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Former safe havens in Beirut under attack

Israeli attacks on Beirut escalated on Friday as airstrikes destroyed four key bridges that were vital to Lebanon’s infrastructure and transport routes.  NBC News’ Martin Savidge reports from Beirut.
Fishing boats lie wrecked Friday at the port of the southern Beirut suburb of Ouzai, Lebanon, after an Israeli airstrike. About 300 boats were destroyed. Why Israeli forces targeted the boats is unknown.
Fishing boats lie wrecked Friday at the port of the southern Beirut suburb of Ouzai, Lebanon, after an Israeli airstrike. About 300 boats were destroyed. Why Israeli forces targeted the boats is unknown.Lefteris Pitarakis / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Israeli attacks on Lebanon escalated Friday as airstrikes destroyed four key bridges that were vital to Lebanon’s infrastructure and Christian neighborhoods that had formerly been seen as safe havens were caught in the crossfire. NBC News’ Martin Savidge reports from Beirut on the latest barrage of attacks.

There are reports of attacks on Christian neighborhoods and major roads and bridges in Beirut on Friday. What is going on with these heightened attacks?

It seems to show that there is an expansion of the air war on the part of the Israelis into the northern part of the nation. What is catching some people off guard is that the targets of these attacks are traditionally Christian areas.

Those were always thought to be safe and out of harm’s way from the Israeli airstrikes because they don’t support Hezbollah. But, it just so happens that the Christian areas are in the same neighborhoods as a number of bridges that are a vital part of the infrastructure of Lebanon.

Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud is claiming that Israel is waging a war of starvation — that by shutting off what was a major supply route for relief aid to come in, that now things will really get desperate in Lebanon.

Israel would counter and say look — we are doing everything we can to make sure that no further rockets or weapons are being brought in to resupply Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

What is the situation like in downtown Beirut? Prior to these attacks, it seemed like in parts of Beirut life was going on as usual.

There are striking contrasts in the neighborhoods and suburbs that make up Beirut. 

You go through eastern, northern and western areas of Beirut, and it appears to be life pretty much as normal.

Then you go into the southern suburbs — the ones that have been targeted over and over again — and it’s a much different story. It’s almost a ghost town. Hardly anybody lives there now.

If anything, people come in briefly during the day and then they leave as soon as night begins to fall because that’s generally when the airstrikes happen. So the southern suburbs are just deserted.

In the rest of Beirut, even a few days ago things seemed pretty busy. But, now, even busy streets are getting quieter. You notice that stores that were open yesterday are now closed today. Is that a signal that they are not getting supplies and therefore can’t stay open? Or is it that they are afraid of attacks? We’re not sure at this point.

Getting around is getting increasingly difficult because fuel is harder to find. Fuel was primarily brought in by ship. But there is an Israeli naval blockade that has greatly restricted the flow of goods, and specifically fuel, into Lebanon.

People were using overland routes, but after last night’s strikes on major roads, slowly but surely Lebanon’s connections to the outside world are being diminished. And it’s not just transportation, but communications as well. There were some significant fiber optic and communication lines that went down when the bridges went down.

What about the attacks on the Christian neighborhoods that had previously been a safe haven?

The attacks on the suburbs around Beirut are upsetting to people in many ways here. There are many who feel like they don’t have a part in this battle and yet they are slowly being drawn into it — like the Christians, of course.

Other groups, like the Druse along the border with Syria where there have been strikes, also feel like they are suffering for something that they have nothing to do with. So, in some ways, there is a feeling among groups that weren’t a part of this conflict, but when they see these strikes, they are turning more and more against Israel.

They are feeling at least some sympathy toward Hezbollah because they are at least Lebanese. It’s a heart and minds issue.

Did you see and hear the barrage of attacks?

You are awakened by the bombing. It’s hard not to be. I first heard them at about 3:20 a.m. last night. It just so happened that the way my room faces, I was staring at an area that Israeli warplanes struck repeatedly for at least an hour. I counted at least 18 airstrikes.

You don’t see the aircraft but hear them rocketing as they dive, and then you see the explosion. It’s surreal to be sitting on the balcony of a hotel, sort of a tourist monitoring a war that is just three miles away.

Did you visit the areas that were struck?

This morning we drove to the areas that had been struck. It was in a mostly Shiite neighborhood that is sympathetic to Hezbollah.

When you go to these areas, you must meet with some sort of Hezbollah official to get permission to go on what are essentially public streets. In this case, they claimed that the area that was bombed was a Lebanese military base. There may have been a guard post, but what we saw that  was struck was a fishing port. There seemed to be about 300 small outboard fishing boats — most of which were in ruins — burned, blasted, and sunken boats.

The fishermen had not been using the boats since the conflict began because with Israel’s naval blockade it’s just too dangerous to go out on the water. But still, they saw their livelihood ruined over night.

There was one young man I spoke to, I think he was about 25 years old. As he pointed to his boat that was just sunk with the bow pointing out of the water, all he could say was “Why? Why? Why did they destroy my boat?”  He said he was not part of Hezbollah and has nothing to do with Hezbollah, and that the fishing boats had nothing to do with Hezbollah.

The truth is, I don’t know whether the ports serve some sort of clandestine purpose beyond fishing. Or is it that anything that strikes at the livelihood of Hezbollah, even something providing food, is a target of Israel’s campaign? I don’t know. You are left scratching your head wondering why 300 fishing boats were turned to splinters.

We also visited a factory about three miles away from the city that was also struck by Israeli airstrikes. It’s basically now a two-story crater in the ground. It’s hard to imagine what the building was because now it’s just a hole in the ground.

I met a gentlemen there who said he was the attorney for the company. The company was called the Electra Company for Industry and Trading. The attorney claimed that they made electrical fuse boxes. Of course, you can also question if there were other applications that we don’t know about.

The company apparently had about 45 employees. It had not been operating for about two weeks because of the bombing threats in the southern suburbs. The brother of the owner claimed that they had just invested $500,000 into new machinery before the war broke out. And now everything is just a smoking crater. It’s the same story again.

They tell you that they don’t know why they were targeted and that they don’t understand it.

Your heart wants to believe them, but there is also the cynic that thinks, why would this place be targeted for no apparent reason? Perhaps there is something more here that I am not being told.

That is the quandary in all of the places that you visit. Your heart goes out to those suffering, and your mind wonders, is there more here that I just don’t know?

This is as much a public relations war as it is a war of bullets and bombs. And in this case, the high ground goes to whoever can appear to be morally right or suffering the most. Hezbollah is well aware of that. They have public relations people who routinely meet with the media — just as the Israeli Defense Forces have their public affairs officers with a similar job. 

The role of the journalist is always to try to discern the truth from the spin or someone’s point of view. It’s a little more difficult when lives are at stake and bombs are falling because there is the fog of war as well.

Martin Savidge is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Beirut, Lebanon.