Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Robert F. Worth, "Villagers See Violations of a Cease-Fire That Israel Says Doesn’t Exist," New York Times, September 1, 2006.

AITA AL SHAAB, Lebanon, Aug. 29 — A group of local men were unloading bags of donated food from a truck here Tuesday morning when the tok-tok-tok of heavy machine-gun fire rang out.

Men shouted; children screamed and ran. Then, as it became clear the firing was just the Israeli tanks again up on the hillside above town, they went back to their routines.

The shooting — and occasional mortar fire — goes on regularly around this village, a Hezbollah stronghold near the border.

To local people, it is sheer provocation, and a flagrant breach of the cease-fire that ended the fighting on Aug. 14.

To the Israelis, it is legitimate self-defense. Aita al Shaab “still has many Hezbollah fighters in it,” said Miri Eisin, an Israeli government spokeswoman. “They don’t wear uniforms and are wary about showing their weapons, and we use all means to differentiate between those with weapons and those without.”

More broadly, the shooting underscores two fundamentally different views of the uneasy truce that has held in southern Lebanon for the past two weeks. Secretary General Kofi Annan cited numbers from the United Nations forces on Tuesday indicating that Israel had violated the cease-fire nearly 70 times, while Hezbollah had done so only 4 times.

But the Israelis do not believe there is a cease-fire to violate. “We are at a cessation of hostilities in Lebanon, not a cease-fire,” Ms. Eisin said. She added that Israel had the explicit right to self-defense under United Nations Resolution 1701, which does not use the term cease-fire.

That difference is apparent every day across southern Lebanon. Israeli tanks crisscross the dry brown hills, shooting into the fields and smashing up houses and stone walls. Teams of Israeli soldiers have planted their nation’s flag atop bluffs here and sometimes detained Lebanese men, releasing them days later. No one seems to know where the mobile Israeli units are based, or how to avoid them.

Amid all that, the blue-helmeted United Nations soldiers sit in their vehicles like helpless tourists, many unable to speak Arabic or English.

Israel has made clear that its troops will not leave Lebanon until the Lebanese Army and a strengthened United Nations peacekeeping force are capable of taking over its positions.

But to many in this village — where the war began on July 12 when Hezbollah fighters crossed the border to kidnap two Israeli soldiers — Israel’s recent actions look like intimidation.

“Israel is trying to scare us and make us leave,” said Nuha Srour, a stern-faced schoolteacher in a black robe and head scarf, as machine-gun fire went on in the distance. “They were surprised we came back here after the bombing.”

Perhaps no one has witnessed the confusion of south Lebanon more vividly than Muhammad al-Hussein, a 32-year-old farmer from the village of Qantara.

Last week he and his brother were driving to a neighboring village to buy parts for a truck. They knew the Israelis had been operating a checkpoint in the area, but were told they had withdrawn and that the road — an essential link to other towns — was safe.

Instead, they found themselves passing a group of Israeli soldiers, who stopped them, Mr. Hussein recalled. The soldiers handcuffed and blindfolded the two brothers, and drove them to Israel.

For the next four days, shackled hand and foot, Mr. Hussein was interrogated about his family and village, he said. He was released Monday after United Nations and Lebanese Army officials lodged complaints with Israel.

On Monday evening, sitting on a terrace rimmed with pomegranate trees with a group of relatives and friends back home, Mr. Hussein could smile about his ordeal. He said the Israelis had fed him, and had not struck or mistreated him. But he seemed profoundly nervous about encountering them again, and unsure how to avoid it.

“Even if you gave me a truckload of gold and diamonds, I would not go back to that place,” he said of the road, just a mile or so from his village, where the Israelis had picked him up.

At the same time, Mr. Hussein also appeared to be nervous about Hezbollah. Asked whether the Israelis had asked him about the militia, he said no, and then refused to say anything about the subject.

Israel’s activities have mostly taken place at night with patrols staying clear of towns. But on occasion they have made themselves oddly conspicuous.

On Sunday, an Israeli flag could be seen flying prominently from a bluff just outside the Lebanese village of Shabaa, where a group of Israeli soldiers were posted with a military bulldozer. Photographers snapped pictures throughout the day, and Israeli soldiers warned approaching reporters to stay clear.

Lebanese Army officials complained about the flag to the United Nations, who contacted Israel about the matter. Israeli soldiers took the flag down, a spokesman for the United Nations force, Alexander Ivanko, said Monday.

But an hour after Mr. Ivanko spoke, the flag was still flying in the same spot. Another Israeli flag was raised over the weekend on a hilltop near the village of Marwaheen. On Tuesday, it appeared to have been removed.

The flags and the continuing presence of Israeli soldiers here have further angered villagers already stunned by the extent of the Israeli bombing. Even some Christians, whose villages were largely spared the destruction visited on Shiite areas, say the war has fueled their support for Hezbollah.

In Aita al Shaab, public support for Hezbollah is almost total. One street where a number of Hezbollah fighters lived — commonly known even before the war as Hezbollah Street — was almost totally destroyed. Several families have returned to the ruins anyway, defiantly insisting on staying in their charred, stinking homes. Others are living alongside the ruins in green tents donated by aid groups.

“They destroyed our school in the village, but we will teach the children under the trees,” said Ms. Srour, the schoolteacher. “And we will teach them to hate Israel and love the resistance.”

Ms. Srour said Israeli tanks had fired so close to her house on Sunday that several of her relatives — who had returned from Beirut only a week earlier — left the village again, fearing the war was on again.

As in many southern villages, the blackened and bomb-scarred ruins here are bedecked with yellow Hezbollah banners proclaiming — somewhat paradoxically — a “divine victory” for the resistance.

But not far away, Muhammad Srour, a cleric and cousin of the schoolteacher, offered a slightly different view as he poked through the shattered ruins of his house, gathering a few remaining clothes and books into plastic bags.

“We’ve been beaten so badly that we still don’t want to admit we’ve been beaten,” he said.

Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Jerusalem for this article, and Lynsey Addario from Aita al Shaab.
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