Israeli Offensive Targeting Relief Efforts?

Ambulances appear to be have become a target of the Israeli military in its quest to oust Hezbollah from southern Lebanon.

The Lebanese Red Crescent Society has reported five “security incidents” since the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah earlier this month sparked a large-scale Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon.

At least 10 ambulances have been hit in Israeli air strikes, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen civilian passengers – many on their way to the hospital.

The most recent incident occurred Sunday July 23, in a village in southern Lebanon. According to the Lebanese Red Crescent Society, two of its ambulances were struck by munitions, although both vehicles were clearly marked by the medical emblem and flashing lights that were visible at a great distance.

“Around 11 o’clock at night, two ambulances of the Lebanese Red Cross were coming from two different villages to a safe-point,” the International Red Cross/Red Crescent’s Hicham Hassan told OneWorld from Beirut. “One of them was going to deliver three injured people to another to save time. When they stopped to transfer the injured, they were hit by a projectile.”

Nine people, including six Red Cross volunteers, were wounded, Hassan said. “They were stuck there for about one hour. After making contact with the Israeli authorities, we were able to make arrangements to rescue all the injured, including the Lebanese Red Cross volunteers.”

“Mostly the people the Lebanese Red Cross are picking up are civilians,” Hassan said.  Since the beginning of the crisis, he said, Lebanese Red Cross ambulances have taken 333 wounded people to hospitals and removed 77 dead. Red Cross vehicles have also evacuated 1,746 emergency cases.

During any war, it is always regular people who suffer the most. But is it too much to ask that they not get shot on the way to the hospital?

And it’s not just ambulances. Humanitarian aid groups say the nature of the Israeli offensive has impeded other types of relief work as well.

"Israeli forces have declared that all trucks and large transport vehicles are legitimate targets for air and missile attacks," explained Adib Faris, security manager for Catholic Relief Services in Beirut. “So it’s difficult to find people willing to drive the trucks, and we’re limited in the amount of food we can get to places where the situation is very dire.”

In Beirut itself, Catholic Relief Services reports the atmosphere is tense but still peaceful. Thousands of internal refugees are receiving temporary shelter in schools, mosques, and churches.

All together, an estimated 600,000 Lebanese have left their homes. Most of them have fled toward the relative safety of northern Lebanon. About 100,000 have sought refuge in Syria.

In both areas, aid agencies complain, their efforts to help the population are hamstrung by military and political considerations.

“Just the movement of humanitarian personnel is made difficult by the closing of the port and the airport, so just staffing up will be difficult,” said Jim Bishop of InterAction, a consortium of 160 U.S.-based nonprofit organizations.

On a trip to Beirut Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a $30 million American aid package for Lebanon.  Like other humanitarian workers, InterAction’s Bishop praised Rice, but said key questions remained unanswered: “When is it going to arrive in Lebanon and how will it be distributed in the absence of safe passage arrangements?” he asked.

Across the border in Syria, American aid agencies face another hurdle in caring for an estimated 100,000 Lebanese refugees. Syria is on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist-sponsors, so any organization wishing to do business there must get special permission. “Some agencies have applied for special humanitarian licenses, but so far they have not been granted,” Bishop said.