'They were only civilians': shock in Lebanon's Nabatieh after Israel's air strikes

Despatch: Attack on the town was the bloodiest day for civilians in the country since the latest war began at the border

A banner criticising the US hangs on the side of a building damaged by an Israeli air strike, in Nabatieh, in the south of Lebanon. AFP
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For the Berjaoui family, it was a normal day – as normal as it could be with a war raging only a few kilometres away from their house in Nabatieh, in the south of Lebanon.

Hussein and his wife, Amal, had invited seven of their family members for dinner.

Lebanon's southern border has witnessed intense fighting since October 8, when Iran-backed Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, opened a second front against Israel to divert its forces from their onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

Until recently, Nabatieh had been spared the violence.

The city, located relatively far from the border, is theoretically outside an area where unwritten rules of engagement between the two sworn enemies apply.

Both sides have tried to limit escalation amid on-and-off clashes over the years, since a devastating, month-long war in 2006 that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon.

But the rules have been loosely respected lately.

At about 9pm, as the family was sitting around the table, several Israeli air strikes struck the building, killing seven family members.

Only the son-in-law, Ali Amer, and his three-year-old son, Hussein, survived. A viral video shows a young boy covered in blood being rescued from the rubble at night.

“They were civilians. Hussein was a mechanic. If anything, he was scared of the bombs. I didn't expect their house to be targeted, but I'm not surprised at all, considering what Israel is doing in Gaza, targeting hospitals and schools,” said a family member who declined to give his name.

The man was among a group of people gathered to watch the rescue efforts on Thursday evening, hours after the tragedy happened, searching for bodies in the rubble of the partially destroyed building. At the back of the building, the contents of several apartments were scattered across the muddy ground.

Israel said it struck a “Hezbollah military structure" in Nabatieh that night and killed a number of Hezbollah fighters, including a commander in the group's elite Radwan Force, Ali Mohammed Debs and his deputy.

Hezbollah on Thursday confirmed the deaths of three of its fighters, including Mr Debs, without giving their ranks.

It did not comment on the killing of the family in the strike on Wednesday.

Bloodiest day for civilians

That day, at least 10 civilians were killed, including the Berjaoui family in Nabatieh, and a mother and her two children in Sawaneh, in separate Israeli air strikes across Lebanon.

This was the bloodiest day for civilians in Lebanon since the war started, marking a serious escalation in terms of the number of civilians killed and injured and the depth of the strikes within Lebanon, reaching as far as 35km from the border.

Cross-border violence has claimed the lives of at least 254 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters, but also 40 civilians, according to an AFP tally. On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

“The recent rise in civilian killings in south Lebanon is extremely worrying,” Ramzi Kais, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The National.

Wednesday’s attack was Israel’s retaliation after a barrage of rockets claimed to have been fired by Hezbollah hit the northern Israeli town of Sefad, killing a female soldier and injuring several.

The attack was described by Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir as “a declaration of war”.

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the escalation on Thursday.

“At a time where we are insisting on calm and are calling on all sides to not escalate, we find the Israeli enemy extending its aggression,” his office quoted him as saying.

Fears of full-scale war

Fears of a full-scale war are at an all-time high after Wednesday.

The Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant said that his country could bomb any part of Lebanese territory, whether it be “20km” or “50km” from the border, “in Beirut or anywhere else”.

“But the escalation is still controlled," political analyst Joseph Daher told The National.

This is mainly because the "the US has not given its green light for Israel to start an offensive in Lebanon,” Mr Daher explained.

Israel has threatened several times to launch a military operation in Lebanon if its demand for the withdrawal of Hezbollah's elite forces 30km from the border is not met.

Hezbollah has said it will not negotiate over anything as long as the war in Gaza is continuing, while making it clear that it does not want to engage in a full-scale war with Israel.

Yet, the militant group feels the need to retaliate without providing Israel a case for expanding the war.

“What happened was premeditated. If Israel only wanted to target the fighters, it could have avoided civilians,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his Friday speech.

The first retaliation on Thursday at the Kiryat Shmona barracks was only “a first response”, he added.

“The enemy will pay the price for the deaths of our women and children killed in recent days”.

‘They died as martyrs’

At the scene, people expressed their full confidence in Hezbollah, which holds sway in the south of Lebanon.

They said that here, in a region that was under Israeli occupation until 2000, locals are used to losing loved ones to Israel's attacks, throughout decades marked by wars and massacres.

“Locals in Nabatieh have nourished the soil with their blood,” said a neighbour. “They want to scare us, but they're the ones who should be afraid.”

“They died as martyrs, for the resistance,” added another family member.

A couple of minutes later, a car passed by the scene. A woman was wailing through the windows.

“It's probably a family member,” said one man.

The crowd watched her drive away as her cries gradually faded into the distance.

Updated: February 19, 2024, 12:27 PM