Fuel tanks burn at Beirut’s International Airport after attack by Israeli helicopter gunships.
Ecocide in Lebanon
Gar Smith / The-Edge
(September 3, 2006) — At 8pm on August 8, Gar Smith was a guest on Nightline BC, a two-hour-long radio talk show broadcast on CKNW in Vancouver, Canada. Smith, a co-founder of Environmentalists Against War, was invited to discuss the “Environmental Impacts of War in Lebanon and Iraq.” An audio of the show is available at www.cknw.com/station/audiovault_members.cfm [Note: Requires free membership].
On July 13 and 15, 2006, Israeli jets fired precision-guided missiles at the El Jiyye powerplant on Lebanon’s coast, 19 miles south of Beirut. One of the fuel-laden tanks exploded shortly after the attack, spilling 10,000 tons of oil into the sea. Unlike crude oil, which is thinner and is susceptible to evaporation, fuel oil is thicker, causing it to sink to the bottom. The second tank, which continued to burn, held another 20,000 tons of fuel oil.
Up to 15,000 tons of heavy fuel oil — 110,000 barrels — formed a 87-mile (140-km) slick that blackened one-third of Lebanon’s coast, from Damour in the south to Chekka in the north. Syria’s coastline was also tarred. Dead fish and seabirds floated among the muck that coated rocks and carpeted beaches. Acrid fumes stung the eyes and burned the throat. As the oil slowly settled to the bottom, it continued killing all marine life in the area, including dolphins, crabs, loggerhead turtles, sharks, and blue-fin tuna.
“We have never seen a spill like this in the history of Lebanon. It is a major catastrophe,” lamented Lebanon’s Environment Minister Yaccub al-Sarraf.
“What is at stake today is all marine life in the eastern Mediterranean. Chances are, our whole marine ecosystem facing the Lebanese shoreline is already dead.” Local environmentalists projected that just cleaning the oil from the coasts would cost $150 million and take as long as a year.
(Isreal was not solely responsible for the damage. An Israeli warship hit by a Hezbollah missile also leaked diesel oil into the ocean.)
One UN spokesperson warned the damage could last “up to a century.” After an inspection trip to the coast, Gaby Khalaf, Director of Lebanon’s National Center for Marine Sciences, reported that “certain species like the mollusk and the crustacean have perished. They can’t breathe or eat.”
Fortunately, the summer avian migration was largely over before the conflict erupted so the spill did not pose an immediate threat to passing birdlife. But the attack occurred during the nesting season for endangered sea turtles. (Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles are found in the Mediterranean. Four of those are “endangered” and one is listed as “threatened.”) As Wael Hmaidan, a local environmental activist told Reuters, “July is hatching season for turtle eggs and baby turtles have to reach deepwater as fast as possible to avoid predators. With the oil in their way, they will not survive.”
Two weeks after the attack, one of the powerplant’s fuel-oil tanks was still burning. “The dark cloud that you see over Beirut and the sea carries particulate matters that enter the respiratory system and cause different types of respiratory problems,” warned Berge Hadjian, Director General of Lebanon’s Environment Ministry. “The most vulnerable are children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those who have respiratory diseases like asthma.”
Hadjian warned that the toxic plume could eventually reach Syria, Turkey and Israel. Samih Wehbe, the Environment Ministry’s oil expert, called the smoke “a catastrophe. It is something unbelievable.” He predicted “the pollution of the air could reach Europe.”
It was ironic that such a disaster would befall the country known as “Green Lebanon.” The Beirut government is one of the most environmentally progressive in the region. Unlike most of its Arab neighbors, Lebanon (which prides itself on its green forests) has passed policies to combat pollution, including controls on industrial emissions and a ban on diesel-fueled buses.
UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner warned “the longer the spill is left untreated, the harder it will be to clean up.” But with Israel’s warships off the Lebanese coast and its fighter jets in the air, no clean-up was possible. Environmentalists were limited to trying to mop up the massive spill by collecting the muck in buckets on the end of sticks and pouring the skimmed oil into plastic buckets.
Sadly, Lebanon lacked the equipment to respond to such a massive spill and Isreal’s unilateral imposition of land and sea blockades meant no international assistance could be delivered. As the Boston Globe reported: “A widespread [clean-up] effort remains too dangerous because of the continuing threat from Israeli forces.”
Fuel tanks burn at Beirut’s International Airport after attack by Israeli helicopter gunships.
A Deliberate Act of Eco-tage?
The spill should not have occurred. The storage tanks at Al Jiyye had been fitted with a protective berms to capture any spills in the event of a tank rupture. Unfortunately, the berms were never given a chance to do their job — Israeli jets destroyed them with a barrage of missiles.
Lebanon’s Environment Minister subsequently claimed that the bombing of the berms was a deliberate act, intended to allow the oil to spill into the sea. Lebanon’s beaches are a world-renowned tourist attraction. If Israel wanted to cripple Lebanon’s economy, one of the best ways to accomplish this would be to destroy its beaches.
Writing in London’s The Independent, Anne Penketh reported: “Many Lebanese accuse Israel of deliberately trying to sabotage the economy and the country’s fragile tourist industry.” Yassin Jaber, a prominent member of Lebanon’s parliament asked indignantly, “Why hit the factories, destroying [Lebanon’s] economic backbone? There is no other explanation.”
The pattern of Israel’s bombing suggests that the destruction of the Lebanese economy was a paramount goal. The Al Jiyye powerplant provided 30% of the electricity for the entire country.
And Israel intentionally impeded international efforts to mitigate the damage. As The Guardian reported, “UN officials contacted the Israeli army to inform them that a team of Chinese military engineers attached to the UN force in Lebanon intended to repair the bridge on the Beirut-to-Tyre road to enable the transport of humanitarian supplies. According to the UN, Israeli officials said the engineers would become a target if they attempted to repair the bridge.”
A historical note: As bad the Jiyye spill was, it was a far cry from the disaster that engulfed the region during 1991 Gulf War. More than 700 oil wells were ignited in Kuwait and Iraq, fouling the land with 60 million gallons of spilled oil. Another 10 million barrels of oil poured into the Persian Gulf, contaminating 1,500 kilometers of coast. Fifteen years later, two-fifths of Kuwait’s ground water remains poisoned and undrinkable.
During the nine months that the wells burned, the Baghdad sun was blotted out at high noon. Pollution from the fires swept around the world, blackening snow in the Himalayas and falling in the rain over the US. In Kuwait and Iraq, thousands died from the effects of breathing the polluted air. Many more were sickened. The total cost of the environmental damage was assessed at $40 billion.
Who Will Pay?
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the UN established a Compensation Commission to decide on reparations for the environmental damage. Kuwait initially received $16.5 billion to recover the cost of “lost oil” and the expense of extinguishing the oil fires. Kuwait also submitted claims for an additional $17 billion. The total amount of claims exceeded $300 billion.
There was no question who was to pay these bills — Iraq. It was not widely known that 25 percent of the UN’s Oil-for-Food Program, was siphoned off to subsidize these pay-outs to Kuwait and the US companies hired to do the clean-up.
In the breathing space provided by the Israel-Lebanon cease-fire agreement, a team of Israeli attorneys filed a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit in the US contending that the Lebanese government should pay reparations to Israel for the damage caused by Hezbollah’s rockets. The lawyers hope to seize money from Lebanese property and assets held inside the US. “No group associated in any way, shape or form to Hizbullah is immune to these claims,” lawyer Yehudah Talmon stated.
A Reuters story, filed from the polluted shores of Byblos, a 7,000-year-old Phoenician port north of Beirut, reported: “Some Lebanese environmentalists say Israel should pay for the clean-up operation, although few believe this will happen.”
So who will pay for the damage in Lebanon? (And let us not forget Gaza.) So far, there is one organization that is far ahead of all others. It is not the Lebanese government. It is not the US or the world community. And it is most assuredly not Israel.
It is Hezbollah.
George W. Bush’s first statement prior to Israel’s attack on Lebanon came when he described Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers — Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev — as an act of “unprovoked terrorism.” It was neither.
Enemy soldiers are routinely captured in the course of war. That is why we have the Geneva Conventions — to protect the rights of troops seized during wartime. This is not terrorism. Taking civilians hostage, however, is an act of terrorism.
The Israeli government has seized and jailed more than 9,000 Palestinians — 1,000 of them women and children. Hezbollah stated from the first that its rationale for seizing the two soldiers was to draw the world’s attention to this widely overlooked fact.
Washington and Tel Aviv condemned the seizure of the soldiers as a violation of Israel’s border and this narrative was widely accepted. Shortly after the event, however, a number of European and Middle Eastern newspapers began to question the validity of the claim that Hezbollah had crossed into Israel to seize hostages. Agence France-Presse, Deutsche Press Agentur, Asia Times, Bahrain News Agency, and Hindustan Times all published reports claiming that the attacks actually occurred inside Lebanon, not inside Israel.
The official story, as presented by MSNBC.com’s Jerusalem bureau on July 13. In a story headlined, “Crisis Allows Israel to Pursue Strategic Goals: Kidnappings give Israel Excuse to Neutralize Hamas,” MSNBC reported that “Hezbollah guerillas crossed into Israel, seizing Goldwasser and Regev and killing eight other soldiers in the ensuing fighting.” (Four of Israeli soldiers died when their tank hit a mine.)
Hamas’ brazen abduction of a single Israeli soldier in Gaza, followed by one day Israel’s seizure of a doctor and his brother in Gaza. The initial civilian kidnapping went unreported in the West. Somehow, the Western media was unable to recognize which of these incidents actually constituted a “kidnapping.”
Noam Chomsky stressed this Western media blackout in an August 4 interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Apparently, “kidnapping of civilians is just fine if done by our side,” Chomsky stated, while the capture of a soldier a day later “is a despicable crime that requires severe punishment of the population.” Gideon Levy, writing in Israel’s Ha’aretz, argued that the IDF’s long history of kidnapping civilians had undercut any “legitimate basis for the IDF’s operation” in Gaza and Lebanon.
Did the ‘Kidnapping’ Occur in Lebanon?
A close review of the initial reports of the “kidnapping” incident paints an entirely different picture about whose territory was breached. These examples were drawn from the public record by Trish Schuh, the author of a November 2005 article (“Faking the Case Against Syria”) that predicted the Hezbollah-IDF border clash. (Note: the MSNBC and AP reports were subsequently re-written to support the seized-in-Israel version.):
· “After the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah in Lebanon on Wednesday&.”
— Michael Hirsh, MSNBC, July 12.
· “The militant group Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldier during clashes Wednesday across the border in southern Lebanon….”
— Joseph Panossian, AP, July 12.
· “The abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah militants in southern Lebanon was not a terrorist attack but an act of war, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday.”
— CNSNews.com. July 12.
· “…sources say the Israeli soldiers had been seized at around 9am local time across the border from Aita al Shaab…. The Israeli army confirmed that two Israeli soldiers had been captured on the Lebanese frontier. Israeli grouped forces crossed into Lebanon to hunt for the missing soldiers, Israeil Army Radio said.”
— Australia’s ABC News. July 13.
· “It is very clear that the escalation started on the Lebanese side of the border….”
— Voice of America, Jerusalem. July 12.
· “The present crisis was initiated — in Gaza by Hamas and in southern Lebanon by Hezbollah — from lands that are not under Israeli occupation.”
— Israel Defense Force Brigadier General Moshe Yaalon. July 31.
· “This is a heroic operation carried out against military targets and so it is a legitimate operation, especially as it took place in occupied Lebanese territory.”
— Hamas spokesperson Mohammad Nazzal, Ha’aretz (a leading Israeli newspaper). July 13.
· “At 9:03 or 9:05am in the vicinity or in front of Ayt Al Shaab village, the members of the resistance have abducted two soldiers. At 9:15, the resistance shelled the position of the enemy in the occupied territories. At 10:10am, the Resistance and Israeli forces clashed with each other in the area of Naqoura [on Lebanon’s side of the border].”
— Lebanese Army communique.
· “I understand that there was another battle, also, where during which the Israelis cross Lebanese soil and that the casualties that fell then were inside Lebanon territory.”
— Lebanon’s Ambassador to the US Farid Abboud to Michael Holmes.
· “Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said the timing of the capture of two Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon on Wednesday would boost the position of Palestinians in Gaza.”
— Jerusalem Post. July 12.
· “It was in Lebanon, on the border…. It was all in the Lebanese lands when they wanted to penetrate.”
— Hezbollah spokesperson Ibrahim Mousawi to Michael Homes.
· “The militant group Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers during clashes Wednesday across the border in Lebanon….”
— Forbes, July 12.
· “The Lebanese police said that the two soldiers were captured as they ‘infiltrated’ into the town of Aitaa al-Chaab inside the Lebanese border.”
— Hindustan Times. July 12.
· “According to the Lebanese police force, the two Israeli soldiers were captured in Lebanese territory, in the area of Aita Al-Chaab….”
— Agence France-Presse. July 12.
· “It all started on July 12 when Israel troops were ambushed on Lebanon’s side of the border with Israel.”
— Asia Times. July 15.
· “Hezbollah has made it clear time and again that it would retaliate by capturing and detaining Israeli soldiers if they entered Lebanon and use them in an exchange of prisoners. Israel has in a deliberate manner sent a commando into Lebanon (Atta Al Chaab). They came under attack from Hezbollah, who captured two of their soldiers.”
— Voltairenet.org. July 18.
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