary to curb future aggression. Within hours a devastating air bombardment turned any hopes of Beirut’s tourist renaissance to dust.

By last week the Haret Hreik district, home to the headquarters of Hezbollah and its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, was reduced to rubble. In a week of Israeli bombing, scores of apartment buildings have collapsed. Streets are littered with personal belongings and broken furniture.

Yet the Israeli media reported that, despite dropping 23 tons of munitions on Hezbollah’s headquarters, the warplanes had failed to penetrate the underground bunker walls of the command post.

In the south the devastation was even worse. Kamel Abdullah, 50, took advantage of a lull in bombardments in the ancient city of Tyre to buy bread for his family. When he returned his home had been destroyed by a direct Israeli hit. His wife and five children were all dead.

As Israeli planes roared over Tyre, another noise could also be heard: the whoosh of Katyusha rockets. From sites dug into the hills south of the city, the rockets headed for Israel.

Hezbollah was using “shoot and scoot” tactics, firing missiles pre-hidden in caves and wadis, and moving on before Israeli planes could retaliate.

The human cost of the struggle was horrific and the overwhelming majority of the victims were civilians.

Zahra al-Samra, 18, lost her mother, a sister and a niece when Israeli bombs hit their apartment in Tyre, which was in a building that housed the local civil defence force. Another sister was severely burnt and might not survive.

Once a pretty brunette, Zahra was burnt over her face and body by the blast of the explosion. Last week she sat, catatonic, in a small hospital being cradled by her brother.

Writhing in pain, she cried out: “I don’t want to live, I want to die. God, you can’t make me live.”

Acroo the border in Israel, sudden death also fell from clear skies. In Nahariya, a town of about 30,000 a few miles inside Israel, Rada Zalinski, an immigrant from Ukraine, went out onto the balcony of her home to call to her husband Andrei. He was preparing a shelter where his family could take refuge.

“Andrei was in the shelter and Rada called him to come out,” said a neighbour. “As Andrei emerged, and while Rada was watching him approaching their flat, a Katyusha rocket fell. It virtually hit him direct.”

A paramedic said: “Nothing much remained of the body and in the first moments I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.”

Neighbours took Rada and her four-year-old daughter Galit to hospital. “She was crying the whole time and little Galit, who didn’t understand what had happened, was crying with her,” said the neighbour. Rada asked that her husband be buried in Ukraine; but she said that she would remain in Israel.

Caught in the middle of the conflagration were thousands of British nationals. Emily Warren, a 12-year-old from London, was staying with a friend from the French Lycée in Kensington whose relatives had a home in the hills above Beirut.

“People were dying and bombs were exploding,” she said. “I couldn’t understand it. This was supposed to be a summer holiday with my best friend.”

After days of waiting, gloomily watching the war on satellite television, the British embassy in Beirut telephoned to say that evacuations were being arranged.

It was the start of a chaotic departure from Lebanon for tens of thousands of foreign nationals. To help with the American evacuations, US Marines landed in Beirut for the first time since a suicide attack on a US barracks there killed 241 service personnel in 1984.

For many of those fleeing it was an abrupt departure only days after they had arrived for a taste of the shiny new Beirut. Emily sat silently with her friend and her friend’s mother as a taxi took them towards the city.

“In the mountains, it had been hard to tell that something was wrong, but as we entered Beirut we could see buildings in ruins,” she said.

Emily took out her camera but was swiftly told to put it away. “You’re frightening the driver,” said her friend’s mother. “The flash reminds him of the bombs.”

The taxi drove past shops that the girls had visited a week ago. “Now they were just rubble,” Emily said. “This made me really angry. The bombs had destroyed the most beautiful buildings. They had only just been rebuilt.”

At a meeting point near a mosque, a Royal Navy helicopter waited. Within hours Emily was in Cyprus; but for others escape was not so smooth.

Nathalie Moukarzel, 21, who has an English mother and Lebanese father, was born and brought up in Britain. She had arrived in Beirut to visit relatives only hours before hostilities erupted.

As soon as she realised how serious the bombing raids were she sought help from the embassy. “I tried to call the embassy for a whole day and they did not answer,” said Moukarzel. “The next day I called for four hours before someone picked up.”

Over the ensuing days she battled, she said, with staff who seemed unable to offer any help. “I cannot tell you how ashamed I am to call myself a British citizen — I have lost faith and feel helpless,” she said, though she is now safely out of the country after being evacuated aboard HMS Bulwark.

Others who were offered assistance were also dismayed at the handling of the evacuation. Ilham al-Shami, her sister Rena and 14 other family members — all with dual Lebanese-British citizenship — found that a British embassy official told them they could not take their two Filipino nannies on board Bulwark.

Surrounded by Louis Vuitton suitcases, al-Shami and her relatives complained forcefully at having to abandon their nannies. All they wanted, they said, was to get to their villa in Cyprus. One undiplomatic official told them to “f*** off”.

In rather more parlous position late last week were 10 British nationals said by the embassy on Friday to be trapped in their homes by the fighting in south Lebanon. It was too dangerous for them to move, but a final evacuation of other stragglers was being planned yesterday.

AS the rockets and bombs continued to fall, Condoleezza Rice sat down to a private dinner in New York on Thursday with Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general. The gilded splendour of the Waldorf Astoria hotel could scarcely have been further removed from the wrecked Beirut landscapes flickering across the television screens in the hotel bar.

It is hard to imagine what the pair might have agreed upon, unless they were talking about the choking heatwave that smothered Manhattan last week.

Earlier that day, Annan had called for an immediate cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah — a move that drew a sharp rebuke from John Bolton, the hawkish US ambassador to the UN.

“No one’s explained how you conduct a ceasefire with a group of terrorists,” said Bolton. “It is not appropriate to talk about a ceasefire as if that is the alpha and omega of the situation.”

Rice’s dinner with Annan appeared intended to dispel the impression that America is becoming increasingly isolated over its Middle East policies — or what some regard as a lack of them.

There were hints in London that Blair, who will visit the White House on Friday, was becoming alarmed at America’s non-interventionist strategy and at the growing cockiness of enemies of the West as Hezbollah won the propaganda war to depict Israel as the aggressor.

The prime minister had spelt out his position on Wednesday, when he said that the hostilities would “stop now if the [Israeli] soldiers who were kidnapped wrongly . . . were released”.

He added: “It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa, deliberately to kill innocent civilians. If those two things happen, let me promise . . . I will be the first out there saying Israel should halt this operation.”

The cabinet, meeting on Thursday, backed his stance. After Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, gave a presentation, there was only one dissenting voice. Lord Grocott, chief whip in the House of Lords and a former ultra-loyalist parliamentary private secretary to Blair, argued that Israel’s actions could be seen as “disproportionate”.

The problem for Blair — not to mention Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister — is that anything short of a convincing Israeli military victory or a complete capitulation by Hezbollah seems unlikely to achieve what Rice described as the “sustainable conditions for political progress” that would make an American diplomatic initiative worthwhile.

For the border war has to be seen in the context of greater intractable problems. Even if the threat of an Israeli invasion forces Hezbollah to sue for peace, Washington appears no nearer to resolving either of the most pressing issues threatening the Middle East’s future: Iran’s nuclear capabilities and Syria’s mischief-making in Iraq.

“No reckoning with Hezbollah will be adequate without a reckoning with its principal state sponsors of terror,” Bolton acknowledged last week.

Hezbollah’s attack on Israel — unlikely to have been carried out without some kind of discussion with Tehran — is ample evidence of the growing confidence in both Iran and Syria that America has been hobbled by the war in Iraq and is rapidly losing its grasp on the region.

When Rice announced earlier this year that America would finally engage Iran in talks about its nuclear programme, the response from Tehran was mocking. “Why don’t you admit that you are weak and your razor is blunt?” asked Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme religious leader.

Shortly after that a boat operated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards sailed past a US navy vessel in the Gulf with a banner that read: “US cannot do a damn thing.”
Not that Iran is claiming direct credit for Hezbollah’s actions. On Friday, Akbar Rafsanjani, another leading cleric, claimed the conflict was “a plan prepared by the US, Israel and perhaps Britain since several weeks ago”.

That carries little weight in America, where analysts largely concur that Tehran has been manipulating Hezbollah’s attacks as a useful ploy for diverting attention from its nuclear activities. American analysts disagree, however, over the likely lasting effects of this crisis.

Some believe that Israel’s fierce military response, while it will hurt Hezbollah in the short term, will only stir up more hatred. Muqtedar Khan, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said: “Muslims across the world are watching a nuclear power — supported, armed and funded by the US — bombard and kill dozens of civilians, destroy the economy and infrastructure of Palestine and Lebanon . . . and all the US does is provide cover for Israel on the world stage.

“Al-Qaeda must be running out of enrolment forms . . . the escalation in the region strengthens anti-Americanism worldwide and fuels radicalism in the Arab and Muslim world.”

The optimists argue that if Israel succeeds in delivering a swift and decisive blow to Hezbollah’s paramilitary base, then Lebanon’s recently installed democratic government, led by Fouad Siniora, might survive; Palestinian militants might become chastened; and America will profit from the gratitude of a number of moderate Arab states who have their own worries about the spread of Shi’ite aggression.

According to this analysis, Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, might turn out to have made a fatal mistake if Israel is given enough time to inflict serious military punishment during any ground offensive.

It is already clear, however, that the longer the fighting goes on and the civilian casualties increase, the greater the pressure will be for Washington to rein in Israel — which would leave Rice’s “sustainable conditions for political progress” still out of reach.

“If Hezbollah is significantly weakened or destroyed, that’s good for US policy,” said Steven Cook, a regional specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “But any deal that leaves Hezbollah in place is not a good deal for the US.”

Packing up his bags in Beirut on Wednesday evening, Brian Prescott-Decie, a British university professor, chose to be optimistic. He had decided to join the British evacuation, he said, only because he had two small children — Edward, 3, and Celia, 5.

“We are looking at this as an extended vacation,” he said as he boarded HMS Bulwark for Cyprus. “Our house is here, our lives are here, our children go to school here. We will find our way back.”

Yet a few dozen miles further south, Israeli soldiers were massing for what military commanders described as a bid to carve out a Hezbollah-free buffer zone above Israel’s northern border. It may precipitate protracted and bloody fighting.

When Nasrallah gave a television interview on Thursday night he did not look remotely perturbed at the thought of further fighting.

“Hezbollah has so far stood fast, absorbed the strike, retaken the initiative and there are more surprises ahead,” he told the Al-Jazeera network.

Prescott-Decie and his children might be away longer than they think.