I drove to Hizbullah's stronghold in South Lebanon to survey the devastation from the war last July, to check in on the United Nations peacekeeping force and to talk to civilians who were used as human shields in the battle with Israel. My American colleague Noah Pollak from Azure magazine in Jerusalem joined me. We went under the escort of two professional enemies of Hizbullah who work for the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, an NGO which advises and lobbies the Lebanese government and the international community on the disarmament of illegal militias.
The Second Lebanon War: JPost special report
The two men picked us up at our hotel first thing in the morning.
Said rode up to the front door on his motorcycle. Henry arrived in his car.
"Shall we go in your car?" Said asked.
It was probably better that way. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah hysterically accuses Toni Nissi, the man Henry and Said work for, of heading up "the Beirut branch of the Mossad." Best, I thought, to show up in Hizbullah's bombed-out southern "capital" of Bint Jbail in a rental car rather than one that might be recognized.
It's not worth taking Hizbullah's Mossad accusation seriously. Nasrallah also says Prime Minister Fuad Saniora is a "Zionist hand" because he is pushing for Hizbullah's disarmament.
Normally you can drive from Beirut to the Israeli border in just over two hours. Lebanon, though, isn't normal right now, especially not in the south. The Israel Air Force bombed most, if not all, the bridges on the coastal highway. Reconstruction moved along quickly enough, but snarled traffic had to be rerouted around the construction sites, at times onto side roads that were too narrow and small to handle the overflow.
"What do you think about Israel's invasion in July?" I asked Said and Henry.
"Of course what Israel did wasn't good," Said said. "They only care about themselves. Hizbullah doesn't pay taxes, so the rest of us have to pay for all the infrastructure the Israelis destroyed."
"What do you think about Israel in general?" I asked. "Aside from the war in July?"
"I have nothing against Israel," Henry said. "They are good people and they do good for themselves. We need to make peace with everyone. They are open-minded people, but we have no way to communicate with them since the Syrians came."
"Is UNIFIL doing much in the south?" Noah asked from the back seat.
"The multinational forces don't have the authority to stop Hizbullah unless they are smuggling weapons out in the open," Said said. "The Lebanese army is not taking sides because of the volatile political situation and the violent clashes taking place in Beirut."
The Lebanese army has actually confiscated a small amount of Hizbullah's weapons smuggled in across the Syrian border. One of Nasrallah's recent demands is the return of those weapons, even though Hizbullah's existence as an autonomous militia is against Lebanese and international law.
Said is right, though, that the army does not have the authority to disarm Hizbullah. Hizbullah is better armed, better trained and overall more powerful than the army, which suffered 15 years of deliberate neglect and degradation under Syrian overlordship. Some of the army's top officers were also installed by the Syrians, and they are still loyal to the regime in Damascus. Most important, though, are fears that the army would break apart along sectarian lines if orders to militarily disarm Hizbullah were given. The army split during the civil war, after all, and would likely do so again. More than a third of the soldiers are Shi'ite conscripts. Many are more loyal to Hizbullah than they are to the legal authorities.
"The Lebanese army is partly controlled by Syria, not like before 1975," Henry said. "Before 1975 the Lebanese army was pro-Western and neutral toward Israel."
A SHORT WHILE after we passed through the conservative Sunni coastal city of Saida, a young man stood in the middle of an intersection and waved glossy pamphlets at cars. Said pulled alongside him and said something in Arabic.
"What is he handing out?" Noah asked and rolled down his window.
"Hizbullah propaganda," Henry replied.
Said stepped on the accelerator.
Noah tried to grab one of the pamphlets.
"I want one of those," he said. But the Hizbullah man kept the pamphlets tightly clutched in his fingers.
"He is selling them," Said said, "not giving them away."
"Oops," Noah said. "I wasn't trying to steal one."
"He doesn't care about money or propaganda," Said said. "He is watching. This is the beginning of their territory. He reports on who is coming and what they are doing."
"Whenever you see something blown up from here," Henry said, "it is because it was owned by Hizbullah people or because Hizbullah had something to do with it."
If you're familiar with Lebanese politics, it's obvious whose territory you're in just by looking at roadside political adverts and posters. The Shi'ite regions are divided between the Hizbullah and Amal parties. Amal, also known as the Movement of the Disinherited, is Hizbullah's sometime rival and sometime ally. It's a secular party that was founded by the Iranian cleric Moussa Sadr to advance the interests of the long-neglected and voiceless Shi'ites, the poorest and most marginalized Lebanese sect. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is the chief of Amal today, and he has forged an uneasy alliance with Hizbullah and with the Syrians. Berri's face is plastered up everywhere in Amal strongholds, and Nasrallah's face is even more ubiquitous in Hizbullah territory. Occasionally you'll see both Berri and Nasrallah together.
What you rarely see in either Hizbullah or Amal areas are Lebanese flags. The Sunni, Druse and Christian parts of Lebanon are blanketed with the national cedar-tree flag, as well as those of various political parties and movements. Only the Shi'ite towns and villages are bereft of noticeable signs of patriotism.
Another striking difference between the Shi'ite regions and the rest is which kind of "martyrs" are famous. Hizbullah and Amal strongholds venerate "resistance" fighters killed in battles with Israel.
You never see anything like this in the Sunni, Christian or Druse parts of the country. Instead you'll see portraits of more liberal and moderate Lebanese who were car-bombed by the Syrians.
Billboards in and around Beirut say "No war, teach peace" and "I love life." Hizbullah would never allow anything of the sort to be erected in its parts of Lebanon, even though I know lots of Shi'ites who agree with those sentiments.
WE VENTURED deeper into the south, into the steep rolling hills that make up the region known as Upper Galilee.
"It's beautiful here," Noah said, and kept saying. He had never been there before. "This would be a great place for an artist's retreat if it weren't so dangerous."
"Beautiful country, fanatic people," Said said.
Most of the villages and towns were more or less intact.
We did, however, drive past the occasional damaged house or places where buildings recently stood and that now were fields of cleared rubble.
"Can we get out and talk to people around here?" I asked.
"I do not recommend it," Said answered. "They cannot talk freely. The watchers will come up to us if we get out of the car, and they will make sure anyone who talks to us only tells us what they are supposed to say."
Soon we reached Bint Jbail, Hizbullah's de-facto "capital" in south Lebanon. The outskirts were mostly undamaged, but the city now looks like a doughnut. Downtown was almost completely demolished by air strikes and artillery.
"So this is our victory," Said said. "This is how Hizbullah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs."
Said parked in the center of what used to be the central market area. The four of us got out of the car. Noah and I walked around, dizzied by the extent of the 360-degree devastation.
Three severe looking men walked up to Said and Henry.
"Who are they, who are you, and what are you doing?" asked the man in charge.
"They are international reporters," Henry replied. He purposely did not say we were American reporters. "They are here to document Israel's destruction of our country."
The men seemed satisfied with that answer and left us alone. Presumably they would continue to leave us alone as long as we didn't try to interview any civilians.
The photos don't do "justice" to the extent of the damage. The destruction was panoramic and near absolute in the city center.
Apparently the outskirts of town were not seen as threatening by the Israelis. Most of Bint Jbail beyond downtown was unscathed.
We got back in the car. Said looked for the road to Maroun al-Ras, the next hollowed-out southern town on our itinerary. The streets, though, were confusing now that many landmarks no longer existed. Only after a few laps around town could Said reorient himself.
"Three times on the same road, not good," Henry said.
It looked - and felt - totalitarian in Bint Jbail. Everyone watched us. If Said was right that the locals weren't allowed to speak freely (assuming they dissented from Nasrallah's party line), it must feel totalitarian to people who live there as well.
We reached Maroun al-Ras only a few minutes after leaving Bint Jbail. This was the first Lebanese village seized by the IDF during the war. The scene was familiar - much of the center of town had been reduced to rubble.
One site stood out, though. At the top of a hill overlooking the Israeli border stood a mostly intact mosque surrounded by panoramic destruction.
Israel may have overreacted in July and selected targets (the milk factory, bridges in the north, etc.) that should not have been hit. But the stark scene on the hill of Maroun al-Ras demonstrated that the Israeli military did not bomb indiscriminately as many have claimed. Unlike Hizbullah, the Israelis are able to hit what they want and they don't shoot at everything. That mosque wouldn't be standing if they dropped bombs and artillery randomly in the villages.
THE FOUR of us arrived in the Christian village of Ein Ebel just outside Bint Jbail. A man was there waiting for us who would tell us about Hizbullah's brutal siege of his town in July. First we stopped for lunch, though, and ordered some pizza and sandwiches. Henry and I sat at a table while we waited for food. Said hovered over us, as did Noah with his camera.
"We have been screaming about this conflict for 30 years now," Henry said as he dealt himself a hand of solitaire from a deck of cards in his pocket. "But no one ever listened to us. Not until September 11. Now you know how we feel all the time. You have to keep up the pressure. You can never let go, not for one day, one hour, not for one second. The minute you let go, Michael, they will fight back and get stronger. This is the problem with your foreign policy."
"Since 1975 we have been fighting for the free world," Said said. "We are on the front lines. Why doesn't the West understand this? America can withdraw from Iraq, you can go back to Oregon, but we are stuck here. We have to stay and live with what happens."
Ein Ebel is a mere handful of kilometers from the fence on the border with Israel. It is often said that Lebanon is a victim of geography; few Lebanese are as unlucky as those who live in this small Christian town. For decades they have been caught between the anvils of the PLO and Hizbullah on one side, and the hammer of the IDF on the other.
Alan Barakat from the Ein Ebel Development Association waited for us outside a small grocery store owned by his uncle. He agreed to tell us about what happened to his community during the war in July, when Hizbullah seized civilian homes and used residents as human shields.
"There is a valley just below Ein Ebel," he said. "I will take you there later. Until the army came after the war, Hizbullah closed it. It was a restricted military area. They built bunkers there, and stored Katyusha rockets and launchers. When the war started they moved the launchers out of the valley and into our village. When the Israelis shot back, they hit some of our houses."
Hizbullah controlled Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras both during and before the war. Houses were used to stockpile weaponry and were often otherwise turned into military targets.
Ein Ebel, however, was used only as a place to hide and as a place from which Hizbullah could launch rockets at the Israelis. Katyusha launchers weren't placed inside houses. They were, for the most part, placed next to people's houses. Most of the property damage, then, was caused by shrapnel rather than by direct air strikes. Israeli targeting in south Lebanon wasn't random or indiscriminate. It varied considerably from place to place, depending on what Hizbullah was doing in each place.
Reconstruction had progressed more there than elsewhere. In Bint Jbail the only noticeable improvement was that most of the rubble had been cleared out of the way. Ein Ebel was less damaged, so there was less work to be done.
"Were people still living in Ein Ebel during the war?" I asked.
"Yes, of course," Alan replied. "Most of us stayed in the village for the first 18 days."
"Were people were still living in the houses that Hizbullah seized?" I asked.
"No," Alan said. "Hizbullah only took over houses that had no one in them."
We came across a crater in the middle of a residential street on the edge of town left by an Israeli artillery shell.
"Did anyone here try to stop Hizbullah?" I asked.
"How?" Alan said. "We have no weapons. Some people told Hizbullah to leave, but they pointed guns in our faces. Shut up, go back into your house, we were told."
At the southern edge of town is an open field with a direct view to the south toward Israel.
"Hizbullah could have set up their rocket launchers here instead of in town," Noah said. "It's a straight shot into Israel."
"The houses and trees gave them better cover," Alan said. "The valley below, though, gave them even better cover than the village. If that's all they cared about they would have stayed there."
WE WALKED back downtown and found another civilian who had stayed in the village during the war. He said he would happy to talk to me as long as I promised not to publish his name. He didn't even tell me his name, so he has nothing to worry about. I'll just call him "Jad."
"At what point did Hizbullah come to the village and fire their missiles?" I asked.
"During the war they took some uninhabited houses at the edge of our village and stayed there," he said.
"Uninhabited?" I asked.
"Yes, uninhabited. Nobody was there, so they took them. They were eating in there, sleeping in there and maybe doing some reconnaissance."
"Did they ever go into houses where people were still living?" I asked.
"No," he replied. "They chose specific houses because nobody was living there and nobody would know."
"Did they choose to come to this town for strategic or tactical reasons?" Noah asked. "Or was it because it's a Christian town?"
"Strategically, of course," Jad said. "It's a high peak. It is very good strategically. But they could have chosen these parts, these lands..." He gestured with his arm toward the valley below, the place Alan promised to take us next. "It would have been more protection for them than this village. So why did they come here? I think it's because it's a Christian village. They do this."
"Did anybody who lives here try to get Hizbullah to leave the village?" I asked.
"We don't have any arms," Jad said. "Hizbullah has arms. But there was this incident that happened. Next to a guy's place they were firing Katyushas - you know, missiles. They were firing from the house. This guy went out and said, 'Please, do not fire from our home, from in front of our house. My father is very ill and there are some children in the house.' They came to him and said, 'Shut up, go into your house, this is none of your business.'"
What Jad said closely matched what Alan had told me.
He then said that 18 days after the start of the war a large group of civilians decided it was time to leave Ein Ebel and flee to the north. They were no longer willing to stay while Israel fired back at Hizbullah's rocket launchers. It was too dangerous, and Hizbullah insisted on staying and endangering those who lived there.
So they fled the area in a convoy of civilian vehicles. It was safer, they figured, to travel in a group than alone.
On their way out of the village, Hizbullah fighters stood on the side of the road and opened fire with machine guns on the fleeing civilians.
I was shocked, and I asked Alan to confirm this. Was it really true? Hizbullah opened fire on Lebanese civilians with machine guns? Alan confirmed this was true.
"Why?" I had an idea, but I wanted a local person to say it.
Because, Alan said, Hizbullah wanted to use the civilians of Ein Ebel as "human shields." I did not use the phrase "human shields." These were Alan's own words.
ALAN THEN took me, Noah and Said down into the valley below the village, the previously restricted military zone where Hizbullah built bunkers, dug foxholes and stashed weapons before it moved its operations into civilian areas.
Alan told us to stay on the road because Israeli land mines might still be around. There are, perhaps, more land mines in south Lebanon than there are people.
Some camouflage netting was stashed in one of the bushes. Noah pulled it out. "Radar scattering," he said as he read the tag. "This is American."
The valley did seem like it would have provided better cover for Hizbullah than the village. The sky above was open enough that Katyusha rockets easily could be fired directly at Israel. Camouflaged foxholes and bunkers among the bushes and trees provide much better protection than houses that can be easily spotted by the IAF and that show up prominently on satellite and aerial surveillance photographs. No Israeli infantry would want to go into that valley without first softening up the area with air strikes and artillery. It was the perfect environment for ambushes and sniper attacks.
"There is a destroyed bunker up ahead," Alan said as he stepped off the road. "Come on."
There was no sound in the valley but our own footsteps and breath. The cold light of dusk faintly illuminated the sky, but all was dark in the valley on the trail beneath the trees. I tried to imagine what it must have been like if Israeli soldiers walked the same path only a few months before. Did they feel like American soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam? Some Hizbullah fighters wore IDF uniforms. They used night-vision goggles. They hunkered down in foxholes and waited.
The bombed-out bunker was just up ahead under some trees. It was, indeed, very well hidden.
"If I were going to build a bunker, this is where I'd put it," Noah said.
Nevertheless, it was hit. And it was hit badly. Anyone who was inside during an air strike would surely have been killed. But I didn't see any blood or other evidence that it was occupied at the time.
We dug through the rubble. It was impossible to tell when the bunker was hit, whether it was at the beginning, the middle or the end of the war. Since there was no evidence that anyone was inside when the strike came, I assumed it was hit in the middle or at the end, after Hizbullah had already moved into the village.
Everything Alan told me about Hizbullah relocating to Ein Ebel during the war seemed to add up and match the physical evidence I could see. The valley obviously was used as a military area, and so was the village.
We walked back to the car in absolute darkness and drove for a minute or so. Alan parked alongside an open ditch next to the road.
"The Israelis were here," he said. "They left some of their food."
At my feet was an empty can of tinned fish. Some of the words on the can were written in Hebrew.
Alan was right. The Israelis were there, recently enough that no one had bothered to pick up their trash yet. I tossed the can of fish back in the ditch, thinking with a grim almost certainty that they would be back.