This summer, fighting broke out between Israel and the Islamic Resistance group Hezbollah across the Israeli-Lebanese border. With different news sources reporting different events with conflicting biases, people in the U.S. may have had a hard time following what actually happened. While certain aspects of this 34-day conflict are still being disputed, it is clear that citizens on both sides of the border suffered and numerous people—civilians and soldiers alike—were killed.
In response to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, Hezbollah was created as a political and military organization dedicated to ending the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Since the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has gained many supporters. Nations like the U.S. and Israel consider the group to be a terrorist organization, but many other countries recognize it as a legitimate political party.
This summer on July 12, Hezbollah guerillas took two Israeli soldiers hostage and killed three others during a cross-border conflict. Hezbollah’s hope in capturing these Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, was to use them as a bargaining tool with Israel in order to have Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel returned. According to CNN, Israel’s Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz told Israel’s Channel 10, “If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon’s clock back 20 years.” The next day, Israel struck Beirut’s airport, military targets, and highways in air raids, leaving citizens with no way to evacuate the city.
Israel believed that Hezbollah was using civilian infrastructure as strongholds and wanted the civilians to flee before they hit their targets. About a week after the fighting started, Israel began dropping leaflets in these areas warning the citizens to evacuate. By this point, 300 Lebanese had been killed in the fighting, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apologized for the civilian casualties.
On July 30, in the bloodiest attack of the conflict, 54 Lebanese civilians—34 of them children—were killed during an Israeli air raid in Qana. In Beirut, 5,000 protesters gathered in support of Hezbollah. The next day, Israel called for a 48-hour partial ceasefire to allow UN officials to investigate what happened in Qana and to evacuate civilians. As soon as the ceasefire was lifted, Hezbollah launched around 230 Katyusha rockets into Israel, some reaching as far as 43 miles into the country. Four Israeli soldiers were killed in southern Lebanon and eight civilians were killed in northern Israel.
A week after the attack on Qana, UN Security-General Kofi Anaan declared that the bombing could have been part of “a pattern of violations of international law,” and called for further investigation. Throughout the conflict, aid convoys from the World Food Programme, the Red Cross, and other organizations were unable to reach the hardest hit areas because of the destruction. One of the UN’s humanitarian officials, Jan Egeland, criticized both Israel and Hezbollah for deterring relief efforts in southern Lebanon.
On August 11, the UN reached a decision on a new resolution calling for a ceasefire. It also called for a peacekeeping force to replace Israel in southern Lebanon until the Lebanese army could take over. The ceasefire was to begin on August 14. Once the resolution had been announced, both Israel and Lebanon saw the heaviest violence of the whole conflict in the few days before it was enforced.
Although hesitant, Lebanese and Israeli civilians began to emerge from bomb shelters as the ceasefire took effect. Israel warned some Lebanese not to return home for fear they might run into unexploded cluster bombs. Of the one million that fled the country, many Lebanese refugees still cannot return to their homes.
Tensions are still high in the region, and many disagree about who started the conflict, who’s at fault, or who was the aggressor. There is, however, one undisputed fact that everyone can agree on, whether you’re getting your news from CNN, Aljazeera, BBC, or The Jerusalem Post: civilians were wounded, forced to leave their homes, or killed. By the end of the conflict, over 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and around 159 Israelis, 114 of them soldiers, had been killed. Here are the stories of two UB students who were there, on opposite sides of the conflict.
One week, Daphna Zilber is a University at Buffalo student frantically trying to juggle studying for finals, salsa and swing dancing, and working IT support. Next thing she knows, she’s watching as Katyusha missiles strike around her house, buildings in her neighborhood rise up in flames, and the names of soldiers with whom she went to school show up in the obituary section of local newspapers. It’s hard for her to sleep at night, since missiles are constantly bombarding her town. When she does decide to flee town for a few days of solace, the choice of which roads she takes can literally mean life or death.
For Zilber, a 23-year-old economics and judaic studies major, this is reality. Growing up in Metulla, a northern Israeli town near the Lebanese border, she has grown accustomed to the sound of missiles and the fear of being shot at since as far back as she remembers. During the recent Israel-Hezbollah conflicts, however, she decided to do something different. Through a riveting blog under the pseudonym “UBIsraeli” (http://ubisraeli.blogspot.com/), she is setting out to educate the public and create awareness from her horrific experiences.
Zilber insists she had a great upbringing in Israel, where she lived with her parents, younger sister, and pets. She attended school and completed work she declared as “classified” in the air force, as two years of military service is required for all girls, and three for boys. Even though she would often have days off school to go to bomb shelters on “Katyusha days” as a kid, she said, “where you grow up, your home always feels safe.”
In fact, Zilber felt safe until Israel pulled out of Lebanon in an attempt to create peace in the region. She can still recall the exact night, May 24, 2000, she said, because she knew it signified the night her whole life would change. “I was in eleventh grade; besides this war, it was the scariest time of my life. Nobody told us—there were bombings all night and then in the morning it was quiet,” said Zilber.
Zilber lived in close enough proximity to the border that she could see the Lebanese flags waving out her window, and said she experienced 3,970 Katyusha missiles and thousands of mortar bombs fired into Israel firsthand on the front lines of the war.
Her summer consisted of never-ending restless nights, since the huge explosions of artillery and missiles around her house made it impossible to sleep. When she did manage to sneak in a few hours, she had violent nightmares of Katyusha missile attacks. The ordeal took a toll on all members of her family, even her pets. “My dogs started shedding hair and grew weird stains on their stomachs,” she said. “They were very afraid.” In an August blog titled “When sadness takes over,” she records her feelings of “complete sadness that I’m not sure how to deal with,” and worried, “I hope I don’t end up finding out that I need to be treated for anxiety.”
This sadness and desperation can be seen in her detailed and moving blog. Although her motives for starting it were mainly to update family and friends on life in Israel and to have a cathartic way to release feelings, she recognizes its value in giving people on the other side of the world her perspective on the conflict. “It’s important to tell things the way they were,” she said.
In Zilber’s eyes, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that attacked Israeli civilian targets with no reason. “You can tell the difference between an army and a terrorist organization. The problem with Hezbollah is that they operate within civilians: in schools, mosques, churches, and hospitals. They would hide weapons in mosques and apartment buildings—do we then blow up those places and kill Lebanese citizens?”
Everyday tasks became a big challenge in the war-torn town. Everybody in Metulla received a beeper that would signal a two-hour period when the danger of leaving the house was lowered, and people could buy food that was delivered every few days. However, at any moment’s notice, the beeper could sound again to warn citizens to go back into bomb shelters immediately. Zilber said that due to Metulla’s proximity to the border, “sometimes you don’t have time to run to a bomb shelter…You just pray that [the building hit] is not going to be yours.”
Since it was advised not to wear seatbelts in case of explosions, Metullans had to measure the risk of a car crash versus the risk of a missile exploding on every drive. Little buses would travel around with portable ATMs so people could get money for medical supplies.
“I was terrified; I couldn’t believe it was happening. You could hear missiles falling 300 feet away from your house and you didn’t know if one’s going to hit your house. That’s not even to mention the hundreds of thousands of acres hit,” said Zilber. On some occasions, Zilber and her family would watch news broadcasts, see missiles attacking Metulla on live TV, and look out the window to see and hear those exact missiles firsthand.
In her blog, Zilber described what it was like returning home after spending a week and half in Tel Aviv in August. “As the bus was approaching the north, everybody started looking out the windows, trying to determine what has changed, what is ruined, what is burnt…Even the bus driver was slowing down, announcing in the microphone that we should take a look around and assess the damage,” she explained. The Israeli public transportation system gave out free rides with any ID showing a northern address. The buses were so packed that people had to stand for hours, seeing their green landscape and lush woods burnt to the ground.
Even in the fourth week of the semester, Zilber had recurring nightmares, bringing to Buffalo the terror of home. “It feels like my sleep is still restless. I keep dreaming that missiles are hitting my house,” she wrote in a September 22 blog. “This dream comes back in different variations—once I’m in my house and the war is still going on, in another it’s actually a nuclear war and I’m trying to find my way in a huge empty bomb shelter, trying to find my family and friends and can’t seem to.”
Although Israel was faced with a sad and trying situation, Zilber claims the war brought out the best in people. She personally volunteered in the town’s central hall, answering phones for people that needed help or information, and organized camps near Jerusalem for the town’s children to attend.
Many Lebanese were able to flee to Syria or other Arab countries, but Israelis needed to open up homes to each other since refugees had no welcoming country, according to Zilber. Not only did families and friends receive northern Israelis, but strangers also greeted entire families with open arms. Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak even set up a tent village in southern Israel for families that couldn’t afford to flee to safety. The camp held around 5,000 people and provided food, medical attention, sleeping arrangements, and activities for children.
Despite all she’s been through, Zilber asserts that Israel “is and always will be my home” and considers it “the most wonderful place in the world.” She says that life in Israel and the U.S. is similar, aside from the fact that “in Israel, people are more stressed because of the security situation.”
Even if she doesn’t approve of certain groups’ actions, Zilber insists she has no hostilities toward anyone. “In my house, I was raised to believe that it doesn’t matter if you’re Lebanese or Israeli, everyone’s equal,” she said. “Instead of teaching hate against one another, we need to look towards the future.” In fact, Zilber says she grew up around Christian Lebanese natives, since they came to Israel to find employment.
It’s this exact open-mindedness that Zilber hopes to inspire with her blog. Since she’s already captured a worldwide audience, her goal now is to enlighten readers with her candid and heartfelt experiences so they can be better informed when shaping political views.
“If you’re politically involved or even if you form an opinion, make sure it’s based on fact, not what you heard from someone,” said Zilber. “These are people’s lives you’re talking about, and people were hurt on both sides. Don’t rely solely on ideas or concepts you heard somewhere.”
When junior political science major Hassan Shibly decided to spend last summer in Syria, he expected a relaxing vacation consisting of visits to family and friends, traveling the countryside, and studying with Muslim scholars. However, one fateful night changed his plans, and he quickly became engulfed in a devastating, complicated war. After witnessing the entire population of his country unite, he returned to the University at Buffalo with an unrelenting desire to promote peace, and the drive to work nonstop in this pursuit.
Shibly spent the majority of his summer in the capital city of Damascus, although he did manage to move around and see a lot of Syria in his travels. He speaks fondly of the oldest living city in the world, describing the ancient monasteries and rich culture of old Christian and Jewish communities. The atmosphere of the country changed, however, when he was returning home from a pleasant evening at a park and heard on the radio that fighting had erupted between Israel and Lebanon. Soon, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refugees would flock to Syria, and Shibly would see his Arab nation extend brotherhood and welcome their neighbors with open arms.
He summarizes his initial reaction, and the general response of Syrians to the news, as mixed feelings of astonishment, anger, and helplessness. “First, it was shock and complete anger at how this could be happening, especially since we were so close and couldn’t do anything about it,” Shibly said. “People didn’t know what to do; we were scared. We kept hoping it would be a one or two-day thing, and it would be over soon. It wasn’t, and as it dragged on, we were all scared war would break out and involve Syria.”
As the war waged on, Shibly said every Syrian helped in all ways possible. He claims that although countless young Syrian males, himself included, were incensed to the point of wanting to go to Lebanon and help drive ambulances or distribute medicine, religious leaders advised them to aid the incoming refugees and help war efforts on the home front. Inspired by “the refugees that had nothing, and realizing they were the lucky ones because they got out,” Shibly saw the country band together to create a massive aid movement.
“Everyone I knew was either directly or indirectly helping out the refugees. They would share food, housing, clothing, whatever they had. Even the poorest of the poor would give up food to feed the refugees. It came to the point where instead of buying a good meal for their family, many people would buy a little and send away the rest,” said Shibly. He said that any free time that Syrians had was spent either trying to help refugees or watching the news and crying.
Although Damascus was close enough to the border that Syrians could go to the mountaintops and watch the fire and bombings in Lebanon, Shibly refused to take part in viewing, asserting that “it’s not a show.” There were instances when Israel attacked near the Lebanese-Syrian border and he heard the loud crashes. While the situation was frightening, Shibly says that most Syrians were too overcome by sadness to consider fear. “We were scared, but more than being scared for ourselves, we were devastated,” he said.
According to Shibly, the entire country shared the painstaking effects of war as if they had a common heartbeat. “We all became one community. It didn’t matter if you were Christian, Muslim, whatever. You would stop by a shop, hear the radio, and ask how everything was. You would then thank God or grieve with whoever was in there. Taxi drivers always played patriotic music or live news. You felt like the taxi driver was your brother, with the same fear, concern, and worry.” He said that many Muslims would stop in a mosque five times a day to pray—easy, since they were on every street corner—and attend a one-hour lecture at night, which always ended with gathering donations for refugees.
The war hit home for Shibly when one of his family members in Lebanon had to flee to get diabetes medicine. He had run out, and without a new supply, he would die. He passed through Lebanon to Syria with his wife as fast as possible, because as they drove, cars in front and back of them kept getting blown up.
Although the United States and Israel view Hezbollah as a terrorist group, Shibly insists they are a legitimate military group that conducts justified operations and provides valued services for citizens.
“Hezbollah is basically a resistance movement supported by people in Lebanon, both Muslims and Christians. It is not merely a military institution; it provides a lot of social services for people of all different faiths,” said Shibly. “They’re absolutely not a terrorist organization; their targets have always been military targets. They wear uniforms and operate overtly. Under American just war theory, since they have a political base and popular support from the people, any war against them is illegitimate.”
Consequently, Shibly claims Hezbollah did not target Israeli citizens, and did what they could to minimize innocent lives lost.
“Hezbollah chose to attack legitimate military targets. Israel responded by sending F16s, illegal cluster bombs, and Apache helicopters to attack the city of Beirut and the country of Lebanon. They attacked civilians—normal kids, women, and families. They made no distinction between schools, universities, and other institutions. They caused $2 billion worth of damage. It’ll take Lebanon years to rebuild itself—the economy and infrastructure were demolished in a few days,” said Shibly. He cited specific cases where he says Hezbollah purposely refrained from extensive damage, such as avoiding attacks on chemical plants in Haifa and ports where thousands of lives would have been lost.
In addition to donating money and volunteering as much as possible, Shibly took advantage of technology to create awareness. Every night in Syria, for about four or five hours, he would go to the computer café and contact U.S. officials, people in the media, and his family and friends to urge them to act on Lebanon’s behalf. He created a MySpace account, www.myspace.com/ 8404667, “not to find parties or meet girls,” as Shibly says, but to share his perspective and offer the world his point of view. He also took plentiful pictures of Syria for his Facebook account, for people to see “what Syria was like, and see that Syrians are human beings across the ocean like the people of the U.S. and have families like those in the U.S.”
Shibly brought that activism back to America to bring about positive change, whether it’s through his raising money, lobbying Congress, producing TV shows, or updating his MySpace page.
“I have a major responsibility, and if I have free time or am bored, there’s something wrong. I came back to America not for wealth or material goods, but to make a positive impact and to help the weak and oppressed,” he said. “I’ve learned to spend my whole life trying to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. I don’t do it for results—that’s selfish, and results aren’t in my hands. My driving force is the service of others.”
While many would think that a summer assisting war-torn refugees and watching a country where one’s family lives being attacked would cause hostile feelings, Hassan Shibly still has hope for civilization. His deep spiritual background has taught him to keep believing in peace and justice for the world.
“When I think about summer, I recall a lot of great memories. I remember my friends, my family, and the common love, brotherhood, and unity. Even though I remember the frustration of being up all night on the computer, it’s instantly shattered by the humanity that became evident,” said Shibly.