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William Rivers Pitt: Cease-Fire Now

Cease-Fire Now

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 31 July 2006

Sunday's horrific air attack by Israel on the Lebanese village of Qana has radically altered the dynamic of this current conflict. Before the attack, the United States was happy to allow Israel to act with impunity. The Arab League had accused Hezbollah of starting the whole thing, which was itself a remarkable thing. Many accused Israel of pushing too hard, of expending excessive violence in its campaign against the guerrillas, but until Sunday it appeared that Israel was going to do its thing until it was satisfied.

Then came the air attack on a residential building where dozens of Lebanese civilians were hiding in the basement. "There were different accounts of the death toll," reported the New York Times on Monday morning. "Residents said as many as 60 people had been inside. News agencies reported that 56 had been killed, and that 34 of them were children. The Lebanese Red Cross, which conducted the rescue, counted 27 bodies, as many of 17 of them children. The youngest of the dead was 10 months old, and the oldest was 95. One was in a wheelchair."

Nicholas Blanford of the Lebanon Daily Star reported from Qana as the bodies were retrieved, even as Israel continued with its attacks. "An earth-mover ground down the lane and began clawing chunks of concrete away from the building," wrote Blanford. "Even as the rescue team toiled to recover the dead, Israeli jets continued to roar overhead and the thump of air strikes and exploding artillery shells reverberated around the steep valley. Amid the despair and the grim task of removing the victims, there was deep anger at what they regarded as the callous indifference of the West to their suffering. 'We will never wave the white flag. We won't retreat,' said Mohammad Shalhoub. 'I say to the West, this is not the kind of freedom and democracy we want.'"

This attack was bad enough on its face, but is made all the worse by where it happened. Qana is a name drenched with blood and outrage in the Arab world. Qana has seen these horrors before. In April of 1996, Israel began a military action against Beirut and southern Lebanon called Operation Grapes of Wrath.

There are many stories from Qana in April of 1996, but one is telling above all, and all too reminiscent of Sunday's carnage. On April 18, Qana was flooded with some 800 refugees from the fighting who were seeking protection from UN forces there. At about two in the afternoon, the village came under bombardment by Israeli "proximity shells" - antipersonnel weapons that explode several meters above the ground and shower anyone below with razor-sharp shrapnel. The result was a blood-drenched scene of shredded humanity.

Robert Fisk, the decorated British journalist, was there. "It was a massacre," he wrote. "Israel's slaughter of civilians in this 10-day offensive - 206 by last night - has been so cavalier, so ferocious, that not a Lebanese will forgive this massacre. There had been the ambulance attacked on Saturday, the sisters killed in Yohmor the day before, the 2-year-old girl decapitated by an Israeli missile four days ago. And earlier yesterday, the Israelis had slaughtered a family of 12 - the youngest was a four-day-old baby - when Israeli helicopter pilots fired missiles into their home."

These stories barely made a dent in the American press in 1996, but were widely reported at length by both European and Middle Eastern media outlets. Photographs of headless babies and slaughtered civilians reached far and wide, inflaming a region already filled with rage against Israel and America.

On Sunday, it happened again.

In Beirut, the United Nations office was ransacked by protesters denouncing the world's inert reaction to the Israeli campaign. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's shuttle diplomacy was transformed into scuttle diplomacy as she turned on her heel and headed home, her abject failures following close behind.

The Arab news station Al Jazeera yanked its anchors off the screen and played scenes of the carnage in Qana for hours on end. The bodies of small children, bloody and dirty and unmoving, were shown again and again. Sarcastic remarks from news broadcasters - "This is the new Middle East," said one, in reference to Rice's comments from last week - stoked the rage that spread like wildfire across the region. The governments of Jordan and Egypt condemned the attack, and Syria described it as "state terrorism." The secretary general of the Arab League demanded an international investigation.

On the heels of the attack, Israel announced it would be suspending air strikes in Lebanon for 48 hours. This decision did not hold for ten hours; in the southern Lebanese town of Taibe, Israel launched yet another series of air strikes, ostensibly to protect ground forces operating there.

Secretary Rice has begun urging the United Nations to broker a cease-fire agreement, and to arrange for an international force that would help Lebanese forces manage their southern border. At the moment, however, this seems dead on arrival. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said in a speech to parliament, "It's forbidden to agree to an immediate cease-fire. Israel will expand and strengthen its activities against the Hezbollah."

It is notable that not even Israel pays heed to the wishes and attempted diplomacy of the United States anymore. The Bush administration has squandered its ability to serve as any kind of broker in the region, having chosen to allow Israel to do whatever it pleases. Now, the burgeoning democracy of Lebanon has been subsumed by a wave of violence and outrage. Israel, for its part, has thus far been completely unable to destroy Hezbollah with its vaunted military prowess, transforming the guerrillas into heroes within the region. The attack in Qana has only reinforced that image.

It has to stop. Whatever ideas the Bush administration may have had regarding some "New Middle East" must be abandoned immediately, and a cease-fire must be achieved. Israel, thinking to defend itself, has once again managed to manufacture new, radicalized enemies out of people who only wanted to live and work in peace. The peril is ours, as well; everyone in that region remembers Qana from ten years ago, and likewise understands that the missiles that created Sunday's carnage came from the United States.

It is enough.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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