Jim Yamin is Middle East program coordinator for Grassroots International, a relief organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with programs in Lebanon and the Horn of Africa. He spoke with Joan Mandell and Kathryn Silver in April, 1985.
You’ve just spent ten weeks in south Lebanon. What were your most striking impressions of the occupation?
It’s reduced life to fundamental elements. Most commercial and civilian activity is at a standstill. People are afraid to leave their houses and villages. Once I got inside a village, I would see women lingering outside their homes, small children playing in the streets, occasionally some old men sitting outside. But for the most part you got the sense that villages were deserted. Shops were closed.
The mukhtar in Sur el-Gharbiyeh told me that out of the 3000 people in the village, 2000 had left, mainly in response to a raid there on February 23. Seven young men were killed, six of them between the ages of 15 and 20. According to townspeople, seven were pulled out of the round-up of all the village men. They were machine-gunned in the legs; two were bayonneted in the abdomen. People told me that 17-year-old Yusuf Muhammad Dira‘, who was bleeding profusely, asked for a drink of water. The Israelis picked him up by his feet and dunked him head first into a water catchment basin until he drowned. The other six were allowed to bleed to death on the ground in front of the villagers.
Why would they do that rather than just arresting or killing them?
It drove some people to simply leave the south. They didn’t know what the Israelis were going to do next.
Are the men trying to stay out of sight or were they arrested or forced to leave?
In every village there are residents active in the resistance. They move around a lot. Many people have left for their own safety.
How does the Israeli army know who the resistance fighters are?
The only way the Israelis would know who to go after is information supplied by Lebanese informants. One thing is clear: innocent civilians have been killed in these raids.
What kind of restrictions has the Israeli army announced?
The restrictions imposed with the “iron fist” policy on February 20 were a dusk-to-dawn curfew, a ban on any vehicle with a single passenger, and a ban on any travel on motorcycles.
On February 2, a 29-year-old Lebanese woman being driven to the Secours Populaire Hospital in Nabatiyyeh to deliver her baby was fired on by an Israeli foot patrol. She and her baby were killed. The director of the hospital showed me the medical records.
On February 5, four-year-old Hasan Ayyash was shot in the back at 9 am. He was sitting in his father’s parked car near an Israeli checkpoint. Again, this was confirmed by hospital records at Secours Populaire.
An 18-year-old Palestinian man from Burj al-Shemali camp had just found a job in the nearby Lebanese village of Tura. During the second week of March, he was driving by himself along one of the roads inside the small village. An Israeli patrol was passing through and saw him alone in the truck. They fired on the truck, killing him. His truck was then rigged with explosives, and he and his truck were blown up. Everyone in the camp knew he had never participated in any military action.
I spoke to a taxi driver, Hussein Falki, on March 11. He had just dropped off some people who were trying to go to Nabatiyyeh at an Israeli military checkpoint. He was heading back away from the checkpoint when soldiers at the checkpoint fired on his car. He escaped alive. Any passengers would have been killed.
Whenever an Israeli patrol moves through the south they characteristically fire at random. People tend not to stand anywhere near roads because they don’t know when an Israeli patrol will come around the corner. If they see an Israeli patrol they’ll put their car in reverse and madly try to back off the road so that the Israelis can see that they’re trying to get out of the way and hopefully they will not be a target for machine-gun fire.
I was in Burj al-Shemali camp overnight and could hear the sound of machine-gun fire and bullets ricocheting. Villagers from Burj Rahal, Tura and Deir al-Nahar told me about Israeli military posts at the crossroads. If there is a light in a village window, they said, soldiers would direct sniper fire into the house.
Did you encounter any such incidents yourself?
On Tuesday, March 13, at 8:30 am we—a woman and two men—were in a car, leaving Nabatiyyeh. About 30 yards from the main square, we found ourselves stopped by a flying checkpoint. These are routinely set up in any part of the occupied zone by Shin Bet agents, armed plainclothes Israeli intelligence agents who patrol in civilian Lebanese cars. There was an agent on either side of the road with his submachine gun turned on our car. They immediately ordered both us men out of the car. As soon as we stepped foot from the car we were roughly frisked and shoved up against the wall and told to stand there and not to speak. The woman was not ordered out of the car.
I counted 32 men lined up against walls on both sides of the street. A couple of men standing next to us started to talk while other cars were stopped and other men pushed up against the walls. We were again ordered not to talk. Those orders were punctuated by bursts of machine-gun fire directed immediately over our heads. We stopped talking. Once they had gathered enough of us, they began to check us for identification. They called us one by one to the back of one of the cars whose trunk was open. In the trunk were three bound computer printouts of names, each about nine inches thick. Each ID was checked against their printouts.
After about 15 minutes, after all our IDs had been checked, they just piled into their cars and sped off. Much to my surprise, all the men started laughing and joking, saying, “Did you see how nervous they were? Did you see how scared they were? They didn’t find anyone they were looking for! They are running around the south looking for people and they can’t find anybody!” Meanwhile, I’m scared to death. I can’t even walk straight.
Were people demoralized by the occupation?
The morale is very high. People are suffering intensely, but they know that by their resistance and unity they are driving the Israeli army out. They are very proud of that.
How are people able to survive when shops are closed and it’s impossible to work the fields?
Life in the south is very much centered around the village and extended families. People keep large stocks of grains and basic food commodities in their homes, so they’ve been able to get by. When people talk about “the resistance” do they mean only military resistance or is there another form of popular resistance?
In Nabatiyyeh, a fair number of merchants had been purchasing Israeli goods, partly to make a living and partly in response to threats from the South Lebanon Army and/or the Israelis. In the third week of February, people there told me that a large shipment of sugar from Israel was turned away by the merchants in the town. This had never happened before. There seemed to be a new development: it was time to take sides.
Israel’s “iron fist” policy in south Lebanon came very shortly after they announced they’d begin withdrawing. Why?
On the surface, it was a response to a marked increase in resistance attacks. At the same time, it was another phase, designed to drive people out of the south in large numbers.
What is happening in the Christian villages?
In Marjayoun, the second week of March, there was lots of activity in the markets. The only road open into the occupied south is the road linking Marjayoun to Jezzine, two Christian towns, and the use of this road is restricted exclusively to Christians. The towns and villages being attacked are mainly Muslim. The Christian areas are not only exempt, but close economic ties are being developed with Israel. Between 500 and 1,000 Lebanese who live in Christian villages along the border go into Israel daily for work. In Marjayoun I saw many cars and trucks with Israeli license plates.
What have Grassroots International and other relief organizations been able to do in Lebanon?
Grassroots funds seven local Lebanese organizations which implement human service projects. Currently we’re placing our priority on supporting projects in the south, because this is the past of the country where people are living under the greatest hardship. Representatives of these local agencies feel emergency conditions will persist for at least a year after the Israelis withdraw. They’re operating clinics and hospitals as well as vocational training projects, social and economic rehabilitation programs for families who have had members killed or arrested, or who have been forced to leave and who have no income, which is very many families right now. It’s important for us just to be there with them, not only to provide material aid. These organizations are feeling very isolated. It’s making their work that much more difficult.
They are coming under direct attack as well. The Secours Populaire hospital in Nabatiyyeh has had two doctors and seven nurses arrested in the last seven months. The director, Dr. Hikmat Amin, was on a list of names of Nabatiyyeh residents ordered to leave the region. His car was blown up. They have not been able to operate local clinics in surrounding villages for over a year now. They finished construction of a new 75-bed hospital nine months ago, and to this day the Israelis have not allowed them to operate that hospital because an Israeli military post is adjacent to it.
Have the Israelis placed any restrictions on receiving funds?
In the first week of January, Secours Populaire suffered a fire in a warehouse where they keep drugs and medical supplies for the Nabatiyyeh hospital. The Israelis have denied entry to bring medications and supplies from Beirut. When Sidon was in the occupation zone, it was a source. Once Sidon was cut off, those supplies were in much shorter supply.
What about government aid?
The government has a very limited presence in the south. In Nabatiyyeh, the Secours Populaire hospital operates in direct coordination with the ministry of public health. There is a government hospital in Tyre, but they are continuously short of staff and supplies, and have not received support from Beirut for their normal operations. There are practically no other government services in the medical field.
What about the Palestinian social service agencies in the camps?
Only the bare infrastructure from before 1982 remains. UNRWA and other privately-run, international non-governmental organizations are providing services to the Palestinian camp population. They are able to operate because they are funded by Western nations and their presence provides concrete security for the camp residents. They function as the eyes and ears in the camp for any abuses of human rights. They could be more activist, lending their legitimacy to the call for an end to these occupation practices. It is not happening, but it is something that Grassroots is trying to do. We hope it will provide an incentive for other agencies to adopt a more conscious policy of peaking out on conditions of which they are aware.
Were you in Sidon when the Israelis pulled out?
We were in Tyre that morning. By the time we got back to Sidon, there was a big celebration in progress. Almost every car was flying Lebanese flags, people were hanging out the windows, waving flags and honking their horns. Everybody was out in the streets—in the south, a rare sight. We arrived in the center of town, just as the Lebanese Army was entering from the north. Each troop carrier, APC and tank was crammed with men, women and children who had jumped on. It was dawning on people that the city had been liberated as a result of their own resistance. They were exuberant. It lasted all day long and all through the night, and for the next couple of weeks there was a spirit that carried into Beirut as well as into the occupied zone. During the rally in Sidon, people were chanting Mustafa Sard’s name. He is hailed as the father of the national resistance.
Have international relief organizations had any access to the prison camps?
None. Only the IRC has access, and only to Ansar. But Ansar is only where prisoners end up after they’ve been squeezed for all the information the Israelis need, after they’ve gotten the harshest treatment already. They’re on their way out.
Here almost all the newspaper reports portray the resistance in the south as Khomeini-inspired Shi‘i terrorism.
The determining feature of the resistance is not its religious character. It’s a people who have in common a condition of neglect by the central government and of historic political underrepresentation. These serve as the basis of unity of the resistance against the repression imposed by the Israeli occupation. The harshest measures are directed against the Shi‘i Muslim population. Logically, it’s these civilians who respond.