In 1978 I EXPERIENCED first-hand one of Israel’s many wars against Lebanon. It was a ruthless – if ultimately futile – attempt to destroy the Palestinian resistance. There was no Hizballah then. The guerrillas who are now seeking to counter this Anglo-American-Israeli destruction of an entire country – their leader having lit the tinderbox had not been born yet. The women who would bear them were still girls, traumatised forever by the indiscriminate air attacks on their villages and the mass killing of their loved ones.
Terrified families clutching babies and bundles streamed into Beirut’s squares and parks, the first pitiful wave of refugees from the impoverished Shi ‘a south to arrive in the capital. Hundreds of thousands would follow them in the years to come, most of them forcibly displaced in 1982 year of the unspeakable Sabra and Chatila massacre. Yet more came in 1996, year of the first Qana massacre. The Israeli army was doing what it does best – “creating facts on the ground,” arrogantly unaware of the consequences these “facts” would have.
Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist who lived through the Israeli war of 1982, is presently moved to ask, in an eloquent essay: “Am I seeing, or am I remembering?” For who can believe that they are not re-living the obscenity of that past war? Who could have imagined that the world would allow the same crimes to be visited on the same hostage civilian population?
As I write, a million people have been terrorised into having to run for their lives, leaving everything behind of worth to them and value. Many have been murdered in their crowded vehicles, as they were bombed without mercy, while seeking to escape. In three catastrophic weeks, the south of Lebanon has been emptied of its population.
In the rubble of towns and villages, what remains are scenes from the lowest rungs of hell. The second Qana massacre, with its gruesome excavation of dozens of tiny corpses, stands as the metaphor for what has happened everywhere, in building after building, house after house after house. The human debris of this war, society’s most vulnerable creatures, emerge before our eyes as in the most terrible of Greek tragedies. They had huddled for weeks with what were fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, who soon became putrefying corpses, as the Israelis rained down their American bombs on the living and the dead.
A disabled boy, hauled out of one inferno, keens uselessly to himself. His siblings have been butchered. Their severed limbs strew the ground, as do the twisted metal bits of what was once his wheelchair. From another opening in the bowels of this scorched earth, crawls a brain-damaged man. He gnaws his lower lip in terror, working his mouth terribly to make guttural noises, that speak more truthfully than any words about what is happening. An autistic child, curled up in a faetal position, valiantly manages to make eye contact with his rescuers, somehow sensing that he must. His mother – his only carer – is soon pulled out dead. A man in his nineties describes how he continued to rub the cold hands of his wife for days, before registering that she was gone. He sobs and sobs, chiding her for leaving him, as he takes in what was once their house, now “pulverised” – to use the word so dear to Israeli generals.
There is rubble everywhere. Rubble that was once rooms where children studied, where women wrapped vine-leaves patiently, and grandfathers listened to old-fashioned radios dispense the same bad news that they had heard for years. Rubble. Vengeful, wanton destruction. Rubble upon rubble.
In a makeshift clinic, which has run out of medical supplies, a girl of four lies silently on a stretcher. She has a bandage over what was once her right eye. Her blue-green left eye (the colour of Tyre’s sea), is framed by dreamy dark lashes. She looks out uncomprehendingly at the world.
Elsewhere, a man stumbles over what were once walls and ceilings, to try and rescue his pet canaries. He claws desperately at the rubble, with bleeding hands, seeking to shift tons of concrete. What bird can sing here now? Against all odds, a cat has survived the collapse of a four-storey building. It wails pitifully, its once-white fur made grey by dust from this wasteland. It has survived, but will soon die of thirst or hunger or fear – its little heart bursting at this spectacle of human folly. Who will bless the beasts and the children now?
Certainly not the rabbis, who declare Zarqawi-style fatwas, stating that no one is to be considered innocent when Israel is at war. Quotes from other massacres, from other rabbis, come to mind. Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, of the Lubavitch Hassidic sect, passionate defender of the murder of Palestinians at prayer in a Hebron mosque in 1994, argued that “there is something more holy and unique about Jewish life than about non-Jewish life.” What about the horses, cows, donkeys, chickens, dogs, cats, birds by the thousands, all ripped to shreds in this holocaust? Were they all terrorists too?
In Baalbek, that ancient city once devoted to the Sun King, whose graceful columns survived though countless armies perished, the Israelis attacked and destroyed the al-Hikma Hospital, killing seventeen people. They kidnapped five townspeople – war booty to torture, or “tasty fish”, in Yehud Olmert’s ravenous words. The people of Lebanon are besieged by air, sea, land – a medieval method of warfare that sits bizarelly with the most modern bombs. They must go hungry. They must be made to pay, every child amongst them, must be made to pay. In the rural Bekaa, where peasants watch their harvest go to ruin, dozens of tired labourers sit down to their meagre lunch, and within seconds, become a pile of charred corpses. Massacre upon massacre upon massacre. How many dead before there are too many?
The Ha ‘aretz columnist Gideon Levy, writing in the teeth of the murderous jingoism that has possessed his country, said after Qana: “Israel is badly stained, a moral stain that can’t be easily and quickly removed. And only we don’t want to see it. The people want victory, and nobody knows what that is and what its price will be.”
Euripides, in The Trojan Women, knew of the consequences of such brazen killing upon its perpetrators:
O mortal fool who will pull cities down,
Temples and holy places of the dead.
And make all those a desert,
And then die …
How many Lebanese Antigenes cannot bury the bodies of their brothers now, because Israel will not allow safe passage to anyone? Not to rescue workers, doctors, aid agencies, relatives, journalists, peacekeeping forces, or bearers of emergency supplies? Sophocles shows us that Creon’s destruction begins at the moment he condemns Antigone to death, for rebelling against his unnatural cruelty, and seeking to retrieve the body of her fallen sibling. The Israelis would do well to ponder such a tale.
How many Lebanese Ann Franks are presently hiding from their exterminating fury?
This Anglo-American-Israeli war will live on in the minds of billions of people long after its fires are dead. It is the grim note of foreboding, audible in Cassandra’s words:
I shall not speak in riddles anymore,
Be witness that I smell out swiftly
The tracks of evils that have long been done.
There is a choir that never leaves this roof,
Unmusical, in concert, unholy.
And it has grown drunken and overbold
On human blood. It riots through the house,
Unriddable, blood-cousins, the Furies.