Israel emphasizes its target is Hizbullah, not Lebanese people

500,000 have been displaced, creating 'humanitarian crisis.'

The headlines have subtly shifted. Terms like "humanitarian crisis," "catastrophe" and "disaster" are steadily creeping into the media's coverage of Lebanon - and human rights organizations warn that the situation is worsening by the day. Meanwhile, Israeli officials stress that their war is with Hizbullah, not the Lebanese people. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday that Israel "is working closely with both government and UN agencies and with relevant NGOs to make sure that we can do what we can to try to alleviate hardship among the Lebanese civilian population. "The Lebanese people are not our enemy," Regev added, "and we hope for a day when we have peace with Lebanon. Unfortunately, Hizbullah is not only holding hostage two Israeli service people, but both Lebanon and the region hostage to their extremist and jihadist agenda." The United Nations estimates that Israel's bombing of Lebanon's infrastructure in response to Hizbullah's attack on its soldiers has resulted in at least 500,000 displaced persons, many of whom lack sufficient supplies of food, water and medicine. The displaced persons constitute about one-eighth of Lebanon's population. "It's fair to use the word 'crisis,'" said Adam Leach, OXFAM's director for the Middle East. "We are extremely concerned about deteriorating conditions. People are under extreme stress." Leach said that the availability of clean water has become increasingly unreliable, posing a threat to public health, hygiene and sanitation. Sascha Bootsma, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean, said that Israel's bombings of Lebanon's roads and airport has made it difficult to transport medical supplies, and hospitals are running low on essential drugs. The current rationing of fuel for ambulances and hospital generators may place added pressure on emergency services. According to Dr. Ala Alwan, director-general of the World Health Organization's Health Action Crisis, "There are no accurate figures on the numbers of displaced people from specific parts of the country." However, it is widely believed that the southern part of the country, which is a Hizbullah stronghold, has experienced the most displacement. Alwan estimated that 85,000 people are living in makeshift shelters in public spaces like schools and gardens. Lebanon's Ministry of Health placed the number of displaced people in Beirut alone at 40,0000. Bootsma said that Lebanon's government is not able to cope with the current crisis, and that international aid organizations are rushing to fill in the gap. While some of those who have fled find their way to families and friends in the north of the country, an estimated 130,000 Lebanese have made their way across the border with Syria. Damascus - Hizbullah's main backer - has played its diplomatic card, welcoming organizations onto its territory in an apparent display of concern for human rights, while simultaneously funding the terrorist organization responsible for their presence. "The crisis in Lebanon has been years in the making," says Regev, "and those who have been supporting Hizbullah and providing it with weaponry, explosives and logistics - those who have allowed Hizbullah to become the formidable force that it is - are acting against the will of the international community, and actively trying to subvert Security Council resolution 1559." In a conversation with EU envoy Javier Solana on Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni said that Israel had taken special precautions to prevent civilian casualties. "We call on the citizens in Lebanon to leave the place and only then do we target the place," said Livni. "Part of our values and part of the government policy is to try and avoid civilian casualties, but we have the responsibilities for the lives of our citizens and we have to take the necessary steps against Hizbullah... a terrorist organization that would like to demolish the State of Israel." In weighing the political implications of Israel's military actions in Lebanon, analysts point to several issues, the first of which being the potential radicalization of Lebanese society. Steven Cook, the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that many Lebanese who originally opposed Hizbullah and would have liked to see it dismantled have redirected their anger towards Israel. However, Steven Emerson, director of the Washington-based Investigative Project, a Middle East think tank, believes that "It's a split, it serves to reinforce your preconceived notions. Those inclined to see Hizbullah running the country will unite against Israel, but those who recognize the destruction brought about by Hizbullah will have a different perspective." Another implication of the current suffering in Lebanon, analysts say, may be that US support for Israel's right to defend itself against Hizbullah - which has until now been unequivocal - may begin to waver. On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice announced that she would not visit the Middle East for another week, giving Israel time to "defang" Hizbullah. "The longer this goes on," said Cook, "and Israel's operations are perceived as a 'massacre,' as [Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad] Saniora put it today, international pressure will increase on Israel and, by extension, the United States."