[Marxism] A fight for every yard
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
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
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
"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,"
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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