- Robert Fisk
Veteran war correspondent, London Independent, reporting from Beirut.
Lebanon is marking a national day of mourning, a day after Israeli warplanes bombed the village of Qana killing 57. Israel has announced it will halt air strikes for 48 hours in Southern Lebanon, but its ground troops continue to fight. Robert Fisk was in the nearby city of Tyre, where many of the victims were taken following the attack. He joins us from his home in Beirut.
After the attack, Israel released what appeared to be video footage of Hezbollah rockets being launched from Qana towards towns in northern Israel, and the Israeli military said that Qana had been targeted because Hezbollah had been using the village as a base from which to launch rockets. This is not the first time that Qana has been devastated by Israeli fire. In 1996, more than 106 villagers died after Israel bombed the UN compound where they were seeking refuge. In the aftermath of the strike 10 years ago, reporting by Robert Fisk led to the United Nations condemnation of the attack. Robert Fisk had just returned from Tyre, where the victims from Sunday’s Israeli air strike in Qana were taken following the attack.
AMY GOODMAN: Following Israel’s bombing of the town of Qana, that killed nearly 57 people, we turn to veteran war correspondent, Robert Fisk. I reached Robert Fisk early this morning at his home in Beirut. Robert Fisk’s reporting in Lebanon led to the United Nations condemnation of the Israeli attack on Qana ten years ago, in 1996. Early this morning, when we reached Robert Fisk, he had just returned from Tyre, where victims from Sunday’s Israeli air strike in Qana were taken, following the attack.
ROBERT FISK: I went to Tyre, Amy. By the time this has happened — to get from Beirut now to the south takes four to six hours, because of the broken bridges and the bombed roads, and I realized that by the time I got down there, the wounded would have been in the hospitals in Tyre, and the dead would be already brought from Qana to the villages. So when I got there, I went straight to the government hospital in Tyre, where many of the wounded — and there weren’t many, because most of them died — had been taken and where they were counting the number of children.
When I arrived there, there were a number of, maybe 20, 30 children, the corpses of children, lined up outside the government hospital, hair matted, still in their night clothes. The bomb that killed them was dropped at 1:00 in the morning. And they ran out of plastic bags. They were trying to put the children in plastic bags, their corpses, and they would put on it, you know, “Abbas Mehdi, aged seven,” and so and so, aged one, and use a kind of sticking tape on it. But then they ran out of plastic bags, so they had to put the children’s corpses in a kind of cheap carpet that you can buy in the supermarkets, and they roll them up in that and then put their names on again. I was having to go around very carefully and write down, from the Arabic, their names and their ages. It would just say “Abbas Mehdi, aged seven, Qana.”
And, of course, every time I saw the “Qana,” I remember that I was actually in Qana ten years ago when the massacre occurred there then. This is the second massacre in the town whose inhabitants believe that this is the place where Jesus turned water into wine in the Bible, most of whom, 95% of whom, are Christians — I’m sorry, are Muslims. I think all who died were Muslims. The 5% is Christians who have been there for hundreds of years, their families, because they do believe it is the Biblical Qana. There is a claimant to the rival of Qana in Galilee in northern Israel actually.
The Lebanese soldiers were trying take down the names of all who had died, but I found a man with a clipboard who had taken down 40 names, and he said that they weren’t accurate, because some of the children were blown into bits and they couldn’t fit them together accurately and there might be — they couldn’t put the right head on the right body, and therefore they might not be able to have an accurate list of the dead. But he was doing his best in the circumstances of war to maintain the bureaucracy of government.
One by one the children’s bodies were taken away from the courtyard of the government hospital on the shoulders of soldiers and hospital workers and were put in a big refrigerated truck, very dirty, dusty truck, which had been parked just outside the hospital. The grownups, the adult dead, including twelve women, were taken out later. The children were put in the truck first. Pretty grim. As I said, the children’s hair, when you could see the bodies, were matted with dust and mud. And most of them appear to have been bleeding from the nose. I assume that’s because their lungs were crushed by the bomb, and therefore they naturally hemorrhaged as they died.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk reporting from Beirut. After the attack Sunday, Israel released what appeared to be video footage of Hezbollah rockets being launched from Qana toward towns in northern Israel. I asked Robert Fisk about the footage.
ROBERT FISK: I’ve seen the video footage. It’s impossible to tell from the footage if indeed this is from Qana. You know, you have to realize that last time the massacre occurred at Qana in 1996, when they killed 106 refugees who were sheltering in the then-UN base that was there — it doesn’t exist anymore, but it did then — more than half of them children, again. They said that missiles had been fired from within the UN base. It turns out that they were fired from half a mile away. They then said that they didn’t have a live time pilot-less aircraft over the UN base at the time. And, in fact, on the Independent, I found a UN soldier who did have a videotape, showing clearly at the time of the bombardment — this is in 1996 — a live time photo reconnaissance unmanned aircraft over the base. The Israelis were later forced to admit that they had not told the truth: indeed there was a machine over the base at the time. You know, you can do what you want with photo reconnaissance pictures and with photographs after the event. It’s interesting that we weren’t shown these pictures before the massacre. We were only shown them after the massacre.
But they may be correct. The Hezbollah are firing missiles from villages in southern Lebanon, just as, for example, when the Israelis entered southern Lebanon and go into places like Bent Jabail, they’re using civilian houses as cover for their tanks, so the Hezbollah use houses as cover for their missile launching. But the odd thing is the idea that for the Israeli military that somehow it’s okay to kill all these children; if a missile is launched 30, 90 feet from their house, that’s okay then. We’ve got some film to show the missiles were launched; that’s okay then. I mean, did the aircraft which dropped this bomb, a guided weapon, by the way — they knew what they were hitting. It’s a guided weapon. We know that because the computer codes have been found on the bomb fragments. Did they say, “Oh, well, then, the man who launched the missile is hiding with the children in the basement of the house we’re going to hit”? Is it the case now that if you happen to live in a house next to where someone launches a missile, you are to be sentenced to death? Is that what Israel thinks the war is about?
I’m sitting here, for example, in my house tonight in darkness — there’s no electricity — next to a car park. What if someone launches a missile from the car park? Am I supposed to die for that? Is that a death sentence for me? Is that how Israel wages war? If I have children in the basement, are they to die for that? And then I’m told it’s my fault or it’s Hezbollah’s fault? You know, these are serious moral questions.
It’s quite clear from listening to the IDF statement today that they believe that family deserved to die, because 90 feet away, they claim, a missile was fired. So they sentenced all those people to death. Is that what we’re supposed to believe? I mean, presumably it is. I can’t think of any other reason why they should say, “Well, 30 meters away a missile was fired.” Well, thanks very much. So those little children’s corpses in their plastic packages, all stuck together like giant candies today, this is supposed to be quite normal, this is how war is to be waged by the IDF.
The fact that when they made these comments, they went unchallenged on television, was one of the most extraordinary scenes I’ve seen. I got back from Tyre on a very dangerous overland journey on an open road, which was under air attack, and I got back, and just before the electricity was cut, I saw the BBC reporting what the Israelis had said, but without questioning the morality that if someone fires a missile near your home, therefore it is perfectly okay for you to die.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll return to our interview with Robert Fisk of the Independent newspaper in Britain, reporting from Beirut.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with Robert Fisk of the Independent. He has been based in Lebanon for the last 30 years. I spoke to him early this morning, after he had just returned from Tyre. I asked him to respond to Israel’s announcement it would suspend air strikes over southern Lebanon for 48 hours.
ROBERT FISK: That would certainly give the United Nations and particularly the International Red Cross the opportunity of getting thousands of people out of the region. But whether you can arrange convoys for thousands of people to leave in that period of time, I don’t know. The people who the haven’t left are either too frightened to leave, or they’re too poor, or they have no cars, or they’re too elderly or too young. Can the International Committee of the Red Cross with whom I have been traveling for some of the last few days — does that give them enough time to get people out? Does that mean there will be no shells on the road, or is it just air attacks that are stopping?
You know, it’s very interesting that the Israelis should say now, now after all these days, they’re going to give 48 hours. Why didn’t they give an extra 48 hours at the beginning to get the people out? Why now? Is this a bonus, a plus point, something you — a supermarket extra card that you win because you’ve killed so many people? Is it a monopoly board that you’re going to gamble? Okay, you get 48 hours free of air attack, because you killed so many people yesterday. Is that what this is supposed to mean?
AMY GOODMAN: In an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, it voted Sunday not for a cessation of hostilities — the U.S. was opposed to that — but to deplore what happened in Qana and an end to the violence. I asked Robert Fisk to respond.
ROBERT FISK: John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has consistently opposed any kind of ceasefire, because he believes, as Mr. Bush does and as our own dear prime minister, Lord Blair, as I call him, does, that the Israelis can accomplish these hopeless political military aims. Well, the Israelis believe that they can actually destroy one of the most disciplined and most ruthless guerrilla armies in the world. They can’t, anymore than the Americans could destroy the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese or British could destroy the IRA. And, believe me, the Hezbollah are not as weak and cowardly as the IRA was. But they can’t. These are hopeless political aims. All the United Nations is doing by postponing a ceasefire is condemning more Lebanese to death. I wrote in Saturday’s paper, before Qana, that the actions of Blair and Bush, and Bolton by extension, and Condoleezza Rice, were going to condemn more innocents to death.
You know, I went into a hospital in Marjayoun last week, and I saw this very beautiful young woman lying in bed, and her skin had been pitted with very familiar wounds, the little tiny round crimson holes of cluster bomblets. We used cluster bombs in Iraq in 2003. I know exactly what the wounds look like. I identified them at once. Indeed, she described the cluster bombs falling like grapes, as she put it, out of the sky, oddly enough an expression used by an Iraqi woman in 2003 to me. This young woman had been wounded 48 hours before I saw her. Had Bush and Blair insisted on a ceasefire at the beginning, this woman, her skin would not be destroyed in the way it has been.
On the ground, when you’re here, when you see the wounded, see the dead, you realize the immorality, the obscenity, the atrocity of statesmen, as they think they are, claiming that, you know, it isn’t yet time for a ceasefire. A hasty ceasefire would not be a good thing, as Condoleezza Rice said. 24 hours before, I saw a picture of her on a beach in Malaysia. And people remember this. People remember this. In the hospital it was a young man who said — turned to me, he said, “Why have you done this to us? Why have you done this to us?” And the woman I was talking to said the same: “Why does the West want to do this to us?”
You know, this has been going on for more than two weeks now. I’m traveling around the south, increasingly outraged at what I see, as a human being. And I’m not a Muslim. I’m not a Muslim. And I keep saying to myself, “If I was a Muslim, how much more outraged might I be?” I turned to an American friend of mine tonight back in Beirut before I came home, and I said, “You know, I’ve been watching this now for more than two weeks, and there’s going to be another 9/11.” There’s going to be another 9/11, and then we’re going to hear all the usual claptrap about how it’s good versus evil, and they hate us because we’re good and democratic, and they hate our values, and all the other material that comes out of the rear end of a bull that your president and my prime minister talk.
What’s going on in southern Lebanon is an outrage. It’s an atrocity. The idea that more than 600 civilians must die because three Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured on the border by the Hezbollah on July 12, my 60th birthday — I’ve spent 30 years of my life watching this, this filth now, you know — is outrageous. It’s against all morality to suggest that 600 innocent civilians must die for this. There is no other country in the world that could get away with this.
You know, when — I wrote in my paper last week, there were times when the IRA would cross from the Irish Republic into northern Ireland to kill British soldiers. And they did murder and kill British soldiers. But we, the British, didn’t hold the Irish government responsible. We didn’t send the Royal Air Force to bomb Dublin power stations and Galway and Cork. We didn’t send our tanks across the border to shell the hill villages of Cavan or Monaghan or Louth or Donegal. Blair wouldn’t dream of doing that, because he believes he’s a moral man, he’s a civilized man. He wouldn’t treat another nation like that.
But when the Israelis treat Lebanon like that, it’s okay, and Blair doesn’t want a ceasefire. You can’t have a real ceasefire. In other words, we’ve got to have the Lebanese on their knees to sign the dotted line, before we give them a ceasefire. And that dotted line means the disarmament of Hezbollah, which will be impossible for the Lebanese to do without restarting the civil war, because to disarm Hezbollah, you must use the army, and most of the Hezbollah are, of course, Shiite Muslims, and most of the army are Shiite Muslims. So you’re going to have brothers assaulting brothers to take their weapons away. It will not happen. However much you may wish it and however much I may wish it, it won’t happen. And, again, this double morality: Blair wouldn’t dream of attacking the Irish Republic because the IRA crossed the border from Ireland, but it’s quite in order for Israel to attack the Lebanese Republic because the Hezbollah crossed the border from Lebanon.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, speaking to us from Beirut, Lebanon. He had just returned from Tyre, where victims of the Qana bombing had been taken. We’ll play part two of this interview tomorrow on Democracy Now!