For stoic Lebanese, a cycle of rebuilding

Turmoil in the region can be traced to the 1948 flood of Palestinian refugees.

For nearly 60 years, this region of hilltop villages, steep valleys, small tobacco fields, olive groves, and citrus orchards has been mired in a vortex of violence – attack and retaliation, invasion and resistance, collective punishment and retribution.

Now, as the cease-fire between Hizbullah and Israel continues to hold, south Lebanon's war-weary are coming home to rebuild their lives once again.

The southerners are a tough, stoical people. Many eke out frugal livings farming the thin stony soil for tobacco and olives and drawing deeply upon their Shiite faith and its acceptance of suffering to endure and overcome the bouts of violence.

Few places in the south were as badly damaged as Siddiqine, a straggly village tucked into the hills southeast of the coastal port of Tyre.

Most of the villagers fled north in the early stages of the war, but Ali Bakri, a local businessman stayed behind. "The village is very badly damaged. It's like a tsunami, or a second Hiroshima," he says.

Bunches of brown tobacco leaves threaded onto wires that were left to dry in the sun when the war began have turned gray from the thick layer of dust that carpets the village.

"Our tobacco is gone, everything is gone. We have lost our cars, our houses," says Fatmeh Azzam, raising her hands to her face. Her home was badly damaged – walls cracked from the blasts of exploding bombs, windows shattered, shrapnel holes in the walls.

On Tuesday, returnees greeted and hugged each other as traffic wound along roads that had been cleared of rubble and debris by bulldozers.

Ammar Balhas returned to his home with his family having spent the war sheltering in a school in Sidon, midway between Tyre and Beirut. His home was destroyed by Israeli shelling in 1996 and 1999 when the front-line of Israel's occupation zone in south Lebanon began just a mile to the south. "God will help us and we will stand together."

But he can also expect some assistance from Hizbullah after the group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, pledged in a televised address to pay for the cost of rebuilding those homes destroyed in the war.

There was little sense of gloom and despondency in these small impoverished villages, rather a mood of determination to begin as quickly as possible the daunting effort of rebuilding their homes and former ways of life.

"We will work together to rebuild, and we are beginning already," says Sheikh Alieddine Sharara, the imam of Zibqine, a village that like Sidiqine was devastated by the Israeli onslaught.

In Tyre, near a pile of rubble of a recently flattened building is the shell-pocked skeleton of another home, this one destroyed 24 years ago in Israel's second invasion of Lebanon.

In the 34 days of fighting between Israel and Hizbullah, Israeli ground forces reached some of their old front-line positions, reminding many who stayed behind during the fighting of the situation in south Lebanon between 1985 and 2000.

But the turmoil in this region stretches back to 1948 when the state of Israel was created and tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled into neighboring countries, including Lebanon.

Haj Mohammed Shaalan, a silver-haired 70-year-old, has lived through and witnessed the deadly repetition of conflict and lull.

Lebanon's independence from French mandatory rule in 1943 passed by unnoticed by most southerners, the region's farmers and fishermen considering it an abstraction that had little bearing on their daily lives. But Mr. Shaalan does remember the arrival of the Palestinian refugees five years later during the first Arab-Israeli war.

"I was standing at the roundabout on the edge of town and saw buses filled with Palestinian refugees coming up the road, and others riding donkeys carrying everything they had or just walking," he says.

The Palestinians were welcomed into Lebanese homes initially before their swelling numbers forced the Lebanese government to begin organizing them into camps. Few could predict at the time that the seeds of future conflict had been sown with the arrival of the dispossessed Palestinians.

In the years after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, a new generation of Palestinians arrived in Lebanon. These were the fedayeen, hardened Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters unused to the slow pace of the rural south. Initial sympathies for the new arrivals quickly faded as the PLO established a state-within-a-state and treated the local Lebanese with arrogance.

"There was 100 percent love for the Palestinians of 1948, but the others were showoffs and wanted to interfere in everything," Shaalan recalls.

In 1978, Israel launched an invasion of southern Lebanon to drive the Palestinians beyond the Litani River.

"We were angry with both sides," Shaalan says. "But mainly with the Israelis because they did not differentiate between Lebanese civilians and Palestinian fighters."

Yet the PLO remained in the south and, four years later, Israel invaded again, but on a much larger scale, occupying Lebanon up to the capital, Beirut.

Many Shiites quietly welcomed Israel's invasion for ridding them of the detested Palestinian fedayeen. But as it grew clear that the Israeli army was in no hurry to leave, hatred for the new occupier began to build.

"If you approach the southerner with respect and politeness, he will give you the shirt off his back. But if you approach him with aggression you will get double the aggression back," Shaalan says.

By 1983, local resistance was building in the villages to the east of Tyre that began inflicting ever deadlier blows against the Israeli troops. In 1985, the Israeli military withdrew from Tyre and most of south Lebanon, redeploying to a narrow border strip.

"When they left Tyre it was like we could breathe again. People returned, and we started to rebuild," he says.

Now history has begun to repeat itself. "No one wants this cycle of violence. We just want peace," says Shaalan. "All the peacemaking countries must stop this fire and let us live in peace because we have been living in turmoil for over 30 years."

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