In a wide-ranging interview, Robert Fisk–the veteran Middle East correspondent for the London Independent–discusses Hezbollah and Israel, Hezbollah and his interview this weekend with former Iranian president President Mohammed Khatami. [includes rush transcript]
U.N Secretary General Kofi Annan ended a two-day visit to Iran on Monday and called for resolving the country’s nuclear standoff with the West through talks instead of sanctions. Annan visit’s came after Iran ignored the U.N Security Council’s deadline for halting uranium enrichment last Thursday. Iran insists that its nuclear program is intended only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity. On Sunday Annan met with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told him that Iran would not halt its” uranium enrichment program before entering negotiations. He blamed a hostile U.S attitude for sabotaging efforts to resolve the dispute.
Meanwhile, former President Mohammed Khatami became the first high ranking Iranian official in three decades to speak in the United States. On Saturday in Chicago, Khatami addressed the annual ISNA conference–The Islamic Society of North America. The meeting of 40,000 people is the largest gathering of Muslims in the U.S. On Sunday, Robert Fisk interviewed Khatami. Fisk is the chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent.
- Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. He is author of the book, “Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon” and “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.”
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Robert Fisk interviewed Khatami. Fisk is the chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. Afterwards, I sat down with Robert Fisk at the ISNA conference for an extended discussion. Fisk began by talking about his conversation with the former Iranian president.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I approached him over the issue of how do you switch off the, quote, “war on terror.” I mean, he’s spoken, of course, about how he believes that the American neoconservatives are not only influenced by lobby groups — he didn’t say the Israeli lobby, but he obviously meant that — but how that they’re creating more and more extremism, more and more terror, by continuing the war on terror. And I said to him, “Well, how do you switch it off?”
And he started talking about the need to influence public opinion, which had me yawning a little bit, because, you know, we’ve heard that one before. We all want to influence public opinion. And then he said that when he was in office as president of Iran, he wanted a civic society and democracy inside the country, and he wanted constant communication and serious mature relationships with people outside the country.
And the problem was, now you couldn’t have that, because you were dealing with obviously — by implication he’s a careful man, he speaks in philosophical language — you can’t have a serious relationship conversation with an administration like the Bush administration, because they are ideologically driven. This was the implication of what he said, not his words. And he said, you know, that the policies of the United States are creating more and more extremism, which is then creating more and more extremism within the U.S. administration, which is then creating more and more extremism outside.
And I think he’s right. I mean, if you remember, following immediately after 9/11, there was the bombardment of Afghanistan. And then we spread our wings into Iraq. And now we spread our wings via the Israelis into Gaza and into Lebanon. If you take out Iran and Syria, the whole of the Middle East is now on fire from the border of Pakistan, or even part of Pakistan, all the way to the Mediterranean, outside my own house. And I think Khatami seemed to be very much aware of this.
He also praised me for my Persian. He said it was improving, which was a very good sign, I thought. It was very unkind of me. We were all answering all these demands around the table to say who we were. Of course, they all spoke in English, not in Arabic, which he understands. So I decided I would try introducing myself in Persian, which he did understand, clearly. But I made a mistake of translating Independent wrongly. I said it was azadi, and it should be istiklal.
AMY GOODMAN: What did he say about Ahmadinejad? Did you ask him?
ROBERT FISK: No, we went very gently into that, because obviously he’s not the president any more. And his only comments — and he made them to everyone else, you know, at the same — we were all gathered around the table. I was talking to him. And his only comment was, 'Look, you know, you can't have these double standards. There is a nation in the Middle East, which does not sign the nuclear treaty, which has many nuclear warheads.’ He didn’t even use the word “Israel.” And he said, you know, ’We’ve got to realize and treat these things in a mature way. You can’t just say, you know, you’re going to select which United Nations resolution you’re going to accept and which you are not.’ He said these things before. I mean, it wasn’t anything very exclusive, what he said to me.
But the way he spoke, he has a very measured, careful philosophical way of speaking, but I noticed that, once or twice, you could see an anger in his eye, which I haven’t seen before. I mean, this is a very — you know, this is a divine or a cleric, who one has always associated with, you know, that old Syrian cliché, moderation. He’s not a hawk. This is a man who’s well known for his enormous knowledge of Islamic culture. He talked at great length about the Renaissance, the Reformation. He even talked about the Peloponnesian Wars. I mean, he’s obviously been thinking a lot and trying to put what’s happening now into the context of history, which I haven’t heard other Muslim clerics do. They’re always looking to the future and the present. He was constantly going back, as well as the future. But I saw once or twice the way this hardness came into his eyes, which I hadn’t seen before. And he’s obviously extremely angry with the way in which this country’s, United States’ administration is behaving.
AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of role or influence does he have with the current Iranian leadership?
ROBERT FISK: I don’t think it’s got anything to do with that. I think he has a tremendous standing as a scholar throughout the Islamic world, which is why he got a visa. If he had too close a relationship or even too hostile a relationship with Ahmadinejad, I don’t think he would have got his visa to the United States. I mean, the mere fact that this big meeting here was effectively a meeting of Sunni Muslims — there was not a lot of Shiites around that I have seen. It’s pro-Saudi in its essence. The mere fact that it regarded him as such an honored figure to come, from the Shiite world and as a leading Shiite cleric, speaks for itself.
In fact, he’s going from here to Geneva, where he’s founded an institute, I think for civic responsibility or civic society. And he’s then going to meet the Pope in Rome in October. He’s going to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s receiving an honorary degree from a university in Scotland in the United Kingdom. So, this is a man who has considerable status. But whether it’s the status of a Nelson Mandela or the status of a Kofi Annan, which I would rather not have at the moment, I’m not sure.
AMY GOODMAN: And weapons of mass destruction in Iran that the U.S. government, not only, and perhaps more importantly, the U.S. press, continually raises.
ROBERT FISK: Yeah. Well, he — I mean, I didn’t question him about it, because it seemed to me that he had basically dealt with this on Saturday night, because in his speech he talked repeatedly about Islamophobia and the way the media hypes constantly and changes the direction.
And I wasn’t really interested in it, because, you see, from my point of view, I think there is a Muslim nation, which is extremely dangerous to the West, which is packed with Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters and which does have a bomb, and it’s called Pakistan. And that’s the real crisis. And the more you get involved in discussing the crisis in Iran, the crisis in Iran, the crisis in Iran, you help to put building blocks and foundation stones underneath the Bush administration’s policies, because it’s the story. And I think Pakistan is the story. I think Pakistan is a very dangerous place. I think Pervez Musharraf is playing this balancing game between the military and the ISI, the Intelligence Services, and the Taliban supporters and the large number of extreme Sunni groups in Balujistan and other parts of the northwest territories.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you call Musharraf a military dictator?
ROBERT FISK: Oh, he is a military dictator. I always call him the president-general in my articles, which is what he is. If you talk to him, he actually admits that, quite frankly. I mean, given the status, the state in which Pakistani democracy existed and the amount of corruption in it, you can see how he can claim to power quite well.
But the fact is, he knows that the Pakistani ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence, is giving intelligence and money to the Taliban. I mean, the Taliban, around Kandahar Province now, are rich with cash. They’ve got a lot of money. Now, where’s it coming from? It’s probably coming, a little bit of it, from Iran, which originally used to talk about the “Black Taliban” and didn’t like them, but now it’s quite happy to keep them where they are to keep the Americans busy. And a lot of it must be coming probably from Saudi Arabia via the ISI in Pakistan. But, of course, this is a subject which is not going to be discussed upfront between the Americans and Musharraf, because he’s our friend in the war on terror. That’s part of the scenery, and you mustn’t sort of strip any wallpaper off, because you might not know — you don’t know what you’re going to find behind it, do you?
AMY GOODMAN: So why does the U.S. continue to fight in Afghanistan, losing soldiers?
ROBERT FISK: And losing an awful lot of civilians, of course. The last report, after the British lost a plane with 14 men on board — it’s in this morning’s papers — 400 Taliban killed. This is a report from, you know, coalition headquarters. Well, how do they know they’ve killed 400? Some of them must have been civilians. You don’t kill — this is like Vietnam-type reporting. '500 Vietnamese soldiers were reported killed in the Mekong Delta.' There are always civilians among them.
It also says that four more Canadians have been killed. And that’s putting Canada as getting a lot of dead Canadian soldiers back at the moment. And a lot of people are beginning to question Stephen Harper’s wisdom in sending those Canadian troops. You know, another bit like Blair, very keen to show his loyalty to Mr. Bush. That’s the effect of Afghanistan internationally at the moment. It’s not the fact that it’s a loss. It’s the fact that a lot of dead soldiers are coming home.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, the U.S. continues to support Musharraf, who is shoring up —
ROBERT FISK: Well, they’re worried about who will come afterwards, you see. I mean, we’re all worried. The reason why they don’t really want to topple the President Bashar al-Assad is that maybe those horrible Sunnis from Iraq will cross the border and turn up in Damascus, and that wouldn’t be a good idea, would it? I mean, you can only go on with this policy of ideological self-delusion for so long.
I mean, I watched Condoleezza Rice twice now visiting Beirut, once before the war, the last war, and then once in it. Before she came the last time, ’There’s a new Middle East. Great new possibilities, great things are happening in the Middle East.’ I thought, well, Iraq’s on fire, and Afghanistan’s on fire, and there’s increasing tensions in southern Lebanon. Then she comes during the war, and we’re all watching babies being pulled dead out of buildings that have been hit by the Israelis, and she announces that it’s the birth pangs of a new Middle East. Well, in the hospital wards, there’s an awful lot of blood, and it’s not from birth pangs, it’s from dying children.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Lebanon, where you live. Tell us about it today.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I woke up on the morning of July the 12th, which was my birthday, Amy. It was my 60th birthday. And I received — I hadn’t exactly been partying, but I certainly got up late that morning. I got a phone call from a friend in Paris, who said, “Well, you’ve certainly got a birthday present today.” And I said, “What do you mean?” A classic case of the journalist who didn’t know what was going on just south of his own apartment. Of course, my friend said, “Well, you know, two Israelis have been kidnapped, captured, and three others killed.” And I thought, “Damn! You know, that’s going to be a war,” because I knew that Ehud Olmert was going to do the usual Israeli policy of savage attacks against Lebanon as a result.
AMY GOODMAN: Hezbollah says they didn’t know that.
ROBERT FISK: Well, Hezbollah, I think, is telling us a whopper. Nasrallah said, “Even if we had known one percent, we wouldn’t have captured their soldiers.” Nonsense. I think the Hezbollah knew exactly what the Israelis were going to do, and they needed to flex their muscles and show their bravery, which it was, although, of course, it was a reckless kind, when you also bring upon death to more than 1,000 people, almost all of them civilians.
They had clearly, with massive bunkers, underground storage depots, planned that war. They hit a warship. They hit an Israeli warship and almost sank it. They hit it on midships, killed four sailors and set it on fire for 15 hours. That wasn’t because some guy got up in the morning and ate his morning minutiae with cheese and said, “Oh, let’s hit a warship today.” No, that had been planned weeks, months before. You can’t just set that up, like that. And, of course, now, according to Seymour Hersh, we are led to believe and it’s possible that the Israelis planned their war for months before. It’s possible, as Nasrallah said, that the Israelis were planning a September offensive, which would have led to even more civilian casualties. Well, maybe, but he didn’t tell us that beforehand, didn’t give us a warning of it, did he — if he knew it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, describe what has happened to Lebanon since July 12th.
ROBERT FISK: Well, okay, the pulverization of Lebanon by the Israeli Air Force. You approach villages in the south — I mean, during the war, it was a hair-raising journey to go to the south and drive on those roads, hearing all the time the howl of jets, and you actually see missiles whizzing over the fields. I mean, you can see tremendous explosions.
And I think, you know, it’s a war crime for the Hezbollah to fire missiles at Haifa and civilian areas of Israel. It’s a fact. But it’s also a war crime that was committed against the Lebanese. The Israelis now say, all the Lebanese civilians are being used as human shields. That’s what they always say. The British used to say that in Londonderry or Derry, when they shot down Catholics. And it’s not true.
I mean, the worst war crimes were committed around a place called Marwaheen, which is actually not a Shiite village, but a Sunni village right on the border with Israel. And the Israelis came along and both on radios and with bullhorns, or loudspeakers, we call them, said, “You must leave your village now. You’ve got two hours to leave.” And the people packed into a convoy, open-top truck, minibus, cars, left the village and were savagely attacked on the open road by the Israeli Air Force. That’s a war crime.
Now, you have then two questions to ask, which we were asking all the time when we were down there ourselves. The Israelis say, “Well, we have these brilliant pilots, and we’re absolute pinpoint accuracy, surgical strikes.” Well, if that’s true, then the pilots are deliberately intending to kill civilians. And that’s a war crime. That’s a crime against humanity by the Israeli Air Force. Or, they don’t know what they’re shooting at, in which case their pilots are a riffraff. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t.
And we had the same thing in 1982. We had the same thing in '93. We had the same thing in ’96. Here we go again with our little short memories in the news business. The same arguments: human shields, direct perfect pilots, synchronized bombing, surgical strikes. And they kill all these children again and again. And the people of Marwaheen were running away on the orders of the Israeli Army. That's a war crime.
When you approach the villages now — it’s funny, Amy. I was going around — during the war, you could only be conscious of what’s 50 meters each side of you, because you’re trying to stay alive. And I’m one of those guys who does not wear a helmet and flak jacket. It’s too hot. Anyway, I don’t trust them. You can’t run fast enough. But going back now and looking at the damage is even more astonishing than when you were there during the war, because you couldn’t have time to look at it. And what happened is, you’ll go over this hillside, and you’ll see this hillside of flowers and poppies and tobacco fields looking very neat. In the background, you’ll say, “Oh, that’s Sadikin. I was there last week.” And you’ll go closer to it, and you’ll realize that the buildings don’t have the proper shape anymore. And as you approach it, you realize that the village is gray ash.
I took some pictures in a village south of the Litani a couple of hours after the ceasefire came into force in August, and I didn’t realize when I was taking the pictures how bad the damage was, because I was too busy concentrating on the camera. I’m one of these people who still uses real film, because there’s definition. I don’t use a digital camera. And I got the pictures back to Beirut and took them in to be developed. And I have them blown up big size, so I can understand which is the picture I send to London, because I do my own editing.
And I picked up this picture of this village street, and I said, “It looks Ypres.” It looks like one of those First World War pictures that my father took, which I still have, of villages in the north of France, which had been fought over. This village had been fought over. And I sent it to London. And within an hour, the foreign editor at the Independent on Sunday came back to me and said, “It looks like Ypres.” I said, “Those are exactly the same words I used, you know?” And that’s what it looks like. And, you know, while I was there, there were Hezbollah men and Lebanese soldiers, supposedly meant to be antagonists, and the Lebanese Red Cross, all of them trying to move these slabs of stone, because of the terrible stench underneath. In that village alone, they found 36 civilians buried, rotting under each others’ corpses, civilians, in their homes.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk. We spoke yesterday in Chicago. He is chief Middle East correspondent for the Independent of London. We’ll return to the interview in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, author of the books, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon and The Great War for Civilisation. As we sat at the ISNA conference in Chicago, I asked Robert Fisk about the reports that Israel’s foreign ministry is concerned senior Israeli military and government officials could be prosecuted overseas for committing war crimes in Lebanon.
ROBERT FISK: Quite a lot of discussion internationally among lawyers over how to deal with this. Ramon — I think he’s the Interior Minister [Justice Minister]. I might be wrong. He’s the minister in Israel who said, “We now consider all civilians left in the south of the Litani as being part or some kind of a connection with Hezbollah,” presumably including two-month old babies who don’t actually have a very large political breadth of scope in discussing Hezbollah. And he would probably want to be particularly careful where he traveled in the future, because there is clear — you know, even — I mean, America doesn’t recognize the International Criminal Court, but if you go into countries which do have that jurisdiction, they will have the right to potentially arrest you and place you under garde a vue, as the French would say, under questioning.
It is a fact, an absolute fact, that several months ago, the Israeli commander who ordered the air raid on Gaza, which killed so many children and a Hamas official, the one that Ariel Sharon said was a great success, he landed at Heathrow in an Israeli aircraft, and British police went on board and told him that he may be arrested if he gets off the aircraft. And he chose to fly back to Tel Aviv. That is a fact. The Israelis have not discussed it, but it is a fact. I know that to be fact. And he went back to Tel Aviv. He turned around. So there are [inaudible] there.
I mean, Sharon got quite worried himself, remember, that he might get arraigned through the courts in Belgium, before Mr. Rumsfeld paid a private visit to Belgium and suggested that NATO headquarters may be moved if, right? And Sharon actually appointed his own lawyer in Belgium to defend him. That’s how seriously he took it.
So this issue of war crimes is quite serious, and you see, when you see, you know, the Milosevices and the other various creatures of the Serb-Croatian Bosnian war, far too many of whom end up hanging in their own prison, of course, but when you see them coming up in court, I think that leaders who know they are playing fast and loose with war crimes get a little bit worried. And that’s one of the good — that’s the only good thing I’ve seen in the last 30 years in my life as a reporter, watching, has been the growing understanding that war criminals must be apprehended. And that includes Israeli war criminals, as well as, by the way, Syrian ones. I mean, it’s very interesting that Bashar al-Assad’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad, brother of the late president, is still living in Europe, and yet he is responsible for the deaths of up to 20,000 civilians in the Hama uprising of February 1982. I think he should be arraigned and put in prison and tried as a war criminal.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened there.
ROBERT FISK: At Hama in ’82, there was an uprising, a Sunni uprising, not unlike the ones in Fallujah. Hafez al-Assad saw it as a danger to his regime, which it clearly was, because the Sunnis were the majority, and there were bomb attacks on his ministers, a car attack on the vice president. He was attacked with a machine gun in the street.
And he said, “This revolution will be crushed ruthlessly.” He had an extraordinary speech. He said, “They are not Muslims, these people, and they should be crushed and killed a thousand times.” He was very angry. I’ve still got a copy of the speech. And he sent his brother Rifaat with the Syrian Special Forces into Hama, in an incident which we didn’t pay enough attention to at the time in terms of precedent, because the Sunni insurgents did not stop fighting. They went on to the end. And they were even fighting in tunnels beneath the ancient city of Hama, to the point that in the end, the Syrians razed the ancient city, a great tourist spot, famous throughout history as a water — Noria waterwheels. And there were huge areas. I went there before, and I remember it well.
I was there during the siege. I actually managed to get in. A soldier or an officer asked me for a lift when I was on the road. I was praying for an officer to ask for a lift, and we took him right down to the battle front. I spent 18 minutes watching the tanks firing into the Blue Mosque in Hama. And I remember one soldier told me that his colleague had run down the tunnels, and a young girl had come up and exploded herself against him. It was suicide killers in those tunnels under Hama, Sunni Muslim insurgents killing themselves, fighting Syrian Special Forces troops.
And in the end, they just massacred anyone left alive, whether they were — they couldn’t account for themselves. I mean, they didn’t kill children particularly, though many children were killed. And I remember the starvation of the people then. I remember a woman and her child climbed into my car, and the child was like a stick figure. And I gave it a Mars bar. And the mother tore the Mars bar away and started eating it herself. That’s what hunger does, you see? It divides you even from your own children, family.
And afterwards, Assad said, “I’ll do that anywhere else it happens in Syria.” And there was complete silence from the international community, because we approved of what Assad was doing. Now, of course, the Syrian regime is terrible and Hitlerian, like we made Saddam later on. That’s what happened in Hama.
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli Foreign Minister Livni Tzipi says that they will not negotiate with Syria until it stops supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian extremists.
ROBERT FISK: You know, it’s funny, the self-delusion of everybody — the Americans, the Israelis, and the Lebanese and the Hezbollah — is quite extraordinary. The other day, it is a fact that the Lebanese army captured some missiles from the Hezbollah, right? And everyone assumes, “Oh, they stopped them bringing them in from Syria. They obviously blocked the roads, right? They were re-supplying [inaudible].” And the Israelis have no idea what’s going on in Lebanon, because their intelligence is rubbish, total rubbish. Forget Mossad and Shin Bet. This is legend and song.
How I know this is a fact, the Lebanese army got the missiles, because the Hezbollah were trying to ship them back across the border into Syria and out of southern Lebanon to protect the missiles, in case they were found. And the Lebanese army picked them up, not being brought in to re-supply, but being taken out, because the Hezbollah wanted to protect their weapons. That’s the real story of Lebanon. It’s always the mirror image. It’s always the opposite of what you think.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the cluster bombs?
ROBERT FISK: Well, I saw them lying all over the place and took a very gingerly walk around them. Israel has always used cluster bombs promiscuously. It works on the principle that if it thinks it was a Hezbollah firing base and it can’t get there in time to hit the rocket, if you [inaudible] promiscuously over the area, you will eventually get the Hezbollah who were firing it. And maybe they did get a few, but, of course, people live in that area, you and me.
And one of the things you’ve got to remember about cluster bombs is that not only did the Israelis use them in '82 in built-up areas, but also you see everything the Israelis have done, the Americans and British have done in Iraq now. So, the moment you say, “Oh, you killed those civilians with cluster bombs,” “But the Americans killed civilians with cluster bombs in the city of Hillah, south of Baghdad.” “Well, alright, but on the other hand, I mean, look, you are deliberately targeting children.” “But didn't the Americans murder some children in Haditha?” You see? Because now, the Americans have set a precedent, as the great power believing in democracy, freedom, etc., and the “rule of law,” quote-unquote, that Israel can follow anything the Americans have done and say, “Well, the Americans are doing it. What’s the problem with us? Why can’t Israel defend itself?” You see?
AMY GOODMAN: What about this whole issue of the United States, whether Israel was serving the United States’ purposes, as opposed to the other way around, the idea that Hezbollah is now taking people on tours of the damaged areas and very much, not even putting it as much on Israel as putting it on the USA? Mohamad Bazzi of Newsday was reporting that.
ROBERT FISK: They’ve always done this. Hezbollah have always put it on the USA, ultimately. And that’s what the Iranians want them to do. I mean, let’s not forget that the Syrian-Iranian relationship is intimately involved in what this is about. This is Syria taking revenge on its pullback from Lebanon last year under UN Resolution 1559, and it’s Iran showing that it’s a tough country and will not be messed with and don’t you dare come and bomb our nuclear facilities. It’s part of this measuring up between the extreme Muslims and the extreme Americans, which is what we’re talking about, which is what Khatami was talking about.
You know, the problem with the whole American-Israeli relationship now is this: in the past, when Israel went on these hopeless military adventures, announcing they were going to root out the evil weed of the PLO or the evil weed of Hezbollah — I mean, the language is the same — “We shall not sit idly by.” They keep saying the same quote. I’ve heard it in '78, ’82, ’93, ’96, and again now. They must have a book, you know, that's opened up. “Well, we’ll use the 'not sit idly by' quote, and we’ll use that one about human shields, and let’s remind people of the famous RAF raid in Copenhagen, which killed so many civilians.” You know, and you’ll hear them coming up, I mean, 30 years in Lebanon, you say, “I’ll bet we’re going to hear the Copenhagen air raid story again.” And, sure enough, we did, from Netanyahu, totally mendacious because the air raid bears no relation to what the Israelis are doing in southern Lebanon, because I’ve been to Copenhagen to investigate it.
But the point is, in the past, you had a constantly self-delusional Israeli government going off on these crazy military adventures in Lebanon and ending up in a mess. And there was always a Clinton or a Carter to say, “Whoa, boy! Whoa! Ceasefire.” But on this occasion, for the first time ever, we had a U.S. administration, which was just as self-delusional and ideologically minded as the Israelis. And when the Israelis said, “We’re going to root out the evil weed of Hezbollah,” they said, “Oh! They’re going to do it! Great! Good on the Israelis!” thinking they could actually do this, when all the facts on the ground proved long before the war started that that was impossible.
There was no way the Israelis could do that. And when they did come in on the ground and the Hezbollah were told under the air attacks, “Just take the punishment. Keep taking the punishment. You will have to get them when they come in on the ground.” And they went in on the ground, and they lost 40 men in 36 hours. And that’s the biggest defeat for the IDF, I think, probably in those numbers of times, since way back in the ’73 war, I mean in terms of losses. I mean, no one should ever be happy about the loss of any human being, however good they are or bad they are or anything else, but that was extraordinary punishment. That was not the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, of Sama legend we saw. That was a defeated army.
I’m not saying that Hezbollah won. I think their quotes of divine victory make me puke on the way to the airport. But nonetheless, the Israelis lost that war. They achieved none of their military objectives. They haven’t got the soldiers back. They haven’t got rid of the Hezbollah. They haven’t gotten north of the Litani. They haven’t seized their weapons. They haven’t humbled Syria. And they haven’t humbled Iran. So, what have they managed to do, apart from destroying an awful lot of Lebanon?
AMY GOODMAN: What have they done?
ROBERT FISK: They have proved that they can’t defend their own people. They needed that ceasefire to stop the rockets falling, Hezbollah rockets falling. They couldn’t stop the Hezbollah missiles. Indeed, on the last day, the Hezbollah fired 200 missiles in one day, more than ever before into Israel. They couldn’t protect their own people. The IDF could not protect the people of Israel. And that’s why the — if you talk to the Israelis, they know very well what happened. The Americans may — Bush says, “Oh, Hezbollah lost, and the Israelis won.” The Israelis don’t say that at all, which is why there are increasing calls for Dan Halutz, the Israeli commander, to be fired and indeed an inquiry that might lead to Olmert losing his job, but I don’t think he will.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
ROBERT FISK: Because I think there’s a sort of feeling in Israel — I talk on the phone to Israeli friends — that if you get rid of Olmert, it’s the final proof that it was a loss, a disaster. A lot of Israelis feel, we’ll keep him there for the time being. Maybe there’s a part two we don’t know about. Israelis are talking about part two, and so are the Hezbollah, which means that I don’t think 1701 is going to work. I can see all kinds of reasons why it can’t work, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: What about these UN forces moving in?
ROBERT FISK: I think they will be attacked, not by Hezbollah, not by Shiites at all. There are now very, very powerful Sunni movements, very sympathetic towards the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, who exist in places like Tripoli in the north of Lebanon, in the Palestinian camps around Sidon. I know. I’ve been to see them and talked directly to them.
At least 18 men from Lebanon have gone to Iraq and have committed suicide bombings against American forces in Iraq. I went to the family of one. Their youngest son left the refugee camp, Palestinian, at Mieh Mieh, went to Tal Afar in northern — he spent some months and actually called his family from Baghdad. And he said, “I’m going to find a bride.” They said, “Well, is that why you went to Baghdad?” He said, “No. My bride is going to be in heaven.” And the mother said, “Come back. We’ll find you a real one. Come back! Come back!” And less than a week later, he crashed an explosives-loaded car into an American convoy at Tal Afar, north of Baghdad.
And I was shown a film the family were given by the Iraqi insurgents, the family in Lebanon, showing their son with other young men from the insurgency swimming in the Tigris River and doing arms training with bullets being fired around them and rushing across fields with weapons. At one point, you see their son smiling from a car, and I wondered if that was the car he blew up against the Americans. They were sent the tapes, and they all sat around the room with me, and they wanted to see it again. And the grandmother kept nodding backwards and forwards, and she said, “I’m so proud of him.” These are people who are going to attack the international troops in the south, not the Shiites, not the Hezbollah, if they are attacked.
AMY GOODMAN: Hezbollah does not control them?
ROBERT FISK: It’s nothing to do with Hezbollah. It’s a Sunni thing. Hezbollah wouldn’t want anything to do with these people. This is like — I mean, the Shiites are not in love with al-Qaeda or bin Laden. These people have a kind of admiration for bin Laden, but they say, quite frankly, he’s not an apostle, he’s just an influence.
AMY GOODMAN: And Hezbollah’s power right now in Lebanon? There was a piece in the Financial Times that was quoting a Maine professor, from Maine.
ROBERT FISK: Oh, yes. That’s right. We’ve got to ring up people in Boston or Maine, haven’t we?
AMY GOODMAN: No, but she was saying Hezbollah has something to teach FEMA, giving out $12,000. FEMA gave out $2,000 to Katrina survivors and then stopped.
ROBERT FISK: They were handing out $42,000 to a man I know in the southern suburbs for the loss of a four-story apartment, which he owned. It was in cash. It was in brand-new $100 bills, which must have come from Iran. There’s no other — it’s not sitting — there weren’t any dollars left in the Lebanese banks. So Iran is basically rebuilding Lebanon, yeah, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: And Syria just said that they would rebuild a number of villages in South Lebanon.
ROBERT FISK: Syria has actually sent line crews to mend the electricity lines, because I was down in southern Lebanon, and I was going — every time I saw a truck or a bulldozer who was trying to clear rubble, I would go up and ask who they were working for and who was paying them. And they were quite frank and said, “We’re working for the Hezbollah,” or “We’re working for that company, which works for the Hezbollah.” “We’re working for the Ministry of Transport.”
And I went down to these line gangers who were putting up new electric lines near Qana actually, and I realized, talking to them, they had a Syrian accent. So immediately they were from Hama and Aleppo and [inaudible] and Damascus, and they were sent in by the Syrian government to mend the electrical line, so the Syrians are in there, but the Syrians don’t have any economic power to do anything for Lebanon. They are happy to promote war there and provoke war there, but they can’t do anything about it. But the Iranians have the money.
There is a rumor, and it’s only a rumor, in Lebanon that at the height of the fighting, Ahmadinejad spoke to Nasrallah and said, “If you want to hit Tel Aviv, it doesn’t matter what happens to Lebanon, we have the money to repair it.” That’s just a rumor. It sounds like Ahmadinejad. And Nasrallah did not go along with it, of course, if the conversation ever took place. And I say, it is a rumor only. And rumors in Lebanon, it’s like, you know, ghosts that swirl around you and give you nightmares at night, and you wake up and you have a cup of coffee, and you feel better afterwards.
AMY GOODMAN: The relationship between them, Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah?
ROBERT FISK: I don’t know. I have never spoken to Nasrallah about it, and I haven’t met Ahmadinejad, and I haven’t actually tried to very hard. I don’t know. I mean, you know, Fadlallah once — Sayyid Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, the so-called spiritual chief of Hezbollah, as AP always puts it, but he’s not actually, he’s simply a very powerful and eloquent priest in the southern suburbs, or was in the southern suburbs when it existed. And he once said to me that Lebanon is a lung through which Iran breathes. There’s the answer to your question.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, chief Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. Part two, tomorrow.