Shortly after 4am, the fly-like buzz of an Israeli drone came out of the sky over my home. Coded MK by the manufacturers, Lebanese mothers have sought to lessen their children’s fears of this ominous creature by transliterating it as “Um Kamel”, the Mother of Kamel. It is looking for targets and at night, like all the massacres being perpetrated by the Israeli air force across southern Lebanon, you usually cannot see it.
The latest model can even fire missiles. Well, it flew around for a few minutes before it moved south-west over the city in search of other prey. Then an hour later came the hiss of jets and five massive blasts as the southern suburbs received their 29th air raid. The Israelis must be convinced that beneath the rubble of their previous strikes, the Hizbollah have secret bunkers to direct their war in the south, that Hizbollah’s television station – its four-storey headquarters a pancaked pile of rubble – must be staying on air because it has ever-deeper studios beneath the debris. I doubt it.
After dawn, I drive out to see friends in the suburbs, among the few Shias not to have abandoned their homes. Hassan and Abbas live in two decaying blocks of chipped stone stairs and damp walls; each lives with only two other families in these rotting eight-storey tenements, their neighbours having sought refuge with Lebanon’s 700,000 internal refugees – another 200,000 have fled abroad – in the Druze Chouf mountains or the Christian mountains to the north or in Beirut’s slum parks and crowded schools.
“I don’t have any other place to go,” Hassan tells me mournfully as his two-year-old plays tug of war with a toy Pink Panther. “In the Chouf now, a two-room flat costs $800.” Well, the Druze are certainly making money, I say to myself. “Nobody is coming to our help”
We glower at Al Manar, Hizbollah’s TV station, in the corner of the room, whose Hizbollah announcer is proclaiming the merits – and demerits – of the Arab foreign ministers meeting to start shortly in Beirut. These wealthy princes and emirs of the Gulf and the utterly boring Amr Moussa of Egypt roared and strutted upon the stage, remaining silent only when Fouad Siniora – Lebanon’s sweet Prime Minister – went through another of his public weeping sessions and demanded an immediate ceasefire. Lebanon’s proposals must be added to the UN draft resolution, he said between sobs, sniffles and whimpers. Shebaa Farms must be returned to Lebanon. The Israelis must leave Lebanon. Only then can Hizbollah abide by UN Security Council resolution 1559 and lay down its arms.
The ministers decided to send a delegation to the UN in New York – which will have Washington shaking in its boots – and the Saudis agreed to an Arab summit in Mecca, but one which should not be rushed because it must be carefully prepared – which sounded very like George W Bush’s equally mendacious remark that a ceasefire had to be carefully prepared. And that will have them shaking in the shoes in Tel Aviv.
It was preposterous, scandalous, shameful to listen to these robed apparatchiks – most of them are paid, armed or otherwise supported by the West – shed their crocodile tears before a nation on its knees. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, had already said in Cairo that the Beirut meeting “is a clear message to the world to demonstrate Arab solidarity with the Lebanese people”. In the southern suburbs – where they do not take this nonsense seriously – Abbas was telling me of a female neighbour who had supported the rival Shia Amal movement until her house was destroyed by the Israelis. “She told us, ‘We are all Hizbollahi now’,” And I recall that less than three years ago, we – we Westerners, we brave believers in human rights – were saying that we were all New Yorkers now.
What sent Fouad Sinioura into his bout of crying was a report that 40 Lebanese civilians had been massacred in the village of Houla by an Israeli air strike – 18 people were confirmed buried in one house. Two other buildings in the village collapsed. Yet there are far more terrible fears that hundreds more may lay dead in the ruins of their homes after the Israelis had blasted their villages, hill towns and hamlets.
According to the UN, 22,000 Lebanese are still – dead or alive – in the 38 most southern villages, out of an original population of 913,000. In Mays al-Jabal, for example, 400 civilians are believed to have stayed out of 10,000, though no one knows their fate. The Lebanese death toll – including the conservative figure for Houla – is 932, almost all civilians, although it may well have reached more than 1,000. There are 3,293 wounded.
At lunchtime, I paid a call on Suheil Natour, a Palestinian official in the little Mar Elias camp. His people – the Palestinians and their descendants of the 1948 flight from Palestine – are now hosting thousands of Shia refugees from southern Lebanon, just as those refugees’ grandparents once hosted the Palestinians of 1948. This irony is not lost on Natour who points out that the Shias – the largest single community in Lebanon – are now spread over all the country after their flight. “What kind of Lebanon will emerge from this?” he asks me. “How many months have to pass before the Shias feel they belong to the areas of Lebanon to which they have fled – rather than to the wreckage of the homes they were forced out of by the Israelis?”
And when I go home, I find my landlord has treble locked the iron front door of my apartment block, just in case the refugees decide that they belong to his building – or that his building belongs to them.