Dan Connell has covered the Horn of Africa for newspapers and broadcast media in North America and Europe since 1976. He spoke with the MERIP editors immediately after returning from Lebanon in early August.
Can you describe the situation in Beirut?
I got in via Damascus on July 20. In the beginning I toured Palestine Red Crescent hospitals and I was down in Sabra, Shatila and Burj al-Barajna camps. That afternoon was when the bombing started again. The pattern was a sequence of heavy days of bombing and shelling, a day off, and then more bombing as the negotiations went back and forth. The Israeli strategy was obvious. They were hitting a broad belt, and they kept moving the belt up toward the populated area and pushing the people in front of it. The Israelis forced an increasing concentration of people into a smaller space, so that the casualties increased geometrically with every single shell or bomb that landed.
The sophistication of the US weaponry is quite striking. Some shells and bombs are designed to penetrate through the buildings before they explode. They go down to the first floor and collapse buildings inward. They’ve been using more and more phosphorus as they’ve gotten into the more built-up area. The fragmentation bombs don’t do as much good, where there aren’t the open spaces. The phosphorus penetrates the buildings and starts fires. The hospitals get completely clogged with people with burns. The phosphorus gets on you and continues to burn for 24 hours. You can’t stop it except with copper sulfate, which they can’t get through the blockade. So they end up doing an incredible number of amputations.
Did it seem to you that the Israelis were targeting medical facilities?
There were about five hospitals hit last Sunday, August 1. The ones down on the front lines, Acre and Gaza, took the worst beatings. They had started using only the basement and the first floor — the first floor as dormitory space and working underground. So the continuing hits on the hospitals were having a little less effect than before. But their capacity was way down, too. They were overloaded. They were still functioning, but with increasing difficulty. By early August, they ended up like assembly lines, just processing people. Last week also Barbir hospital and Maqasid hospital were hit. A doctor working in Maqasid lost both his feet. That hospital is run by Sa‘ib Salam’s son. It had nothing to do with the National Movement or Palestine Red Crescent Society. What you’ve got is a strategy much like in Vietnam, where the medical and social infrastructure is overloaded and damaged at the same time, so you can’t cope with it. This forces people to leave.
The public health level is deteriorating badly, because of the lack of water and sanitation. If any disease breaks out, it’s going to spread like wildfire. Because there’s no medicine, and people are crowded too close together. If that happens, the Kata’ib wouldn’t let people into the east. Food, medical supplies and fuel are seriously depleted. With everything underground, you need the electricity run by the generators to keep anything going. So the blockade is a really serious problem. The quality of water is getting worse and worse. Kids were getting real sick from it.
Are people still living in the camps?
There were still people scattered around those areas, but in small numbers. The Israelis have pounded those areas to smithereens. There are refugees in the gardens and parks in west Beirut. But most of the people are in buildings, not in the open space. There were 17-18 people in a room in places I visited. They couldn’t all lie down at once. The new hospitals have been set up in parking garages, in basements, two stories under the ground. There’s not an empty building anywhere.
You find, among many Lebanese, that they want to see the PLO go at this point. They want some quiet. But that’s as far as it goes. There’s still a strong sense of solidarity. They definitely do not perceive themselves as hostages. Everybody understands that the PLO was ready to move its military forces out. Israel was holding it up.
Were medical teams getting in at all?
Yes. Both the Lebanese run hospitals and the Red Crescent are taking volunteers. It’s really important to get people from the States there. That solidarity is missing. There was nobody from the United States that I saw.
Did you get any sense of what the resistance leaders are projecting down to the fighters and people in the neighborhoods?
At the local level, everybody concentrates on keeping the situation organized. There’s an enormous sense of pride in the fact that they have held off the Israelis. There were three full-scale attempts to come in to west Beirut in the last week. On August 1, there were big tank assaults and sea landings at Summerland, and also below the museum checkpoint and then coming up from the airport. There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind the Israelis were trying to carve up the whole southern area. They got pushed back.
Are the Joint Forces worried about the ammunition running out?
I think they have enough ammunition to keep going for at least several more weeks. But it’s like popguns against modern weapons. You can’t touch the F-16s. You see people sitting there with machine guns and the anti-aircraft firing into the sky, and they don’t even come close. It’s just for morale.
How did you find the situation in the south?
There are lots of arrests now of Lebanese. Most of the Palestinian men are gone. People know there could be a bloodbath in west Beirut if there isn’t an international force there. So a lot of the negotiations have hinged very much on what kind of protection will be there for the people when the PLO leaves.
In the south, there isn’t any clear policy anywhere. You don’t know what you can do and what you can’t do. Palestinians can’t do much. There are checkpoints everywhere. Militias have mushroomed under the Israeli umbrella. Saad Haddad is now up around Sidon, and the Kata’ib is down to that area. There’s a Chamounist deputy in Tyre who is building a militia. The same thing is happening in some areas of the north. The Israelis appear to be trying to set up a Christian-dominated Lebanon, but with the Christian side divided against itself so that Gemayel will not be the solitary force. In Sidon, the Saidoun school is being used as a Kata’ib training ground. They’re conscripting males down to age 15 now into the militias, and building them up very rapidly.
There’s a lot of movement of people in the south. Some are going back who had been out for a long time. Some have left areas that were hit and are crowded in the towns like Nabatiyya, which now has about 100,000 people. It’s a very unstable situation. The Lebanese are doing a lot of rebuilding in Tyre and Sidon. The Palestinians can’t do anything. ‘Ayn al-Hilwa is flat as a parking lot. Seven or eight thousand Palestinians are back there, and more are coming in who’ve been hiding around there. They’re mostly women and children — the men are either fighting or arrested or dead. The Israelis have not allowed anybody to work with the Palestinians in the south except UNRWA and the Red Cross. The medical efforts and social movements connected with the Lebanese National Movement, like Najda Sha‘bi (Popular Health) and the Lebanese Association for Popular Action, are restricted but operating. They have a lot of trouble getting supplies, because the Israelis are not letting stuff come down from Beirut.
The Israelis are controlling relief work in the south. The agencies that are conduits for USAID money — CARE, Save the Children and Catholic Relief Service — operate out of Tel Aviv. Some of the stuff that is getting down is broad-based, but some of it isn’t. I was told that Catholic Relief Service gave a lot of goods to the Maronite archbishop for distribution but it only went to the Maronites, not even to the other Christians in the area. There is an effort to build Maronite domination of the south into the relief effort.
Those people who came back to ‘Ayn al-Hilwa. How do they live?
They’re camped on top of the rubble. There’s one water spout, with no spigot, that they take water from. They weren’t allowed to set up tents or to rebuild. So they’re waiting to see what will happen. When they were in nearby abandoned apartment buildings, a truck went around with a loudspeaker saying that they all had to get back into the camp by a certain time or else. Everybody thought it was the Kata’ib who were doing it. They’re just passing one day to the next. You’ve got a very frightening situation there. Every few hours the Israelis discover an unexploded bomb. They race through the streets and say, “Everybody in your houses.” Then there’s an explosion. And the planes scream overhead every day. There are constant reminders.
Did the US Congressional delegation go to ‘Ayn al-Hilwa?
They weren’t allowed in. They were turned away. They’re still finding bodies. Just before I was there, the Israelis bulldozed the mosque at the edge of the camp because they had information that there were arms underneath. They found 90 or 100 bodies under it instead, completely rotted away. But they are very carefully moving with the bulldozers everywhere and covering the ground up and trying to get the reconstruction going, in the Lebanese areas at least, so that you will not even be able to see the signs of destruction.
I went to al-Baz camp in the north end of Tyre. People there said that the Israelis came to al-Baz and to some of the other camps — Rashidiyya, maybe Nabatiyya — three or four days after the invading troops passed through. People had still not gotten any food or water. All of a sudden Israeli trucks arrive, with cameramen on them, filled with chocolates which they handed out with the TV cameras going. That was the only food they brought.
There seems to be some controversy about the extent of the Israeli relief effort.
Aid is tied up with the question of pacification: who’s going to get it, who’s going to get credit for it. Massive aid will come in after the war ends, from the Israeli side and in west Beirut from the big agencies. It will come down from the top and dry up soon afterward. It will come in on an emergency level, as part of a restructuring of Lebanese society and Lebanese politics. The best approach would be to pour resources into the existing social movements, to keep that structure intact through this period. The aid that’s coming in is designed to break these down.
Is there a considerable Israeli military presence still in the south, or is the policing more and more being done by the Kata’ib?
They’re turning it over, but it’s a slow process. They’ve been held up because of the resistance down there. There’s a certain dismantling of the forces that were out in the rural areas as an expeditionary force. There are fairly sizable Israeli military camps and checkpoints all along the highway down to Tyre, not only the Phalangists and Haddad.
The roundups have been continuing. The last week in July, in Sidon, the men were all being taken out on the beach for five or six hours. They were looking for Lebanese who were National Movement or sympathetic to the PLO. More and more Lebanese are being detained and disappearing.
The number of incidents in the south was increasing every day. The most dramatic one was when fighters went in to the middle of Sidon and hit the Israeli military headquarters at night. The Lebanese and Palestinians still have a lot of strength in the mountains, along the Shouf, and they are operating all the way to the coast in small ways. The Israelis have to travel in groups, and at night they don’t travel a whole lot.
How are the Lebanese and Palestinian forces operating in Beirut?
In west Beirut, the military is organized under the Joint Forces Command. There’s a lot of Lebanese participation on the military side. The social side is under the Joint Committee, which includes the Red Crescent and the main Lebanese groups. Najda’s sewing and embroidery workshop in Fakhani was pretty well smashed, but they set up a new one with mechanical sewing machines, not using electricity, in the areas where the refugees were. Their approach was, “Let’s get people working so we don’t lose the momentum of being independent and producing an income.” That level of resilience is really amazing.
I have to say truthfully that after the August 1 bombing people got really discouraged. It was awful. It continued throughout the whole day. You couldn’t even move ambulances out to get the wounded, so most people were trapped throughout the night. The ratio of dead to wounded went up a lot at that point. Even so, there was still a whole lot of solidarity.
Everybody clearly saw the US and Israel side by side in this whole thing. The main resentment was directed toward the Arab countries. You never went anywhere without hearing it. If people were in a good mood, you heard jokes. If they weren’t, you heard real anger. And the Soviet Union isn’t real popular for sitting on its hands either. Nobody is. But the Arab countries were most resented.
Are Muslims from west Beirut going over into the east at all?
It’s a class distinction more than a religious distinction. I think probably more Christians left, at least early on.
How many people are in west Beirut?
Everybody was saying 500-600,000 when I left. Now maybe it’s 400-500,000. Probably 85-100,000 of those are Palestinians and the rest Lebanese. But Lebanese are leaving and Palestinians aren’t, so the ratio shifts. Early on, it had been overwhelmingly Lebanese. But there are people from Nab‘a and Tall al-Za‘atar who had moved into the city center in the past. You’ve got a lot of people from Damour who came up during the invasion, and all the people from the southern suburbs. What’s extraordinary under the circumstances is the level of organization that exists among all the refugees. The cadre who had been working with them in the camps have jumped right into the apartment building setup. I was in one school where a couple of 14-15 year old kids had the whole place organized. Some girls about the same age were giving classes in reading and writing. They had the little kids organized somewhere, and they had the contact with the local committee that was dealing out the relief. The Joint Committee has tape recorders and hired people to get stories of what had gone on, to keep a record of this. It’s going to get lost otherwise.