AP Blogs New Battle in the MidEast

By: E&P Staff

Besides providing numerous and lengthy full dispatches on the current conflict in the Middle East, Associated Press reporters are also filing informal and briefer reports that AP is distributing as a kind of “blog.”

“Here, in a combined web log, they convey the impressions and challenges of their assignment,” AP explains. Here are the three most recent entries as of Wednesday.

Tuesday, July 25, 11 a.m. local

RIAD SOLH SQUARE, central Beirut

Today is the first day I notice this city coming back to life. With the traffic, it takes twice as long to drive from the hotel to office as it did yesterday. Some shops are opening, and there are even a few brave souls jogging along the corniche – a slab of sidewalk that hugs the Mediterranean along Beirut’s sweeping harbor. They chug by the Hard Rock Cafe and McDonald’s (both closed), and hang a left by the picturesque lighthouse that was hit by Israeli fire a few days after the bombardment began. It had just been restored a year ago.

We’ve gone about 24 hours without an airstrike on the city (though this would be shattered a bit later).

A gang of about 80 protesters snakes down into Riad Solh Square, named for Lebanon’s first prime minister. They’re shouting into megaphones: “Hey Lebanon, my beloved, destroy Tel Aviv! Hey Lebanon, my eyes, destroy Kiryat Shmona!” (a town in northern Israel).

A young girl of about 10 waving a Lebanese flag sees my microphone and rushes up to me. “Down with Israel, I love Sheik Nasrallah!” (the leader of the Hezbollah.)

The experiment here is how real people – the ones at this tiny but vocal rally, the girl with the flag, the taxi drivers weathering the fight and jacking up their fares – will react to the fighting. Before it began, Lebanese politicians were holding a national dialogue to decide if and how to disarm Hezbollah. Now Israel’s trying to do it for them. But are ordinary Lebanese, as they emerge from homes and shelters after two weeks of bombings, any different? Many didn’t like Hezbollah before, but do they hate Israel more for interfering?

I’m heading to Lebanon’s Christian heartland to find out …

– Lauren Frayer

Hezbollah has posed little more than a random threat so far with its daily rocket attacks on Israeli land. You see fires burning in open fields and bare mountaintops across northern Israel, and wonder what the guerrillas were even aiming at. You have to be spectacularly unlucky to be killed by a Katyusha here.

But on their own ground, the guerrillas are proving to be formidable enemies.

“They’re good, aren’t they?” one soldier asked as he prepared his tank for inspection. He said he’d been into Lebanon in the morning, and that it didn’t go well.

One of the things you’ll hear most often in talking to Israeli soldiers about Hezbollah is, “They’re smart.” The guerrillas know their own territory, and they’ve devoted much of the last six years to preparing for this fight. I asked a soldier who had crossed over today how Hezbollah moved and fought, and he said he didn’t know.

The soldiers don’t see Hezbollah fighters much, he said. All they know is they’re getting shot at.

At least 20 Israeli soldiers were wounded today in sieges on two Lebanese villages across the border, and two were killed in a helicopter crash on Israeli soil.

We go to the crash site, now engulfed in flames. Small parts of the helicopter are stuck in a nearby fence. There’s a wheel and part of the axle that lie partway buried in a watermelon patch. On the radio, they say two soldiers were hurt. Everyone around knows they were killed, but it’s censored until the families can be told.

From the beginning, the soldiers have been convinced that this fight was just and necessary. But as Israeli casualties mount, they’re getting more curious about what the world thinks. They crowd around reporters and pepper them with questions about what’s being said outside, how’s the war going, when will it end?

They seem not to know anymore.

– Benjamin Harvey

Tuesday, July 25, 2:30 a.m. local

HAMRA STREET, downtown Beirut

We cruise along one of Beirut’s busiest commercial thoroughfares, though it’s deserted at this hour. For the past two weeks the sun goes up and down, but there’s no change on many streets here – shops are closed and cars stay parked. I’m overjoyed to see a Starbucks here on Hamra Street, ready to jump-start my dormant latte addiction left over from the States. But alas, the shop with the friendly green and white window decorations has been shuttered since fighting began. I guess those who drink Starbucks had enough money to escape.

Our taxi driver grimaces when he hears we’re Americans.

“Uh oh, I’m in trouble now,” my colleague Lee Keath says, teasing. The driver launches into a political discussion, and I wonder if this is literally part of the job description. I’ve learned the most about the Middle East – its politics, its people, its cigarette smoke and its spirit – from taxi drivers.

“I like Americans, but your government – ugh,” he says. He slumps down low in his leather seat and exchanges glances with a comrade in the passenger seat. They’re both wearing way too much cologne and hair gel, cruising barren Beirut in the wee hours of the morning for I-don’t-want-to-know-what.

“Well, aren’t you happy Condi visited you today?” Lee asks him in Arabic. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the ground here for about 3 hours this afternoon – stopping in Cyprus, Beirut and then Israel on such a whirlwind trip that a reporter traveling with her told me, “We’re barely skimming the ground.” Her meetings with Lebanese officials apparently didn’t go as well as planned: Parliament Speaker Nabi Berri rejected all of Rice’s proposals.

The driver points to a figurine of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, dangling from a keychain on the dashboard. “The only one I’m happy with is him,” he says.

– Lauren Frayer

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