Leading article: The betrayal of the Lebanese nation

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Before this latest Middle Eastern crisis began, the Israeli army's chief of staff threatened to "turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years". That process is now nearing completion. Israeli military action in Lebanon has brought the country to its knees. Tens of thousands of refugees have been created in just nine days. Evacuated foreign nationals have overwhelmed ports in Cyprus. But these are the lucky ones. Some 500,000 Lebanese civilians have been forced from their homes. And there will be no evacuation to safety for these unfortunates.

Lebanon's infrastructure has been destroyed by Israeli air strikes. So many roads and bridges have been bombed out that the distribution of water, sanitation and medical facilities for the displaced is proving almost impossible. Transporting the injured to hospitals in the south is proving particularly hazardous as Israel will, it seems, bomb anything that moves there. United Nations aid agencies are warning of an unfolding humanitarian disaster.

The casualty rate stands, so far, at 300 dead and 1,000 wounded, the majority of these being civilians. This has prompted Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to warn yesterday of war crimes charges against any military commanders who deliberately target civilians. Lebanon has not seen such dark days since the end of the civil war. The country's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, made a moving plea on Wednesday evening for foreign intervention. But he has been ignored. The nation that was so recently praised to the heavens by the western world for its peaceful "Cedar Revolution" has been left to hang. It seems that all these warm words for Lebanon's democratic revolution were, as our Prime Minister might put it, "just talk".

The betrayal of Lebanon by the United States has been particularly shameless. Only three months ago, President Bush welcomed Prime Minister Siniora in the White House and praised "the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to express their desire to be free" in Lebanon last spring. Where is America's solidarity with the Lebanese people now? The US has refused to demand an immediate ceasefire. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, met the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in New York last night to discuss diplomatic efforts to end the violence. But when? There are still no firm plans for Ms Rice to visit the region, let alone a timetable for peace. Meanwhile, Israel predicts that the offensive could last for weeks. And the Lebanese, quite understandably, fear that when the last westerner has been evacuated, the world's attention will begin to slip.

No one disputes the responsibility Hizbollah bears for this situation. The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was a clear act of provocation. And its decision to embed itself in the civilian population is to blame for many of the Lebanese civilian casualties. Hizbollah has also been responsible for its fair share of terror in Israel since this crisis began, killing 15 civilians by firing rockets indiscriminately at towns south of the border.

But this is no war between two equal powers. Hizbollah, as the Israelis themselves consistently remind us, is a "terrorist" organisation, an unaccountable militia functioning on Lebanese soil, whereas Israel is a powerful nation state. If the Israeli government were serious about destroying the influence of Hizbollah, they would be supporting and strengthening the legitimate Lebanese government. So would the international community, led by the United States. Instead, the world has stood back while the Israeli military has brutalised the Lebanese nation and heaped more oil on to the already raging fires of the Middle East.

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