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Hezbollah Fighters Emerge From the Rubble

Waiting for the Raid

Members of the Red Cross evacuate an injured fighter in the southern Lebanese town of Khiam on the first day of the cease-fire.
Members of the Red Cross evacuate an injured fighter in the southern Lebanese town of Khiam on the first day of the cease-fire. (By Ghaith Abdul-ahad -- Getty Images)

After the shelling started, fighters from Hezbollah and another Shiite movement, Amal, waited for what they feared would be an Israeli commando raid. They said shopkeepers had left their keys to provide food -- tuna, luncheon meat and rice. They slaughtered goats, but slept little. Much of it was a test of endurance; for the first three weeks, no Israeli troops approached the town.

But on Wednesday, after dark, fighters said, two Israeli tank columns approached, one heading toward the Christian town of Marjayoun, another into the plain below Khiam, interspersed with cedars and olive trees. Residents said fighters took cover in a school and in several houses that were already destroyed down the hill. Amal fighters had lighter weapons, one fighter said; Hezbollah's far more numerous militiamen had the heavier armaments to use against tanks. By Thursday morning, fighting had erupted.

A 35-year-old fighter said they destroyed two tanks in the morning, then struck again when the Israelis tried to withdraw the equipment the next day. He said they struck other tanks and armored vehicles before the cease-fire went into effect Monday -- a dozen, perhaps more. The fighters believed Israeli troops were trying to enter the city, although there was no indication of that. Other fighters said the militiamen manning the lower hills of Khiam survived on candy bars and water, too wary to move elsewhere for food.

But even Monday, after the guns fell silent, secrecy prevailed.

At one house where men were gathered, shouts of "Go! Go!" greeted approaching people. To any question on strategy, the 35-year-old fighter demurred. As for his name, he shook his head. On Hezbollah's own losses, he declined to answer.

The fighter -- who described himself as a 20-year veteran, recruited while still in high school -- stood in a gutted, unfinished house. An incinerated rocket-propelled grenade launcher was next to him, beside a barely recognizable carcass of a car.

"The Israelis said this was a battle for life and death, but with everything they had, they couldn't defeat us," he said.

By afternoon, fighters mingled with residents in festive scenes dissonant with the destruction around them. They drew on references to the Shiite faith, whose narrative intersects with Hezbollah's Lebanese and Arab nationalism. Nearby, a poster of two militiamen read, "Lebanon is victorious with its martyrs." A passenger in one passing car flashed a V-for-victory sign.

A bulldozer barreled down the streets, sweeping chunks of concrete, clods of asphalt and Coke bottles to the side. It worked quickly and recklessly; at one point, it knocked down the rest of the wall of a collapsed house. Cars began plying the streets again, and people returned to the streets, some sitting in the sidewalks near the Abu Abbas market, whose windows were shattered.

"Money comes and goes. This is all money," said Hassan Sweid, a 37-year-old resident, his eyes darting around the block. "We're still here, we still have our lives, we still have our land. If this is the sacrifice for dignity, this is nothing."

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