In South Lebanon, a Fierce Fight for Every Yard

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 5, 2006

QALAOUAY, Lebanon, Aug. 4 -- The vineyards burned Friday, a white mist wafting over the terraced hillside along this front line. Behind them were the plumes of darker smoke curling into the air, enveloped by the din of war: the insect-like drone of unmanned Israeli aircraft, the whisper of jets, the crash of artillery shells and missiles and, occasionally, the whistle of Hezbollah's rockets.

The valley was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah guerrillas Friday. As it was Thursday. And as it was the day before, along a rugged ribbon of southern Lebanon where the front has often moved by yards rather than miles, a grinding war of attrition that U.N. officials say may remain unresolved before a truce takes hold.

"They say they've destroyed Hezbollah, but Hezbollah remains where it was," said Hussein Rumeiti, the leader of a nearby village, pointing at the pillars of clouds rising near the town of Taibe. "There's the proof."

He stood with a knot of men, nodding at his words. Success, they said, was measured not in land, but in time.

Two days, Rumeiti said, "and they haven't taken Taibe."

Three weeks into Israel's war with Hezbollah, its forces are still fighting along a wrinkled strip of territory that stretches 50 yards to more than three miles inside Lebanon, far short of a zone Israeli forces said would soon expand deeper inside the country all along the border. U.N. officials said they estimate that at this pace, with guerrilla battles still pitched in border towns, Israel would need another month to reach the Litani River, a push that Israel's defense minister has urged his top army commanders to prepare for.

The officials said that Israel probably has destroyed 40 or so of Hezbollah's positions along the 49-mile border, but that the group's communications remain intact, with messages passed between guerrilla leaders in different regions. The Hezbollah fighters still seem to have freedom of movement across terrain they know intuitively; one was sighted in Bint Jbeil on Monday, another in Qalaouay on Friday. The officials estimate Hezbollah could keep firing missiles into Israel for four more weeks.

"If they continue the same tactics, I doubt they'll be able to drink champagne before four or five weeks," said Ryszard Morczynski, the political affairs officer for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, which patrols the border.

In the meantime, in frontline villages wrestling with little water, less food and rare silence, across a tattered landscape, narratives of the war are already being written, foreshadowing the impressions that the conflict may leave among Hezbollah's supporters, the country and the wider Arab world.

"It will be tough for them to ever enter the south another time," said Mustafa Uleyan, a 31-year-old in Qalaouay, speaking of the Israelis.

Qalaouay sits on a shaded ridge overlooking the chiseled wadis and escarpments of southern Lebanon. Through the afternoon, the drumbeat of war reverberated through its largely deserted streets, where Rumeiti and his friends had gathered. Several miles away, the battle for Taibe raged, as Israeli helicopters and jets roamed the sky and tanks seized the high ground over the town.

"Of course, until now, Hezbollah is still ahead," said Abdullah Uleyan, an 18-year-old resident. "It has the spirit of battle."

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