[Marxism] A fight for every yard

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 5 06:44:36 MDT 2006

In South Lebanon, a Fierce Fight for Every Yard

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 5, 2006; A01

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 

"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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