A Poor Beirut Neighborhood Feels Brunt of War

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 15, 2006

BEIRUT, July 14 -- The trail of Israeli jets whispered across the sky at 3 a.m. Friday, followed by sonic booms that awoke Mohammed Ashkafi and his family of seven in the city's Shiite Muslim southern suburbs. He watched and waited. Then, two hours later, the missiles struck nearby. His windows shattered, his apartment shook and his air-conditioning unit was sheared from the wall.

By daybreak, he stood at the bridge that the aircraft had targeted, a 50-yard section having crashed to the street below.

"This is a war of nerves," Ashkafi said simply.

Israel's attacks began Wednesday after the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah crossed the border and, in an ambush, seized two soldiers. By Friday, the war arrived full force in a hardscrabble, crowded swath of southern Beirut known as the Dahiya, or the suburbs, whose Shiite Muslim inhabitants give Hezbollah its most loyal and devoted support. Israeli raids began by early morning and persisted through the evening, making a neighborhood that is Beirut's poorest one of the main theaters of the conflict and the place where Hezbollah draws the backing that makes its survival possible.

Israel's attacks targeted Hezbollah's headquarters, the home of its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, its radio station and overpasses and roads in the Dahiya. Hezbollah said that Nasrallah, his family and his aides escaped unharmed but that at least three people were killed and more wounded.

In the flurry of attacks, white smoke poured from balconies near the eight-story building of al-Nur radio, as helmeted civil defense workers scrambled to quell the blaze. The bridge near Ashkafi's house was demolished, a few feet from a tarnished metal rendering of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's revolution. Down the road, an Israeli strike carved a one-story-deep crater near Resistance and Liberation Street. Farther along, a missile tore a hole in another bridge, named for the Hezbollah leader's son, who was killed in a 1997 clash with Israeli troops. Over it flew a Hezbollah banner.

At each site, blasts broke windows and gutted shops with the force of a tornado.

"This is my luck," said Afif Farran, picking pieces of shattered glass off the seats of his 1990 Mercedes.

As with everything political in Lebanon, views of the Israeli attacks have cleaved along sectarian lines. Virtually everyone views the Israeli response as disproportionate, but many in Lebanon's Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian communities complain that Hezbollah dragged them into a conflict they didn't choose. Not so in the Dahiya, though even here reverberations echoed through the gritty streets: defiance and fear, and frustration with war's arbitrary judgments.

"It's like you see, totally destroyed," Ashkafi said, pointing to the wrecked bridge, rubble piled beneath an advertisement for a theatrical performance of "Crime and Punishment." "What are they trying to achieve?"

"They want to wipe out the resistance, and that's impossible," interjected Noha Ibrahim, a 48-year-old woman standing next to him. "They want the two prisoners, and they're going to destroy the country trying to get them."

Analysts differ on why Hezbollah chose now to carry out the ambush. Some suggest it was trying to exploit strife in the Palestinian territories, bolstering its already substantial standing in the Muslim and Arab world. Others say that such a brash operation by Hezbollah might deflect pressure from allies Iran and Syria, which are at odds with the United States.

But Nasrallah has long threatened such a move, at one point predicting it would take place this year, and many in the Dahiya see it in the blackest and whitest of terms: If Israel frees three Lebanese prisoners, as Hezbollah has demanded, it will free the soldiers.

"Then the story will be over," said Jamil Sweidan, a 46-year-old clerk in a law firm.

With his three children, Sweidan watched Israeli aircraft destroy fuel depots at the Beirut airport the night before. No one had slept, and he was upset. He recalled the previous time the bridge was destroyed, during Israel's 1982 invasion. He asked of the bird's nest of concrete and iron before him, "Israel wants to attack Hezbollah, but what does this have to do with Hezbollah?" He added, "They're all civilians, wherever they've struck, from the north to the south."

Sweidan watched the workers, who at one point began running when someone shouted that they had heard an Israeli jet. "My children didn't grow up in the war. We did. We're used to it," he said, looking down. "They're used to the planes landing at the airport, not bombing it."

At the bridge, Hezbollah played martial music. From passing cars, the group's radio station, al-Nur, broadcast "a thousand salutes to the steadfast people." The movement's iconography was displayed through the deserted streets of shuttered shops: "All of us are resistance," one read.

Nearby was picture after picture of Hezbollah militiamen, their bearded faces still a little boyish, all killed fighting Israel. In between were Hezbollah's yellow banners-- the color taken from the breastplate of Imam Ali, the seventh-century figure whom Shiite Muslims consider the successor of the prophet Muhammad.

At another bridge, Ali Suha, with a wry grin, beckoned a visitor into his women's clothing store, Queen's Lingerie. Bikinis, nightgowns and plenty of lace, once shelved discreetly, were tossed amid broken glass and chunks of brick, all soaked by a broken pipe from above.

"Here, I'll show you the military targets," he said, his voice in its best deadpan. "Here are the rockets, the long-range ones," he said, pointing at a pile of clothes, "and the short-range," he said, gesturing across the room. "Here are the chemical weapons," Suha said, turning around, "but we don't use them now. We'll wait for those."

Hezbollah casts a long shadow over the neighborhood, effectively running it. No one takes pictures without approval. Journalists are often questioned, sometimes for hours, soon after arriving, particularly around the block of nondescript apartment buildings that serves as Hezbollah's headquarters, which was targeted Friday. It is known as the "security square."

But Hezbollah's appeal also draws on social services that cater to a community long considered one of Lebanon's most disenfranchised. Before the 1975-90 civil war, the Dahiya was sometimes called the "Belt of Misery," populated by poor Shiites who came from the Bekaa Valley in the east and southern Lebanon. Hezbollah's rise reflected and inspired the empowerment of the Shiite community, Lebanon's single largest.

That connection drives sentiments, often framed in words such as dignity and strength.

"When you believe, faith is the main motivation," Suha said, a wire dangling from the ceiling of his wrecked shop. "If you believe this stone will talk, it will talk. You have to believe. We believe. We have faith that what we're doing is right."

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