BEIRUT — I’ve been back in Beirut for a few days now and I’m realizing just how difficult this war has been to cover from a journalistic standpoint. Thanks to the seemingly random nature of air-strikes (yes, I know they’re not _really_ random) and the secretive nature of Hezbollah, getting close to the action has been exceedingly difficult. Hezbollah doesn’t allow reporters to tag along with them and getting to close to the receiving end of an Israeli artillery barrage is ill-advised. So it’s difficult to say what is really going on militarily. Perhaps some of the reporters who are embedded with the IDF can say, assuming the military censors let enough stuff through.
Anyway, in Beirut, the situation is growing dire. According to Nabil el-Jisr, coordinator for the Higher Relief Commission, Lebanon’s power plants have cut down on production in order to stretch out the fuel left in the country, but most estimates gives us about a week of diesel fuel for generators and about the same for gasoline supplies, even with rationing. Three-hour waits in lines get you 10 liters of gasoline these days. I stupidly rented a car after having no end of troubles with hiring drivers, but now I just mainly leave it parked in an attempt to save fuel.
There are almost 1 million people displaced, and no one has any real idea of where they are or what’s going to happen to them. El-Jisr said yesterday that about 250,000 were outside the country, but that still leaves 700,000 or so living in schools, shelters, parks or private homes of generous Lebanese. How long will they stay? Where will they go after the fighting stops? (A number of villages in the south are gone, simply wiped off the map, or with a high percentage of ruined houses.) So far, no one has any answers.
Further complicating matters is the cultural clash. Most of the displaced now squatting in various Beirut locales are poor, traditional Shi’ites. (Some Christians, too, but not many.) There’s a growing tension between Sunnis and Shi’ites, and I encountered growing resentment — and outright classism — among Sunnis toward the Shi’ites. If this keeps up, Sunnis and Christians will be blaming “the Shi’ites” instead of Hezbollah for this war. And that’s a recipe for social conflict.
Down in Tyre, my colleagues are forced to walk in the city now, as no one is willing to take a car on the road, much less out of the city. The Israelis have dropped leaflets saying any vehicle seen moving will be assumed to be Hezbollah and destroyed. Note that all the cars we journalists drive are clearly marked with big “TV” on the sides and roofs delineating us as media. No matter to the Israelis, apparently.
The roads and bridges out of Tyre are blown up anyway. The last remaining dirt causeway that was the only means of getting food and other aid south of the Litani was bombed a couple of nights ago and the Israelis have threatened to blow up any bridge that’s built to replace it. Khaled Mansour, the spokesman for the U.N. in Lebanon, told me the organization is waiting for authorization from the IDF to build a bridge but so far, nothing.
It’s incredibly serious because according to Mansour, there are between 70,000 and 130,000 people still left south of the Litani river, mainly concentrated in Tyre and Rmaiche, a Christian village south of Bint Jbail. In Tyre, the markets are closed and the shelves are empty anyway. He said that while there is no starvation yet, “They’re running out of food very quickly.” WIthout a bridge over the Litani, it will be impossible to get food into the region.
I’ve submitted an essay to the _Singapore Strait Times_ which should be published this Sunday. I’ll post the text or link when it’s available, but for now, an excerpt:
The war came quickly to Lebanon, like an angry storm from the south, just hours after the Shi’ite group Hezbollah snatched two Israeli soldiers in a daring cross-border raid July 12.
The Israeli response was swift and terrible. Roads, bridges, airports, the entire civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, which had worked so hard in 15 years to rebuild from a devastating civil war, was under assault because of the actions of an armed group inside its borders and a furious Israeli military that had been looking for a chance to get even ever since Hezbollah finally forced Israel from Lebanon in 2000.
Beirut, my home, changed overnight. Thousands of urbane, cosmopolitan peopleâ€”Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites alikeâ€”fled the country to Syria. Or at least they high-tailed it to the mountains. Within days, many came from the south to take their place. Mostly poor Shi’ites, they came by the hundreds of thousands. Filling abandoned buildings, schools and taken in by generous Lebanese families. After three weeks of fighting, between 800,000 and 900,000 people — again, mostly poor Shi’ites — have been pushed up cheek-to-jowl with upperclass Christians and Sunnis.
Also, here’s a piece I also did on the Rachidiye Palestinian camp, which lies just to the south of Tyre. In one of history’s bitter ironies, “they’re taking in Lebanese refugees”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/08/05/MNG21KBVGS1.DTL&hw=allbritton&sn=004&sc=903.
The Israelis have started shelling or bombing Dahiye again. While writing this, a massive blast rattled my windows. I can only hope that something can be done to stop this.