January 11, 2007

The Siege of Ain Ebel

AIN EBEL, SOUTH LEBANON – Amid the steep rolling hills of South Lebanon, a mere handful of kilometers from the fence on the border with Israel, sits the besieged Christian community of Ain Ebel. It is often said that Lebanon is a victim of geography; few Lebanese are as unlucky as those who live in Ain Ebel. For decades the people in this village have been caught between the anvils of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hezbollah on one side, and the hammer of the Israeli Defense Forces on the other.

Ain Ebel.jpg

I visited this small town with my American friend and colleague Noah Pollak from Azure Magazine in Jerusalem. Two men, Said and Henry, from the Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559 – an NGO which advises the Lebanese government and the international community on the disarmament of Hezbollah – safely escorted us down there from Beirut.

Alan Barakat from the Ain Ebel Development Association waited for us outside a small grocery store owned by his uncle. He agreed to tell us about what happened to his community during the war in July, when Hezbollah seized civilian homes and used residents as human shields.

Alan in Ain Ebel.jpg
Alan Barakat from the Ain Ebel Development Association

Ain Ebel is small, and we walked the streets on foot. I didn’t see nearly as much destruction as I saw in the Hezbollah strongholds of Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras which I visited earlier the same day. Downtown seemed intact. This was not a surprise. The residents are implacably hostile to Hezbollah and always have been. This was not a place where the Party of God could dig in, build bunkers, and store weapons. Ain Ebel was, as they say, a “target poor” environment. That did not, however, stop Hezbollah from using it as a battleground.

“There is a valley just below Ain Ebel,” Alan said. “I will take you there later. Until the army came after the war Hezbollah closed it. It was a restricted military area. They built bunkers there, and stored Katyusha rockets and launchers. When the war started they moved the launchers out of the valley and into our village. When the Israelis shot back they hit some of our houses.”

Ain Ebel Damage 1.jpg

In Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras whole city blocks were pulverized from the air. Some houses and buildings were merely damaged, but many were demolished to their foundations. Nothing remains of whole swaths of these towns but fields of mostly-cleared rubble. Hezbollah controlled Bint Jbail and Maroun al-Ras both during and before the war. Houses were used to stockpile weaponry and were often otherwise turned into military targets.

Ain Ebel, however, was used only as a place to hide and as a place from which Hezbollah could launch rockets at the Israelis. Katyusha launchers weren’t placed inside houses. They were, for the most part, placed next to people’s houses. Most of the property damage, then, was caused by shrapnel rather than by direct air strikes. Israeli targeting in South Lebanon wasn’t random or indiscriminate. It varied considerably from place to place, depending on what Hezbollah was doing in each place.

Ain Ebel Damage 3.jpg

“No one is helping us,” Alan said. “We are paying for all the reconstruction with our own money.”

“You aren’t getting any of the reconstruction money from Iran?” I said.

“Of course not,” Alan said. “Of course Iran is not helping us rebuild our houses.”

The Iranian government is sending money, via Hezbollah, to at least some Lebanese people whose homes were damaged or destroyed during the war. If Alan is telling the truth, though, that money is not exactly evenly spread.

Reconstruction had progressed more in Ain Ebel than elsewhere, even so. In Bint Jbail the only noticeable improvement was that most of the rubble had been cleared out of the way. Ain Ebel was less damaged, so there was less work to be done.

Ain Ebel Damage 2.jpg

“Were people still living in Ain Ebel during the war?” I said.

“Yes, of course,” Alan said. “Most of us stayed in the village for the first 18 days.”

“Were people were still living in the houses that Hezbollah seized?” I said.

“No,” Alan said. “Hezbollah only took over houses that had no one in them.”

We came across a crater in the middle of a residential street on the edge of town left by an Israeli artillery shell.

Noah Artillery Crater Ain Ebel.jpg

“Did anyone here try to stop Hezbollah?” I said.

“How?” Alan said. “We have no weapons. Some people told Hezbollah to leave, but they pointed guns in our faces. Shut up, go back in your house, we were told.”

At the southern edge of town is an open field with a direct view to the south toward Israel.

Field of Grass Ain Ebel.jpg

“Hezbollah could have set up their rocket launchers here instead of in town,” Noah said. “It’s a straight shot into Israel.”

“The houses and trees gave them better cover,” Alan said. “The valley below, though, gave them even better cover than the village. If that’s all they cared about they would have stayed there.”

We walked back downtown. I wanted to find at least one more witness who stayed in Ain Ebel during the war.

Noah and I went toward the grocery store owned by Alan’s uncle. A poster on the wall outside warned children about minefields left behind by the Israelis.

Beware Land Mines Ain Ebel.jpg

A convoy of French soldiers from UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, rolled down the street.

UNIFIL Convoy Ain Ebel.JPG

Some French soldiers stopped at the same grocery store. Noah badly wanted to ask them what, exactly, they were doing. But they weren’t allowed to speak to us since we didn’t have a permit from the United Nations authorizing an interview.

French Soldiers Ain Ebel.jpg

A grim-faced soldier placed five bottles of red Lebanese wine – Chateau Kefraya, to be exact, which is really good stuff – on the counter. Noah couldn’t resist making fun.

Wine Bottles Ain Ebel.jpg

“Are those for Hezbollah?” Noah said.

“No,” said the soldier without showing even a trace of a sense of humor.

“Are you going to buy some chocolates, too, while you’re here?” Noah said.

The French soldier ignored him.

I could not help but laugh at the sorry state of French-American relations, even in a place like South Lebanon where we’re more or less on the same side. I quietly suggested to Noah that if he really wanted to tease them he should ask if they were shopping for cheese to go with their wine.

“The French like to spend time in Ain Ebel,” Alan said. “They are welcome here, they feel comfortable. They help our economy. In Bint Jbail some of the residents make slashing motions across their throats with their fingers when they see UN soldiers.”

I felt bad for laughing when I heard that. South Lebanon is a hard place. UNIFIL isn’t allowed to disarm Hezbollah and prevent the next round of war. That would require their authorization as a combat force. But they do what they can within their sharply proscribed limits, and they spend most of their time in a shattered and hostile environment.

Alan’s uncle behind the cash register stuck up for the French.

“I feel safer now with them here than I’ve felt for more than 30 years,” he said.

It was easy to find another civilian who stayed in the village during the war. He said he would happy to talk to me as long as I promised not to publish his name. He didn’t even tell me his name, so he has nothing to worry about. I’ll just call him “Jad.”

I turned on my voice recorder. Alan translated.

“So you stayed in Ain Ebel through the whole war?” I said.

“Yes,” Jad said.

“At what point did Hezbollah come to the village and fire their missiles?” I said.

“During the war they took some uninhabited houses at the edge of our village and stayed there.”

“Uninhabited?” I said.

“Yes, uninhabited. Nobody was there, so they took them. They were eating in there, sleeping in there, and maybe doing some reconnaissance.”

“Did they ever go into houses where people were still living?” I said.

“No,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

I wondered if Hezbollah deserved credit for not encroaching on people’s personal space, but Jad answered that question before I could ask it.

“They chose specific houses because nobody was living there and nobody would know.”

“Did they choose to come to this town for strategic or tactical reasons?” Noah said. “Or was it because it’s a Christian town?”

“Strategically, of course,” Jad said. “It’s a high peak. It is very good strategically. But they could have chosen these parts, these lands…” He gestured with his arm toward the valley below, the place Alan promised to take us next. “It would have been more protection for them than this village. So why did they come here? I think it’s because it’s a Christian village. They do this.”

“Did anybody who lives here try to get Hezbollah to leave the village?” I said.

“We don’t have any arms,” Jad said. “Hezbollah has arms. But there was this incident that happened. Next to a guy’s place they were firing Katyushas – you know, missiles. They were firing from the house. This guy went out and said Please, do not fire from our home, from in front of our house. My father is very ill and there are some children in the house. They came to him and said Shut up, go in your house, this is none of your business.”

Home Reconstruction Ain Ebel.jpg

What Jad said closely matched what Alan had told me.

Then he told me something off-the-record. He made me turn off my voice recorder before he would say it. I cannot and will not relay what he told me. But he wanted me to know that the people of Ain Ebel did use clever non-violent counter-measures against Hezbollah, and that Hezbollah has no idea what they did. I know what they did, but he wants it to remain a secret so they can do it again in the future. He did not, by the way, tell me they passed information to the Israelis.

I turned my voice recorder back on, but I didn’t realize until later that it got stuck on “pause.” So I’ll have to paraphrase what he said next.

He told me that 18 days after the start of the war a large group of civilians decided it was time to leave Ain Ebel and flee to the north. They were no longer willing to stay while Israel fired back at Hezbollah’s rocket launchers. It was too dangerous, and Hezbollah insisted on staying and endangering those who lived there.

So they fled the area in a convoy of civilian vehicles. It was safer, they figured, to travel in a group than alone.

On their way out of the village, Hezbollah fighters stood on the side of the road and opened fire with machine guns on the fleeing civilians.

I was shocked, and I asked Alan to confirm this. Was it really true? Hezbollah opened fire on Lebanese civilians with machine guns? Alan confirmed this was true.

“Why?” I had an idea, but I wanted a local person to say it.

Because, Alan said, Hezbollah wanted to use the civilians of Ain Ebel as “human shields.” I did not use the phrase “human shields.” These were Alan’s own words.

Fortunately, Hezbollah didn’t kill anybody when they opened fire. One person was shot in the hand, and another was shot in the shoulder. This was enough, though, to do the job. The civilians turned around and went back to the village under Israeli bombardment.

Alan then took me, Noah, and Said down into the valley below the village, the previously restricted military zone where Hezbollah built bunkers, dug fox holes, and stashed weapons before they moved their operations into civilian areas.

A young man named Victor came along for the ride. He thought it would be cool to check out the area now that someone would show him.

Victor Ain Ebel.jpg

Alan told us to stay on the road because Israeli landmines might still be around. There are, perhaps, more landmines in South Lebanon than there are people.

Hezbollah Valley 1.jpg

“Did Hezbollah build this road?” I asked.

“No,” Alan said. “It is agricultural.”

Victor spotted some camouflage netting in one of the bushes. He and Noah pulled it out.

Noah and Victor Hezbollah Netting.jpg

“Radar scattering,” Noah said as he read the tag. “This is American.”

Radar Scattering.jpg

He tried to cut the tag so he could keep it as a souvenir, but it wouldn’t come off.

The valley did seem like it would have provided better cover for Hezbollah than the village. The sky above was open enough that Katyusha rockets easily could be fired directly at Israel. Camouflaged fox holes and bunkers among the bushes and trees provide much better protection than houses that can be easily spotted by the Israeli Air Force and that show up prominently on satellite and aerial surveillance photographs. No Israeli infantry would want to go into that valley without first softening up the area with air strikes and artillery. It was the perfect environment for ambushes and sniper attacks.

The sun dropped quickly below the horizon. South Lebanon is in the region known as the Upper Galilee. It is not as high as the Mount Lebanon range in the north, but it was high enough that the cool Levantine air of early winter turned frigid as the light went out of the sky.

The funny thing about Middle Eastern war zones is how serene the natural environment often is. Wars in the popular imagination usually occur in ugly places. But the front lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict often look like somewhere that might be popular among hikers and backpackers if they weren’t so dangerous.

“There is a destroyed bunker up ahead,” Alan said as he stepped off the road. “Come on.”

“Is it safe?” I said. “What about landmines?”

“I have been here before,” Alan said. “Hezbollah was here. It should be safe.”

So we stepped off the road and walked toward one of Hezbollah’s demolished fortifications. I walked gingerly and tried to step in the footprints of others.

Trees Hezbollah Valley.jpg

There was no sound in the valley but our own footsteps and breath. Alan was probably right that there were no landmines in the immediate area. Otherwise Hezbollah would have dug in somewhere else.

But what about unexploded ordnance from Israeli cluster bombs? Those were still lying around. You might as well have stepped on a landmine if you end up kicking a bomblet on accident.

Dark Trail Hezbollah Valley.jpg

The faint cold light of dusk illuminated the sky like a back-lit screen, but all was dark in the valley on the trail beneath the trees. I tried to imagine what it must have been like if Israeli soldiers walked the same path only a few months before. Did they feel like American soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam? Some Hezbollah fighters wore the uniforms of the Israeli Defense Forces. They used night-vision goggles. They hunkered down in fox holes and waited.

Hezbollah Fox Hole.jpg
A Hezbollah fox hole

The valley must have been reasonably safe or Alan wouldn’t have taken us down there. But the enveloping darkness and the all-too recent violence made me wonder, although not very seriously, if Hezbollah had really been flushed out and kept out.

The bombed-out bunker was just up ahead under some trees. It was, indeed, very well hidden.

Destroyed Hezbollah Bunker in Valley.JPG

“If I were going to build a bunker, this is where I’d put it,” Noah said.

Nevertheless, it was hit. And it was hit badly. Anyone who was inside during an air strike would surely have been killed. But I didn’t see any blood or other evidence that it was occupied at the time.

We dug through the rubble.

“There was a sink,” Alan said and pointed to the right of the entrance.

Sink Hezbollah Bunker.jpg

“And here is some cable for faxes and phones.”

“Look,” Victor said. “A lid from a weapons crate.”

Weapons Crate Lid.jpg

“Dude,” Noah said. “Check out the shower head.”

Sure enough, there was a shower head at my feet.

Shower Rod Hezbollah Bunker.jpg

It was impossible to tell when the bunker was hit, whether it was at the beginning, during the middle, or at the end of the war. Since there was no evidence that anyone was inside when the strike came, I assumed it was hit in the middle or at the end after Hezbollah had already moved into the village.

I’m not a military forensics expert, if there even is such a thing. But everything Alan told me about Hezbollah relocating to Ain Ebel during the war seemed to add up and match the physical evidence I could see. The valley obviously was used as a military area, and so was the village.

We walked back to the car in absolute darkness and drove for a minute or so. Alan parked alongside an open ditch next to the road.

“The Israelis were here,” he said. “They left some of their food.”

At my feet was an empty can of tinned fish. Some of the words on the can were written in Hebrew.

Israeli Food South Lebanon.jpg

Alan was right. The Israelis were there, recently enough that no one had bothered to pick up their trash yet. I tossed the can of fish back into the ditch, thinking with a grim almost-certainty that they would be back.

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All photographs copyright Michael J. Totten and Noah Pollak

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 11, 2007 10:23 PM

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