By Robert Fisk
"The Independent" -- -
It will be called the massacre of Marwaheen. All the civilians killed by the Israelis had been ordered to abandon their homes in the border village by the Israelis themselves a few hours earlier. Leave, they were told by loudspeaker; and leave they did, 20 of them in a convoy of civilian cars. That's when the Israeli jets arrived to bomb them, killing 20 Lebanese, at least nine of them children. The local fire brigade could not put out the fires as they all burned alive in the inferno. Another "terrorist" target had been eliminated.
Yesterday, the Israelis even produced more "terrorist" targets - petrol stations in the Bekaa Valley all the way up to the frontier city of Hermel in northern Lebanon and another series of bridges on one of the few escape routes to Damascus, this time between Chtaura and the border village of Masnaa.
But who is really winning the war? Not Lebanon, you may say, with its more than 90 civilian dead and its infrastructure steadily destroyed in hundreds of Israeli air raids. But is Israel winning? Friday night's missile attack on an Israeli warship off the coast of Lebanon suggests otherwise. Four Israeli sailors were killed, two of them hurled into the sea when a tele-guided missile smashed into their Hetz-class gunboat just off Beirut at dusk. Those Lebanese who had endured the fire of Israeli gunboats on the coastal highway over many years were elated.
Only now, however, is a truer picture emerging of the battle for southern Lebanon and it is a fascinating, frightening tale. The original border crossing, the capture of the two soldiers and the killing of three others was planned, according to Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader who escaped assassination by the Israelis on Friday evening, more than five months ago. And Friday's missile attack on the Israeli gunboat was not the last-minute inspiration of a Hizbollah member who just happened to see the warship.
It now appears clear that the Hizbullah leadership - Nasrallah used to be the organisation's military commander in southern Lebanon - thought carefully through the effects of their border crossing, relying on the cruelty of Israel's response to quell any criticism of their action within Lebanon. They were right in their planning. The Israeli retaliation was even crueller than some Hizbullah leaders imagined, and the Lebanese quickly silenced all criticism of the guerrilla movement.
Hizbullah had presumed the Israelis would cross into Lebanon after the capture of the two soldiers and they blew up the first Israeli Merkava tank when it was only 35 feet inside the country. All four Israeli crewmen were killed and the Israeli army moved no further forward. The long-range Iranian-made missiles which later exploded on Haifa had been preceded only a few weeks ago by a pilotless Hizbullah drone aircraft which surveyed northern Israel and then returned to land in eastern Lebanon after taking photographs during its flight. These pictures not only suggested a flight path for Hizbollah's rockets to Haifa; they also identified Israel's top-secret military air traffic control centre in Miron.
The next attack - concealed by Israel's censors - was directed at this facility. Codenamed "Apollo", Israeli military scientists work deep inside mountain caves and bunkers at Miron, guarded by watchtowers, guard-dogs and barbed wire, watching all air traffic moving in and out of Beirut, Damascus, Amman and other Arab cities.
The mountain is surmounted by clusters of antennae which Hizbollah quickly identified as a military tracking centre. Before they fired rockets at Haifa, they therefore sent a cluster of missiles towards Miron. The caves are untouchable but the targeting of such a secret location by Hizbullah deeply shocked Israel's military planners. The "centre of world terror" - or whatever they imagine Lebanon to be - could not only breach their frontier and capture their soldiers but attack the nerve-centre of the Israeli northern military command.
Then came the Haifa missiles and the attack on the gunboat. It is now clear that this successful military operation - so contemptuous of their enemy were the Israelis that although their warship was equipped with cannon and a Vulcan machine gun, they didn't even provide the vessel with an anti-missile capability - was also planned months ago. Once the Hetz-class boats appeared, Hizbollah positioned a missile crew on the coast of west Beirut not far from Jnah, a crew trained over many weeks for just such an attack. It took less than 30 seconds for the Iranian-made missile to leave Beirut and hit the vessel square amidships, setting it on fire and killing the sailors.
Ironically, the Israelis themselves had invited journalists on an "embedded" trip with their navy only hours earlier - they were allowed to film the ships' guns firing on Lebanon - and the moment Hizbollah hit the warship on Friday, Hizbullah's television station, Al-Manar, began showing the "embedded" film. It was a slick piece of propaganda.
The Israelis were yesterday trumpeting the fact that the missile was made in Iran as proof of Iran's involvement in the Lebanon war. This was odd reasoning. Since almost all the missiles used to kill the civilians of Lebanon over the past four days were made in Seattle, Duluth and Miami in the United States, their use already suggests to millions of Lebanese that America is behind the bombardment of their country.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited