Hizbollah profits from nation's fury

Lebanese Muslims and Christians are at one with guerrillas against Israel and US

To understand how the Lebanese felt, you only had to watch the car which drove down Baalbek Street yesterday with four large yellow and green Hizbollah flags - complete with the word "Allah" and a hand holding a Kalashnikov rifle - flapping above it from make-shift flagpoles.

On the bonnet and boot, there were two equally large glass boxes half filled with paper currency. "Give for the Islamic Resistance", was hand- written on the side. And out of shops and houses, men and women - well- dressed, many of them middle class and very definitely not religious fanatics - walked, unsmiling, to put money in the boxes.

Never before have such scenes been witnessed on the streets of Beirut. Previously despised by many Lebanese - especially those who are not of the Shia Muslim faith - the Hizbollah has, thanks to Israel, suddenly come of age. The Israeli offensive against civilians - which continued yesterday when an Israeli gunboat fired at an ambulance on the coastal highway north of Sidon, causing the driver to lose control and badly injure a pedestrian - has united Muslims and Christians in almost unprecedented fury.

In both Muslim and Christian areas of Beirut, the Lebanese have tied black ribbons to their car radio aerials in memory of the 110 civilians slaughtered by the Israelis in the UN compound at Qana. Outside mosques, clerics have pasted newspaper photographs of the bloodbath and prayers for the dead. A national day of mourning yesterday closed down shops, banks and government buildings across the country while at midday, many Lebanese observed a minute's silence in memory of the 200 or so civilians killed by the Israelis.

They include, of course, not only the men, women and children of Qana but a four-day-old baby killed with 11 members of her family by an Israeli helicopter attack on her home in Nabatea, three children and two women in an ambulance that was deliberately targeted by another Israeli helicopter pilot in southern Lebanon, a two-year-old girl decapitated by an Israeli missile in Beirut and three sisters cut down by Israeli shells in the southern Bekaa. Only eight Hizbollah guerrillas are believed to have died.

Nor has the Christian community - traditionally friendly to the West and once allies of the Israelis - been spared. An elderly Christian Maronite was killed when an Israeli air raid inexplicably struck his totally Christian village in the Bekaa, while two Christian Maronite Lebanese army soldiers were killed by an Israeli helicopter pilot in southern Lebanon. The soldiers were driving near Tibnin when their car was chased by the helicopter. The two men jumped from their vehicle, waving their arms and pointing to their US-made uniforms, then ran into a house for protection. The Israeli pilot then fired a laser- guided missile into the building, killing them both.

Almost equally shocking for the Christian community was the sabotage attack by the Israelis on two of Lebanon's main power stations, both in Christian Maronite areas where no Hizbollah would ever dare to visit. The power cuts - the country now only receives six hours of electricity a day - affect Muslims and Christians equally. It was only because of a Lebanese government prohibition that Christian students dressed in black were prevented from staging a demonstration outside the US embassy in east Beirut to mark "the end of the New World Order".

Not a Lebanese believes that the Qana massacre was an accident. "I used to hate the Hizbollah," a student of hotel management told me yesterday, his voice steadily rising in anger. "But now I admire them. They are the only guys with the guts to stand up to the Israelis and keep shooting. Not even the Palestinians did that. They say that Peres had to do this in order to win the election. And the Americans say there will only be a Middle East peace if Peres wins the election. So you mean all this is for peace? You mean that Peres has to slaughter all these people to win the election and save peace? We Lebanese have to die for your peace."

Alone in its optimism, the opposition newspaper Al Diyar predicted that the birth of a new and united Lebanon would follow the latest Israeli onslaught. "The [Israeli] strike is targeting all of Lebanon," the paper said. ". . . No better show of national unity have we ever witnessed." But other papers emphasised the supine response of other Arab nations and the failure of the US to condemn the savagery of the Israeli attacks.

In the streets of Beirut, Westerners - even those who have lived here many years - are receiving the kind of quizzical, suspicious glances from old acquaintances and scarcely suppressed hostility from strangers that symbolises the depth of animosity again growing towards the West. Newspaper cartoons invariably link America with Israel's onslaught. One of them showed Mr Peres harvesting the "Grapes of Wrath" after which the current operation is so shamefully named. Each grape is a human skull.

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