As Sadiqin, southern Lebanon - The Israeli soldiers, as well as Lebanese civilians who live in the nine-mile wide strip that the Jewish state occupies in southern Lebanon, share a few things in common: tension and mistrust.
Yesterday, two Israeli soldiers were wounded in an ambush by Hizbullah guerrillas. Just last week, the guerrillas killed a senior pro-Israel militia commander, then three Israeli soldiers. As usual, Israel responded with heavy airstrikes.
"Of course attacks will be stepped up," as the possibility of peace grows, "because everybody will remember the last one," says Timur Goksel, the political adviser for the United Nations Interim force in Lebanon. "It's a very dangerous time."
It has always been dangerous, and young Lebanese civilians such as Samir Attar have been caught in the crossfire. Recently, he was expelled from the occupied zone for refusing to collaborate with Israel.
While Israel has made no secret of its intention to withdraw by July, the expulsion of Mr. Attar underscores how the optimism for peace now evident elsewhere in the region has yet to percolate here.
Calling such expulsions "grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions," the New York-based Human Rights Watch organization in November held Israel accountable for ordering "hundreds if not thousands" of Lebanese civilians like Attar from their homes since 1985.
Israel, which has lost over 800 soldiers, believes it has good reason to seek out and expel men of fighting age - men that may be involved with the Hizbullah guerrillas.
Yesterday, Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah threatened to fire Katyusha rockets at Israel in retaliation for Israeli airstrikes on a southern lebanon village Friday that wounded seven civilians and a commander of the guerrilla group.
Even though peace may be an agenda item of now-suspended high-level Syria-Israel peace talks, the result on the ground has also been a remarkable demographic shift. With the expulsion of young men over the years, some isolated Muslim villages in the occupied zone appear to be virtual senior-citizen colonies.
United Nations officials say the lack of strong men is so severe that, if someone passes away, "we have to go in and help bury the dead," says Commandant Tony Kiely, a UN peacekeeper from Ireland.
So at 37, Attar was considered to be the "last" young man in his village of Rashaf. It sits inside the northern edge of the strip Israel has occupied for more than two decades to thwart cross-border attacks. Israel calls it a "security zone."
Before his expulsion, Attar helped care for 30 older villagers. He was the de facto taxi driver, ensured electricity supply to the village, and liaised with troops of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to solve local problems.
But to the pro-Israel militia, if Attar wasn't a friend, he was a potential danger. So he was summoned three months ago by militiamen of Israel's 2,500-strong proxy South Lebanon Army (SLA) and told to collaborate.
"They asked him to do something he could not - to work for them," says Attar's wife, Kadija,
sitting on a couch in a spartan unfinished concrete building in As-Sadiqin village, north of the occupation zone, where the family ended up when they were expelled from Rashaf.
Unlike Attar, some southern Lebanese are so poor that they have little choice but to join the SLA. But collaboration can invite revenge attacks - a violent problem that analysts say will continue after any peace deal is signed.
"I was terrified," Attar recalls now, his mustache crowning three days of beard stubble. "If someone saw me, they might think I was working with [the Israelis]."
"If I knew there was going to be a peace tomorrow, we would not accept the offer," says Kadija. Still, similar human dramas play themselves out across southern Lebanon.
In the occupation zone, At-Tiri village is isolated the same way as Rashaf, its aging population of 75 - down from 3,500, according to the UN - is serviced only by UN troops.
Appearing empty at first like a ghost town, with some smashed houses and rotting cars, a passing UN vehicle and its armored escort slowly draw people out of the shadows. They wave greetings.
UN forces, in Lebanon since 1978 to monitor an Israeli pullout, deliver food to Rashaf every Tuesday. Though Attar has already sold his 400 goats and cash is short, the family says they don't regret his decision not to collaborate. But he worries about the elders in his village.
"I was the only young man in my village. I took care of the old people," Attar says, surrounded on a couch by his seven children. "It's very difficult. I am young and used to suffering, but what about them?"
Attar lost his parents and brother to Israeli shelling in 1984. He even prepared for his own war zone demise, by selecting a picture for his casket.
The whole family laughs now when they consider such a morbid thought, in contrast to the tears they shed when their neighbors helped them load up and leave home in Rashaf, in what may one day prove to have been one of the last expulsions of this war.
"Why are you crying?" asked Attar's young daughter, Houryah, at the time. "We have to leave our village in dignity, instead of one day regretting that they call us children of the collaborators."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society