Lebanese return home during fragile cease-fire

A tenuous lull between Israel and Hizbullah began, but both sides vowed to act in self-defense.

The black SUV, its windows blown out, a rear tire flat, lurched to a halt and five Hizbullah guerrillas tumbled out near the village of Aitta Shaab.

Having just emerged from one of the toughest battles of the month-long war between Israel and the Hizbullah miltant group, the five men were pumped up on emotion and adrenaline.

"Israel used all kinds of weapons against the resistance men. Despite this, Hizbullah still stood strong," said one fighter who gave his name only as Al-Haj. "I fired my weapon for the last time at 8 a.m."

For the first time since July 12, the stony hills and brush-covered valleys of southern Lebanon were free Monday from the thump of artillery and Israeli air strikes and the crack of outgoing rockets as a tentative cease-fire came into effect at 8 a.m. local time.

But with Israeli troops and Hizbullah fighters unwilling to yield ground before the arrival of some 30,000 Lebanese troops and international peacekeepers in the coming weeks, any cease-fire will remain dangerously fragile. The cease-fire leaves Israeli forces and Hizbullah guerrillas intermingled on isolated patches of territory with no clear front line to separate them. Hizbullah guerrillas still operate far to the south of the Israeli army's northern-most presence in Lebanon, in villages such as this, less than a mile from the border.

"The cease-fire will be extremely fragile," says a senior United Nations diplomat in Beirut.

It looked close to breaking at one point when Israeli troops said they shot and killed six Hizbullah fighters in three separate incidents.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for a cessation of hostilities in south Lebanon, permits Israel the right of self-defense while remaining on Lebanese territory. But some diplomats are concerned that Israel may be overly liberal in its interpretation of what self-defense means on the ground. Some Israeli commanders have talked about clearing out pockets of Hizbullah behind its forward lines, a move that would guarantee a continuation of fighting.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's leader, said on Saturday night that his group reserves the right to continue attacking Israeli troops while they remain on Lebanese soil. He said, however, his fighters would abide by the April Understanding of 1996, an agreement that precluded both Hizbullah and the Israelis from attacking civilians on both sides of the border.

"Both sides are not acting in the spirit of Resolution 1701," the UN diplomat says. "If the Israelis want the right to go to every bunker and cave to kill or capture whomever they find there, then we will have a big problem."

Although Israel said that its curfew against vehicles traveling south of the Litani River remained in place, it failed to deter thousands of civilians from returning to inspect their bombed-out villages. It also allowed Hizbullah fighters the opportunity to surface from their positions amid the rubble of border villages where the fighting has been the most intense.

The village of Aitta Shaab has been a focal point of the conflict, for it was in the dense undergrowth south of the village that Hizbullah fighters stormed through the border fence five weeks ago to grab two Israeli soldiers, a move that sparked Israel's onslaught against Lebanon. Israeli troops moved against the village soon afterward, but encountered ferocious resistance from well-armed, experienced, highly disciplined, and motivated fighters, all of whom were drawn from the village and able to take advantage of the local terrain.

"Israel used every weapon it could against us and we used every everything we had," says Al-Haj, who also says he saw 30 dead Israeli soldiers and claims to have killed many himself.

The Hizbullah fighters looked to be in their late 20s to mid 30s, considerably older than most of the Israeli soldiers they were fighting. This probably means that most of them have had combat experience fighting Israeli forces occupying south Lebanon in the 1990s.

Asked how many guerrillas had been defending the village, Al-Haj smiled and says, "Too many."

Like elsewhere in southern Lebanon, the Hizbullah fighters in Aitta Shaab used advanced antiarmor missiles to deadly effect, knocking out several of Israel's powerful Merkava tanks. Older antitank missiles were fired at houses where Israeli troops were sheltering, blasting through the cinder block walls and killing or wounding those inside.

The village was heavily damaged in the fighting, particularly the southern neighborhood, closest to the Israeli border.

Most residents of Aitta Shaab fled the village in the early stages of fighting. With the cease-fire in effect, the residents gradually trickled back into the village during the day, looking in awed dismay – and some with pride – at the devastation wrought on their village.

Aitta Shaab, which means Place of the People, has a long history of support for Hizbullah. Although the village lies in ruins, the people here say that the memory will endure for what was by any standards an extraordinary feat of arms from a small band of guerrillas against the most powerful military force in the Middle East.

"Yes we paid a high price with all this destruction," concedes resident Jamil Jamil, "but it was worth the price."

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