Brutal battle for uncertain peace
The Sunday Times – July 30, 2006
Peering through the pre-dawn gloom, Major Roi Klein of the Golani infantry brigade knew that he was in the right place. He could see the minaret towering above the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, near Israel’s border. Behind him his men were creeping towards the stone houses, their faces streaked with green-brown camouflage paint.
Whispers passed down the line as the Israeli infantrymen advanced on a town notorious as a stronghold of Hezbollah guerrillas. The streets were empty. The Islamic militants who had been peppering northern Israel with rocket attacks appeared to have withdrawn.
As they reached the buildings, Klein identified a clinic from the aerial reconnaissance photographs he had studied. Then a blood-freezing scream split the silence: “Allahu akbar” — God is greatest.
The next thing the soldiers heard was the clatter of a hand grenade rolling out of the darkness. Klein shouted “Grenade!” The explosion blew his legs off.
Klein died in the arms of one of his soldiers; it was last Wednesday morning, the day before his 31st birthday.
“All hell broke loose,” said Sergeant Ram Boneh, who was only slightly injured and was later taken to a hospital in Haifa. “There were RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), rifles, hand grenades, from every window and house. We were trapped by at least eight positions around us.”
On a hilltop across the border in Israel, officers with powerful binoculars saw the Hezbollah ambush erupt. “The bastards are alive and kicking,” muttered one. He radioed for assault helicopters to move in.
The day before, five Israeli soldiers had been injured in a “friendly fire” incident involving one of their own helicopter pilots who was trying to give them covering fire. So this time the helicopters fired well clear of their trapped comrades. The volley of rockets failed to dislodge the Hezbollah ambushers.
Hand grenades continued to rain on the Golani soldiers. A fight from house to house developed. Shouts in Hebrew and Arabic mixed with the gunfire. “We took over one house,” said Sergeant Evyatar Dahan, another survivor. “One of us threw in a hand grenade. Then I got a bullet in my shoulder. It came out of my back. I couldn’t carry on and shouted for the medic.”
As the fighting wore on, the Israelis dragged their dead and injured into a house. The Hezbollah fighters were closing in on them. “We could hear them approaching, encouraging each other with shouts in Arabic and then screaming when they were hit by the choppers overhead.”
The battalion commander, Colonel Yaniv Ashor, realised his men would not be able to retreat with their dead and feared the Hezbollah forces would seize the bodies. Three Israelis with severe wounds also needed to be evacuated.
From the command and control position on the Israeli side of the border, the officer in charge called in more Black Hawk helicopters, or Owls, as they called in the Israeli air force. “Heavy fire from the ground,” the Owls squadron leader was overheard to say on radio. “No permission to land.” Ground fire and a barrage of mortar shells aimed at the likely landing site forced the Owls to hold off. Once again the Israelis had to call on greater firepower.
Shortly after midday F-16 fighter jets screamed in at low altitude, firing rockets at the Hezbollah positions. Under cover of the bombardment, 12 soldiers carrying three stretchers raced from their hideout towards the Owls, which had swooped in to hover just above the ground. The soldiers from the “669” rescue team jumped out and hurriedly loaded the injured. Within minutes the choppers were on their way to Rambam hospital in Haifa.
In Bint Jbeil another eight Israelis lay dead and their comrades were not going to leave them behind. As darkness drew in, reinforcements crept into the town and, in a long and tiring march, the dead were carried out on stretchers.
The furious battle and its toll sent shock waves through Tel Aviv and revealed to the wider world that there was going to be no quick ending to this Middle Eastern conflict. Three weeks after Hezbollah ignited the violence by killing eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two others, the Israelis are still struggling to clear the militants and their rockets out of southern Lebanon.
Yesterday Hezbollah remained entrenched in Bint Jbeil; the death toll in Lebanon had reached more than 600, according to the Lebanese authorities, and hundreds of thousands had fled from their homes.
Yet some 80% of the Lebanese people, far from rejecting Hezbollah, were expressing their support for its actions, according to one opinion poll. In Iran radical Islamic students were setting off to join the battle.
Tony Blair and President George W Bush pushed for an international force to police the border area — but made no call for an immediate ceasefire. “Our goal is to achieve a lasting peace; that requires a free democratic Lebanon,” said Bush. Blair added: “This can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work.”
There was little sign that Hezbollah would, as Israel demands, withdraw its fighters and cede control in the south to the Lebanese army. Quite the opposite. Yesterday Hezbollah fired a Khaibar 1 rocket, with four times the range of its usual Katyusha rockets, at the Israeli town of Afula — its deepest attack so far.
For civilians the conflict has brought misery mixed with defiance. In Beirut last week 2,000 refugees from the fighting were trying to reorganise their lives within the confines of an underground car park.
Several floors beneath a shopping mall in the Shiyah district, Lebanese mothers were last week fussing around Julia al-Haj, one of six babies who have been born underground since the Israeli bombardments began.
Julia’s mother Sarah is only 14 and struggling to manage her new daughter in a makeshift home on a single car parking space.
“Despite all, we remain steadfast,” said Sarah’s father, Haj Ali al-Miqdad, who has four other children.
Al-Miqdad said he would willingly send his 16-year-old son Hussein to join the Hezbollah resistance. Shbeed Shehab, who escaped the Israeli attacks on Barasheet in south Lebanon, went a step further — he has named his newborn son Raeed, after a type of rocket used by Hezbollah.
The refugees have turned the car park into a gloomy but well arranged sanctuary, with food delivered from the supermarket above and small camping cookers provided. Television screens have been installed for adults and children and the corner of one level has been turned into a mosque.
Above ground, some residents were still refusing to leave their homes, despite the devastation of Beirut’s southern suburbs. Among them last week were Victoria Chamoun, a 77-year-old Christian, and Fatima Mohammed, 75, a Shi’ite Muslim, who have lived in neighbouring flats in the Hezbollah-controlled Haret Hreik neighbourhood for 52 years.
Ignoring appeals from friends, neighbours and Hezbollah officials — and the wholesale destruction of buildings around them — the two women have refused to budge.
“I moved in previous wars and was humiliated as a refugee,” said Chamoun as she made a cup of warm milk for her husband, an 85-year-old invalid. “I’m not going to be humiliated again.”
Later she sat with her friend Mohammed on a sofa and recalled the bombardments all around them. “Sometimes the sofa moves across the floor from the force of the bombs outside,” she said. “There’s no electricity, no water, no nothing.” The conditions are squalid and insanitary. “We’re probably going to die of the smell,” she joked grimly.
Yet the women, like many other Lebanese, remain defiant. “May Allah destroy and finish these Israelis off,” said Mohammed.
Part of the support is down to the social role that Hezbollah has developed alongside its military presence. Amid the rubble-strewn streets, members of Hezbollah patrol on scooters, accosting strangers and checking on visitors. Their purpose is to protect shops and homes abandoned during the bombing.
At the same time Hezbollah’s television station survives, despite being bombed, and has been inundated with callers from the Arab world pledging support for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader. It continues to pump out propaganda images of fighters with rockets and other weapons.
“Victory is coming and is assured” say the slogans.
While Lebanon burnt last week, western diplomats fiddled in Rome. At a summit in the Italian capital, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, wrangled with the rest of the world over a single word: “immediate”.
It was the sticking point in the final communiqué. Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, as well as foreign ministers for 11 countries including Russia, France, Germany, Italy and Egypt, wanted the conference to call for an “immediate ceasefire”.
But in a vast hall of the Italian foreign ministry, a monstrosity of white stone built by the dictator Benito Mussolini, Rice objected to juxtaposing these two words — and nothing would sway her.
“Condi’s argument was that there was no point in us standing up and calling for an immediate ceasefire as it is unachievable,” a conference source said.
Back and forth the argument went. Philippe Douste-Blazy, France’s foreign minister, was among the most vocal. “Madame Rice and I argued over this for an hour,” he said afterwards. “Don’t think that I’m against peace. I want it very much,” shot back Rice heatedly at one point, but she insisted that a long-term solution must be found.
Amid the to-ing and fro-ing Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, made an impassioned plea: “The killing must end. Now! If a quarter of the populations of your countries was fleeing and had in hand only a suitcase with some clothes, what would you say? That’s how Lebanon is now. Are we the sons of a lesser God?“ Skilfully deflating the emotions spurred by Siniora’s words, Rice responded:
“Mr prime minister, we want a ceasefire, we want it to be immediate, we want it for yesterday! “We can leave here saying ‘immediate ceasefire’ but we want to leave here doing something more, building a real process which will bring a true, definitive peace for Lebanon and for this region.”
The summit limply concluded with a communiqué that called for a “determination to work immediately to reach . . . a ceasefire”. This toothless proclamation left Israeli officials crowing that they had effectively been given carte blanche to prosecute their war.
Within hours Rice was on a plane to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for a conference on Asian security. The secretary of state, an accomplished musician, was later photographed playing the piano for Asian foreign ministers while outside the venue Muslim demonstrators held up banners reading “Bush and Olmert (the Israeli prime minister) are fathers of Satan”.
BLAIR arrived in Washington on Friday pursued as ever by British complaints that he is clinging to an ineffectual role as Bush’s “poodle”. He soon rebutted any hints of tension in the special transatlantic relationship.
After a Bush joke about microphones being switched on — a reference to his “Yo Blair” remarks accidentally broadcast at the G8 summit — the two men insisted that they were both committed to a peacemaking plan that would insert a foreign “stabilisation” force between the warring parties.
Blair went even further, invoking the spectre of the September 11 attacks as a reminder of what might happen if terrorists were not confronted. “You’re up against an ideology that’s prepared to use any means at all, including killing any number of wholly innocent people,” he said.
His visit to Bush was a stopover on a long-planned trip to California where the prime minister this weekend is addressing a meeting of executives of News Corporation, parent company of The Sunday Times.
As reports reached Blair that some of his cabinet colleagues and backbench MPs were voicing concern over the failure to call for an immediate ceasefire, he hastily amended his planned speech while flying on from Washington to San Francisco.
He inserted a passage making his determination for a lasting solution clear: “We knew Hezbollah were going to be a problem with a licence to run a state within a state complete with their own military force in the south of Lebanon. That’s why we passed resolution 1559 following the expulsion of Syria from Lebanon. We called for the area to be put in the sole control of the Lebanese army (and) for all militias to be disbanded. It never happened; this time it must.”
He dispatched Nigel Sheinwald, his foreign policy adviser, back to London to prepare for the UN security council meeting this week on the crisis. Agreement on an international force for Lebanon is vital, believes Blair, and he is keen to win over Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, so that Muslim troops are included.
However, many questions remain. The most serious concerns the assumption that Hezbollah can be disarmed by an outside force.
The group has shown little interest in laying down its arms, to which it has ample access through its well stocked sponsors, Syria and Iran. Hezbollah forces have had special training in Iran, according to Al-Sharq Al- Awsat, the London-based Arabic daily, last week quoting a military source close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ leadership. It claimed that more than 3,000 fighters have been schooled in guerilla warfare, missiles, artillery and other techniques.
Not surprisingly some US officials last week portrayed the conflict as a proxy war by Iran and Syria to disrupt US efforts to bring democracy to the region. But others warned that the conflict might end up doing more harm than good to hopes for democracy.
Meanwhile, the death toll rises on both sides. When the bodies of the Israeli soldiers killed at Bint Jbeil were returned across the border last week, they were laid out in a peach orchard where military rabbis tended to them.
Klein was buried in Jerusalem on what would have been his birthday. The men he left behind at the border are waiting for new orders as Israel continues a war that has no easy conclusion in sight.
Reporting team: Uzi Mahnaimi, Hala Jaber, Tony Allen-Mills, John Follain, Rosie Bennett.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-2291490,00.html
Last updated 01/08/2006