Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon has entered its sixth day and the Lebanese death toll has now topped 150: almost all of them civilians. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is continuing to fire rockets at northern Israel. On Sunday, a missile hit Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. The Israeli death toll since now stands at around 24. We go to Lebanon to get a report. [includes rush transcript]
Israeli warplanes are continuing to attack Lebanon for a sixth consecutive day. Air strikes on Monday killed 23 people bringing the death toll in Lebanon to over 150, almost all of them civilians. The country’s infrastructure has been severely damaged as Israel continues to target roads and bridges. Civilian installations, factories, gas stations and the airport have also hit. Israel has now begun targeting Tripoli in the north of the country, as well as areas in central and eastern Lebanon. The Israeli air strikes began after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers during a raid into Israel on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah is continuing to fire rockets at northern Israel. On Sunday, a missile hit a train maintenance building in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, killing eight people. Israel’s death toll now stands at 24. In his first televised appearance since the crisis began, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the battle against Israel is "just at the beginning."
- Rania Masri, assistant professor at the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Balamand in Lebanon and the assistant director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Balamand. She joins us on the line from Northern Lebanon. More information at ElectronicLebanon.net
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone by As’ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, visiting professor at UC Berkeley. He runs a blog called the " Angry Arab News Service." He recently returned to the United States from a month-long trip to Lebanon. In our studio in New York, we’re joined by journalist and author, Chris Hedges, former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, senior fellow at the Nation Institute, author of War Is a Force Which Gives Us Meaning, among other books.
But first we go to Northern Lebanon to speak with Rania Masri, assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, assistant director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at that university. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rania Masri.
RANIA MASRI: Pleasure to be with you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what is happening in Lebanon right now, and particularly in your area?
RANIA MASRI: Well, since 2:00 yesterday morning, the Israeli planes have — I’ve been hearing them over the sides of Tripoli. In particular, they bombed the Mina of Tripoli, the ports of Tripoli, again today, as they had done a few days earlier. However, the majority of the aggression of the Israeli offensive forces is in southern districts of Beirut and in the south and in Baalbek. So that is where you’ve got the crux of the fighting. The latest reports from the Lebanese army is that we have 194 Lebanese civilians that have been killed, 350 that have been wounded, hundreds of thousands, literally hundreds of thousands, that have been forced out of their homes, hundreds of thousands of refugees.
AMY GOODMAN: And how are people — are people in your area leaving? What is happening to the civilian population?
RANIA MASRI: Well, we have people here in the north, we have approximately 15,000 families that are in the Jbeil qada, which is an area between Beirut and Tripoli, if I’m going to really simplify the geography of this area. In Tripoli, we also have refugees. They have refugees basically throughout the country; wherever they can get to — to leave the south, to leave Beirut — they are leaving.
However, the problem is Israel has made it extraordinarily difficult for people to leave the south. And I’ll give you one example. I received an email this morning from a woman in Australia who was [inaudible] for her family in Aitaroun beside Bint Jbeil, which is one of the areas most especially targeted by the Israeli forces. I contacted UNIFIL, and I asked what do they advise for this family to do, because the Israelis have been telling them that they need to leave their home. And he responded that these are the areas that the Israelis have specifically stated that any vehicular movement will be regarded as hostile and will be targeted. He told me to tell them to stay in their homes. So here you have numerous families, such as this family, that are faced in a Catch-22: they leave their home, they get targeted; if they stay in their home, they get targeted. This particular family did manage to escape, though, and they are right now in Sur in Tyre, where there is less bombardment, but there is still heavy bombardment.
And right now what these areas in the south are facing is a basic isolation, because the roads to the south are all but destroyed. You can only go through side roads. And they are making it extraordinarily difficult for food, for basic fuel to be sent, for medical equipment.
And they are also frightening people in the north. For example, they have told us two days ago, one of the main tunnels connecting Jbeil to the north, which is Chekka tunnel, will be bombed. And so, for the past two days, it has been really frightening for people to move around in areas that previously were thought to be safe. So, this is a deliberate policy by the Israeli forces. It’s to isolate people as much as possible by destroying their roads and, at the same time, to destroy their infrastructure, basically to make life unbearable.
I have to say, though, everybody that I have talked to in the south, without exception, and everybody that I have talked to who has been forced out of their homes in the southern districts of Beirut, they are all speaking with a great amount of resilience. It’s a resilience that — I have to say, for the first time I’m extraordinarily proud to be in this country, because they are speaking with resilience, they’re speaking with dignity. They’re saying, you know, "We are going to make it through, and we will stand together and unified." And it’s just amazing to hear this coming from the people who are suffering literally the most.
AMY GOODMAN: Rania Masri, we have just gotten word that Israel confirms that ground troops have entered Southern Lebanon. The significance of this, from the bombing to the ground troops?
RANIA MASRI: Well, you know, for a lot of people in Lebanon, this could be regarded as good news, because it equalizes the conflict. The moment that the Israeli army goes into Lebanon it kind of equalizes it. They have been attempting to do this for several days. They’ve been attempting to get into Sur, where they have not been allowed. They have been attempting to get into the extreme areas of the south, and again they have not been allowed. So, it’s interesting that they say this, because moments ago the Israeli forces, you know, denied that they were going into the south, invading the south, and now they’re saying that they have invaded the south.
One other area, I want to tell you, which is the latest news is that the national resistance movement, the Hezbollah movement has managed to down an F-16 Israeli fighter jet. This is breaking news, and we have been seeing this on television. This not something that the Israeli army can now attempt to deny.
AMY GOODMAN: Lebanon TV is also confirming that the Israeli plane is down. And what is the attitude to Hezbollah, before the latest Israeli offensive and now?
RANIA MASRI: You know, that’s really hard to tell. And I will just be limiting my comment here to the people that I have specifically spoken with, and the mood is really one of — that this is going to be our last battle, we are going to have to make it through. There’s a friend of mine in the south who said, and I quote, "This time it is different. We feel that this time will be our last battle. The people are resilient with the mood that we will either live with dignity or we will die."
And so, we hear this every time that Hezbollah manages to do something, such as down an F-16 or destroy a destroyer along the coast of Beirut that was killing civilians. Every time something like this happens, the mood in the country immediately escalates, as people feel a strength and they feel that they can make it through. So, right now it has become a battle of wills to see which community is able to withstand the most.
And I have to repeat and I want to repeat this again: the people that are being killed in Lebanon are civilians. They are families in their entirety. In the first few days alone, there were literally eight families in their entirety that were massacred by the Israeli forces — eight entire families — and we have this continuing and continuing. So, although the mood right now, especially with this news that Hezbollah managed to down a plane, could be one of "we’re going to make it through." I want to emphasize again and again that the cost that the Lebanese people are paying for the Israeli acts of terrorism is quite, quite extreme, and all in the face of this amazing silence from the international community.
AMY GOODMAN: Rania Masri, I want to thank you for being with us, currently assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Balamand in Northern Lebanon. I want to thank you —
RANIA MASRI: One more comment, if I may. I encourage everyone who’s listening to this to do two things. One is turn off the television and not to watch mainstream corporate American news, because you’re only going to get misinformation. And second is to turn your internet on to electroniclebanon.net, where you will be getting eyewitness reports from besieged Lebanon.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Rania Masri. When we come back, we’ll be joined by As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor in California, just returned from Lebanon, and Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force Which Gives Us Meaning, spent years in the Middle East, is now a senior fellow at the Nation Institute.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our discussion about what’s happening in Lebanon, we turn to Chris Hedges, journalist and author, foreign correspondent for the New York Times for many years, but now currently senior fellow at the Nation Institute. War Is a Force Which Gives Us Meaning is one of his books. We have also heard that the U.S. embassy in Beirut has just been evacuated, in addition to the news of Israeli ground troops moving into Southern Lebanon and an Israeli plane being shot down, a fighter jet, by Hezbollah. Chris Hedges, your response.
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, this is the culmination of essentially five years of refusal by the Bush administration to do anything to keep alive the peace process. And what we see now is the result of that. We have left extremists on all wings — Palestinian, Lebanese and Israeli — to dictate the language by which the conflicts are set, and that language is a language of violence. There is no other language now. And unless there is a force that steps in to try and moderate this self-immolation on the part of all of these extremist groups, the Middle East is going to spin into a death spiral, which could have disastrous consequences, not only for Lebanese, for Israelis, for Palestinians, but ultimately for us, as well.
You know, every day the conflict is ratcheted up on the part of Israel, with the news that you just read about ground troops going in, and there are fears that, you know, because Hezbollah is such an illusive target — it’s not a conventional force — because these sort of wild strikes and large numbers of killings, I think, are ultimately ineffective, because the weaponry that Hezbollah is now deploying is weaponry that they have not deployed in the past — I mean, the downing of an F-16, the sinking of an Israeli gun boat, the dropping of rockets on Haifa, and we hear rumors that they may have weaponry that can reach as far as the outskirts of Tel Aviv, there is a kind of — you know, we have opened a kind of Pandora’s box, which always happens in war. And now we’re just hanging on by the tail.
AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor at California [State University], Stanislaus, visiting at UC Berkeley, you’ve just returned from Lebanon. Did you see any of this coming?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, yes, I have returned from Lebanon only a week ago or less, and I have met and interviewed a whole number of people, including the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. And I must confess to you that, no, there was nothing in the air about what was coming, and that is because these events were not planted in Lebanon and did not originate inside the country, but outside. I must begin by dissenting by the comments of Chris Hedges, and this is one of the frustrating things watching these events here in the United States, and I don’t want to talk anything about the U.S. government or about the mainstream media. I want to talk about progressives and their stances, people like The Nation magazine’s editorial, about the words of Chris Hedges this morning.
He talks about the death of the peace process. No, no, no. This is not because the peace process was not ongoing. This is the peace process, Mr. Hedges. This is part of what the United States has been doing since the beginning of the so-called peace process, to subcontract the subjugation of the Arabs and all those who defend against Israeli occupation in the area. I mean, he speaks about the spiral of violence, extremists on both sides. All this language is always intended to camouflage and hide and disguise the aggressor, the nature of the aggressor.
Let me put the context for this audience here, because a lot of people have been analyzing this conflict in terms of an outside conspiracy. On the right, you have people like George W. Bush, among others, blaming it all on Iran. On the left, you have people like Robert Fisk, who believe this is all about a Syrian conspiracy. Yet the truth resides in an article yesterday by Robin Wright in the Washington Post. If there is a conspiracy in all of this, it is an American, Israeli, Saudi conspiracy that has been in planning for years in order to disarm Hezbollah as part of the 1559 United Nations Security Council resolution, and we are seeing the implementation of that resolution by force.
But we have to remind the audience about something: how Israel propaganda doesn’t get updated. In 1982, I barely survived an Israeli invasion of the country. Back then, the Israelis were saying, "We are not against Lebanon. We just want to expel the PLO out of Lebanon." Now, they are saying the same, with one difference: Hezbollah is the Lebanese population here. I am from South Lebanon. I tell you that the entire population of South Lebanon stands behind Hezbollah, whether you like it or not. My 14-year-old nephew has been raised by secular leftists, like my family is, and yet he is now a passionate, enthusiastic supporter of Hezbollah. So when Israel said they want to drive them away from South Lebanon, what are they going to do? We’re talking about extermination of them?
And for people who talk about the beginning of this in the arrest and capture of these two Israeli occupation soldiers, we have to remember Israel has not been sitting idly by. Israel has been violating Lebanese sovereignty for the last several years, long after its so-called partial withdrawal from South Lebanon in May of 2000. Israel violates Lebanese earth space. They kidnap shepherds and fishermen from the area where I come from, which is Tyre, at will. Some of these fishermen never come, some of them are killed. Plus, there are demands that all the Lebanese have, including the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jail, the fact that Israel has refused over the last several years all pressures and demands to give Lebanon, through the United Nations, a list of the 400,000 land mines that Israel has planted during its occupation in that region.
And when people on the left, like the editorial of The Nation magazine this week, an awful editorial, when they speak about — as if this is about the ideology of Hezbollah. No, when we leftists speak about what’s going on, it is not out of sympathy for the ideology of Hezbollah. First of all, Israel is not launching a war on the ideology of Hezbollah. It is launching a war, as Rania put it very eloquently, on the whole civilian population of Lebanon. This is exactly what we are talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Chris Hedges.
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I certainly did not mean to imply in any way that, you know, there we should ascribe equal amounts of moral blame to each side. Israel is clearly to blame here, both in terms of what is happening in Gaza and what is now happening in Lebanon. On the other hand, this has been a long process of severe repression in Gaza and the West Bank, a kind of Africanization of the Palestinian people, reducing them to subsistence level. Gaza has become virtually a giant walled prison for 1.1 million Palestinians, and that kind of abuse, that kind of repression, in the absence of international condemnation and in the absence of any attempt on the part of the United States to intervene and create a more humane situation for the Palestinian, breeds extremism. It breeds an extremist response. And these groups attempt to give back to the oppressor, albeit on a much smaller scale, what the oppressor has been meting out to them for years and years and years.
And so, while I sympathize with the argument that was just made, I do believe that this unchecked response on the part of Israel has fueled a movement where we now have two apocalyptic groups on either side essentially speaking in the language of violence, with large numbers of innocent people caught in the middle. And this is a tragedy that I think was a long time coming. I certainly do blame — I lay the fault of this at the feet of the Israelis.
And just as I think that Israel had a large hand in creating Hezbollah after the invasion of Lebanon, it had a very large hand in creating Hamas. When I first went to Gaza in 1988, Hamas was a very marginal force. Fatah had almost complete control of the sympathy of the populace and certainly the power structure.
So, while I don’t in any way want to let Israel off the hook, I think what we have done, and essentially by our negligence, is — and by standing aside — and I’m speaking, of course, of the United States — is empowered these extremist forces, and we now have a kind of Ahab-like self-immolation that is taking place in the Middle East, and there seems to be no outside power, certainly not coming from the Bush administration or Washington, willing to step in and speak with any kind of reason or sanity.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the U.S. opposing a ceasefire in Lebanon.
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, this is exactly the point that I’m trying to make. You know, they have essentially washed their hands and refused — I mean, Washington is probably the one force that can step in — and not always successfully, as we’ve seen in the past — and bring some kind of restraint to Olmert’s hand, but Washington’s refusal to do that thrusts us in an incredibly dangerous environment, where there is no one to stay the hand of the Israeli government. There are no checks, there are no restraints. We don’t know how far they’re going to go.
I mean, there are rumors or fears that, of course, they may actually make attacks against Syria. They buzzed — you know, Israeli warplanes have sort of done flyovers of the house of the Syrian president, and when you listen to the rhetoric out of Jerusalem, it is all about stopping — I’m not saying that the rhetoric is why they’re in Lebanon, but the rhetoric is about the weapon shipments that they claim are coming from Syria and Iran into Hezbollah, and that’s why they say that they are carrying out these massive air strikes and massive attacks against Lebanon.
And, you know, I think we have to be clear that this has to fail. Hezbollah is not a conventional military force. There is no infrastructure to destroy to speak of. Their rockets are — the rockets that they fire are in caches and wooden crates lying all over Southern Lebanon. They may be able to target them after they’re fired, but we’re not fighting a conventional war. Israel is trying to fight a conventional war, but I think it’s doomed, and as the attacks continue and if there are more waves of rocket attacks — and we think they have about 12,000, they have probably fired about 1,000 — I mean, if these things keep coming and Israel, in their frustration, is allowed to continue to accelerate the aggression, who knows where it will go?
AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil, Hezbollah is saying free Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the capture of the Israeli soldiers. Who are these prisoners?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, I mean, there are at least three prisoners that we know of. The longest serving one is a Lebanese Druze, in fact, who in the 1970s joined a Palestinian organization, because he was, like many Lebanese at the time, enthusiastic in lending out support for the Palestinians. The brother of this one, Samir Quntar, is now head of a movement that tries to bring attention to the plight of his brother. He is not a member of Hezbollah. He is a leftist, and I met him in the last trip. And his cause is well known all around Lebanon.
But it is not only about that. I mean, this is why so many people like me in the Arab world level charges of racism at many in the West, including on the left, because they seem to subscribe to the terminology, as I think your guest does, of the prevailing governments of the West, in terms of having more weight given to the frustration, to the so-called anguish of Israeli soldiers, than to the suffering of the civilian populations in Gaza and in Lebanon. When we speak about these two Israeli soldiers — and I will not name them because I’m afraid of giving credence to the propaganda of Israel, by which all those Israeli human lives are more valuable than Arab human lives — we should speak also about the entire nations that are held in captivity, whether it’s in Gaza or whether it’s in Lebanon today.
I don’t think Israel has an intention of launching any ground troops into Lebanon, because they prefer to just bomb the hell out of Lebanon from there, and they are cutting all these bridges and roads so that, I think, rules out any possibility of invasion. And notice many people, in fact, including you, Amy, this morning, I’m afraid, you used the word "entrance," about whether Israel will enter Lebanon. I mean, countries invade other countries, they don’t enter. I mean, when Hitler went to Poland, he invaded Poland, he did not enter it. So we have to be careful about the language we use lest it lends propaganda credence to the aggressor.
I also want to say, so, for the Lebanese, there are the issues of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held without trial by Israel, the fact that Israel refused to release those prisoners — and I must say as somebody who studies the various political movements of the region, Hassan Nasrallah, five months ago, gave a speech and he warned, he said, "If those prisoners are not released, we will try to get an Israeli soldier." I mean, he made it very clear. And if anybody believes that Israel spontaneously improvised an invasion and bombing of the country that we are witnessing today is somebody who absolutely doesn’t know anything about the nature of policymaking inside Israel.
So at this point, any language, it seems to me, that speaks about the so-called cycle of violence, like the Department of State terminology and so on, is losing an opportunity to point the finger at the party that is doing much of the violence and much of the killing, the one that is committing this aggression. The United States is not sitting idly by. The United States is not washing its hand. Its hands are dipped in the blood of the civilians of Lebanon. The United States is supporting wholeheartedly what’s going on. The footage of the children being killed in Tyre, the massacre in Marwaheen, in the name of the U.S. government and many in the U.S. media, is justified self-defense.
These will have long scars. People are going to exact revenge. I mean, I know that in America we always think that Israel is the only one that is entitled to take revenge. I can guarantee you — I mean, Chris Hedges at least admitted that Hezbollah was born within the womb, so to speak, of the Israeli invasion of 1982. It didn’t exist prior to that. I guarantee you a new organization is going to be born out of the agony of the Lebanese population, and they will certainly exact revenge, against Israel, against America and against all those who supported this aggression, and when that occurs, the American population, as always, and the media will say in innocence and wonder yet again, "Why do they hate us? What have we done to them?"
AMY GOODMAN: Professor As’ad AbuKhalil, what about the response of the Arab countries?
AS’AD ABUKHALIL: I mean, I think that there no doubt Arab countries are in cahoots in this particular conspiracy. There was a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo two days ago, and the minutes were leaked to the Arabic press, including to As-Safir, among others, and there was a clear intention. The Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Kuwaitis, as well as the Saudis, primarily the Saudis, are participating in this campaign in order to disarm and weaken Hezbollah. What they don’t know, however, is this is going to have reverberations that is going to affect their own stability.
Just yesterday, a group of Saudi dissidents, intellectuals from inside the country, may of whom are Shiite, released a strong denunciation of the policies of the Saudi government. Inside Egypt yesterday, a large group of the most well known Egyptian writers, intellectuals, leftists, released another statement denunciating the position of the Egyptian government, and there were demonstrations in Jordan about that. So, of course, they are part of the conspiracy that I speak of. The Arab governments are working side-by-side with the United States and with the Israelis. As far as the U.S. is concerned, and the United Nations, of course, we have too much respect for the audience to speak about these entities as if they are independent operators on the world stage.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Chris Hedges, your last comment.
CHRIS HEDGES: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, I share his frustration with Washington. On the other hand, this is the world that we live in. And a Washington that I think has always been partisan towards Israel, it’s been one of the frustrations for those of us who have spent as long as I have in the Arab world, is not a perfect scenario. On the other hand, a disengaged Washington, one that makes no attempt at all to restrain anything Israel does, that never questions this rightwing government in Israel, that never offers any kind of — or proposes any kind of restraint is worse.
So, you know, it’s not a choice between what’s moral and immoral, it’s a choice between what’s immoral and what’s more immoral, sadly. And I think this disengagement on the part of the Bush administration, while I certainly share many of the criticisms of previous administrations, in terms of how their favoritism towards Israel, their partisanship, their failure to understand the Palestinians, I think we have entered a new area where the Bush administration has washed their hands, essentially giving Israel the green light to do anything they want, and I think the situation is much worse, and all we have to do is look at our television screens to see that.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s a repeated charge that the weapons clearly — the support clearly comes from Iran and, they say, Syria. Is this clear? Have you seen evidence presented?
CHRIS HEDGES: There is no hard evidence. I mean, you know, you have the shell casings. But let’s not forget, Amy, that as bombs are being rained all over Lebanon, those weapons were made in American cities and have American markings on them, and this was something that was always made clear to me after attacks that I witnessed by the Israeli — by Apache helicopters and F-16s in Gaza. I think that one of the things we have to remember is that Hezbollah, when matched against the might of the Israeli army, is a marginal, is virtually a nonentity, that they may be able to drop a few Katyusha rockets on Haifa, but they certainly — to somehow equate the firepower of Hezbollah with the — you know, it’s sort of equating a howitzer and an AK-47. There just is no match.
So, yes, there probably is support, from all we can tell, from both — well, from Iran and certainly through Syria, in terms of a transit point. But trying to deal with Hezbollah as a conventional force and trying to bomb and occupy or destroy Lebanon as a response for the capture of these Israeli soldiers — and let me make just one final point, this isn’t the first time that Israeli soldiers have been captured. We’ve had a long and painful negotiations over kidnapped Lebanese, and Israeli has made cross-border incursions into Lebanon to capture Lebanese for years and years and years. That’s something well known to Lebanese and probably not as well known to other people.
But we had, just as in January of 2004, Israel freed 436 Arab prisoners and released the bodies of 59 Lebanese for burial in return for an Israeli spy and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. So these kinds of negotiations over captured or kidnapped Israelis are something that we have seen in the past, and that is, of course, a more appropriate way to deal with what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Then why are they saying no to Hamas and to Hezbollah this time, saying we will we will not negotiate, when it’s known that Israel has negotiated for prisoners in the past?
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, you know, that is for, I suppose, public consumption. I mean, I think even when they make these swaps, they would often make these statements that they don’t make negotiations, and then they do negotiate. I mean, one sets down a public precedent, and then what happens behind the scene, as certainly those of us who have worked in the Middle East know well, is often very different.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Chris Hedges, former New York Times foreign correspondent, he is the author of the book, War Is a Force Which Gives Us Meaning, as well as other books, also is a Nation Institute fellow. And As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of political science at California State University, visiting professor at UC Berkeley. His blog is the " Angry Arab News Service" at angryarab.blogspot.com.