`How dare people all over the world blame us?'

MIDDLE EAST IN TURMOIL

It was like any Friday lunchtime in the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, where Israeli Jerusalem comes to see and to be seen: bustling, loquacious, anarchic.

The cafes were serving coffee as fast as the espresso machines could gush them out. Husbands were queuing to buy flowers for the sabbath. A po-faced Russian immigrant busker was squeezing out '50s ballads on the accordion.

The weekend tabloids, littering the cafe tables, splashed full colour pictures of the carnage wrought by Israelis howitzers at Qana.

Everyone had an opinion, but no one was volunteering. Like their government, Israelis were on the defensive. They were neither callous, nor indifferent. They regretted the slaughter, for the Lebanese sake and for the retribution it may yet bring themselves.

But this was a nation closing ranks, rather than hanging its head, a nation conditioned to the horrors of war, schooled in its numbing logic, and determined that Hizbollah must bear its share of the responsibility.

"How dare people the world over blame Israel?" asked Geula Dagan, a veteran Jerusalem painter. "Supposing we did know that there were civilians there, does that mean we have to sit back and let Hizbollah bomb us?

"If the Lebanese government allows Hizbollah to bomb Israel from its territory without lifting a finger, Hizbollah should at least have enough humanity to keep people away from their launch sites."

Nathan Gertner, a 45-year-old money-changer, admitted to "feeling bad" about the massacre, but argued in a war with guerrillas, sheltering behind civilians, "accidents" were inevitable.

"It was a mistake by our forces," said Gertner, who served for six years in the regular army and 20 in the reserves. "But this is not the first time that Hizbollah has fixed us. With modern artillery, it's all automatic. The radar identifies the source of fire and the computer targets it. But the battery commander should have checked the location more precisely than he did."

Avi Zagouri, a 44 year old barman, agreed that Israel had made a mistake, but insisted that Hizbollah had invited it. "It's not as if the shells were aimed at civilians," he said.

Mr Zagouri, who fought in Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion, still supported Shimon Peres's sequel. "I am in favour of a ceasefire," he said, "so long as it is binding on both sides. But if Hizbollah fire more Katyushas into Northern Israel, we have to go on exploiting our superior firepower."

Where does all this leave the tattered Middle East peace process? "We have to continue negotiating," contended Mr Zagouri. But after Qana, won't it be hard going? "Maybe," sighed Zagouri, "but it always has been."

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