Creating people's geographies
By Nicholas Blanford
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, July 29, 2006
NAQOURA: United Nations peacekeepers fear that the Israeli military intends to raze entire villages in South Lebanon after encountering stiffer resistance from Hizbullah fighters than initially expected. With Israeli forces having pulled back from a key Lebanese border town after several days of bloody fighting, the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) says that Hizbullah cannot be defeated militarily.
“A military victory will never be possible,” Major General Alain Pellegrini said.
Pellegrini added that only a political solution can resolve the fate of Hizbullah’s military wing, adding that after more than two weeks of heavy fighting with the Israelis, the Lebanese group is “still strong.”
Israeli troops have withdrawn from Bint Jbeil after heavy street clashes against well-entrenched Hizbullah fighters caused high casualties. The town was under heavy shellfire Friday in what UN officers suspect is a plan to force the last civilians to flee prior to destroying the town completely and killing any remaining Hizbullah fighters.
“I think the Israelis are contemplating flattening villages down to the last house,” said Richard Morczynski, UNIFIL’s political officer.
UNIFIL estimates there are 800 to 1,000 Hizbullah combatants deployed throughout the South, operating in groups numbering as few as 12 to 15.
They have ready access to weapons and ammunition and have retained their channels of communication, speaking in code over walkie-talkies.
“Sometime they use radio frequencies that are the same as ours and we can hear them talk,” Morczynski said. “They say: ‘This is brother 13. We are going to carry out operation seven. Hope you are all safe.'”
He said Hizbullah shows little sign of weakening despite the intensity of the Israeli onslaught. “They’re mobile, dedicated and willing to act,” he said. “When there’s shelling, they’re not scared. They’re not sitting in bunkers.”
The Israeli military estimates that as many as 100 Hizbullah fighters are holed up in Bint Jbeil, a straggly hill town of narrow streets suited to the group’s style of hit-and-run operations. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in a Hizbullah ambush in Bint Jbeil on Wednesday, the highest number of fatalities they have suffered in a single day since the conflict began on July 12.
In addition to the setback on the ground, the Israeli Air Force is still unable to halt the firing of rockets into Israel despite saturation air coverage over the South and a two-minute response time to the scene of a launch. Hizbullah said yesterday that it had fired a new rocket for the first time, the Khybar 1. Five of them were launched at Afula.
Trapped between the Israeli military and Hizbullah, UNIFIL has been reduced to little more than a helpless bystander. Hizbullah fighters have launched rockets from near UN posits and the Israelis have not hesitated to return fire, endangering peacekeepers. Four UN observers were killed Tuesday when their position was destroyed by an Israeli air strike. Bomb-cratered roads and a lack of aid supplies have prevented UNIFIL from helping civilians in remote areas.
“We are trying to do our best,” said Pellegrini, “but we are not built for such a level of confrontation.”