Beirut Reacts to Israeli Army's Advance

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Melissa Block talks with Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. Shadid is in Beirut and talks about the reaction in Lebanon to the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanese border. It started with the Hezbollah kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in an effort to arrange a swap for prisoners in Israel. The Israeli military has moved into South Lebanon in response.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Anthony Shadid, of The Washington Post, is in Beirut. And, Anthony, tell us first what you've seen of the targets that were hit in and around the capital today.

Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (Reporter, The Washington Post): There were three strikes so far in Beirut. There was a strike on the Hezbollah TV station in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which is basically a stronghold of the movement. The damage didn't seem to be all that dramatic. Windows were broken, but the building itself was still intact.

More dramatic was the attack on the airport, which happened this morning when runways were struck. It closed the airport, sending planes to Cyprus.

And another attack happened this evening. Television was showing footage of billowing smoke and flames coming from what appeared to be a fuel tank that had been struck by Israeli jets.

The airport was, I think, a psychological blow to a lot of Lebanese here who were surprised by the attack on it. It represented to many a symbol of Lebanon's reconstruction after the civil war. And the prospect of the airport being closed sent, you know, some people trying to find other ways out of the country, either on the road to Damascus or to Cyprus, where flights were leaving.

BLOCK: And as we've heard, a number of roads and bridges also were bombed. As you've made you way around the country today, what effects of those attacks have you seen?

Mr. SHADID: You know, southern Lebanon's effectively cut off from the rest of the country at this point. Most of the bridges in southern Lebanon have been destroyed, sometimes hit on several occasions. You are starting to see residents fleeing southern Lebanon in Damour, where I was this morning, where bridges were destroyed, people were carrying suitcases, bags, burlap sacks with their goods and clothes stuffed in them, often walking by foot and trying to catch minibuses that were ferrying passengers to Beirut.

The road as well to Damascus has a lot of heavy traffic right now. And you're already seeing signs of a siege, or at least a notion of a siege, which is probably more psychological than real at this point. But there are lines wrapping around gas stations. People are stocking up on food. I talked to a couple of young mothers who were buying diapers and milk, fearful that this -and I think this is the sense of a lot of people here in Lebanon - that this is only the beginning and that these attacks may go on for quite a while.

BLOCK: There were two large families that were killed in the Israeli attacks. Did you talk to anyone where those families were hit?

Mr. SHADID: Well, I met a few passengers who were leaving that area from southern Lebanon this morning and I think there is a fear among some of the southern Lebanese that civilians aren't going to escape the Israeli attacks. These passengers explicitly told me they were fleeing because they feared that more civilians were going to die. Cameramen who came back from the village have footage; actually the footage was so graphic it wasn't broadcast, but one showed a nine-month-old child who had been dismembered and charred in the bombing. From what we understand from people leaving from there, it's a pretty grim situation in southern Lebanon right now.

BLOCK: I want to ask you a question that I asked yesterday to an editor in Beirut, the question being will the Lebanese ultimately, if not now, ultimately hold Hezbollah responsible? In other words, could there be a backlash for what's happened here?

Mr. SHADID: I think that's going to be a really interesting dynamic to watch as this unfolds. There's no question there are deep, deep divisions within the Lebanese government over Hezbollah's arms, and you are seeing pressure mount within the government to somehow negotiate an end to Hezbollah's arms.

Now how you negotiate that end is very difficult. Hezbollah has, in effect, a veto in Lebanese politics because it claims representation of the country's single largest community, which are Shiite Muslims. Hezbollah has made it very clear that it doesn't plan on disarming. And when you talk to politicians, they don't really see how that's going to come about, how Hezbollah is going to disarm. I think at this point you're seeing both critics and allies of Hezbollah calling the Israeli attacks disproportionate or - I guess disproportionate would be the right word.

But you are also seeing a lot of people, and especially people who are not very fond of Hezbollah, people who are not from the Shiite Muslim sect, complaining that Hezbollah made a decision on its own to drag the country into war and it's a war that's unwinnable and certainly a war that the government neither chose nor wants to fight.

BLOCK: Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid speaking with us from Beirut. Anthony, thanks very much.

Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.

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