- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2006

BAALBEK, Lebanon — Hezbollah militants continue to maintain a tight guard around a hospital they say is empty, days after Israeli commandos stormed it in a dramatic midnight raid into the heart of the militia’s territory.

The anxious attitude of two men standing guard in the parking lot when a reporter and photographer visited over the weekend simply added to the mystery surrounding Hezbollah’s uses of the building and Israel’s purpose in raiding it.

“You must not stay here,” said the younger one, who called himself only Ali. “You cannot go inside. You must go.”

More Hezbollah guards watched from a distance, making sure the order was obeyed.

Ali insisted the hospital is empty, just as it was before midnight on Tuesday, when the Israelis raided with helicopters and planes.

“The hospital is still closed, except for emergency cases,” he said, adding that there were no patients inside despite the many wounded from Israel’s attack and a long-running gunbattle that left as many as 19 Lebanese dead.

The Israeli Defense Forces took five persons away with them after the raid on the Bar Al-Hikmah hospital, but have not said who or what they were looking for. Press reports speculate that they were searching for a senior Hezbollah official, Sheikh Mohammed Yazbeck, or even the two Israeli soldiers abducted on July 12.

Israel and Hezbollah also argue over who was taken away by the Israelis: Israel says they were Hezbollah operatives, while the militia insists they were just local residents, most of them construction workers.

Equally mysterious was the account of Dr. Akram Rifai, the director of health for Baalbek, who told The Washington Times over the weekend that the hospital was empty when the Israelis attacked, apart from four armed male nurses who “resisted the Israeli solders.”

When pressed, however, he was unable to explain what medical personnel with weapons were doing inside an empty hospital.

Accounts of last week’s fighting also vary, though most agree that it began when nearly a dozen Israeli helicopters and planes roared over Baalbek, dropping bombs and hovering low over its homes.

Some residents say fighters laid down heavy gunfire from buildings surrounding the hospital. But Yussef Ali, owner of a dusty shop near the hospital, said the Israelis dropped bombs on and around the hospital for nearly an hour before he heard Hezbollah’s return fire.

At a Tel Aviv briefing for reporters, Israeli army officials said troops were inside the hospital for six hours, and thoroughly searched the four-story building. They said the planes overhead shot at militants approaching the hospital from surrounding buildings.

There is no question there was a fight. The rear of the hospital showed heavy damage, and much of it is pockmarked with bullets and small mortars. There are burned-out cars in the hospital parking lot, and a field just beyond is burned down to scorched grasses.

The Israeli bombs also struck a nearby garden, where a dozen men were gathered while their wives and children hid in the basement of a nearby home. Five were killed, including four members of the same family.

Residents could not say why the Hezbollah-administered hospital nearly 60 miles from the Israeli border would attract such an attack.

But whatever happened on the night of Aug. 2, their sense of shock and anger has left Hezbollah more influential than ever in this quiet farming region where the militia was born and is the dominant political force.

Dr. Rifai said Hezbollah was already the main provider of health care in the city, and since the Israeli assault began has been the only organization to deliver scarce relief supplies over the bomb-cratered roads.

That effort and the militia’s willingness to confront the Israeli commandos have won over some residents who claim not to have been sympathetic to Hezbollah before.

“Who can understand this?” asked Mirna Ali, 22, who was pinned in the cellar during the overnight attack. “Who can protect us?”

She wandered slowly through the garden near the hospital, taking in the scraps of bloodied clothing amid the ripening squash, figs, pomegranates and tomatoes.

“We rely on Hezbollah, of course, because they are the only ones.”

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