‘An example of American democracy’

Yahoo! News

TYRE, Lebanon — With a targeted missile strike in the center of downtown Tyre, Israel destroyed a building reportedly associated with Hezbollah. But while the destruction was complete, it was not bloodless, nor without repercussions.

The attack obliterated an empty seven-story apartment building Wednesday, wounding 13 people, including six children, who were living in the building next door. The target was reportedly the offices of Hezbollah’s southern Lebanon commander, Sheik Nabil Kaouk.

It was the second missile strike in less than three days against the same residential neighborhood, although this one was much more powerful than the first.

The hit Wednesday evening created a thunderous explosion that could be felt a few miles away. A plume of black smoke rose into the horizon as ambulances rushed to the scene. The alleyway leading to the building churned with smoke, cinders and debris.

I had been conducting an interview only blocks away and arrived on the scene within 10 minutes of the blast. Young men from the predominately Muslim neighborhood were already in the adjoining structure, removing the injured.

One man was carrying a baby out of the building. The boy looked unharmed and wasn’t even crying, but his face was covered with pale gray soot. Within moments, his mother followed, her face also covered with soot, blackening her teeth when the moisture from her mouth turned the dust into a fine, wet grit, giving her the appearance of a character out of a Beijing opera.

Within seconds another man rushed out of the building, carrying a boy of about 7, unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. He was placed in one of two ambulances at the scene. Soon, others were helped out of the building: a woman screaming hysterically; another, head slumped forward as she was carried by men on both sides of her; and then another, a victim bleeding from the head who walked out to the ambulance on his own.

When I entered the building to see if there were other casualties, I was greeted with the anger and frustration that has been growing during this two-week offensive that has killed hundreds, destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure and unraveled Lebanon’s hard-won economic progress. Those inside screamed at me in Arabic to get out and tried to push my camera away.

While I followed another victim being helped to an ambulance, a young man took a swing at my head and instead hit my video camera, breaking off the top-mounted microphone and glancing the switch that activated the camera’s infrared night-shooting mode, turning the video green for a moment until I could switch it off.

It hardly surprised me. For journalists who sometimes arrive even before emergency services do, it’s not uncommon for people to want to lash out, especially if family or friends have been injured or killed.

When the ambulances left, people started to comb through the smoking rubble where the building had once stood. Some tried to put out the flames, covering them with slabs of concrete or swatting at them with blankets and pillows. The seven-story building with 40 apartments seemed to have collapsed on top of itself, leaving sections of the roof scattered over the top like broken ice floes.

The young men who were putting out the flames switched to salvaging things from the rubble, like books, including an intact copy of the Koran, which one picked up, dusted off and tossed to another.

One man walking amid the rubble was a doctor who works at the Tyre Municipal Union, a collective of small villages and cities in the south. I had talked to him in his office earlier in the day. I asked him why he thought the building was targeted.

"This is an example of American democracy," Dr. Raed Ghassan said. "This was my house. I hate America. I will fight America every day, every time."

I asked him if he thought America was responsible for this, but he just walked away.

When firefighters arrived, they pulled a hose through the wreckage and quickly put out the remaining fires. As more and more journalists got to the location, about a dozen young men began pro-Hezbollah chants for the cameras, just as they did after missiles hit a house in the same area two days before.

I asked one man whom I had seen at the earlier missile-strike location why Israel keeps targeting the neighborhood. He said something vague about a mosque being nearby, and then walked away.

"There was no Hezbollah in this building, man," another said to me. "None."

Later, the Associated Press reported that the building contained the offices of Kaouk _ prudently empty, amid the mounting Israeli offensive.

The missile strike seemed to clearly illustrate two aspects of the conflict so far: first, Israel’s willingness to use overwhelming force against Hezbollah targets regardless of where they are located; and second, because of the mounting civilian casualties, a gradual closing of ranks by many Lebanese behind Hezbollah.

(Find more reporting from "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone" at http://hotzone.yahoo.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)