A Red Cross Mission Of Mercy When Israeli Air Force Came Calling
By Robert Fisk
28 July, 2006
was supposed to be a routine trip across the Lebanese killing fields
for the brave men and women of the International Red Cross. Sylvie Thoral
was the "team leader" of our two vehicles, a 38-year-old Frenchwoman
with dark brown hair and eyes like steel. The Israelis had been informed
and had given what the ICRC likes to call its "green light"
to the route. And, of course, we almost died.
Trusting the Israeli army
and air force, which are breaking the Geneva Conventions almost every
day, is a dodgy business.
Their planes have already
attacked - against all the conventions - the civil defence headquarters
in Tyre, killing 20 refugees. They have twice attacked truckloads of
refugees whom they themselves had ordered from their villages.
They have already attacked
two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances in Qana, killing two of the three
wounded patients inside and injuring all the crew - a clear and apparently
deliberate breach of Chapter IV, Article 24 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.
But the ICRC must put its
trust in the Israeli military and so off we sped from southern Lebanon
for Jezzine to the sound of gunfire, under the crumbling battlements
of the crusader castle at Beaufort, through the ghostly, shattered streets
of Nabatiyeh, bomb craters and crushed buildings on each side of us.
To cross the Litani river,
we had to drive through the water, listening for the howl of airplane
engines, one eye on the road, one on the sky. Sylvie and her comrades
- Christophe Grange from France, Claire Gasser from Switzerland, Saidi
Hachemi from Algeria and two Lebanese colleagues, Beshara Hanna and
Edmund Khoury - drove in silence.
There were fresh bomb craters
on the highway north of Nabatiyeh - the attacks had come only a few
hours earlier, a fact we should have thought more about. Pieces of ordnance
littered the roads, shards of wicked shrapnel, huge chunks of concrete.
But we had had that all-important "green light" from Tel Aviv.
The ICRC teams may be the
only saviours on the highways of southern Lebanon - their reticence
in criticising anyone, including the Israelis and Hizbollah is a silence
worthy of angels - although their work can attack their emotions as
surely as an air strike. Only a day earlier, they had driven to the
village of Aiteroun scarcely a mile from the Israeli army's disastrous
assault on Bint Jbeil. In each "abandoned" village on the
way, a woman would appear, then a child and then more women and the
elderly, all desperate to leave.
There were perhaps 3,000
of them and, last night, Sylvie Thoral was trying to arrange permission
for an evacuation convoy. The Israelis are promising the Lebanese much
worse than the punishment they have already received - well over 400
Lebanese civilians dead - for Hizbollah's killing of three Israeli soldiers
and the capture of two others. But still the Israelis have suggested
no "green light" for Aiteroun.
"They were begging us
to take them with us and we had no ability to do that," Saidi says
with deep emotion. "Their eyes were filled with tears."
ICRC workers in Lebanon travel
without flak jackets or helmets - their un-militarised status is something
they are proud of - and driving with them in the same condition was
an oddly moving experience.
They live - unlike the Israelis
and their Hizbollah antagonists - by the Geneva Conventions. They believe
in them when all others break the rules. But yesterday, when we reached
the town of Jarjooaa, the ICRC in Beirut told us to turn back. The Israelis
were bombing the road to the north and so we gingerly reversed our cars
and started back down the hills to Arab Selim. The highway was empty
and we had almost reached the bottom of a small valley.
I was reflecting on a conversation
I had just had on my mobile phone with Patrick Cockburn, The Independent's
correspondent who has just left Baghdad. Our guardian angels were working
so hard, he said, that he was fearful they would form a trade union
and go on strike.
That's when five vast, brown,
dead fingers of smoke shot into the sky in front of us, an Israeli air-dropped
bomb that exploded on the road scarcely 80 metres away with the kind
of "c-crack" that comic books express so accurately, followed
by the scream of a jet. If we had driven just 25 seconds faster down
that road, we would all be dead.
So we retreated once more
to Jarjooaa and parked under the balcony of a house where two women
and three children were watching us, waving and smiling.
Sylvie was silent but I could
see the rage on her face. The Israelis, it seemed, had made an "error".
They had misread the route - or the number - of our little convoy. "How
can we work like this? How on earth can we do our work?" Sylvie
asked with a mixture of anger and frustration. On all the roads yesterday,
I saw only three men whom I suspect were Hizbollah - no respecters of
the Geneva Conventions they - driving at high speed in a battered Volvo.
They can cross the rivers of Lebanon at will - just as we did - by circling
the bomb craters and crossing the rivers. So what was the point in blowing
up 46 of Lebanon's road bridges?
An old man approached us
carrying a silver tray of glasses and a pot of scalding tea. Generous
to the end, under constant air attack, these fearful Lebanese were offering
us their traditional hospitality even now, as the jets wheeled in the
sky above us. They asked us in to the house they had refused to leave
and I realised then that these kind Lebanese people - unarmed, unconnected
to Hizbollah - were the real resistance here. The men and women who
will ultimately save Lebanon.
But before we abandoned our
journey and before Sylvie and her team and I set off back to their base
in the far and dangerous south of Lebanon, a man carrying a bag of vegetables
walked up to Beshara Hanna. "Please move your cars away from my
home," he said. "You make it dangerous for us all."
And the shame of this shook
me at once. The Israeli attack on the Qana ambulances - their missiles
plunging through the red crosses on the roofs - had contaminated even
our own vehicles. He was just one man. But for him, the Israelis had
turned the Red Cross - the symbol of hope on our roofs and the sides
of our vehicles - into a symbol of danger and fear.
The laws of war
The laws of war, as the Geneva
Conventions are sometimes known, often may seem like a lesson in absurdity.
But for centuries countries have adhered to central principles of combat.
At the start of this conflict,
the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said: "Indiscriminate
shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting
The rules of war
* Wars should be limited
to achieving the political goals that started the war (and should not
include unnecessary destruction).
* Wars should be ended as
quickly as possible.
* People and property should
be protected against unnecessary destruction and hardship.
The laws are meant
* Protect both combatants
and non-combatants from unnecessary suffering.
* Safeguard human rights
of those who fall into the hands of the enemy: prisoners of war, the
wounded, the sick and civilians.
* Prohibit deliberate attacks
on civilians. But no war crime is committed if a bomb mistakenly hits
a residential area.
* Combatants that use civilians
or property as shields are guilty of violations of laws of war.
© 2006 Independent News
and Media Limited