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."

"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.

"Militarily, it's not possible to occupy that much land, judging from what we've seen so far," he said.

So far in the conflict, Israel and the United States have scaled back their ambitions -- from disarming or even destroying Hezbollah in the early days to the more modest aim now of creating a frontier that would push the militia back from the border. The growing signs that Hezbollah will emerge from the fighting intact, though battered, have already inspired its portrayal of the war as a victory, by everyone from its grass-roots activists to the senior leadership. Although Hezbollah may suffer in the long run -- amid a debate over its arms and recrimination among its supporters over the suffering the war has inflicted -- it is now building more political capital.

"Entire brigades are facing off with small groups of resistance fighters," the group's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, said in a speech broadcast Thursday on al-Manar television. "This is a miracle by any measure."

Other sentiments are sometimes heard more forcefully these days in the small villages that dot southern Lebanon: anger over Israel's use of American-made weapons and the Bush administration's green light to the Israeli offensive, as well as a sense that, when the fighting finally ends, the new status quo may resemble the previous one, albeit with a bigger international force along the border. For many of the weary still living along the border, that means the end of this battle may not mark the end of the war.

"It's going to return to the way it was," said Khalil Atweh, a 53-year-old fishmonger in the border town of Naqourah, taking advantage of a respite in the shelling to sip coffee along a deserted coastal street. "This was just a war of nerves."

The road from Naqourah, where the U.N. force is based, stretches east along the Israeli border, winding through red-roofed hilltop homes and concrete shacks, sometimes a short walk to the Israeli border, along tobacco farms and olive groves. These days, a martial racket fills the air, paced unpredictably: Artillery shells soar, sometimes met with Hezbollah volleys of rockets. Israeli aircraft are omnipresent. On this morning, the crack of an explosion prompted the call of a rooster, wandering aimlessly in the street.

"You should have heard it before," said Abu Ali, a 54-year-old father of 10. "This is a break for us."

He smiled, offering words of caution in a war he predicted would last much longer.

"If you hear a tick, that means it's coming at you," he said. "If you hear a swoosh, don't worry. It's going far away."

Like villages along the road, Dhaira appeared deserted at first. Then slowly, a few of the 80 residents remaining emerged, gathering for conversation. Abu Ali sat with neighbors in front of an unfinished, cinder-block home in the village, about 500 yards from the border. His neighbor, Abu Wadie, came. So did their children. And soon Ilham Abu Samra, a cheerful 60-year-old matriarch, followed.

They had a litany of woes: no electricity since the war's first day, too little food, no medicine for the sick. Abu Ali bummed a cigarette, his first in 10 days. Their contact with the world was a battery-powered radio, tuned to Israeli and French stations in Arabic. They napped for a half-hour or less during respites in shelling that punctuated the day, kept awake by the fighting at night.

"Bread?" Abu Ali asked. "We haven't seen it."

He pointed to a small garden plot across the street, withering from too little water. There were tomatoes, beans, okra and sunflowers standing vigil. Behind his home was a grapevine, and along an alley was a bountiful fig tree, its fruit still green.

"If the war keeps going, we'll just eat grapes," he said.

The matriarch soon brought coffee in a tin kettle, served in small cups. Others offered the figs and a plate of grapes. "You're welcome anytime," she shouted.

The Sunni Muslim village was not a Hezbollah stronghold, nor was there any affection for Israel. They were especially angry at the soldier who had shown up daily with a loudspeaker. They recalled his message: "Get out of this town, or we'll bring the houses down on your head." He shouted sometimes at 10 p.m., sometimes 9 p.m. or 3 p.m. For two days, he hadn't come.

"Who can understand the picture before us?" said Abu Wadie, a 40-year-old father of seven.

"We don't care about the war," Abu Ali added. "We just want to eat."

A rocket was fired, one of many this morning. "Did you hear that?" Abu Ali asked. "Wait for a little while."

It detonated in the valley behind them, a crash that echoed. No one flinched.

"You see," he said.

"Thirty years," the matriarch said. "We have experience."

For a moment, she disappeared, wearing a baseball cap that read "Dutch Boy" over her veil. She returned a few minutes later, with a smile, and offered three roses -- red, dark pink and blood orange.

"Don't think I'm giving you the flowers for a funeral," she said. "I'm giving them as a wish for your safety."

Abu Ali looked on, in a moment that seemed somehow tranquil.

"God willing, it will return to the way things were before," he said. "When there's a cease-fire, it will be back as it was."

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