Cover Story

No way out

"No way out" Continued...

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

An AUB administrator told Charara that a chartered bus would arrive at noon to take students and faculty to Beirut's port for evacuation. It was 11:50. Could he make it to the hotel and back with his family in 10 minutes? "I never knew I could run that fast," Charara said, but he managed to return to the school on time with his family close behind him. Within an hour they and 122 other Americans were on their way to the port.

After several hours filling out paperwork, the exhausted evacuees joined more than 1,000 Europeans boarding a Norwegian cargo ship bound for Cyprus. Charara was elated to be getting out, but grieved at the thought of leaving his extended family, especially his ill father-in-law, whose access to medical care is now cut. "I had tears in my eyes," he says. "The hardest part was leaving those behind that have no way out."

At least 600,000 Lebanese are looking for a way out, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. That's the number of people the agency says have fled their homes and remain trapped in war zones. Jan Egeland, the top UN humanitarian official, called for $100 million in immediate aid for Lebanon, but said it would take billions to rebuild a nation that had just completed years of reconstruction after a 20-year civil war.

Lebanese citizens trying to flee targeted areas have faced danger and death: Israeli bombs are killing Lebanese evacuees in caravans, some carrying women and children. Hospitals are overflowing with the injured, many suffering from lost limbs and severe burns. Security officials say the fighting has killed more than 400 Lebanese and more than 40 Israelis. Thousands more are injured, many seriously.

Israel insists that it doesn't want to harm civilians, and says the casualties are the result of rooting out Hezbollah operatives and bases intertwined with civilian life. Egeland accused Hezbollah of "cowardly blending" among civilians.

Israelis who live near the border with Lebanon are long familiar with Hezbollah's tactics. Hezbollah flags are always visible from the fenced demarcation zone, but the militants' rocket launchers hide in villages and cities folded into the hills of south Lebanon.

Hezbollah began regularly firing Katyusha rockets on random cities in northern Israel in 1982 in response to Israel's occupation of Lebanon. Despite a negotiated settlement ending Lebanon's civil war (1990), a UN-brokered agreement not to target civilians (1996), and Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon (2000), rocket attacks have held steady. In April 1996 Hezbollah fired 777 Katyushas into northern Israel, wounding 62 civilians and five soldiers.

The headlines sketch a steady campaign of terror against Israelis that helps to explain Israel's sudden and ferocious retaliation:

Aug. 20, 1997: "Hizbullah showers northern Israel with rockets" (Irish Times)

Aug. 27, 1998: "Rocket salvo in Galilee tests Israeli resolve" (Jewish Telegraphic Agency)

June 27, 1999: "Katyushas Kill Two in Kiryat Shmona" (Globes Online)

June 13, 2003: "Hizbullah fires over Galilee" (The Jerusalem Post)

And on and on. The most recent noted attack before July, when Hezbollah rocketed Haifa and captured two Israeli soldiers near the border, was in May, when residents in Kiryat Shmona were ordered into shelters after a series of rockets hit near the city.

What's different about the latest Hezbollah attacks is the reach of its missiles. The bulk of its arsenal consists of short-range, inaccurate rockets-supplied by Iran, most believe-but those are gradually being replaced by longer-range missiles. A decade ago Hezbollah was hitting targets 12-24 miles from the border inside Israel; recent weeks' attacks on Haifa, Tiberias, and Nazareth show a capability of up to and beyond 40 miles. Hezbollah is believed to possess a growing number of missiles reaching up to 124 miles from the border-or south of Jerusalem.

Some of the worst Hezbollah-inflicted damage in Israel is centered in Nahariya and Haifa. In Nahariya, apartment buildings are burnt out and streets are empty, while many shops remain closed. Locals estimate that well over half of the city's 56,000 people have fled.

In Haifa, residents endure daily bombings by Hezbollah, and hospitals treating the injured have reached capacity. At the Rambam Medical Centre, doctors say many of the casualties they've encountered were wounded by ball bearings packed into missile warheads. Yossi Heder, 39, spoke to BBC from his ninth-floor hospital room and described how he and his fellow employees were struck by ball bearings that "went through bodies like cheese."

The bomb killed eight of Heder's colleagues and injured 14 more. It was "a very fast death" for those who died, he said.

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