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2006-08-16

Lebanon Ceasefire Holds As Negotiations Continue

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The ceasefire in Lebanon continues to hold in its third day but there are growing questions over how long it will last. Negotiations are under way to form the United Nations peacekeeping force planned to back up the agreement. We go to Lebanon to speak with American University in Beirut professor, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb and Declan Walsh, a Guardian reporter in Bint Jbeil. [includes rush transcript]

The ceasefire in Lebanon continues to hold in its third day but there are growing questions over how long it will last. Negotiations are under way to form the United Nations peacekeeping force planned to back up the agreement. The UN hopes to get thirty five hundred troops on the ground in southern Lebanon within two weeks. Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Lebanese are returning home from the north despite the continuing Israeli presence and unstable truce.

  • Declan Walsh, correspondent for the London Guardian. He joins us on the line from southern Lebanon.
  • Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the American University in Beirut. She is the author of " Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion", and is currently on the line from Beirut.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Beirut to Amal Saad Ghorayeb. She’s a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and the author of Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Amal, are you there?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Hello. Yes, I can hear you. Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the ceasefire, as it stands right now?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Well, I think contrary to what, you know, a lot of people expected here, that it does seem to be holding, relatively so. The main sticking point was that Israel had refused to withdraw until those foreign troops arrived and Hezbollah had refused to stop fighting until the Israelis left, but in fact what we’ve witnessed over the past two days is that there’s been a great number of refugees who have returned to their homes, and I think, therefore, it’s not in the interest of either side to escalate the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined from southern Lebanon by Declan Walsh, who’s a correspondent for the British newspaper, The Guardian, as well as The Independent, reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan, now in south of Lebanon. Where exactly are you, Declan? Declan, can you hear us?

DECLAN WALSH: I can hear you, yes. I said I’m in a town called Bint Jbeil, near the Israeli border.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you describe it to us, describe your trip to the south of Lebanon and what you have seen?

DECLAN WALSH: What I’ve been seeing in Tyre, which is the main town in southern Lebanon which had been effectually besieged during the fighting over the last number of weeks, now the roads have opened up and people are returning to their homes. And the village that I’m in at the moment is one of the worst affected areas. I’ve just been speaking with officials who’ve told me they estimate that over half of the buildings in town have been destroyed, and it’s something that’s very easy to see when you walk down the main street and there’s hardly a building left standing, rubble everywhere, [inaudible] cars and a small trickle of residents [inaudible] and assessing their houses and trying to figure out where their lives go from here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the people who have returned or who have stayed, the stories they have told you?

DECLAN WALSH: Among most of the people, they say that a lot of people left after a couple of weeks of fighting. They’ve stayed with relatives, in schools or other public buildings in the north for the last number of weeks, waiting for the conflict to be over. Now they’re coming back, and really they’re finding their livelihoods and their homes absolutely destroyed, and they’re starting to wonder where to start from now. Having said that, you also get from people an enormous sense of defiance —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re losing you a little bit. Go ahead.

DECLAN WALSH: Alright. But on the other hand, you get from people a quite amazing sense of defiance. People, particularly the Shia population, are —

AMY GOODMAN: I think we’re going to —

DECLAN WALSH: Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, go ahead. Keep talking. It’s just because of your satellite phone and our system, it’s a little hard to hear. But keep on describing what you see.

DECLAN WALSH: People are incredibly proud of what they see as the achievement of Hezbollah in taking on what they call the most powerful army in the Middle East and defeating it. So even though, you know, I’ve spoken to numerous families standing in the rubble of their homes, having suffered great loss, but they will tell you that for them, this is victory. They feel that despite all this great destruction, this is a price that they think is worth paying.

AMY GOODMAN: In one of your pieces in the Guardian, you write about Ayta ash-Shab, the place where it all began, where the Hezbollah fighters stole across the border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Can you describe that community and how people felt returning?

DECLAN WALSH: We arrived in Ayta ash-Shab a couple of hours after the ceasefire took effect, and at that point, there were relatively few residents who had returned [inaudible] by the fighting. They were largely [inaudible] and otherwise, we met Hezbollah fighters who were emerging from the rubble. You know, these were people who were still covered in dust, exhausted after a month of fighting, and they certainly had also quite a triumphant tone. They were waving flags. They started broadcasting prayers from the mosque for the first time in two weeks, and they really felt that, you know, they had, if you like, started to take a place in the local mythology here, if you like, that the Israeli soldiers had tried to eject them from that town, and despite almost, as far as we could see, a blitz of bombing over several weeks, they had failed to dislodge the Hezbollah fighters from the town.

AMY GOODMAN: So you see many Hezbollah fighters as you travel in the south?

DECLAN WALSH: Yes, you do. You generally see them clustered, you know, in the center of many of the towns. Some of them seem to be participating in the efforts to clean up southern Lebanon. [inaudible] almost impossible due to rubble spilling over from destroyed buildings, have now been cleared. I passed through the town of Qana earlier, where we saw teams of people out with sweeping brushes, cleaning the rubble off the ground, and that’s something you’re seeing all across southern Lebanon.

Otherwise, in areas where there’s still an Israeli presence, and in some points here, you can see Israeli tanks in the distance moving about. And there, you still see, close to those points, you see Hezbollah fighters standing on hilltops watching the Israelis were wearily. Even though the ceasefire certainly is holding, against many people’s expectations, but in some places, it’s a very intense ceasefire, and both sides are eyeing each other very wearily, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: Today in the news, we reported about the numbers of bodies people are finding and digging a mass grave in Tyre for more bodies. What do you see when it comes to casualties?

DECLAN WALSH: Yesterday, in this town, Bint Jbeil, I saw two bodies being taken from the rubble and driven away by the Lebanese Red Cross, and on the roads you occasionally see Red Cross or Hezbollah ambulances [inaudible] either the wounded or the dead away from this area. So it’s difficult to assess exact numbers. There’s a mass burial taking place today in Tyre of, I understand, over 140 people, is what local officials told me, and however, about 100 of those bodies in fact have been there for several weeks, and the government hospital was unable to bury those people because they were afraid being attacked by Israeli warplanes, even though the cemetery, [inaudible] cemetery, is only half a mile from the hospital. And so now, those bodies, if you like, have been in storage in a fruit and vegetable —- refrigerated vegetable truck over the last couple of weeks. And now, finally, [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: Declan Walsh, I want to thank you for being with us, writes for the British newspapers, The Guardian and The Independent, speaking to us from the south of Lebanon in Bint Jbeil. Also on the line with us from Beirut, Amal Saad Ghorayeb, teaches at Lebanese American University. The claim by both sides that they have won, Amal, can you respond?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Yes. Well, I think that’s really basically Olmert. I mean, the Olmert government is claiming that it’s won. The rest of Israel doesn’t appear to think that way, and if that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t have seen this immense pressure on Olmert now. I think if we want to measure it objectively, just in objective terms — I know it’s very much also a matter of perception — but, in fact, from day one, Israel had laid out very high goalposts for itself, and it didn’t actually succeed in achieving any one, whereas Hezbollah, from the very beginning, had merely said it wanted a prisoner exchange. So if we measure it by those standards, I think we’ll see that it was definitely time to amount to an Israeli defeat, which translated here is a resounding military victory.

AMY GOODMAN: And the feeling of people right now in Beirut, as people come out of shelters in southern Beirut, as people see exactly the situation?

AMAL SAAD GHORAYEB: Yes, I think it’s really quite surprising, because I’ve been watching especially on television the reaction of people who just found out that their homes have been completely pulverized. I mean, yes, there is a certain astonishment, sadness and what have you, but there’s such a strong sense of defiance and also faith in Hezbollah’s pledge to rebuild for them. So I think it really, you know, is seen as something that isn’t an irreversible loss, and if anything, they feel buoyed by this victory.

It’s a very interesting political culture you’ve got in these Shiite strongholds. I think they’re very much used to being targeted by Israel. And they’re also, as I said earlier, they have full confidence that their homes will be restored, and they feel an incredible sense of pride and dignity, and I think that’s really what underlines this entire conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Amal Saad Ghorayeb, I want to thank you for being with us from Lebanese American University in Beirut. She is author of the book, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion, speaking to us from Beirut.

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