Wicked little ships give the lie to Israel's moral might

Robert Fisk in Rmeile on the deliberate shelling of Lebanese drivers
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Israel, we were always told, prides itself on the morality of its armed forces. "Purity of arms", we were led to believe, was the watchword of the Israeli Defence Force, an absolute mission to avoid civilian casualties in war.

For most Lebanese, any such notions died in Israel's 1978 invasion (2,000 dead, almost all civilians), Israel's 1982 invasion (around 15,700 dead, almost all civilians), the 1993 bombardment of southern Lebanon (123 civilians dead, 11 Hizbollah), or the massacre of at least 120 civilians in the United Nations compound at Qana last week.

Israel has provided reasons for each bloodbath - "terrorism", mistakes, ignorance. But 15 miles down the coast from Beirut, the Israelis can be under no illusions about what they are shooting at. On a 300-yard strip of highway over the Awali river, north of Lebanon's second city, a road of burned-out cars, shell-holes and raw fear, almost every Lebanese civilian motorist is being targeted by three Israeli 488-ton Hetz-class gunboats. The captains of these 200ft vessels can clearly see their targets by day, and at night through infra-red night vision. Their targets include ambulances, private cars, taxis and vans.

The three ships are named Hetz, the title of the class, Keshet and Romach, - Arrow, Bow and Spear - although when you drive the road all that matters is whether you see a puff of smoke from the wicked little Israeli gunboats lying a mile offshore. On Tuesday, one of the ships took a shot at the Merecedes in which I was travelling; it exploded 100ft behind us. The same day, a shell exploded 20ft from a car carrying an Australian television crew.

So far, at least eight civilians have been wounded by this deliberate shellfire, two of whom had to jump from their blazing car. Israel claims it is interdicting "terrorist" supply lines, although anyone who knows Lebanon knows the Hizbollah have more secure trails by which to transport their Katyushas south. Those who travel the coast road are civilians, often families, and the Israelis know that.

The Israelis say the Lebanese have been told not to use the highway. And yet, civilians in Sidon have no other road on which to travel to Beirut. But like the three children and two women whom the Israelis slaughtered in an ambulance 12 days ago, the Lebanese are now apparently responsible for their own deaths if they are targeted by Israelis. The ambulance was deliberately targeted by an Israeli helicopter pilot because "it belonged to Hizbollah". Even if this was true, which it was not, what morality governs an air force which destroys three children and two young women because it dislikes the owner of the vehicle in which they are travelling?

After my latest brush with Israel's Hetz-class gunboats, I sat on the coast a little to the north and watched two of the ships go on firing at the traffic north of Sidon. What, I wondered, was going on in the minds of the captain and crew of each vessel? Were they obsessed by their own propaganda, that Lebanon is "a nest of terrorism"? Did they really believe that each civilian they were firing at deserved to be wounded, or killed?

Each time these ships fire their Oerlikon gun at civilians, they prove the lie about "purity of arms" and raise the old, old Middle Eastern question of double standards. What if aLebanese gunboat fired at Israeli civilians in Haifa? The UN Security Council would be called into session and the centre of Beirut flattened within 24 hours. There would be a question of war-crimes trials.

Oddly enough, I haven't met a Lebanese who believes the Israeli naval crews trying to kill them off the mouth of the Awali river are going to end up in a war-crimes trial. Not a soul thinks the US will utter a word of condemnation or complaint.