Those under assault voice increasing support of Hezbollah and condemnation of Israel and the United States
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About 300 people gathered in front of Sen. Diane Feinstein's office in downtown San Francisco on July 27 to protest her support for what they — and the citizens of most countries around the world — criticize as unjustified aggression by the Israeli military against Lebanese civilians.
Organizers with the recently formed Break the Siege Coalition had Lebanese and Palestinian experts and eyewitnesses on the telephone lines, hoping to broadcast them to protesters over a sound system, but they were prevented by technical difficulties.
Instead, after listening to a series of speakers — including Todd Chretien, a Green Party candidate challenging Feinstein, and Krissy Keefer, another Green who's vying for Nancy Pelosi's congressional seat — demonstrators marched to Union Square and then the Chronicle — whose coverage the protesters criticize as biased toward Israel. Eight were arrested there for blocking traffic.
Paralleling the organizers' efforts, the Guardian reached out to civilians still in Lebanon to get unfiltered perspectives directly from the ground. What we encountered was profound outrage and unprecedented support for Hezbollah. They say the international community has turned its back on them again.
"The level of destruction is incomprehensible," said Ghassan Mankarem, a pro-democracy and LGBT rights activist experienced in humanitarian relief efforts who is now volunteering with the grassroots Sanayeh Relief Centre in Beirut. "What's happening here is a systematic act of ethnic cleansing."
As of July 30, 620 Lebanese — mostly civilians — had been killed since Israel began its onslaught July 12, according to official Lebanese government figures. That's 12 Lebanese dead for each Israeli killed by Hezbollah rockets and gunfire.
The number of internal refugees was expected to reach one million before this issue of the Guardian went to print, according to Mankarem. Another 220,000 have fled to neighboring countries. Thousands more are trapped in their homes or nearby shelters, too afraid to flee.
The Israelis "are hitting anything they see," reported Mankarem, including caravans of fleeing civilians and even "Red Cross ambulances and UN observers." They've bombed the airport, reduced whole neighborhoods to rubble, targeted seaports, destroyed most major highways, and obliterated power plants — in one case causing an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea that local environmental groups say is the worst ecological disaster in Lebanon's history.
"On the radio, doctors are warning there is no more medicine, no more water, no more space in the hospitals," wrote Raida Hatoum, an organizer with Najdeh, a women's nongovernmental organization that works in Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, in a July 24 e-mail to the Guardian. (Hatoum has no access to a phone). "Burnt and shredded bodies are still on the roads" in southern Lebanon.
The same day Hatoum typed those words, Human Rights Watch condemned Israel for using American "cluster munitions in populated areas." Aid workers on the ground report seeing evidence that Israel has also been using bombs (again, provided or funded by the United States) containing white phosphorus — a chemical agent that burns through the skin, sometimes to the bone, as well as "vacuum" bombs and "bunker busting" bombs containing depleted uranium.
For the first time since World War I, "there's a real fear of people dying of hunger," Mankarem said. Israel has been blocking food and other basic necessities from entering the country and has bombed grain silos as well as Lebanon's main milk production plant, he said.
While Sanayeh struggles to provide food, water, blankets, and medical care to an ever-growing number of refugees, it's also scrambling to address the profound trauma suffered by Lebanese children.
"Ten percent of the refugees are under five years old," Mankarem said, speaking to us by phone from the relief center. "Some of them have seen family members decapitated in front of them. Unfortunately, the position of the United States has been to send more missiles," while vetoing United Nations Security Council calls for an immediate cease-fire. "People here are looking to the rest of the world and asking, why aren't they doing anything about this?"
It's the kind of scenario that gave rise to Hezbollah in the first place. And today it's resulting in a widespread surge of support for the group. A whopping 87 percent of Lebanese — including, significantly, 80 percent of the Christians and Druze — support the resistance to Israel (synonymous with Hezbollah), according to a nationwide poll conducted by the Beirut Center for Research and Information. And that was before an Israeli bomb killed more than 60 civilians — including 37 children — as they slept in a bomb shelter in Qana.
"Had Israel not invaded Lebanon in 1982, there would be no Hezbollah," said academic Rania Masri, a blogger and regular contributor to www.electroniclebanon.net . "Had the international community enforced UN resolution 425 [demanding Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon], there'd be no Hezbollah. Had the international community [acted more decisively during] Israel's massive assaults on Lebanon in 1993 and 1996, there would be no Hezbollah.... This is the history that people need to understand. It didn't begin on July 12 with Hezbollah's capture of the two Israeli soldiers."
Another fact not widely understood in the United States is that Hezbollah isn't simply a militia or terrorist group: in many impoverished, largely Shiite areas — particularly in southern Lebanon and in the eastern Lebanese Bekaa valley — Hezbollah has provided schools, health care, and basic necessities where the central government failed to do so.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to draw clear distinctions between Hezbollah and Lebanon's "legitimate" government early in the conflict. But Hezbollah members are part of that government, and the two entities have each sought a cease-fire that the United States and Israel have rejected, claiming that Hezbollah must disarm.
"We get lectured all the time about democracy," Mankarem said. "But whenever we make a democratic choice, we get punished."
Many Lebanese insist they too have the right to defend themselves. And they view American collaboration as the result of a deep-seated racism that presumes that Arabs simply aren't as valuable as Israelis.
Regardless of the reasons for the assault, one thing is certain: it is resulting in a sharp spike in anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment, which isn't making either country safer.
"Even if Israel and the US were to kill every member of Hezbollah, there'd be people to replace them," Masri warned. "You cannot stop a movement for liberation." SFBG