Israel-Hezbollah Conflict Expands to Lebanese Christian Heartland

The expansion of Israel’s offense against Hezbollah has led to airstrikes targeting bridges in the Christian heartland north of Beirut on Friday.

“This is not Hezbollah Land,” mourned a Christian woman as she witnessed a bridge near her house north of Beirut destroyed, according to Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). “Lebanon is not for Hezbollah.”

For the first time, missiles hit Lebanon’s Christian center, leaving five civilians dead and 19 wounded in the affluent Christian district of Jounieh north of the capital, reported The Associated Press. Jounieh is a residential seaside area with large hotels, beaches and restaurants. According to AP, Israel’s attack in the region threatens Christian areas where Hezbollah has no support or presence.

“People call this area the Monte Carlo of the Middle East…so this is definitely not a Hezbollah military base,” Joseph Semaha, a hotel owner in the area, told DPA.

Since fighting began July 12, Israel has focused attacks on south Beirut, a predominantly Shiite Muslim area mainly controlled by Hezbollah guerillas. The early Friday offense marked the first time Israeli’s forces hit Beirut proper.

Israel has destroyed four bridges on the main north-south coastal highway linking Beirut to Syria and used naval blockade and other airstrikes to close off other access points, reported AP. The four bridges were the last remaining escape route for Lebanese to Syria.

Prior to the Friday strikes, Hezbollah was accused of using Christian villages in southern Lebanon to shield its military operations against Israel. According to a report by Christian Solidarity International (CSI) on Tuesday, southern Lebanese Christian villages such as Ain Ebel, Rmeish, Alma Alshaab, and others are used by Hezbollah militants to launch missile attacks.

“Hezbollah is repeating the same pattern that it practiced against Israel in 1996,” said former South Lebanese Army commander, Col. Charbel Barkat, in the CSI report. “Hezbollah is hiding among civilian populations and launching attacks behind human shields.”

Hezbollah has been the ruling power in the south since Israel withdrew from Lebanon six years ago. According to CSI, Christians have suffered under Hezbollah rule, forced to pay taxes for basic government services, such as road repair, that are not provided. Contrarily, Shiite villages supportive of Hezbollah do not pay taxes and receive infrastructure development and new residential and business construction, reported CSI.

President of the World Maronite Union, Sami El-Khoury, said reports on Christian support for Hezbollah is misleading. “Contrary to Western press reports, indicating high percentages of Christian support for Hezbollah, 90 percent of Christians, 80 percent of Sunni and 40 percent of Shiites in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah,” he said.

“Hezbollah is the issue,” said the Rev. Dr. Keith Roderick, Washington representative of CSI and secretary general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights. “A misrepresentation of the position of most Lebanese Christians is underway.”

Thus far, a t least 530 Lebanese have been killed, including 454 civilians, 26 Lebanese soldiers, and at least 50 Hezbollah guerrillas, AP reported. Some 1 million people – a quarter of Lebanon’s population – are displaced said Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

In Israel, 68 Israelis have been killed – 41 soldiers and 27 civilians – with more than 300,000 Israelis in the north displaced.