By Abbas El-Zein, a novelist and lecturer in civil and environmental engineering (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27/07/06):
MY grandmother was killed in southern Lebanon by an Israeli “precision” air raid as she fled the Israeli Army in March 1978. My uncle searched for her desperately amid the invasion. News kept coming from different quarters, some confirming she had died, others maintaining she was alive in a hospital in Lebanon or Israel.
My uncle finally found her in the village of Abbasiyeh, on the hills overlooking the orchards of the city of Tyre. He recognized her body from the clothes she had been wearing, gathered her remains and buried her. My mother, who had been worn down by the contradictory reports, collapsed upon hearing the news. She had had a trivial dispute with her mother a couple of weeks earlier, and never forgave herself for not making up.
I was 15 at the time and what I remember most was my mother’s shriek coming to a sudden end, her body abruptly surrendering to pain. It was as if she had to share some of her grief with us, draping it on the walls of our house, then keep the rest inside her, in a private pact with her mother.
When the civil war in Lebanon ended, in 1990, we took a while to believe it. It could restart at any time, an inner voice told us. A few years later, peace became the norm. Everyone believed in it and belief made it more real. We never suspected that, years later, our original skepticism would be cruelly validated, and the fragility of collective sanity in the Middle East would be exposed once again.
The estimated death toll from the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was 18,000, about 0.5 percent of the population. Twenty-four years later, I have yet to hear any sign of remorse emanating from Israeli society. Nor were there any reparations for the carnage wrought by the Israeli Army. When the Israeli press, politicians and intellectuals speak with regret about the “Lebanon War,” it is usually to say the cost to Israel was too high or to point out that the invasion failed to achieve its objectives. The Lebanese fatalities are rarely discussed.
A joke went around during the civil war that it was safer to be a target of the Israeli warplanes than to be exposed to the ineffectual anti-aircraft fire directed against them. Lebanese bullets seemed certain to hit you if you fled, whereas if you stayed put, the Israeli missiles would probably land in your neighbor’s house, not yours.
Since then, air strikes have grown more precise and the Israeli Air Force appears to have expanded its range: planes now target your neighbor’s house and your own. Recent images from Lebanon are chillingly familiar — fathers watching their children die, mothers expiring in children’s laps. Dozens of stories like my grandmother’s are being re-enacted. Dozens of new graves are being dug.
An ancient city and a sovereign nation are being destroyed. The people of Haifa are suffering, too, and Hezbollah unquestionably bears responsibility for its raid on an Israeli military patrol, which began the latest violence. But the scale of suffering is imbalanced, and so is the apportionment of blame. It was the Israeli government, not Hezbollah, let alone the Lebanese government or people, that chose to start this all-out war.
More is at stake now than the fate of Lebanon. If the West does not persuade Israel to stop its attacks, that failure will add to a creeping sense that, in its fight with Islamic fundamentalism, the West has abandoned its claim to moral superiority based on respect for human rights and international law, and is pursuing instead a war based increasingly on tribal solidarity. What a tragedy this would be, especially for those of us who crave a modern, peaceful Middle East. And what a triumph for the varied strains of bin Ladenism — Muslim, Christian and Jewish alike.