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Sun 20 Aug 2006 04:00 AM

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Professional Vandals

What the IDF did in the last two hours of the war was sickening. Vandalism is not a new phenomenon. Most of us have witnessed it at some time in our lives. During my 25 years of living in London, I saw it all too often.

|~||~||~|What the IDF did in the last two hours of the war was sickening.Vandalism is not a new phenomenon. Most of us have witnessed it at some time in our lives. During my 25 years of living in London, I saw it all too often. And always, it had the same root causes: drunken thugs, jealous of those who have worked hard for a better life that they cannot have – so they seek to obliterate it. Whether it’s smashing the windows of a Jaguar, throwing a brick through the front room of a new home, scribbling graffiti on freshly painted walls, or just a roaring rampage of destruction in the heart of a city – vandals are vandals.

But in the final hours of the conflict in Lebanon, the world saw a brand new, and even uglier, phenomenon: state vandalism. The Israeli army’s final act in this needless war was to wreak utter devastation on the homes, livelihoods and infrastructure of innocent people.

It was a disgraceful and sickening act. For all its dubious claims to be fighting the war on terror, the Israeli Defence Force – with the full support of the Israeli government – finally showed its true colours: professional thugs, incandescent with rage that their military operation had failed. Pure vandals. Nothing more, nothing less.

It was Mishal Kanoo, writing in this magazine four weeks ago, who first raised the suggestion that this war actually had nothing to do with attempting to rescue two soldiers. It was, Kanoo said, borne at out of Israel’s extreme jealousy at the economic and cultural success its neighbour was enjoying. Something Israel didn’t have. And like all vandals, what you don’t have or can’t get, you destroy.

Before the war, Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. Under the late Rafik Hariri, it had been rebuilt to a fabulous level and quality. Over 100,000 Westerners had chosen to make it their home.

Tourism was close to the five million visitors a year mark, and the city was developing into a natural choice to host both glamorous showbiz events and money-spinning financial conferences. Beirut Port had taught Haifa Port several lessons on productivity. And the Beirut I meeting (a follow-up to the Paris 1 meeting) had been scheduled to discuss the reduction of Lebanon’s US$40 billion public debt burden.

I now agree with Mishal Kanoo that Israel simply couldn’t accept this astonishing Arab success on its very doorstep. And proof of that came in the final two hours of the conflict, between 7am and 9am Lebanese time. During that period, it is estimated 2,000 homes were destroyed (nearly a third of the total amount in the war).

Over 30 roads and bridges were blitzed. Entire villages in Southern Lebanon were torched and over 200 businesses – many no more than small tourist shops built up over decades – were hit by precision-guided Israeli missiles.

Mobile telephone masts, petrol stations, water tanks, electricity pylons, sewage systems and even farms were reduced to rubble.

Call me ignorant, but I find it hard to believe that in the final two hours of the war, thousands of Hezbollah fighters, armed with Katusha rockets, jumped into the nearest water tank they could find.

The total cost of this devastation is well over the US$30 billion mark. But, as I explained last week, the ultimate cost may be even greater.

Who will seriously want to take a skiing holiday in the mountains of Beirut this year? Does the ski lift even still exist? I doubt it. Who will still want to invest in property in Lebanon? Who will still want to make the city their new home? Who will still want to stroll along the corniche on a cool summer’s evening?

It may take a year for Beirut to be rebuilt, but the scars will take several more years to heal. The economic fall out, much caused from those two hours, may last even longer. The beautiful city, along with its beautiful people, has suffered the greatest act of state vandalism ever seen. The IDF claimed before the war that it was acting in the interests of the people of Lebanon. It claimed to be championing the causes of freedom and democracy. It claimed to be fighting for the right to live in peace.

In reality, it has shown itself to be no better than the drunken thugs that smash shop windows every night.||**||

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