Haaretz & Tom Perry / Reuters & Kevin Sites – 2006-07-31 00:17:23
Israeli Soldier Sentenced to 28 Days for Refusing to Serve in Lebanon
Amos Harel, Yuli Khromchenko, Lily Galili, Gideon Alon and Yoav Stern / Haaretz
TEL AVIV (July 31, 2006) — The first person to refuse to do army service during the current fighting was sentenced Sunday to 28 days in a military prison. According to the refusal organization Yesh Gvul, which issued a public statement Sunday urging others to follow in Amir Fester’s footsteps, more than 10 other people have contacted the organization about the possibility of refusing to serve.
While some of them have answered reserve duty call-ups and are participating in military training, they have said that they will not take part in the fighting, according to organization spokesman Yishai Menuchin.
Sunday’s bombing in Qana sparked an immediate surge in Israeli opposition to the fighting in Lebanon. Spontaneous demonstrations and petitions were organized within hours, and drew more people than the organized demonstrations of the previous two weeks.
One of the demonstrations, organized by senior officials from Meretz, took place in front of the Defense Ministry compound in the Kirya in Tel Aviv.
Dozens of members and top officials of the party protested despite Meretz’s official position, which for the moment is one supporting the Lebanon offensive.
Demonstrators held signs which read, “Cease-fire now,” calling for immediate negotiations with Lebanon and Syria. Another sign was emblazoned with, “We are a strong but thinking homefront.”
“We wanted to protest the foolishness of this war,” attorney Yifat Solel, who also serves on the Meretz board of directors, told Haaretz. “It’s obvious that a military operation would cause the harming of innocents, and that the most significant achievement would be reached only through diplomatic negotiations.”
More than 600 people, including Israeli professors and senior Meretz party officials, have signed an international petition calling for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. Among the signatories to this petition is former Meretz MKs Naomi Chazan.
Thousands Protest against War
Thousands of Israeli Arabs took to the streets of Umm al-Fahm on Sunday evening to protest the war in Lebanon following the bombing of the village of Qana.
Demonstrators shouted “Israel is a terrorist state,” and, “the people of Gaza and Lebanon won’t surrender.”
In the Galilee, dozens of Ta’al activists demonstrated against the war and waved signs that read: “Peretz, Olmert and Rice are responsible for war crimes.”
Left-wing factions of Knesset on Sunday denounced the Israel Air Force strike on the Lebanese village of Qana that left 54 people dead.
MK Mohhamed Barakeh (Hadash) said the only result of the offensive being waged by Olmert and Peretz in Lebanon is a series of war crimes. “The government has decided to carry out massacres in Gaza and Lebanon under the protection of the US.”
Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin said the large number of civilian casualties at Qana proves that prolonging the campaign in Lebanon won’t help obtain the operation’s objectives.
Beilin added that no Israel Defense Forces statement could justify the pictures of innocent casualties, nor the reality that another strike like this could happen again.
MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz) called for negotiations, adding “what happened there is a humanitarian disaster that no one intended, but the outcome is a black flag.”
MK Ahmed Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al) said that Rice’s ‘smart bombs’ and Halutz’s praised pilots’ have caused a horrendous and foreseeable war crime. “Bush, Peretz, and Olmert bear the responsibility for this brutal parade of corpses,” he added.
MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) said Israel has declared war on the citizens of Lebanon, adding “those resopnsible for the massacre are guilty of a war crime and should stand trial before the international Criminal Tribunal in the Hague.”
Balad is to hold an anti-war demonstration outside the Knesset on Monday.
In Israel’s Sights, Lebanon Truckers Face Death
Tom Perry / Reuters
BEIRUT (July 28, 2006) — Ahmed Suleimani looks out for Israeli warships on the horizon when he drives along Lebanon’s coastal road, praying his truck won’t come under fire.
“You don’t know when they will strike. Many of my friends were targeted and martyred by bombing,” he said.
Trucks, vans and cars have been a daily target for the Israeli military in its war with Hizbollah, killing dozens on the roads and hindering delivery of food supplies to villages in need of replenishment.
An Israeli warplane narrowly missed the truck of Suleimani’s brother-in-law while he was trying to deliver mineral water to a village in the Bekaa valley. “The missile struck in front of him, but thanks to God he survived,” Suleimani said.
Others have been less fortunate. Suleimani, who usually transports commercial goods from Beirut port, says four of his colleagues have been killed on the roads.
Israel says it hits vehicles carrying Hizbollah weapons. An army spokeswoman said targeted trucks have been carrying Hizbollah rockets, while cars have been involved in transporting smaller arms and bombs.
Taxi driver Ibrahim Khaled was evacuating his family from southern Lebanon when a missile struck just in front of his car. He had seen six cars destroyed on the roadside. “The people inside were burning,” he said.
Before the strike, he could hear the sound of an aircraft overhead. “You can hear their noise but you can’t see them. Then they strike,” he said.
Many drivers have stopped working.
Prompted by Israeli rocket strikes on parked trucks, Soheil al-Ayyash has taken the precaution of hiding his truck in an underground garage.
“Wherever they see a truck, they bomb. I’m hiding it in the same way as I’m hiding my son,” Ayyash said. “I just go, pay the parking fee, and run. I’m not even going to check up on the truck, let alone drive it.”
An aid agency offered him $1,000 to take food to the southern city of Tyre, which has been heavily pounded in the war which began on July 12. He refused despite the financial hardship caused by losing his source of income.
“I said no way. I’m not taking the truck out. A colleague did that and they incinerated his truck and killed him.”
The United Nations has said targeting of commercial lorries, together with destruction of roads and bridges, has seriously hampered relief operations for 750,000 people displaced by a war which has killed 458 people in Lebanon and 51 Israelis.
“We have been able to find drivers but it’s taking a lot of time and effort. It’s not just the drivers who are concerned, but also the truck owners,” World Food Programme spokesman Robin Lodge said.
Truck driver Mohammed Mraad said $10,000 would not convince him to make the trip to Tyre.
“You drive and you’re in God’s hands,” he said.
One Day in Tyre
Entering a home that has been struck by missiles only minutes earlier feels at once both perverse and irresistible. But when the opportunity loudly presents itself at dusk this week in the heart of downtown Tyre, curiosity forces me down the rabbit hole, along with a cluster of people from the neighborhood.
The structure itself still feels warm inside. A fine pulverized dust coats everything and still hangs in the air, making it almost seem as if we are diving to a shipwreck hundreds of feet under the sea.
It is a fitting climax for a day that has been one long, slow build in a demonstration of war’s destructive absurdity. The southern Lebanese port city of Tyre is reeling from the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.
Mass Graves in Tyre
My day covering Tyre begins with a visit to a mass grave site. Here, the bodies lie in thin plywood coffins in a shallow trench marked only by a large stone at one end and a metal pipe at the other.
According to officials at the city coroner’s office, this is just a temporary resting place (partly a way to meet the immediacy of Islamic burial requirements) until the fighting is over. Then, the bodies will be moved to more dignified burial grounds.
Next to the site is another long trench already dug out and waiting to be filled. Dozens of empty coffins are also stacked in the courtyard of the city morgue. I ask one of the medical examiners if they are for people already killed or for the future.
“The future,” she says, with a small sigh.
For some, the pain of living is now the challenge.
At Najem Hospital, Nohad Zaim and her four children all share a room _ and the trauma of surviving an Israeli missile attack. A day earlier, they were fleeing their village of Mansouri with another family when both cars were hit by Israeli missiles.
While only one man was injured in the other car, Zaim’s entire family became casualties. Both of her teenage sons, Ahmad and Ali, suffered broken bones, facial lacerations and head wounds. Ali may also lose the fingers of his left hand, which is badly damaged. The brothers are in beds next to each other, lying almost perfectly still.
In another bed on the far side of the room is their brother Mahmoud, his face covered with antibiotic salve to treat the third-degree burns.
The doctor who has been treating the family says the boy has had to be sedated because he’s been hallucinating and having nightmares.
Zaim paces the small space in between her sons, holding her 8-month-old daughter, Mariam. Both mother and child have the red lacerations and speckles associated with blast trauma covering their faces.
To deepen the tragedy of the injuries, the boys have not yet learned of one more detail of the incident: their father, Mohammed, was killed in the air strike.
It’s something their mother and the doctors thought they should be spared for the moment.
Civilian Causualties Soar
While civilian casualties mount in southern Lebanon, so, it seems, does the anger of those directly affected. In the parking lot of the hospital, a silver pickup truck with a shattered windshield pulls in. The driver and several passengers get out, all wearing bandages from earlier injuries.
I’m sitting in my car watching them, but do not attempt to photograph them. In fact, I’m not even touching the cameras slung over my shoulders. The driver looks at me and I can sense his hostility immediately.
“Do not even raise your camera,” he threatens. I shrug. One of the other passengers, a man, comes over to the car.
“Did he take a picture?” he demands of my translator, Ali.
“No, I swear to you,” Ali replies, and the man walks away.
We look at each other, wondering what had just happened.
We had heard that a ship was arriving at 11 a.m. with food and other supplies for people still in Tyre, so we decide to head to port to watch it being unloaded.
It is, we soon discover, a sad and chaotic little footnote in the day’s strangeness. A Paris-based group, Premiere Urgence — one of a few international groups, including the Red Cross and International Medical Corps, courageous enough to work in southern Lebanon — has chartered space for the relief supplies on a German-flagged passenger vessel called the Princess Marissa. The supplies were donated by the Swiss government.
But the supplies themselves have been limited because the ship’s primary purpose is to pick up what the German government believes will be as many as 1,500 European citizens trying to flee the war zone. According to one official who did not want to be named, the group didn’t want to expose evacuees to possible danger by delaying their departure with the delivery of relief supplies.
Ultimately, only about 300 to 400 evacuees show up at the port. The estimated 50,000 people in need in Tyre and the surrounding region are left with a hugely inadequate relief package totaling a few dozen cases of water, some boxes of milk and bags of rice and salt.
Still, it is the only relief the area has received since the crisis began. Francio Dupaquien, emergency officer for Premiere Urgence, says Tyre is already a humanitarian disaster.
“It’s one of the worst I’ve seen,” he says, while waiting for the ship to enter port. “There is a food crisis, and a health crisis; we’re already seeing waterborne diseases within the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps.”
Conditions in the Camps
We decide to see the conditions of one of the camps in town, a primary school that is being used to house 150 families who fled their villages farther south. Leaders in the camp estimate that as many as 1,000 people are living there without regular sources of food, water or medical treatment.
When we arrive we are immediately swarmed by children, who shout “Sura, sura,” wanting me to take their picture. These are followed by curious teenage boys, then dozens of angry women.
“They think we’re spies for the Israelis and the Americans,” Ali, my translator, says to me. “They think we’re going to tell them how to target the school.”
We try to explain that we just want to see their living conditions, but the crowd grows bigger and more vocal.
“We don’t need anything from anyone,” says one woman. “Sheik Hussein will provide for us,” she says, referring to the spiritual head of Hezbollah, Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
We’re finally approached by a man with glasses who tells us that they will let us see the camp if we get a paper from Hezbollah vouching for us. We leave without shooting a single photograph or frame of video.
But as a concession, seemingly, a man says he will show us another camp close by. He gets into our car and directs the driver down an alleyway, leading to another converted school being used to shelter IDPs.
The City Morgue
But along the way we pass the city morgue, where there seems to be a lot of activity. We go inside to see workers laying out the bodies of two men on sheets of black plastic.
I ask how they were killed. The first, I’m told, is named Jihad Ammad Murtada and was driving a car that was hit by an Israeli missile.
They unwrap the blanket from around his body to show me that they were not able to find his head. His hands are clenched tightly into fists.
One of the men reaches into the dead man’s pockets to pull out his personal belongings — a set of keys, a wallet — things that would seem normal for someone breathing, but that take on a near-mythical quality for someone without a head.
Next to Murtada’s body is that of Hassan Brahim Said. He had come to the city to buy food and milk for his 8-month-old daughter, Fatme, and was struck by a missile while riding home on his motorbike, according to a medical technician.
They unwrap the blanket covering him as well to reveal that his body has nearly been split in half. His face, absent the skull, hangs to one side like a rubber mask. It is a gruesome scene that causes many to turn their faces. Two young boys who sneaked into the compound to get a closer look are chased away.
The bodies are wrapped in black plastic and then bound with white medical tape on which their names are written with a black marker. For now the bodies are stored in a refrigerated truck with the five other bodies recovered today.
Inside the morgue’s office, a Lebanese police officer sorts through Said’s wallet and other belongings while his brother waits for the items to be turned over to him. The officer opens the wallet and removes some Lebanese currency and slips of paper with phone numbers written on them.
In the middle of the wallet’s fold, under a plastic sleeve, is a picture of Said’s wife, Sabah, who is beginning to sob at the entrance of the office, perhaps just beginning to realize the sad reality of her new life without a husband and father for her child.
Finally, the officer pulls out Said’s identification card. The small square picture reveals what he looked like in life, before the missile strike tore him asunder.
In the morgue’s office, exhausted coroners tell me they haven’t gone home since the Israeli offensive began.
“I’ve been through four wars,” says Dr. Adib Mazanyi, “but this seems to be the worst. The weapons are more powerful and there are so many civilians being killed.”
He says many of the bodies are still in the buildings or cars where the victims were struck because anyone trying to reach them is also targeted. He says that there are reports that even two Red Cross ambulances were attacked the night before, possibly killing both crews.
Red Cross Headquarters
This leads us to the Red Cross headquarters near downtown, where orange-jumpsuited paramedics, male and female, have been racing from one missile attack to the next retrieving the wounded and the dead — at huge risks to themselves.
When we arrive, paramedic Nadir Joudi is talking to other journalists, his arm in a sling and a pair of burned stretchers lying against the wall.
He says that two ambulances were out on a run the night before when they were hit by Israeli missiles. They all took shelter in a building, he says, while the aircraft made a second attack.
And adding injury to injury, one of the three injured men whom the paramedics had picked up lost both legs in the attack on the ambulance, Joudi says.
Before we can finish the interview, we are shaken by a huge explosion. The concussion is so strong that we feel it at the Red Cross headquarters about one-third mile away.
But strangely, there is no smoke, no fire. In the aftermath, there is only the high-pitched buzz of a pilotless aircraft circling overhead.
When a Missile Strike Hits
I find the site of the missile strike on a busy street in the heart of downtown Tyre. It’s a three-story residential building.
Already, some men in their 20s from the neighborhood have been inside and come back out. I go in as well, my camera rolling, wondering if there are victims.
According to neighbors, the house was empty, but inside the natural paradigm of the structure has been turned on its head. The things we think of as solid — ceilings, floors, walls — have been crushed, cracked and fractured like so many eggshells.
Furniture is tossed here and there as if the house were struck by an earthquake. Dividing walls no longer divide.
But there is something — maybe several things — strange about this missile attack. The penetration is so deep that it almost appears as if the weapon used was a bunker-buster bomb, like those used against the palaces of Saddam Hussein during the invasion of Iraq.
Also, there was no fire, no smoke, no secondary explosions. Either the missiles didn’t explode or they weren’t meant to, to avoid fires or other casualties in the neighborhood.
Maybe, the thought occurs to me, the house was specifically targeted because of Israeli Defense Force statements about Hezbollah hiding weapons in people’s homes. I don’t see any signs of that inside — only furniture, televisions, the usual.
Privately, one man in the neighborhood does tell my translator, Ali, that a member of Hezbollah didn’t live in that house, but next door; something we couldn’t easily verify, if at all.
Another neighbor, a young man, watching the Lebanese soldiers investigate the incident begins to speak with me.
“Who is this war against?” says Raed al-Husseini, 20. “Is it against Hezbollah, the Lebanese army? We don’t know. But it’s united our people and we won’t leave our country. But you must tell Israel and America to stop this. We’ve adapted to war, but what about our children?”
(Find more reporting from “Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone” at http://hotzone.yahoo.com.)