Richard Butler is director of the Middle East office for the National Council of Churches. Jim Paul interviewed him in New York in August 1982.
When were you in Lebanon?
We were in west Beirut about two full days, Sidon a full day. I was part of a World Council of Churches delegation that did go to Jerusalem first. Our initial understanding was that this was the only way one could get into south Lebanon. While we were in Jerusalem, Israeli officials announced that voluntary agencies would be allowed to work in south Lebanon, but only after an Israeli government assessment team had first gone in. We could sit in Jerusalem for five days, ten days, and still perhaps not get in. Moreover, we would have to go with a military escort, and we did not want to appear in south Lebanon under the aegis of the Israeli army. So two of us flew from Tel Aviv to Cyprus, and then got on a cargo boat to Junya.
There’s been quite a debate about the extent of the damage in south Lebanon.
Sidon is not devastated as a town, but in parts of the town where there was heavy fighting there is very extensive damage, with whole buildings just collapsed. ‘Ayn al-Hilwa is totally devastated. We were there on June 29. It’s impossible to live there. There were people there — women and old people and children, with very few men in evidence — picking through the rubble and the remains of the houses. Young children were joking around, wanting their photographs taken, like young children anyplace. Groups of women were crying, very upset by what had happened. They are refugees for the second or third time, and here they have to start all over. The absence of men underscored the problem for the Palestinians and Lebanese in south Lebanon. The Israelis had been rounding them up, trying to find “suspected PLO sympathizers.” Men are afraid to be out for fear of being picked up.
We talked with some people who were caught up in these roundups. A person from the small village of Miyawamiyya, next to Sidon told us that at 7 o’clock one morning the Israeli forces pulled up around the village with sound trucks and ordered all the men to congregate in the village square. There the Israelis separated them into two groups, Lebanese and Palestinians, and checked their ID cards. Then all the men were forced to walk in front of four men wearing black hoods. If any of the four gave a nod, the man would be taken off for further interrogation.
What relief efforts were then underway and what were the problems that they were encountering?
You have to distinguish between Beirut and Sidon. In Sidon the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was distributing food to Palestinians. The day we were there, they were distributing food to people from ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, giving them preference. The refugee camps near Miyawamiyya, for example, had not been destroyed. The people at least had shelter. At ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, they had nothing, so they were giving them food.
So some Palestinian camps have not been bulldozed?
I did not get down to Tyre. The only camp I saw was ‘Ayn al-Hilwa. The worst aspect of the whole situation in south Lebanon, still today, is that there are at least 75,000 homeless Palestinians. Those people have not been provided any kind of shelter. The Israeli government has refused to allow the UN to take in tents, even on an emergency basis. People who had tents were not allowed to set them up. Some reports say that the Israelis do not want any camps rebuilt within 40 kilometers of the Israeli border. Other press reports say they don’t want any camps rebuilt at all, that they want these people somehow dispersed throughout the countryside. They say that it is inhuman to reestablish the camps and force people to live that way. To just decide, arbitrarily, in some Israeli government office, that these people are going to be dispersed, I think that is inhuman. Here are people who are refugees, many of them more than al-Baz refugee camp, 30 years. This is simply a repetition of what happened in 1948. To me, it is unacceptable that the American government has not been willing to take a strong public position with Israel on this issue.
There were some reports that hospitals had been closed down.
All the Palestine Red Crescent facilities in the south have been closed down. Even while I was there, some of the UNRWA field staff were being detained. Some of the UNRWA facilities were off limits. Among the Palestinians in south Lebanon, people went without medical care because all the medical personnel of the Palestine Red Crescent had been picked up. I don’t have any firsthand information about the extent to which Lebanese medical facilities in Sidon, for example, were made available to Palestinians, or about the medical teams that Israel says it sent. By now, I think that the situation in south Lebanon, by and large, has been regularized. UNRWA is operating, providing health care as well as food supplies.
Do you have impressions from other cities besides Sidon?
We drove past Damour on our way to Sidon. I had seen Damour before, so I knew the extent of the damage from the initial fighting there during the civil war. The new damage in Damour was restricted to the southern part of the town. At Khalda, where Israelis came ashore, there was considerable damage. One international personnel type in Sidon told me he was in the office of an Israeli military commander who had an aerial photograph map of Sidon that was so blown up that you could see flowers growing. There was a red line around the ‘Ayn al-Hilwa refugee camps. Much of the destruction there was from virtual carpet bombing, with pinpoint accuracy. They missed at one point, and hit a Lebanese hospital not far from ‘Ayn al-Hilwa, but a new UNRWA school right outside the borders of ‘Ayn al-Hilwa camp was not damaged at all. This suggests that there was a planned decision to finish ‘Ayn al-Hilwa.
What problems are relief efforts encountering now?
The Israeli Ministry of Social Welfare has appointed two persons to the south as coordinators of aid. They have not yet established themselves in the same role that they have on the West Bank — they happen to be the same people who work on the West Bank with voluntary agencies. They are in an ambiguous position. The Israelis don’t want to appear to be completely usurping the positions of the Lebanese authorities. But obviously they’ve set up a kind of parallel structure, and international voluntary agencies are advised that it would be wise for them to check with the Israeli coordinators on the programs that they want to carry out. One of the restrictions that is still in effect, I understand, is that only UNRWA is allowed to give aid to Palestinians. This is not acceptable. Traditionally, the voluntary agencies have worked alongside of UNRWA, helping those who don’t quite fall into the categories that UNRWA has to provide for, because of the size of their operation. If the voluntary agencies are not allowed to work for Palestinians, it means that some people don’t get the kind of assistance that they should have.