There was no smell of death. The dying had taken place too recently. When I arrived they were still pulling corpses from the collapsed building. The first I saw were two young brothers of the Shalhoub family. If you have ever watched sleeping children carried to their beds late at night, you will have some idea of the scene. The dead children of Qana looked as if they were in a deep slumber. The shock waves of the explosion had collapsed their lungs, suffocating them in the rubble. I saw one whose mouth and nose were stuffed with sand. The only sign of the violence done to them was a trickle of blood from the noses of a few and several dark bruises where masonry had crashed on to their flesh. I counted five child corpses being carried out in just ten minutes.
A Red Cross man laid a blanket on the ground. Two of his colleagues cradled the corpses of the dead Shalhoub boys and then knelt and laid them down. They did this with great gentleness. Then each worker took a corner of the blanket and lifted the bundle. In this way the children were carried down the lane past the drying tobacco plants and the olive groves and fields where they had once played. When they had been loaded into the ambulances they were driven through the ruined town to the government hospital in Tyre. Here they were wrapped in polythene bags and placed in a refrigerated lorry with all the other new corpses of the war.
Within hours of the bombing Hezbollah was vowing revenge on Israel and inciting its supporters to even more hatred of the Jewish state (if that were possible). At a mass funeral for other war victims I heard a mullah tell some journalists that the civilian dead were ‘martyrs’. When I challenged him on Hezbollah’s responsibility for starting this latest war, he gave me a lecture on the history of the region. I felt as if I were back in Belfast being harangued by a Provo or a Loyalist. It reminded me of what my friend the poet Paul Durcan calls ‘the politics of the last atrocity/ the atrocity of the last politics’.
The Israelis went into their default mode of response. It was a ‘regrettable’ incident but all the other side’s fault for firing rockets from civilian areas. No blame here. In the immediate aftermath one Israeli official went so far as to suggest on Irish radio that explosives might have been stored in or near the house by Hezbollah. There wasn’t any evidence for this suggestion, but I can only guess it was meant to muddy the waters at a time when Jerusalem was under massive pressure.
Internet conspiracy theorists quickly followed up by suggesting that the state of the rubble did not indicate an air strike but rather a blast created by Hezbollah. Others posited that the condition of the corpses — some had rigor mortis — meant the bodies had been dead for longer than the time since the explosion had taken place. In other words it was all a giant Hezbollah hoax. The best word we have on all of this comes from the Israeli Defence Force, which has acknowledged the fact of the bombing. That should silence the conspiracy theories.
Given my experience of the last few weeks in south Lebanon, here is what I think may have happened. Hezbollah were firing rockets from around Qana and from near the village of Hosh down the road closer to Tyre. This had been happening throughout the conflict. The Israelis responded with air strikes. In my BBC reports I have pointed out that Hezbollah rocket attacks invariably produce a heavy Israeli response.
Why did the pilot target this particular house? I don’t know. What can be said is that the overall level of civilian casualties indicates that the air campaign is being fought with nothing like the precision and carefulness that Israel has claimed. Certainly the civilians I have spoken to who have been attacked in their vehicle convoys — and there have been many — would find it impossible to accept such an assertion.
I have been reporting what I have seen and heard on the Lebanese part of the battlefield. The suffering of Israeli families and the terrible fear of living with the threat from Hezbollah has been carefully documented by my BBC colleagues south of the border. Hezbollah rains rockets down without any care for precision. They may hit a field or kill a child. It is only through the inaccuracy of their Katyusha rockets and the limited power of Hezbollah’s arsenal that Israel’s civilian death toll has been so much lower than that of the Lebanese. Be under no illusion, Hezbollah would be wilfully killing far more civilians if it could.
Qana has not ended the war. Not yet, at any rate. It has merely increased pressure on Israel to expedite its campaign. Hence the accelerated ground operation. But it has also helped give Hezbollah one of the prizes it sought when it launched this war: a Lebanese people united in fierce opposition to Israel. Travelling through border villages last week, I saw the devastation wreaked on the civilian population and found Christians as well as Shia Muslims who raged against Israel.
‘We are good people. What have we done to them?’ one Maronite woman asked as we both cowered under Israeli shelling in the largely Christian village of Rmeich. A few minutes earlier I had descended into the basement of the church of St George to find several hundred terrified and hungry refugees. Many Christians do not like or trust Hezbollah but they are furious at being driven from their homes and at the huge cost in civilian lives. When you are being shelled in your village and then again as you try to flee, you are not inclined to go back along the chain of responsibility and blame Sheikh Nasrallah for ordering the original attack.
The bad news for Mr Bush and Mr Blair is that the people of the ruined villages rail against them too. There was bitter ironic laughter when the American ambassador appeared on television donating humanitar-ian aid for the refugees. It did not escape the notice of the Lebanese that at the very same time the Americans were sending, via Britain, fresh supplies of bombs to be dropped on them by Israel.
No phrase in recent memory has caused so much offence in Lebanon as Condi Rice’s ‘new Middle East’. I have had it thrown in my face by elderly refugees trudging around the massive craters in the roads that lead from the town of Bint Jebiel, a place bombed into the stone age during fighting between the Israelis and Hezbollah.
‘Let them look at the dogs eating bodies in the rubble,’ one man in Qana screamed at me. This war has been bad for almost everybody. It has been disastrous for the Lebanese civilians because it is they who have suffered most; but awful too for the innocent civilians in Israel deliberately cut down by Hezbollah and for others forced to leave the northern region. Three weeks into this war, the Israeli government is wondering how it can get out of the Lebanese mire and still protect its people from the rockets of Hezbollah. And it has been bad for Britain and America, whose support for Israel’s bombing campaign has alienated one of the most pro-Western governments in the region. Who has benefited? Hezbollah may have been militarily weakened but politically it could reap huge benefits from the anger of the population. There will be pleasure, too, in Tehran and Damascus. Both have interfered and manipulated in Lebanon for years to suit their own political and ideological interests. These two regimes under pressure from the international community will revel in the damage inflicted on Israel and America if this war ends without the decisive defeat of Hezbollah promised by Jerusalem. Right now, that defeat looks a very distant prospect.
Fergal Keane reported from south Lebanon for BBC News.