A guerrilla ambush that led to the kidnaping of two Israeli soldiers four days ago has trapped southern Lebanese villagers in a cycle of renewed terror.
Hundreds of young male villagers are fleeing their towns in fear of being rounded up in a massive Israeli manhunt for the missing soldiers and those who kidnaped them. An Israeli force estimated at 1,500 troops, backed with tanks and helicopter gunships, has been mobilized north of the border to search for the two soldiers, seized by fundamentalists of the Islamic Liberation Front.
With the sounds of a heavy clash between Israeli troops and guerrilla forces in the nearby town of Srifa echoing through the hills, the residents of this prosperous market town, tucked away between terraced hills, bright green wheat fields and olive groves, told of their day of terror when Israelis swept into their usually peaceful township.
"Yesterday, Hussein Demeshk, a man with an amputated arm, was shot twice in the foot and taken away," Mohammed Chaaban told journalists visiting Haris.
Three other men, whom the villagers said they did not know, were killed as they attempted to flee the town with their guns. "The tanks were fired to draw them out of hiding," a shopkeeper said. "As they ran away they were shot at. There was a fight and they were killed here on this hill."
Amal, the mainstream Shiite Moslem militia, which says it has tried to keep this sensitive area free of activity by more radical Shiite factions, said four of its men were killed here yesterday and eight more today at Sifra.
Residents of Haris said their men, young and old, were ordered by a summons from the town's minaret to gather in a soccer field for interrogation, as Israeli soldiers shot over their heads.
"After writing down our names, one or two at a time would be called in for questioning. We would hear screams and sometimes they never came back," said Ali Dakik, 29, owner of a shoe shop.
"They blindfolded 21 or 22 men, tied their hands behind their backs with telephone wires and drove them away in trucks," he said.
Two armed Israeli plainclothes men, assisted by four local allies, members of the Israeli-controlled South Lebanon Army, conducted the interrogations, which lasted until sundown, residents said, and two French U.N. observers were turned away when they attempted to check reports that men were being beaten up inside the school.
Wiping tears from her face, Zeinab Rajab said her three sons, Ali, 22, Hussein, 20, and Hikmat, 16, were missing. "I don't know if they are dead or alive," she said. "We don't know what has become of them."
About a hundred young men had left the town at night and fled to the fields. The next day, Israeli helicopter gunships strafed the countryside, villagers said.
On Monday, Israeli armored vehicles encircled the town hours after the two Israeli soldiers were abducted, villagers said. Tuesday, Israelis searched Haris houses and returned in force yesterday with 23 armored personnel carriers, two tanks and helicopters.
Helicopter gunships peppered farmland around Haris and tanks fired as the attack began, villagers said.
Moussa Nasser, 60, and his son Ahmed, who runs a pastry shop, reportedly were killed when a shell was lobbed across a valley by an Israeli tank.
"The shell knocked through the wall," another member of the Dakik family said. "When the son ran out of the house, a militiaman of the SLA shot him in the feet. Seeing he did not die, he shot him again."
Villagers charged that SLA men who accompanied the Israeli raid went on a looting spree, robbing Haris stores of cameras, household goods and watches. Anger over this was matched by fears that the Israelis would come again.
Young men gathered near the International Red Cross clinic to discuss the situation. "The Israelis told us they were coming back. People here are afraid," one said.
Among the residents isolated in Haris is a young American woman married to a merchant. She sobbed as she clutched her 17-month-old daughter.
"I am still scared. The road is blocked. We can't go anywhere," the woman, who asked not to be identified, said.
She said she met her husband in West Africa, where she worked as a teacher with the Peace Corps. They returned from a three-month U.S. vacation on Feb. 2. Asked how long they have been living here, she replied: "Too long. When we came here in July 1983, the Israelis were here to welcome us."
Rows of shops were shuttered today in Haris, a town relatively prosperous by southern Lebanese standards. Many of its inhabitants made their fortunes in West Africa, speak some English and French and would like to see their town prosper from the presence of U.N. troops. Haris is in the territory assigned to the Irish contingent of the U.N. peace-keeping force.