Lebanon's people bear the brunt of Israeli wrath

Beirut helpless in the face of blitz on civilian targets, ordered by Ehud Barak in answer to series of Hizbollah assaults

Robert Fisk
Wednesday 09 February 2000 01:00

The man at the gate of the great Roman temples at Baalbek put it very well. With a cynical smile and a gesture towards the still-smouldering power station in the suburbs, he said: "Our cousins sent something to us last night."

The man at the gate of the great Roman temples at Baalbek put it very well. With a cynical smile and a gesture towards the still-smouldering power station in the suburbs, he said: "Our cousins sent something to us last night."

For 57-year old Mohamed Shaeb, the gift came just after midnight, three massive bombs which split entire iron generators apart, blasting pipes and steel and electrical pylons into 20ft pits. As he lay in the corner of his home within the compound of the brand new 'Electricité du Liban' compound next to the disused Orient Express railway line, a piece of masonry smashed into his forehead.

I found him in a bed at the Tartari hospital, a red patch staining a thick bandage round his forehead. "My family wasn't in the house," he said. "I don't want to say more. All I was doing was my job monitoring the electrical equipment."

Down in the smouldering ruins of his compound - a switching station which changes voltage for the whole of the province of Baalbek - his boss told the truth. "He moved his family out of the house to family friends when he thought the Israelis might attack the power system in Lebanon," he remarked softly. "He knew they might come - but Mohamed Shaeb stayed at his post."

Little good it did him. Sulieman Traboulsi, the electricity minister, had already announced that the Israeli raids would leave Lebanon with at least a year of power cuts. In other words, even if peace comes to the Middle East in the next 12 months, Lebanon will still be paying the price. It was the same at Jamhour east of Beirut, where a squad of Lebanese soldiers guarded the gate of the power station which was already in bits.

Three Israeli missiles had hit the plant just after 1am yesterday, blasting through massive concrete walls, throwing generators into the air and tearing iron fittings apart. Ironically, it was this very same power plant which the Israelis hit - Nato-style - in their attack on Lebanon last summer, killing at the time at least four firemen.

The wreckage of that earlier assault still lay outside the gates yesterday where it was left when spanking new replacement machinery was installed by the French. Now that, too, is a charred, smoking mound of rubble, mixed with hunks of missile tubing.

In Baalbek, 16 other civilians were wounded when the bombs fell on Mohamed Shaeb's compound. The walls of their homes were cracked open, their windows slivered through the rooms, their doors torn from their hinges. Yasmine Shaeb sat outside her devastated home in exhaustion, head bowed, hands supporting her body on a triangle of smashed wood, vulnerable and helpless.

Most Lebanese feel the same way. When the first explosions thundered over Beirut, I turned on the reading lamp beside my bed. When it went out a few seconds later, I knew what the Israelis had hit. And when the Israeli jets had finished their work on the Jamhour plant in the early hours, their pilots decided to fly at supersonic speed and low altitude over the capital, breaking the sound barrier above the heads of a million sleeping people.

And the Syrians, of course, watch from Damascus. The radar scanners on their artillery batteries were turning wistfully in the cold afternoon air yesterday, protecting - depending on your view of the old Warsaw Pact technology - the Syrian armoured brigades dug into the soft earth of the Bekaa Valley south of Baalbek. Early yesterday, a few batteries fired into the night skies of Beirut to protest the Israeli air strikes.

And why shouldn't the Lebanese feel helpless? The Hizbollah may have gradually won their grudging acceptance - even admiration - as a resistance force against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. But the guerrillas are not moved by burned-out power plants or electricity cuts. And civilians cannot, as the Israelis supposedly believe, up sticks and tell the Hizbollah to end the fighting.

The Lebanese government long ago threw its support behind the Hizbollah - which, of course, provided Israel with its excuse for the attack. Lebanon, according to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is indirectly responsible for the deaths of six Israeli occupation soldiers in two weeks. Not Israel's illegal presence in southern Lebanon. Not Israel's refusal to withdraw its army unconditionally from its death trap in the south of Lebanon as it was supposed to have done more than 20 years ago under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 425. No; little Lebanon is to blame.

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