"The casual references to 'Hezbollah neighbourhoods,'" Arabist reader SP rightly said in an email exchange, very much "echo the idea of 'VC villages' in Vietnam."
Civilian toll raises questions
Israel, criticized for killing hundreds of Lebanese, says Hezbollah stores missiles in residences
Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006
As Israel has steadily escalated its military assault on Hezbollah, so has the criticism about the rising number of civilian deaths resulting from its campaign.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, accusing Israel of indiscriminately targeting civilians, said Wednesday that his country "has been torn to shreds" by Israel's aerial bombardment, which he said has killed 300 Lebanese, mostly civilians, wounded 1,000 and displaced half a million more.
"Can the international community stand by while such callous retribution by the state of Israel is inflicted on us?" Saniora asked. Israeli officials have said the intense military campaign is necessary to root out the infrastructure of an organization that started the conflict by its unprovoked killing of eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two more last week. Israel denies its air strikes deliberately target Lebanese civilians.
Twenty-nine Israelis are reported to have died in eight days of fighting, including 14 soldiers and 15 civilians. The civilians were killed by Hezbollah rocket and missile attacks on Israeli cities and towns.
Capt. Jacob Dallal, the Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, said Israeli forces were doing "everything to minimize" civilian casualties in Lebanon. Hezbollah fighters "don't care" about the deaths of Lebanese civilians, he said. "They just want to wreak havoc in classic terrorist style."
But could Israel's campaign, however justified, be waged without inflicting such a high number of Lebanese civilian casualties?
Some military analysts say it probably cannot. "Hezbollah is so intertwined with the society and community, it's very difficult to try to destroy the Hezbollah infrastructure without such collateral damage," said Babak Yektafar, an expert on the Middle East at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "If (Israeli forces) were more concerned with collateral damage, they wouldn't be as effective in destroying Hezbollah infrastructure."
Analysts agree that some Hezbollah offices and command posts bombed by Israel are so close to civilian targets that casualties among noncombatants are inevitable. Some Hezbollah offices, for example, share buildings with apartments where civilians live, Yektafar said; others cluster in houses in crowded residential neighborhoods. Many of the mosques Hezbollah supports are community centers where elders meet and where families take their children to study the Quran.
In the densely packed Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut's southern suburbs -- Hezbollah's bedrock of support -- Israeli air strikes in the past week have reduced entire blocks to rubble, collapsing facades of multistory apartment houses into the streets.
"Certain neighborhoods are Hezbollah neighborhoods; you can't hit Hezbollah without hitting civilians," said Mark Burgess, a terrorism expert at the Brussels office of the Washington-based World Security Institute.
A more debated assertion, put forward by some analysts and Israeli officials, say Hezbollah stores arms and ammunition in residential houses and often fires rockets at Israel using civilians who live in the houses as human shields.
"The reality is, we're fighting an organization that stores the missiles it launches against us in people's homes," Dallal said. "They do it on purpose."
Christopher Hamilton, a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Hezbollah had set up special structures inside civilian compounds and fired missiles from inside.
"You have a special structure they build in the house itself so they could shoot a rocket without being in the open, camouflaged so that they couldn't be seen," Hamilton said. "The people who died in these houses were civilians, but they were Hezbollah supporters, since the rockets were there."
But other experts say Hezbollah has no need to use civilian houses because it has an elaborate network of bunkers and missile launchers in deserted areas throughout the country.
"This is not some cynical Saddam Hussein plan of putting missiles in hospitals," said Nicholas Noe, the founder of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com, an online bulletin of Arabic and Farsi media. He said Hezbollah has such carefully established firing positions in the sparsely populated southern Lebanon that it has "no reason strategically ... of putting Katyusha rockets in civilian houses."
Such differences among experts show how little is actually known about how Hezbollah operates, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military think-tank in Washington. Hezbollah is small -- Pike estimates it has about 500 full-time combatants -- and maintains a very tight internal security and secrecy.
"That's small relative to an American street gang," Pike said.
Other analysts note that such limited knowledge also may affect the precision with which Israel is waging its campaign -- resulting in air strikes on locations which have nothing to do with Hezbollah. Some air strikes have hit minivans and other vehicles, causing multiple casualties.
"They say they are striking Hezbollah strongholds, but the question you have to ask: What kind of intelligence, exactly, Israel has on the ground in Lebanon?" said Noe, who researches Hezbollah and has lived in Beirut for the past three years. An air strike Wednesday on two well-drilling trucks in the upscale Christian Beirut neighborhood of Achrafiyeh suggests that some of Israel's intelligence might be faulty. The trucks, with their drills folded, resemble rocket launchers. The strike destroyed the trucks but harmed no civilians.
A Chronicle correspondent who briefly toured the neighborhoods after the Israeli bombings discovered no shells, gun emplacements, caches of weapon, or any other evidence that Hezbollah had been using the bombed buildings for any military purpose.
Such examples point to the dangers of using air power, which is not always accurate or precise, especially if based on faulty intelligence or lack of intelligence.
Only if Israel used "real-time intelligence from human assets on the ground" to find hiding places could it seriously limit the danger from Hezbollah's rockets without a ground offensive, Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese army brigadier general, told the Associated Press.
The Israelis have hinted broadly at just such a campaign -- which is what Hezbollah wants, according to Fred Burton, a counterterrorism expert at Strategic Forecasting, a security consulting agency.
"You've got an organization that in reality is not going to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the Israelis' defense forces, but they are very effective at falling back into a guerrilla-type campaign, conducting insurgency operations almost like we see today in Iraq," Burton said.
Should that occur, Lebanese civilian casualties are bound to increase.
"In general, yes, there is a lot of collateral damage -- (including) people who hate Hezbollah and have nothing to do with the conflict," Hamilton said. "This happens in conflicts."
Here is also another BBC report on the Israeli armyâ€™s same tactic employed in Gaza.
Palestinians die in Israeli raids
Two Palestinians have been killed in a fresh Israeli operation in a refugee camp in central Gaza.
Palestinian officials said one person was shot dead in the Mughazi camp. An earlier Israeli air attack on the camp left one dead and 20 injured.
Israel has also dropped leaflets in Gaza warning anyone hiding weapons in their homes that they are in danger.
The offensive in Gaza was launched after an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian militants last month.
The fate of Corporal Gilad Shalit remains unknown but Israeli officials believe he is still alive.
The Gaza offensive also aims to stop rocket launches by Palestinian militants, who say such attacks are in retaliation for Israeli action against them.
Unnamed Israeli military officials told the Associated Press news agency that Israel was adopting a new policy of attacking homes in civilian areas where weapons, including homemade rockets, were stored.
They also told the news agency that civilians should be aware of the actions of their neighbours and, if militants were storing weapons in the area, their neighbourhoods could be attacked.
The warning leaflets, dropped in towns and villages throughout the coastal territory, said: "The life of all those who are holding military equipment and ammunition in their homes is in danger and they should leave the premises for their safety and that of their families.
"The Israeli defence force will strike and destroy all sites and buildings housing ammunition and military material."
In a separate aerial attack in southern Gaza, Israeli warplanes blew up three tunnels, which they claimed were being used by militants to bring weapons into the territory.