Siege of Tyre brings back nightmares

TYRE — The artillery fire echoing at the city gates of this south Lebanese port has revived barely buried memories for its people, as Israeli troops battle Hizbollah fighters in the surrounding hills.

Cut off from the rest of their country by the Israeli offensive, those inhabitants of Tyre who have not fled north now face a repeat of the past.

Israeli troops last powered into the city in 1982, as the Jewish state invaded civil war-ravaged Lebanon to try to break the Palestine Liberation Organisation, whose fighters were ensconced in the country’s refugee camps.

The offensive marked an escalation in Lebanon’s civil war, which had begun in 1975 and was to end only in 1990.

“People here remember everything, and of course they make comparisons,” said Hassan Dubuk, a member of Tyre’s city council.

Thousands have fled the city since Israel launched its offensive in Lebanon after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a border raid on July 12. The south, which is a stronghold of the Shiite movement, has faced the fiercest fighting.

Dubuk, an engineer by profession, has set up an improvised pharmacy in his city hall office to hand out medical supplies to people who have been unable to escape.

He recalled the bombardments and the nights he spent in cellars back in June 1982, as Israeli troops attacked the Palestinian camps nearby.

“My city was destroyed,” he said. After the fighting ended, a calm of sorts returned to Tyre. “The Israelis said to us: ‘Go about your business.’ And that’s what we did,” said the Maronite Archbishop of Tyre, Nabil Haj. “There was a tacit acceptance of the occupier,” he said. “We said to ourselves: ‘It’s the end of the war, the fedayyin (Palestinian fighters) are going to leave.'” Many south Lebanese had gradually run out of sympathy for the Palestinian fighters, who had created a state within a state and drawn down the wrath of Israel on their hosts.

Hotowner Raymond Salah looked back at the occupation.

“At the beginning, the Israelis were completely fine. The border was open. Business was booming,” he said.

Dubuk recalled that the Israelis even sold everything needed to rebuild the damaged city — at a price.

Then came November 4, 1983. A massive explosion rocked the city as a ten-storey building collapsed. The Israelis pulled 60 bodies from the rubble of what had been their headquarters.

“Nobody knew what had happened,” said Archbishop Haj. Salah commented: “I knew that building. I built it.” “The Israelis came to find me right away. They wanted to know if I had the plans, to help their rescue teams,” Salah added.

The construction permit had been for a four-storey block, said Salah, who at 71 still looks fresh-faced. Another six floors were later added.

“But the foundations were solid, and nobody believed the official Israeli version that it was an accident,” said Salah. The witnesses told a different story.

One of them, Khalil Bassun, died two years ago, but was Raymond’s friend and had often told him how he had seen a Peugeot van drive into the building’s garage just moments before the blast.

The Israelis had suffered a new kind of attack: A suicide bombing, like the blasts which had killed 241 US and 58 French peacekeepers in Beirut only 11 days earlier.

“After that, the Israelis changed,” said Salah.

“It was a turning point. They started to be afraid.” Archbishop Haj recalled the difference: “Relations became tense. The Israelis began their reprisals, and they made our life impossible.” Dubuk said: “Israeli agents were everywhere. The Israeli army controlled the city during the day, but at nightfall the resistance took over.” It was another two years before the Israelis quit Tyre: They pulled out on April 29, 1985.

But they stayed elsewhere in south Lebanon for another 15 years, and the country remained locked in a spiral of violence from which it only emerged in 2000.

The battle raging in the hills above Tyre is painful reminder of the past and can only mean bad news for the city, Salah said.

“Lebanon is the laboratory of the world, and Tyre is the laboratory of Lebanon,” said Salah.

“This time, it’s the death blow,” he sighed.

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