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Lebanese hit by deadly dollars: The week-long bombardment of southern Lebanon is whipping up a fresh hatred - of America. Robert Fisk in Tyre on the enemies of Hizbollah

ON THURSDAY afternoon, as the last of 300,000 refugees fled north from Israel's savage bombardment of southern Lebanon, America's debonaire young ambassador to Beirut, Ryan Crocker, paid a social call on the Lebanese president. The United States, Mr Crocker told President Hrawi, wanted to help the refugees with a donation of dollars 400,000 ( pounds 270,000). It could not have taken the President long to calculate how much the Americans thought the homeless worth: just over one dollar each.

In southern Lebanon, however, American largesse was being demonstrated on a much more impressive scale - by the army, which had created the exodus and which was destroying the refugees' homes. In just four days, the Israelis fired 25,000 shells - their own estimate is 28,000 - not to mention hundreds of wire-guided missiles and aerial bombs. The Israeli artillery were American 155s, the shells manufactured in the US. So were the missiles and most of the jets that fired them. A 155 mm shell costs dollars 2,000, a wire- guided missile dollars 13,000.

In the first four days, one United Nations officer calculated, Israel had spent more than dollars 40m on the bombardment. This weekend, the figure is nearing dollars 60m.

Who pays for all this? The Lebanese know full well. For without the financial and military commitment of the US, Israel could not launch an offensive against the civilian population of southern Lebanon plus a handful of pro-Iranian Hizbollah guerrillas with their ageing Katyusha rockets. Which is why Hizbollah claims it is fighting America as well as Israel and why it blames the US for the offensive - in much the same way that President Clinton has blamed Hizbollah.

A Swedish soldier in the UN force in southern Lebanon reflected upon the week as Israeli shells exploded around him in the village of Siddiqin. 'The Israelis are just making another generation of Hizbollah,' he said. 'They are feeding a lot of hate here - and hate that's going to be directed at America as well.'

Walking through the Tibnin village hospital, the walls vibrating to the shellfire outside, it was not difficult to understand what he meant. Dozens of refugee children lay whimpering, the older boys staring blankly at the dangerously open door, their mothers shaking with fear. What will those children be thinking - or doing - in 10 or 15 years' time?

In the wreckage of southern Lebanon last week, there were men who believed Hizbollah had little popular support. In his cramped director's office inside the Tibnin hospital, its windows rattling with the sound of explosions, Ali Fawaz had statistics of his own. 'Those the Israelis are killing are 90 per cent civilians and 10 per cent Hizbollah,' he said. 'But 90 per cent of the people don't want the resistance because they want to live in peace.

'The Israelis will destroy the people, not Hizbollah. This is a war between the Syrians and Iranians against the Israelis here in southern Lebanon. And we Lebanese, we pay and pay and pay . . .'

There are those in Lebanon - not least the local journalists - who question whether anyone understands the true motives behind the massive bombardment. The Israeli explanation - that the offensive is intended to end Hizbollah's rocket attacks against northern Israel - is deeply flawed, if not a lie.

For in the weeks prior to the bombardment, few Katyushas had been fired into Israel by Hizbollah - and then only in response to Israeli artillery fire. The Israeli attack was originally supposed to be in retaliation for the killing of six Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah guerrillas inside the Israeli-occupied area of southern Lebanon - not inside Israel. Only after the Israeli assault began last Sunday did Hizbollah fire hundreds of Katyusha rockets at Israel. Thus, the Katyushas were the result, not the cause, of the bombardment.

Talal Salman, the careworn editor of As Safir, Lebanon's most political daily, believes Israel wants to reverse his country's recovery from the 15-year civil war. 'Israel doesn't want to see Lebanon rebuilt,' he said yesterday. 'We were on the road back from the terrible past.

'Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's prime minister, said that Israel wanted to flood Beirut with hundreds of thousands of refugees and create a political and economic crisis. This may destroy everything we have achieved over the past two years of peace.

'The government will find no solution to this enormous influx. They have no homes, no work, and I don't think the Israelis will let them go back . . . the presence in Beirut of so many Shia Muslims from the south may revive old conflicts between Shias, Sunnis and Christians.'

Like many Lebanese, Salman also suspects that George Bush would never have allowed Israel to unleash its forces on Lebanon. 'Israel has far too much influence with the Clinton administration. The Israelis are taking advantage of this to re-stack the deck in the Middle East.'

The continuing failure of the Middle East peace talks, Salman says, are as much to blame for the Israeli assault as the Hizbollah attacks. 'Everything is going wrong in Washington, but no one is willing to be branded as the party that pulled out of the peace talks.

'In the last round of negotiations, the Israelis repeatedly insulted the Lebanese delegation, saying things like 'You don't represent anyone' and 'You don't have an independent government'. The Israelis refused to discuss UN resolutions on Lebanon with the Lebanese.'

The independence of Lebanon's government is a moot point. Its prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, travelled to Damascus last week to confer with President Assad of Syria and the foreign minister of Iran, the two supporters of Hizbollah. Syria has regularly encouraged Hizbollah to attack Israeli occupation troops in southern Lebanon as a means of putting pressure on Israel to compromise at the Middle East peace talks. (Mr Assad, it will be noted, does not allow a single bullet to fly across the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.)

However, Syria had no idea that the Israelis would respond to the latest killing of their soldiers so violently, let alone bomb Syrian troops who are also doing some 'occupying' inside Lebanon. Nor could the Iranians, who want to destroy the Washington negotiations, have predicted the outcome of Hizbollah's tactics.

In any event, the longer Israel's offensive continued, the less credible its explanations became and the more plausible the suspicions of the Lebanese. Already they may be forgiven for thinking that Washington gave Israel one of its notorious 'green lights' to open fire last Sunday.

The last time the US gave Israel one of those oblique signals was in 1982 when Alexander Haig was told by the then defence minister, Ariel Sharon, that Israel planned to 'destroy terrorism' in southern Lebanon. A few months later, Sharon invaded Lebanon and sent his army all the way to Beirut.

Peace through terror, page 21

(Photograph omitted)