Upon arrival in Beirut in early August 2006, Michael
Birmingham met Abu Mustafa. Michael is an Irish citizen who has worked with
Voices campaigns for several years. Abu Mustafa is a kindly Lebanese cab driver.
Having fled his home in the Dahiya neighborhood, which was being heavily bombed,
Abu Mustafa was living in his car. Abu Mustafa joked that he sometimes went
back to his home in the already evacuated area of the Dahiya just to take a
shower or sometimes a proper nap. His family was living with relatives in a
safer area. Toward the end of the war, Israeli bombs blasted buildings quite
near his home. He tore out of the suburb in his cab and made that his home until
we met him again on Aug. 15.
That day, he took us to the Dahiya, where we saw hundreds of people, including
parents walking hand in hand with toddlers, process silently along streets lined
by wreckage. Even the small children looked extremely sad and grim.
Before the "Shock and Awe" bombing of Iraq in 2003, a contingent
of peace activists living in Baghdad hung huge banners at various locales stating,
"To bomb this place would be a war crime."
On Dahiya's streets, we saw the sequel, banners that said "Made in the
U.S.A." in Arabic and English, detailing U.S. complicity in manufacturing
and shipping the weapons that demolished homes, gas stations, shopping malls,
overpasses, clinics, the town square… block after block of ruin.
On the fourth floor of a five-story apartment building, a father and his daughters
scooped up successive loads of broken glass and pitched them onto the sidewalk
below. They called out a warning before each load came crashing down. You have
to start somewhere.
On Aug. 17 and 18, two men, both named Mohammed and both in their twenties,
took Michael, Ramzi Kysia, Farah Mokhtarazedei, and me to towns and villages
south of the Litani River. In each of the towns we visited, we saw appalling
wreckage. Nowhere could we see military targets.
In Sriefa, the town center was almost completely destroyed. Residents told
us that five or six F-16s bombed the area on July 19, destroying 10 houses,
many of them three-story buildings. We stared at the rubble, spotting household
items – a child's high chair, a weaving loom, a toy plastic television.
Neighbors had buried nine corpses in shallow graves when it was too dangerous
to be outside for any length of time. On the outskirts of Sriefa, as a handful
of women and youngsters watched, workers exhumed the bodies and placed them
in plastic body bags, which were then wrapped in green shrouds and laid in wooden
coffins. Workers sealed the lids and then wrapped the coffins in flags. These
slain men were Communists. The flags bore dual symbols for Lebanon and the Lebanese
Later, we watched a long funeral procession pass, carrying 25 of the 40 people
killed in Sriefa. Uniformed men, marching, led the procession. Women followed,
clutching one another in grief, next boys bearing flags, and finally the coffin-bearing
vans, each with pictures of the brothers, fathers, and sons that would be buried.
Abbas Najdi stopped to talk with us on a street in Sriefa and then invited
us to his home. During the bombing, his wife and children left Sriefa, but Abu
Abbas, 78, decided to stay. He wanted to watch over his home and the family's
sole source of income, the "tabac" that was carefully stored in a
shed below the second story where they lived. Fortunately, he had decided to
sleep on the ground floor during the first night of bombing. The back part of
his home, their sleeping room, took a direct hit. Debris from a collapsing building
across the street blocked the Najdi family's front door, trapping Abu Abbas
inside for two days. Neighbors eventually freed him. Abu Abbas' left leg was
injured by flying glass, but he felt very lucky to have survived at all. Unluckily,
his entire tabac crop was burnt, the harvest of one year's labor.
Before we left the Najdi family, one of the daughters, Zainab Najdi, a university
student, stood to say good-bye and then laughed. "My pants are falling down,"
she explained, still graceful as she pulled them up. "I am daifah"
–the Arabic word for thin or weak. Her loose clothes disguised how thin she
was, but when we embraced, I could nearly encircle her waist with my hands.
On the morning of the 18th, explosions awakened us. I thought the
cease-fire had ended. Our hosts reassured us that the Lebanese army was blowing
up explosives. In the garden outside the home where we stayed, the local Hezbollah
municipal leader spotted three unexploded cluster bombs. We had nearly driven
over two cluster bombs lying on the road the previous day. The sound of each
blast destroying hideous bombs was oddly comforting. You have to start somewhere.
Many people we talk to in Lebanon understand that the majority of Israelis
urged their government to fight this war once it began. Did the proponents of
war in Israel understand that there is no sign of a military target in the villages
of southern Lebanon where homes, schools, clinics, grocery stores, and children's
playgrounds have been destroyed?
On Aug. 18, Anthony Cordesman published a working draft of a report called
Lessons of the Israeli-Hezbollah War." I read excerpts of it in commentary
written by Helena Cobban. Cordesman, a seasoned military strategist, writing
about the Israeli air force (IAF) bombardment of Lebanon, remarks that "the
air campaign continued to escalate against targets that often were completely
valid but that sometimes involved high levels of collateral damage and very
uncertain tactical and military effect. The end result was to give the impression
Israel was not providing a proportionate response, an impression compounded
by ineffective (and often unintelligible) efforts to explain IAF actions to
I honestly don't understand. How is a target completely valid if it involved
high levels of collateral damage, that is to say high levels of civilians who
are maimed and killed, of civilian infrastructure ruined, of families rendered
homeless, penniless, jobless, and hungry? Cordesman states that there was an
uncertain tactical and military effect. Before completing the draft, I wish
that Mr. Cordesman could stand for just five minutes at one intersection in
the small city of Bint Jbail. He would see certain usage of conventional military
weapons against a civilian population. He would see certain evidence of a war
crime. Turn in one direction and you see the remains of a school building, some
desks and chairs still aligned in careful rows, visible because a whole side
of the building is demolished. In another direction, a damaged stadium. Next
to it, a field where 30 rockets killed a flock of sheep. One man managed a chuckle,
telling us that $2 million was spent to kill these sheep, that these must have
been the most costly sheep in all of Lebanon. On the 27th and 28th
of July, 100 bombs fell between two mosques in Bint Jbail within 11 minutes.
At one point, the Israelis bombed for 11 hours straight. Then there was a break
and they bombed for 21 hours until most of the town was completely destroyed.
It's estimated that about 60,000 people lived in Bint Jbail.
Of what military value, as a target, is a school, an entire block of residences,
a town square, a favorite swimming hole? Why is it strategically valuable to
drop many hundreds of cluster bombs that fall in gardens and along roadsides
between small farming villages?
The residents of Bint Jbail and other southern Lebanese cities, as well as
those who lived in the Dahiya and in Baalbek, had jobs, homes, and basic securities
just a little over a month ago. Now, billions of euros and other currencies,
along with ingenuity, resources, and talents, will be directed toward aid and
recovery. Such aid might have been helping relieve suffering elsewhere in the
world had this war not "escalated."
Both legally and rationally, you cannot say "everyone living there is
Hezbollah." You can't just walk away from the appalling damage and say
that they were warned. Or can you? Can a state get away with it, backed up by
other world bodies?
If that's the case, then ordinary people bear a grave responsibility to demand
that leaders own up to war crimes. Yes, finding a proportionate response to
war crimes when so much power is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer
people, many of them reckless and dangerous leaders of the United States and
Israel, is a daunting task. But let's think of the people finding courage to
return and rebuild, let's think of those trying to de-mine and clear out the
cluster bombs, let's think of the parents trying to help children orient themselves
in a vastly insecure world. With them, we might acknowledge, you have to start