In Southern Lebanon

Among Militia's Patient Loyalists, Confidence and Belief in Victory

Family photos are scattered in the debris of several houses destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in the southern Lebanese village of Srifa, where residents say 35 bodies remain buried under rubble.
Family photos are scattered in the debris of several houses destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in the southern Lebanese village of Srifa, where residents say 35 bodies remain buried under rubble. (By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 3, 2006

JWAYYA, Lebanon, Aug. 2 -- There were no cars in the winding streets of this southern Lebanese village. Not many people, either. The signs of life were the buzz of Israeli surveillance drones overhead and, below, a gaggle of Hezbollah loyalists, sitting in a small storefront along an abandoned street. There was a walkie-talkie, bottles of water and, according to the half-dozen or so men, patience.

"We are waiting," said Jamal Nasser, a burly man in civilian clothes. "We are here, and we're not going anywhere."

Three weeks into its war with Israel, Hezbollah has retained its presence in southern Lebanon, often the sole authority in devastated towns along the Israeli border. The militia is elusive, with few logistics, little hierarchy and less visibility. Even residents often say they don't know how the militiamen operate or are organized. Communication is by walkie-talkie, always in code, and sometimes messages are delivered by motorcycle. Weapons seem to be already in place across a terrain that fighters say they know intimately.

"On the ground, face to face, we're better fighters than the Israelis," said Hajj Abu Mohammed, a bearded, 44-year-old militiaman in the small village of Srifa, whose walkie-talkie crackled and cellphone rang with a Hezbollah anthem.

Israel has claimed to have destroyed Hezbollah's infrastructure in a 22-day campaign that has driven hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes and wrecked village after village along valleys sometimes charred by fires.

Hezbollah admits to having suffered losses, but in the fighting so far, it has demonstrated its detailed planning since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation. Fighters appear to exercise a great deal of autonomy, a flexibility evident along the region's back roads: ammunition loaded in cars, trucks in camouflage, rocket launchers tucked in banana plantations.

Analysts say the militia could probably hold out a month without serious resupply. Fighters and supporters suggest that time is their advantage in a war that most suspect won't have a conclusive end. In conversations in southern Lebanon, the militia's supporters seem most adamant in trying to deprive either Israel or the United States of political gains from the military campaign.

"We'll never submit to oppression, whatever the force applied, whatever the time it takes," one of the group gathered in Jwayya said Tuesday. "You won't find any difference between 21 days and 121 days. The difference is solely a matter of time."

Village after village south of the Litani River, the region of Lebanon that Israel has threatened to invade, are like ghost towns. Traffic rarely plies roads that pass often spectacular destruction, rubble spilling into sun-drenched streets. In Sidiqin, the wall of a home was sheared off to show a table still set with dishes, as if the family had fled in a moment. In Srifa, where villagers say 35 bodies remain buried under rubble from a bombing in the war's first week, the wiry Abu Mohammed was one of the few people left.

"We're in a defensive position," he said, wearing a black shirt and black pants and standing on a curb at a warehouse where tobacco was drying.

The smell of decomposing bodies hung in the air. Overhead were the contrails of Israeli jets.

"There will still be a lot of big surprises," he said.

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