As Lebanon's Troops Deploy, Hezbollah Stays Put in South

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 1, 2006

AL GHANDOURIYEH, Lebanon, Aug. 31 -- Backed by an M113 armored personnel carrier, Lebanese soldiers wearing flak vests and carrying M16 automatic rifles manned a checkpoint at the little crossroads marking the entrance to Al Ghandouriyeh.

On a decorative archway nearby, the Lebanese flag with its distinctive green cedar flapped proudly, proclaiming restored national authority. Just above it on the pole, however, another flag flew: the yellow and green banner of Hezbollah, with an AK-47 assault rifle depicted atop the word "God." The arrangement seemed to illustrate popular sentiment in this heavily damaged village in southern Lebanon.

Heeding the U.N. cease-fire resolution that stopped the 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah 2 1/2 weeks ago, the Lebanese army has deployed across the rocky hillsides and stone villages between the Litani River and the Israeli border. But to all appearances, the deployment has not displaced Hezbollah, the militant Islamic movement that Israel and the United States say must be destroyed as an armed force if peace is to return to this tortured land.

In Al Ghandouriyeh and a number of other villages seen during a drive through the border region, Hezbollah flags flew high and wide, often alongside Lebanese flags. Hezbollah members staffed reconstruction offices, held town council meetings and stood at their own checkpoints in what seemed to be cordial coexistence with the recently arrived army troops.

No weapons were visible except those carried by the soldiers. But many of the young Hezbollah supporters were of fighting age and seemed ready for another call-up if the need arose. In the agreement that led to the army's deployment, Hezbollah pledged that its fighters would put away their weapons. But the Lebanese government promised Hezbollah in return that its soldiers would not try to find out where the arms were stored.

The deal seemed to be working Thursday in Al Ghandouriyeh, which lies about 20 miles inland from Tyre and six miles northwest of the Israeli border. Heavy fighting raged here in the final days of the war as Israeli troops who had been helicoptered in encountered unexpectedly stiff resistance from Hezbollah defenders. The men of Al Ghandouriyeh openly displayed pride in what they had accomplished on the battlefield and seemed to have nothing to fear from the army troops lounging nearby.

"Do you think the Israelis are afraid of us now?" asked a middle-aged resident. "When they came, they thought they were heading for just more Arabs. But they found out. We are poor around here, but now we are strong."

Before the war, Hezbollah members were notorious for secrecy, hiding their weapons underground and concealing their association with the organization from even their closest friends and relatives. But since the Hezbollah militia held its own against the vaunted Israeli army for more than a month, membership has become a point of pride, to be flaunted with fatigues or a yellow-and-green flag.

Ali Kandouh, an emigrant to Kuwait who returned to Al Ghandouriyeh to bury a brother killed in the fighting, said he and the rest of the village welcome the army's deployment, which amounts to about 50 soldiers and several armored vehicles headquartered in the heavily damaged local schoolhouse. Hezbollah's emergence was largely due in the first place to the government's absence over the last three decades, he said.

"I'm glad the army is here," he said, drinking coffee as a group of villagers sat nearby under Hezbollah banners. "It's good. Now I can sleep at night. Before they came, the Israelis could come in the night and take someone away. But now maybe the soldiers will protect us."

Hassan Deeb, a 17-year-old in fatigues and a T-shirt, also applauded the army's arrival, saying it was the duty of the government to protect the southern border villages. "The trouble with the army," he said, smiling, "is that they came only after the fighting stopped.

"They had to have a decision by the government to come," he added. "All the while the war was on, there was no decision. And now that it's over, they get their decision and they come."


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company