Israel's apologies cut no ice in Lebanon

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The Independent Online
ISRAEL'S apologies did not cut much ice in Deir Zahrani yesterday, and you only had to see the survivors to understand why.

Nine-month-old Mohamed Berjawi lay in the Hammoud hospital in Sidon, his tiny body covered in burns and scars, his eyes swollen shut, his limbs wrapped in crimson gauze. His sister, Malak, 3, lay near him, in a semi-coma, a wad of bandages on her face. She had been playing in the garden when the Israeli jet swept over the village on Thursday evening. Mohamed had been in the arms of his mother, Hiyam, 20, while his grandmother, Najah, slept. At the sweet shop next door, schoolchildren were buying ice-cream.

At exactly 6.30pm, the Israeli plane fired a single missile directly into the two-storey villa off the main road between Sidon and Nabatea. Hiyam was cut to pieces by the explosion. Mohamed was flung into the rubble near his wounded sister. Najah was crushed to death as the entire house collapsed on her. Shrapnel sliced off the legs of Hiyam's sister, Elham Traboulsi, 34, - she lay in a semi-coma in the hospital yesterday afternoon, alongside her other sister, Siham, who was smashed against a wall. In the intensive-care unit of the hospital, her eyes were shut deep within her grotesquely swollen face; only her breasts heaving beneath a thin sheet showed she was still alive.

Elsewhere in the villa, in those fatal seconds, Ghaleb Zouawi, 42, was killed instantly along with his two sons, Mohamed, 14, and Ali, who was only four months old. In a neighbouring apartment, Ali Traboulsi, 2, was blown to pieces.

In under a second, three entire families were torn apart, leaving six dead and 14 wounded. 'One of the dead children had its legs cut off by the bomb. He bled so much,' said Dr Mona Bashu, as she adjusted the tube in Mohamed Berjawi's mouth. 'Mohamed is in serious condition but I think we can save him. Malak will be OK. I hope we can can save Elham. As for Siham . . .' and she looked at the young woman with the deformed face. 'I am not so sure.'

No one doubts what happened at Deir Zahrani, a grubby Shia village on the foothills above the Mediterranean. Despite the Israeli apology, many villagers remained convinced this was revenge for the bombings in Buenos Aires, Panama and London. 'It would have been better if they had remained silent,' one of the hospital nurses muttered angrily. 'This demands more than apologies.'

In the wreckage of the villa, the local Hizbollah member of the Lebanese parliament, Mohamed Raad, was harsher in his views - which, being a supporter of Israel's most ruthless enemies in Lebanon, he would be. 'If it takes only a cheap apology to wipe out the responsibility of this act, then we are truly living in an age of terrorism,' he said.

But such rhetoric did not answer the questions that lay amid the rubble of the Deir Zahrani villa. Why did the Israelis fire a missile at the house? And why, after thousands of civilian casualties in Lebanon, did they suddenly apologise? The Israelis did not apologise when another of their jets fired a missile into a house, three miles away in May 1992. Nor did they apologise when their missiles killed over 120 civilians in southern Lebanon a year ago.

Perhaps, after the slaughter in Buenos Aires and Panama, it was necessary to express sorrow lest Deir Zahrani appear to the rest of the world to be retaliation. And with the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, about to fly to the Middle East, this was no time for another border war.

Hizbollah's posters plaster the walls and their black flags hang from the lamp-posts round the smashed homes. But there was no sign of a military target around Deir Zahrani; not a field gun, not a camp, not even a solitary publicity office. Nor can the villagers be called fundamentalists. Many of the girls are unveiled; most of the men are unbearded. Both the Lebanese army and the Squad 16 security police are in the village.

So was the Israeli pilot trying to bomb another location altogether? Just an hour earlier, Israeli aircraft had made two missile attacks on the village of Ein Bousswa, eight miles to the north. These operations were directed against Hizbollah fighters and, according to the insurgent movement, left no casualties. Was the Deir Zahrani pilot making his final approach for a third attack on Ein Bousswa when he accidentally fired his missile into Deir Zahrani?

Hizbollah's denial of casualties should not be be taken too literally. On the road down from the Iqlim al-Tofah, where Ein Bousswa is located, there came, yesterday afternoon, a cortege of cars containing bearded young men, escorting six hearses whose drivers' mouths were covered with gauze. This grim convoy made its way south, then east past the wreckage of Deir Zahrani. Did Hizbollah lose six men in the same series of attacks which destroyed the lives of three families?

There may be no further clues, certainly not in the ruins of the homes of Mohamed Berjawi and Ghaleb Zouawi. In the rubble yesterday lay bedclothes and a broken fridge, a shattered tape player, a book of French lessons and a baby carriage cut clean in half. Revenge was swift, as usual. Hizbollah fired six Katyusha rockets into Israel's occupation zone in southern Lebanon. The Israelis fired artillery shells back. But for once, there were no casualties.

(Photograph omitted)