BEIRUT, Lebanon—Nine days of powerful Israeli air attacks have reduced most of Beirut's vast Shiite Muslim suburbs to uninhabitable rubble, and left a smoldering hole in Hezbollah's urban heartland.
The militant Islamist group's spokesman, Hussein Naboulsi, led foreign reporters Thursday through a maze of dangling electrical wires, smoking ruins and charred remnants of the lives of 500,000 Lebanese who once called the capital's southern suburbs home. Nearly all the residents had escaped before Israeli bombs rained down on the area in retaliation for Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers and its rocket attacks on Israel.
Late Wednesday night, Israel dropped 23 tons of explosives onto what it said was a bunker in which senior militants were thought to be hiding. Naboulsi said no Hezbollah members had been harmed and that the target was the construction site for a mosque. The strike punched a black, swimming pool-sized crater into the ground, making it impossible to verify what had been there.
Other targets were more obvious. Hezbollah's political offices and information bureau were destroyed, along with a home that belonged to the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. But most of the wreckage came from ordinary Lebanese families: Wedding photos, toys, students' textbooks and pages from Qurans littered the ground.
Residents had fled in a hurry. One family still had laundry drying on the balcony of an apartment building that had crumbled into a pile of brick and glass.
"This was the most condensed residential population in Lebanon," said Adnan el-Ghoul, a political analyst for Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, crunching glass underfoot as he walked to the ruins of one building. "This was an apartment block. There are not fighters here. The fighters are on the front lines, in the south."
Naboulsi, the Hezbollah spokesman, charged that Israel's bombardment of the area was more about punishing civilians for supporting the group than securing the return of the kidnapped soldiers. He said the Hezbollah offices here were part of the group's political wing, which has several members in the Lebanese Cabinet and legislature, and provides schools, medical care and other social services for Lebanon's traditionally underprivileged Shiites.
Naboulsi dismissed the notion that the strikes had eroded support for Hezbollah. He said the bombings had only empowered the group and that they showed the "cowardly" face of an enemy that hit civilian targets rather than containing the fight to face-to-face clashes along the southern border with Israel, where fierce battles continued Thursday.
"If they think they can block our way or we will run out of rockets, they're wrong," Naboulsi said.
Hezbollah, however, has fired hundreds of relatively crude, inaccurate rockets into Israel.
This Shiite crescent is known as "the dahiya," the Arabic word for suburbs, and life here before the airstrikes was vibrant. The names of roads and bridges commemorate fallen fighters or denote Hezbollah values.
One main artery was called Resistance and Liberation Street, and on a visit last summer a reporter noticed large portraits of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and of a new firebrand Shiite cleric, Iraq's Muqtada al-Sadr. Electricity was sporadic, and it was common to see tangles of wires from apartments where residents siphoned it off.
Sections of the dahiya resembled shantytowns on the earlier visit, but, like other places in Beirut, reconstruction efforts after the country's civil war gave the look of an area on the upswing. Veiled Shiite women nipped into the Venus Beauty Salon for manicures, while electronics stores peddled the latest in cell phones. Locals credited Hezbollah for opening hospitals and orphanages at a time when many poor Shiites complained of neglect from the central government.
But separating Hezbollah's charity work from its commitment to violent resistance is no easy task. Memorials to fighters who died in "martyrdom operations," local parlance for suicide missions, still clung to some walls Thursday.
A reporter found a photo of what appeared to be camouflaged Hezbollah guerrillas firing rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The reporter picked up the photo and blew off the dust to examine it when a stony voice interrupted.
"I advise you not to take any papers from here, and we won't tell you twice," said a black-clad man who identified himself as a member of Hezbollah. "Remember, we are watching."
The hour-long tour ended when Israeli jets broke the sound barrier with two loud booms. Yells of "Evacuate!" echoed through the barren corridors, and panicked journalists ran to their cars.
The fear of attacks didn't prevent many from Beirut's southern suburbs from venturing back to inspect the damage Thursday. Some came to check whether their apartment buildings still stood. Others waited in line to buy bread and meat from the handful of shops that survived. They came by motorbike to look at a bridge, the area's main link to the rest of Beirut, and marveled at the craggy point where it had been cleaved in half by an Israeli missile.
Doctors at many of the district's hospitals were frustrated that their hundreds of empty beds were of no use to the civilians who'd been injured hours away along the southern border, where fighting has been heaviest. Israel hasn't heeded calls for a humanitarian corridor as casualties mount in the south and thousands are stranded with dwindling supplies of food, water and medicine. Airstrikes have dissected the country, and at least one ambulance was hit, making it nearly impossible to transport casualties from the overflowing, understaffed hospitals of the south to their gleaming, vacant counterparts in Beirut.
At Zahra Hospital, a cardiologist and a neurosurgeon with no patients to treat sat in front of a television set that showed bleeding victims of airstrikes in the south. At the nearby Rafik Hariri Hospital, the Florida-trained administrator, Bilal Masri, showed off a facility so new that it didn't even have an emergency room yet. He's built a makeshift one in case Israel begins targeting areas of the capital that have yet to be evacuated.
"How do you say it? Before the storm?" Masri asked, attempting a smile.
Concerns were different at the Rasoul Hospital, the main Hezbollah-run medical facility in the southern suburbs, which has received about 40 injured civilians but quickly moved them elsewhere for fear the hospital would be targeted.
An airstrike had hit just outside the grounds, blowing out the hospital's windows as it struck a fire truck parked on the same block. Dr. Mohamed Basheer, the administrator, watched the attack from the hospital's closed-circuit cameras and decided he no longer could accept long-term patients because he couldn't ensure their safety.
Basheer, a self-proclaimed Islamist who's married to a Spanish woman and passed up that government's offer of evacuation, said he was confident that Hezbollah would emerge with its reputation as the people's protector intact.
"They are bigger, but we are stronger," he said.
He followed two reporters to the parking lot to ensure their safety. Dark clouds shrouded the sun, and the air grew clammy and stifling. It looked like rain.
"See? Even the sky is sad for us," Basheer said. "It wants to cry."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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