Wednesday, July 26, 2006

BEIRUT — Every morning, visiting journalists gather at a bombed-out roadside cafe in southern Beirut to be escorted by Hezbollah operatives through a bewildering wasteland that used to house 50,000 people.

Mountains of rubble that once were shops and apartment buildings — including the home of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah — line the streets of the Dahiyah neighborhood. This was also the headquarters of Hezbollah’s Al Manar television, which is now broadcasting from a secret location.

A week after Israeli F-16s dropped 23 tons of explosives on the neighborhood — which was hit by another 20 Israeli rockets late yesterday — the ruins have become a familiar backdrop for photographers and television cameras.

The photogenic skeletons of nine-story apartment buildings strung with dangling electrical wires have given the world the image of a shattered city, and Hezbollah is making the most of it.

Indeed, across the Hezbollah-dominated Shi’ite regions of southern Lebanon, whole villages have been flattened, almost 400 people killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced.

But just north of Beirut, business remains strong in the lush resorts of the nearby Shouf Mountains. Nightclubs in the Christian suburb of Jounieh still rock to ‘80s disco and ‘90s Eurobeat, and Lebanese who weathered the country’s horrific 15-year civil war still sip arrack and eat hummus late into the night.

Beirut, once the jewel of the Middle East, is wobbling back to its feet even as the Israeli army and air force pulverize its southern region.

In the Hamra area, home to students and the campus of the prestigious American University of Beirut, more shops reopen and traffic grows heavier by the day. Hotels that emptied at the beginning of Israel’s assault on July 12 are raising rates again, even though most of the guests are foreign journalists.

In the Achrafiyeh neighborhood, which is predominantly Christian and Sunni, streets are peaceful and increasingly busy. The fabled night life, with its restaurants and nightclubs, is likely to pick up again by the weekend.

But in the glamorously rebuilt city center, shops selling luxury brands are not just closed, but swept clean. Fearing air strikes, the owners have taken the diamonds out of Cartier and the speakers from Bang & Olufsen. Even the mannequins have been removed for safekeeping.

“We normally have 40 or 50 customers in a morning,” said the perfumed sales clerk at an upscale cosmetics shop. “Today, only eight.” Every store that is open is running sales of 50 percent and more.

The ruined streets of Dahiyah are about 15 miles from Beirut’s business center, but they feel like another planet.

The apartment buildings still standing are mostly evacuated, and the streets are empty of children. The only locals visible when three dozen journalists visited yesterday were the young Hezbollah guards on their scooters and a single man sweeping up glass.

“The Israelis bombed civilians … because they have run out of targets and the resistance is still strong,” said Hossein Naboulsi, the de facto spokesman for Hezbollah.

The guards shoo photographers off the rubble and back onto the street, where twisted metal, chunks of fallen concrete and the detritus of broken lives create a dangerous carpet.

Mr. Naboulsi said he has no idea how many residents have been killed in the air strikes, nor will anyone until all the rubble is carted off and the grim search mission undertaken. He said most residents were evacuated before the explosions, but that some obviously chose to remain.

Shortly before noon yesterday, two young men appeared out of nowhere, carrying or dragging the dead weight of plastic bags containing the salvage of their lives. Their appearance did not seem to be scripted, which is why they were not permitted to talk to the reporters.

Exasperated Hezbollah operatives tried to disperse the camera crews, and finally helped the two men carry off their load.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide