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In South Lebanon, a Fierce Fight for Every Yard

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"The victory is clear," Rumeiti added, his moped parked next to him in the town square. "Israel says they've destroyed the infrastructure of Hezbollah. What has been destroyed are the houses, the lives of civilians, the bridges and the roads."

Hardly a conversation goes by these days in southern Lebanon without mention of its past conflicts -- Israeli invasions in 1978 and 1982, offensives in 1993 and 1996 and, in particular, May 2000, when the last of hundreds of Israeli soldiers exited through the Fatima Gate crossing, ending an 18-year occupation that controlled the lives of nearly 100,000 Lebanese and a tenth of the country's territory. With Iranian money and expertise, Hezbollah was born of the 1982 war; by 2000, with backing from Syria and Iran, it emerged as today's group, its formidable militia complementing its representation in parliament and the cabinet as well as a sprawling social services network. "This is going to be just like 2000, but even more beautiful," Abdullah Uleyan said.

Jamal Sarhan, a 34-year-old friend, drew on the 1982 invasion, one of the most devastating chapters of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. "In the past Israel occupied the south in six days," he said. "Now, after 24 days, they haven't occupied a single village."

In the distance, the trails of missiles arced overhead. Rumeiti guessed they were the longer-range Khaibar rocket, named for the site of a 7th-century battle when followers of the prophet Muhammad conquered a Jewish enclave on the Arabian Peninsula.

"That's Khaibar 1," Rumeiti said, as the first was fired. "That's Khaibar 2," he said, after the second flew.

He chatted for maybe a minute longer, then turned more serious. A hint of worry crossed his face.

"You better get out of here," he said, mounting his moped. "Who knows what's coming."

U.N. officials believe the slow pace of the Israeli advance is designed to minimize casualties among the 10,000 soldiers. The advance has left Israeli troops in control of the border region, but confounded the U.N. officials who have tracked the fighting: Hezbollah has continued to fire missiles, and the Israeli military seems reluctant to occupy much territory in what it has described as an effort to eliminate Hezbollah's armed presence across the frontier.

"We see what they're doing on the ground," Morczynski said. "If you ask me what is the strategy, I don't know."

Israeli officials have said they control 20 villages along the border. Morczynski said Israeli troops were present in probably eight or nine villages, with varying degrees of control over the torn hinterland.

"Of course they are capable of taking 20 villages in two days if they want," he said. "The problem is at what cost." He added, "Everything is a matter of time and resources you commit. If you have a lot of time and put your entire army in southern Lebanon, there would be no question who would be the winner of this war. But it's a question of time and resources and the willingness to accept casualties in greater numbers than there are so far."

He dismissed talk of occupying southern Lebanon to the Litani River, an advance that would risk extending Israeli supply lines and put them in fixed positions that would be most vulnerable to the kind of guerrilla raids that Hezbollah favors.


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