Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lebanon - An inside view

I have a friend who is on a team of fact finders to Lebanon. He wishes to remain anonymous until the report is open to the public. But he emailed some of his personal observations based on my questions to him. Read his answers carefully as there is a treasure trove of information there.

On the Red Cross Abmulance scandal.

The Lebanese Red Cross have been forced, I think by the ICRC, to commission a big investigation. I don’t know if the ICRC will make this public. Certainly in a bid to get a measure of credibility they were willing to invite me to come and see the ‘famous’ roof damaged ambulance in the depot where it’s being held (I know jack about assessing damage though and was short of time, wonder if they would have invited the military guys if they had been available). However they would not confirm or deny that it was the result of a military strike until this investigation is completed.

Obviously then, the ICRC is taking bloggers charges that the story was fabricated very seriously.

On Israelis targeting Red Cross workers.

They talked about the casualties suffered by Red Cross volunteers but didn’t seem to strongly blame either side. Whether this is due to Red Cross policy or not I couldn’t say. However they did say that they could only operate in an area after receiving permission from both sides. Often volunteers didn’t wait and raced off without clearance and ‘incidents’ happened. National staff were certainly shaken by the accuracy of the Israelis – in one incident related by a couple of people the convoy they were in saw a van trailing them targeted and destroyed a matter of a few dozen meters from their vehicles.

Bottom line, Israel did not deliberately target Red Cross workers.

Is UNIFIL helping the situation or hurting?

UNIFIL is relying on Hezbollah to protect it from Islamic extremists, and apparently has for some time. Makes relations tricky. They have been interdicting some resupply, normally when it is left during the day in a mosque. Some UNIFIL Muslim troops ‘coincidentally’ decide to drop in to pray, discover the boxes, everyone looks a bit embarrassed and UNIFIL takes it away. Hez is clearly getting a bit miffed by this as whilst we were there the Spanish found a minefield. The IDF laid some mines so they assumed it was theirs. They posted a shit watch and in the morning went back to discover the hard way some overnight installed AP mines wired to mortar shells 6 yards back. No way were they laid by the IDF overnight. UNIFIL believes Hez is laying these things in a temporary fashion to ensure its operations in an area are not disturbed before they can move on. That security reliance though, combined with previous UNIFIL contingents experiences (the French for instance wound up the locals when they were last there and had to fight a mini insurgency, eventually being trapped in their base for a week until an Irish armoured company came and evacuated the paratroops) means they aren’t the neutral mandate enforcing formation they are supposed to be. If Hez recover their strength I can’t see them taking on a job the Lebanese army refuses.

UNIFIL needs protecting!! Mosques used for ammo dumps makes them a legitimate target.

Were you able to make it to the southern border? Is there widespread destruction or did Israel do a good job of selective targeting?

Close to the border it was a free fire zone after the evacuation, with reports from locals who stayed longer about house to house (note the use of the word house as opposed to non civilian buildings) fighting between the IDF and Hez. According to the army guys with us the damage indicated weapons like heavy calibre guns carried by gunships as well as bombs and artillery. Most of the severely damaged/destroyed buildings have been cleared away but their foundations remain. Typically the further north you go the more selective the devastation is. Beirut is amazing. The level of targeting was something else. It was literally block, block, destroyed block, block, block. The level of precision was incredible. The locals blamed collaborators for this so they were rounded up and tied to roofs of buildings. I didn’t see or hear of any levelled villages however. Some people think the use of cluster munitions in the last three days of the war was a form of area denial (the failure rate has been far higher than expected, 40% for some strikes, no one knows why, some stuff was Chinese maybe that was it, other bombs dated back to the 70’s so were unusually old) but they could have mined areas more extensively or bulldozed villages to achieve the same effect far more reliably – the clusters will be all cleared by next Christmas according to UNMACC.

Hezbollah used civilian houses to fire from and we have video as well as photographic evidence for this. And this is how the Lebanese reacted. "The locals blamed collaborators for this so they were rounded up and tied to roofs of buildings". The precision bombing was confirmed by the Lebanese government as well which proves the BBC were lying in their reports of an entire city destroyed. Does Israel's use of old munitions indicate how unprepared Israel was for this war? This adds to that theory.

Certainly Israel was fighting a PR war with its own citizens. One village when viewed from the south is totally intact, but from the north where you can see the hillside it’s pretty much levelled. Our army guys and UNIFIL’s officers conclusions about the conduct of the war is that Israel is finding it harder to motivate its citizens to fight. The current generation didn’t have to endure wars for their very existence, hence perhaps the reliance on munitions not soldiers. They weren’t helped by the death of some prominent writer’s son.

Who do the Lebanese blame for their troubles?

The issue of Jews/Israel was an interesting one. Some drew a distinction, others used them interchangeably. This was in marked difference to views of America and Britain where the governments were judged separately to the people. Passed one children school where the murals on the wall were a variety of internal peace building ones and propaganda against their southern neighbours, showing things such as captured farmland and Israeli civilians always dressed as soldiers etc.

On Hezbollah.

Hezbullah have completely won the media war there. Everyone will reel off the Hez stats in response to questions. They have got their story out very effectively and it has silenced the others. I think for instance they honestly believe the figure of 60 fighters dead, despite over a dozen people I met saying they knew a martyr – clearly these guys did lecture tours when they weren’t training, or perhaps a few more might be dead. No one will openly disagree with this, though when you get people on their own they talk more. For instance one Hez municipality I went to we got the standard line from the mayor with a picture of nassrila smiling down at us from above before being sent on a Hezbollah guided tour (high point being shown a very modern donor built bombed museum – our barely out of uniform guide looking sad and saying no-one knows why the IDF dropped bombs on it 20 times, we didn’t either until one UNIFIL guy pointed out underneath the museum is a massive cavern that was used by Vichy French in WWII as a field hospital). But when we stepped outside I and another colleague got the chief engineer (a guy recently back from Canada) on his own and his view was that those closest to Hezbollah got the cash and more of it, and if you accepted you were beholden. Similar views were echoed by other families, in essence you went on a list and it was seen as tacit approval of Hezbollah and an acceptance that they could use your house when needed. As a result those not in the party already if they had the money and could say no sometimes did.

Western media can take credit for Hezbollah's media win. They did everything they could to ensure Hezbollah won that one. He told me in an earlier email that UNIFIL's estimate of Hezbollah killed in the war was 900.

Showing how media savvy Hezbollah is, he had this to say about the recent protests.

Protest wise if you are in the main media areas it’s a sea of Lebanese flags, however go into the side streets supporters are allowed to fly Hez flags, again an example of the excellent spin machine they possess. This even extends to the south. Pictures of martyrs abound but more extremist pictures are absent – with one notable exception, the pr boys missed a poster of the guys who attacked the USS Cole (right ship?) with the ship in the background at one rural intersection.

Any truth to the rumour that all the money Hez was spreading around was
really counterfeit US currency?

I think they would have been lynched. Lebanon is 75% dollarised according to gov statistics. No way banks or companies would accept dodgy notes.

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