By Robert Fisk
25 July, 2006
are in the schools, in empty hospitals, in halls and mosques and in
the streets. The Shia Muslim refugees of southern Lebanon, driven from
their homes by the Israelis, are arriving in Sidon by the thousand,
cared for by Sunni Muslims and then sent north to join the 600,000 displaced
Lebanese in Beirut. More than 34,000 have passed through here in the
past four days alone, a tide of misery and anger. It will take years
to heal their wounds, and billions of dollars to repair their damaged
And who can blame them for their flight? For the second time in eight
days, the Israelis committed a war crime yesterday. They ordered the
villagers of Taire, near the border, to leave their homes and then -
as their convoy of cars and minibuses obediently trailed northwards
- the Israeli air force fired a missile into the rear minibus, killing
three refugees and seriously wounding 13 other civilians. The rocket
that killed them is believed to have been a Hellfire missile made by
Lockheed Martin in Florida.
Nine days ago, the Israeli
army ordered the inhabitants of a neighbouring village, Marwaheen, to
leave their homes and then fired rockets into one of their evacuation
trucks, blasting the women and children inside to their deaths. And
this is the same Israeli air force which was praised last week by one
of Israel's greatest defenders - Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz
- because it "takes extraordinary steps to minimise civilian casualties".
Nor have the Israelis spared
Sidon. A heap of rubble and pancaked walls is all that is left of the
Fatima Zahra mosque, a Hizbollah institution in the centre of the city,
its minaret crumbled and its dome now sitting on the concrete, a black
flag still flying from its top. When Israeli warplanes came early yesterday
morning, the 75-year-old caretaker had no time to run from the building;
he died of his wounds hours later. His overturned white plastic chair
still lies by the gate. The mosque is unlikely to have been used for
military purposes; a school belonging to the Hariris, Sidon's all-powerful
Sunni family, stands next door; they would never have allowed weapons
into the building.
Not that Hizbollah - which
killed two more Israeli civilians with their rockets in Haifa yesterday
- have respected Sidon, whose population is 95 per cent Sunni. They
tried to fire Iranian-made missiles at Israel from the seafront Corniche
and from beside the city slaughterhouse last week. On both occasions,
residents physically prevented them from opening fire.
The multimillion-dollar Hariri
Foundation - created by the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who
was assassinated last year - has helped 24,000 Shia refugees out of
the south and on to Beirut but its generosity has not always been happily
received. One group of refugees sheltering in a technical school in
Meheniyeh punched and taunted Hariri workers. Elsewhere, the foundation's
staff have been cursed by fleeing families. "They are telling us
that we are working for the Americans and that this is why we are taking
them out," said Ghena Hariri - Rafik's niece and a Georgetown graduate.
"It is something that drains our energy. We are working 24 hours
a day and at the end of the day they curse us. But I feel so sorry for
them. Now they are being told by the Israelis to leave their villages
on foot and they have to walk dozens of kilometres in this heat."
It's not difficult to see
how this war can damage the delicate sectarian framework that exists
in Lebanon. One group of Shia families - housed in a school in the Druze
mountains of the Chouf - tried to put Hizbollah's yellow banners on
the roof and members of Walid Jumblatt's Druze Popular Socialist Party
had to tear them down. Their act may have saved the refugees' lives.
Yet many of the Shia in this
beautiful Crusader port have learnt how kind their Sunni neighbours
can be. "We are here - where else can we go?" Nazek Kadnah
asked as she sat in the corner of a mosque which Rafik Hariri built
and dedicated to his father, Haj Baha'udin Hariri. "But they look
after us here as their brothers and sisters and now we are safe."
These sentiments provoke
some dark questions. Why, for example, can't these poor people be shown
the same compassion from Tony Blair as he supposedly felt for the Muslims
of Kosovo when they were being driven from their homes by the Serbs?
These thousands are as terrified and homeless as the Kosovo Albanians
who fled to Macedonia in 1998 and for whom Mr Blair claimed he was waging
a moral war. But for the Shia Muslims sleeping homeless in Sidon there
is to be no such moral posturing - and no ceasefire suggestions from
Mr Blair, who has aligned himself with the Israelis and the Americans.
And what exactly is the purpose
of driving more than half a million people from their homes? Many of
these poor people sit clutching their front-door keys, just as the Palestinians
of Galilee did when they arrived in Lebanon 58 years ago to spend the
rest of their lives as refugees. Yes, the Shia Muslims of Lebanon probably
will go home. But to what? A war between the Hizbollah and a Western
intervention force? Or further bombardment by the Israelis?
The Sidon refugees now have
36 schools in which they can shelter - but they are the lucky ones.
Across southern Lebanon, the innocent continued to die. One was an eight-year-old
boy who was killed in an Israeli air raid on a village close to Tyre.
Eight more civilians were wounded when an Israeli missile hit a vehicle
outside the Najem hospital in Tyre. And during the morning, one of Lebanon's
journalists, Layal Nejib, a photographer for the magazine Al-Jaras whose
pictures were also transmitted by Agence France Press, was killed in
her taxi by an Israeli air strike near Qana, the same village in which
106 civilians were massacred in a UN base by Israeli artillery shells
in 1996. She was only 23.
In her marble-walled home
above Sidon, Bahia Hariri - Ghena's mother, the sister of the murdered
former prime minister and a local member of parliament - sat grim-faced,
scarcely controlling her fury. "We are in this terrible situation
but we haven't any window to resolve this situation," she said.
"Rafik Hariri is no longer with us. The international community
is not with us. Who is with us? God. And the old Lebanese. And the Arab
world, we hope, will help us. The only resistance we can show is to
be a united Lebanon. But we have only a small margin in which to dream."
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited