South Lebanon still feels effects of July 2006 war
Beirut- Turning off Lebanon’s coastal road near Saida and heading inland, the air falls still. Beyond the long, curving roads, past the small, nondescript town of Nabatieh, lie the sprawling olive groves and the arid hills of southern Lebanon.
The scene is beautiful. However, scars of war remain.
It is 11 years since the July War between Israel and Hezbollah, the political party and Iranian-sponsored militia. During 34 days of fighting, 1,100 Lebanese and 150 Israelis were killed. Damage to Lebanon’s agriculture, fishing and forestry has been estimated at $280 million by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Unexploded ordnance continues to maim and kill.
The village of Khiam, between Nabatieh and the Israeli border, is a microcosm of the destruction. Until 2000, the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli proxy militia, used a former French Army barracks on the outskirts of the village as a detention and torture centre. Human Rights Watch said Israeli involvement was explicit.
Hasib Abdulhamid, 47, was imprisoned for three-and-a-half years at Khiam until 1991, often forced to go months without sunlight or washing. “The torture was physical and mental. We didn’t know what was going on in the outside world. Family visits were banned,” he said in a telephone interview.
He moved to Beirut after his release but has returned to the south. He said Israel destroyed Khiam to obliterate evidence of its actions. “This was proof of what they did and they wanted to destroy it but we will not forget it,” Abdulhamid said.
In the summer of 2006, Israeli planes destroyed the village and the detention centre, which had come to serve as a memorial. The site is firmly in Hezbollah territory. Visitors are greeted by a large poster of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and the group’s yellow flags fly above the ruined buildings. Khiam has been rebuilt. The detention centre has not.
Israel’s strategy in the 2006 war differed from previous conflicts, during which its targeting of villages and infrastructure backfired and drove Lebanese citizens into Hezbollah’s arms. In 2006, “Israel wasn’t trying to make civilians suffer any more but its strategy was still highly destructive in targeted areas, with similar social and economic effects as the previous operations, but on a larger scale,” said David Daoud, research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran, a US-based non-profit advocacy group.
Approximately 4 million cluster munitions were dropped during the last days of the 2006 war, the Lebanon Mine Action Centre said. An estimated 1 million did not explode. About half that number have been cleared but the other 500,000 remain and continue to claim civilian lives and leave farm land unusable.
The shelling was not one-sided. Hezbollah’s rocket barrages damaged northern Israel. Attacks with Katyusha rockets prompted civilians to flee south and the ensuing fires burned more than 3,600 hectares of Israeli land.
In Lebanon, as people fled the Israeli strikes, hundreds of thousands of Shia Hezbollah and Amal Movement supporters flooded areas traditionally dominated by Sunni political parties, raising sectarian tensions and leading to widespread economic hardship.
“Saida became a UN sanctuary for refugees,” said Firas, a bank worker from the city who volunteered with relief efforts. “Tensions were high, especially because Saida was spared from bombardment while neighbouring villages were all hit.”
Eleven years after the ceasefire, Hezbollah’s support in southern Lebanon remains firm, in part because it portrays itself as a defence against Israel rather than as a belligerent in a bilateral conflict. Many in the south welcomed the speed of Hezbollah’s reconstruction efforts after 2006.
Ruba, a teenager from the southern city of Tyre, said she wanted, “to become a doctor to help Hezbollah.” For Ruba, the Party of God strengthened embattled south Lebanon, “after all the disasters” that had afflicted her home city.
Hezbollah’s support is not universal, however, and Firas said Hezbollah’s rebuilding was limited to partisans and close allies. “Ordinary citizens had to wait for the government’s help and it was tricky to get as it required proper documentation,” he continued.
Though hostilities may have ended, a permanent ceasefire has yet to be reached. Neither side is adhering to its obligations under a UN Security Council resolution that ended the violence and accusations of espionage are commonplace. Hezbollah is accused of stockpiling weapons in southern Lebanon, rather than disarming. Israel is still occupying the village of Ghajar.
Daoud said Hezbollah is likely monitoring Israel’s border build-up to find weaknesses in its defences and Israel conducts nearly daily reconnaissance flights over southern Lebanon and sometimes beyond.
“The Israelis are likely monitoring Hezbollah’s build-up in those areas, where weapons are being transferred and located [to determine] what kinds of weapons, what kinds of defences Hezbollah is building up in the case of a future invasion.”