Israel's `iron fist' leaves many south Lebanese towns eerily quiet

This week, Tyre looked like a ghost town. The only people to be seen on the southern outskirts of town were a group gathered at a gas station to buy kerosene, which is in short supply. In February, this port city bustled with activity. Israel's occupation was felt, but shops stayed open and people kept some semblance of normality in their lives.

But Tuesday, all along the dusty streets leading toward the commercial center, steel doors were pulled down over shop windows and locked. On the northern end of town, the main coast road that leads north was almost unmaneuverable. Mounds of dirt all but blocked the entrance to Tyre for several hundred yards.

The only part of Tyre that showed signs of life was the commercial center, where a couple of caf'es remained open. The only customers were a group of reporters with a United Nations escort.

``There is no work anymore in Tyre,'' said a Lebanese journalist who lives here. ``The people keep their shops closed because it is too dangerous to keep them open.''

Israel's ``iron fist'' policy has turned much of the area it controls south of the Litani River into an eerie scene of empty roads and villages that seem to be inhabited only by women, children, and old people.

The Israelis have issued more and more restrictions as they try to hold down casualties. They are fighting against an increasingly radicalized population that has at times recruited women and children in attacks on the occupying troops.

Israeli military sources predict that Israel will complete its pullout from Lebanon by June. Uri Lubrani, coordinator of government policy in Lebanon, has said that Israel would like to reach an agreement with Amal, the mainstream Shiite Muslim organization. Israel would like to turn control of the south over to Amal in return for a guarantee that the Shiites would keep Palestinian guerrillas out of the region, Mr. Lubrani says.

Israeli military strategists say Amal itself is badly divided among various factions struggling for control, making agreement impossible. The Israelis have warned that if the Shiites attack Israel once its troops have withdrawn from the south, the Israelis will hit back hard.

South Lebanese who have been fighting the Israelis deny reports of splits in their movement. They say they still don't believe the Israelis will truly leave and will continue to attack them -- with roadside bombs and with suicide car bombs.

In the village of Tura, a group of Amal militiamen who called themselves resistance leaders spoke with reporters Tuesday about their fight against the Israelis.

``Everybody is coming here to know what trouble Amal will make after Israeli soldiers get out of Lebanon,'' said Jemal Safeddin, who said he was from Tyre. ``When the Israelis will go back [to Israel], we will not make anything. We want to live alone with our world. But we do not let Israel live here with one millimeter of our land.''

Mr. Safeddin sat surrounded by other young men, their wives and one child in a tiny house of concrete. The wives wore black chadors, the heavy, shapeless gown that covers a woman from head to foot. Under their chadors, however, some carried walkie-talkies. The villages, one fighter explained, are linked by a series of lookouts -- most of them girls and young women -- who report Israeli troop movements.

Outside, Tura showed the marks of Israeli raids that had been conducted in search of guerrillas such as these people. The front of one house on the village's main road had been demolished, leaving exposed a room with the black-framed picture of a man the villagers said was the guerrilla the soldiers sought.

``The Israelis came here, the Israelis killed my people,'' said Mohamad Harkous. ``We don't kill until now any child, any Israeli woman. Israel kills children and women, but we kill only soldiers. They say we are terrorists, but we are only people. We want to live.''

Mr. Harkous spoke of civilians the Lebanese say have been killed during Israeli or Israeli-backed militia raids into villages. The Israeli military spokesman has said that those Lebanese killed during raids are armed fighters, usually shot while trying to escape.

To date, there have been more than 80 deaths reported as a result of Israeli raids into villages. Israel has lost 648 soldiers since its June 1982 invasion. In the south, almost no notice was taken this week of the UN vote to extend the mandate of the 5,800-man UN peacekeeping force, UNIFIL, another six months.

UNIFIL has been deployed south of the Litani for seven years, but the American UN representative warned before Wednesday's vote that this might be the last time UNIFIL's mandate is renewed. The force, the spokesman said, is ineffective under current conditions.

Villagers said Tuesday, however, that they rely on UNIFIL to provide them with some buffer from the Israelis. The UNIFIL troops observe raids carried out by the Israelis and their militias, and have on occasion intervened.

``They [UNIFIL troops] watch, and try to prevent the Israelis from doing some things which should not be done,'' said a man in Burj Rahel who asked not to be named. ``They try to stop them when they destroy houses.''

The Israeli policy is to blow up homes of people suspected of guerrilla activity, and homes of collaborators, according to the IDF spokesman.

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