The United Nations flag flew at half-staff Monday outside the organization’s mostly abandoned building in downtown Beirut. The scene was not as tranquil Sunday, when thousands gathered there to protest the killing of 54 Lebanese civilians in an Israeli air strike at Qana. “Resistance, Resistance,” the protestors chanted, and a few of them, armed with clubs and tools picked up from nearby construction sites, attacked the building until the crowd was calmed by Muslim clerics. The Lebanese Army watched helplessly. By contrast, the turnout was tiny later that night at a peaceful candle light vigil in Martyr’s Square. Anger is the order of the day.
The Israeli military campaign that Lebanese officials say has so far killed at least 750 people and wounded over 3,000 had already united most Lebanese behind Hizballah, according to polls. And the massacre at Qana may have sealed the bond. “Every house being destroyed is our house, every dead hero is our brother, every kid being killed by an American bomb is our kid,” said Dr. Naya Izzaldine, 40, a pathologist from West Beirut and a Sunni Muslim. On Monday, the airwaves are already filled with songs about Qana and someone with access to a huge color printer produced a super-sized poster depicting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with bloody fangs, and hung it from a highway overpass in the center of town. Offices are shut. Shops are closed. Beirut mourns.
The government sits in the palatial Grand Serail and discusses plans for a cease-fire. “The Americans are listening to us,” said one official. But the 48-hour halt to Israeli’s air campaign announced by Rice from Jerusalem after the disaster at Qana hasn’t stopped bombs falling. There were air strikes in the south. And if feelings are too raw for Rice to visit Beirut — Lebanese leaders made clear Sunday that there was no point in her making her scheduled visit to the city Monday — the vacuum left by America is already being filled by its rivals for influence in the region. The French foreign minister Phillipe Doust-Blazy showed up in Beirut Monday with a phalanx of bodyguards and promises of humanitarian aid. The Syrians, forced out of Lebanon only a year ago, are squirming their way back with oil supplies and electricity. Iran’s foreign minister arrives today.
Meanwhile, the religious balance of Beirut is shifting. Neighborhoods in the swish Christian side of the city have become Gucci ghost towns as their owners head for summer homes in the hills. In Muslim West Beirut, the streets are doubled parked with out-of-town cars, and there are more hijabs than high heels on Hamra street.
Some 30,000 people took advantage of Monday’s lull to flee the war zone and make their way north. They bring with them their country ways and their rage. “These children, they won’t just grow up to fight Israel, they’ll fight America too,” said a young mother just arrived by taxi from Bint Jbeil district, scene of some of the war’s heaviest ground fighting. One of her cousins, a Hizballah fighter, had been killed by the Israelis in nearby Maroun al-Ras.
In Harat Hreik, Hizballah’s stronghold in south Beirut, the fighters in black are back in force after two weeks of hiding in bunkers. They patrol the neighborhood on scooters like a mini-motocross militia, separating the would-be looters from families who have returned to inspect the damage. Suddenly, the battered blocks echo with celebratory gunfire as the rumor spreads that a Hizballah missile has hit an Israeli warship in Tyre. Fearing a retaliatory strike, the families leave, and so do we.