BAZOURIYE, Lebanon — Roads that six weeks ago were clogged with military and civilian traffic today are almost empty. The crowds that milled in the streets of shabby south Lebanese villages like this one are gone. And in the countryside, fruit trees sag under the weight of unpicked oranges and lemons.
Here in Bazouriye, in the heart of Israel's occupation zone, the only visible life on a recent morning was an Israeli army foot patrol and three U.N. soldiers keeping an eye on them from a nearby jeep.
Population figures have long been imprecise in southern Lebanon, and given what's been happening here lately, they are probably even less reliable now. But U.N. officials stationed in the area estimate that 40% of the 2,000 to 3,000 people who used to live in Bazouriye have left since early last month.
If Bazouriye looks like a ghost town these days, so does much of southern Lebanon, now caught up in sharply escalated fighting between occupying Israeli troops and Lebanese guerrillas intent on hastening their withdrawal from the region.
At least 28 Israelis have died in the south since early February, according to official figures. That's nearly half the number killed during the entire last year of the occupation.
In response, the Israelis have raided a score of villages under an "iron fist" policy aimed at anyone who supports the guerrillas. And the army says it has killed at least 60 "terrorists" during the campaign.
Two of the Israeli casualties occurred here in Bazouriye; they were victims of separate roadside bomb attacks on Feb. 17 and 18. The army has raided this town three times in return, according to the United Nations, killing two people, wounding two and arresting dozens.
In a weekend interview with Israeli radio, the northern area commander, Maj. Gen. Ori Orr, cited as one of Operation Iron Fist's principal accomplishments the fact that "a good many people have left the area under our control."
And troops who raided the nearby village of Maaroub on Monday were so surprised by the number of empty houses that they interrogated residents about it. Most of the occupants had fled to Beirut, those left behind told the Israelis.
Those who haven't simply packed up and left keep out of sight except when absolutely necessary. And that includes the Israeli troops, who have been ordered to stay off the roads as much as possible in order to cut down on casualties from suicide car bombs.
No Coastal Road Traffic
The coastal road south of Tyre, which six weeks ago was clogged with traffic, was virtually empty earlier this week. The few Lebanese civilian cars on the road pulled to the side immediately upon sighting anything resembling an Israeli military vehicle coming in the opposite direction. The drivers apparently fear that otherwise, the Israelis might think they are suicide bombers and start shooting.
The Israelis have banned any vehicle with fewer than two people from the road, but the practice of pulling off the highway is "a rule people made themselves," said a U.N. source. "It's called survival in south Lebanon today."
Even plainclothes security agents from Shin Bet, the Israeli FBI, are not safe from nervous Israeli soldiers. A few days ago, according to U.N. sources, the tail gunner in an Israeli convoy opened fire on a fast-approaching Mercedes with a Lebanese license plate, destroying the car and severely shaking up the Shin Bet driver.
Three carloads of Shin Bet agents seen closing on an Israeli army convoy near the border early this week had newly issued, Hebrew-lettered wooden signs that they held out the drivers' windows to identify themselves as friendly.
Fruit Goes Unpicked
Asked about untended orchards groaning under the weight of ripe fruit, a U.N. man motioned as if he were raking a roadside grove with rifle fire and asked rhetorically, "How can you pick when every time the Israelis go by they 'Pow, pow, pow.' "
Two Israelis were killed north of Tyre on March 12 when they were ambushed from an orange grove, and roadside bombers often hide in the trees until they spot an Israeli target approaching.
While the increasing violence has altered the pace of life here, however, it hasn't changed its bizarre character.
Travel restrictions couldn't keep an enterprising Lebanese merchant away from the headquarters of the Finnish Battalion of the U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) at Qalaouiye a few miles east, for example. He sold clothes from the trunk of his dirty white Mercedes.
The Finns weren't flocking to buy, but perhaps that was because they have their own standards of comfort.
"There are about 25 saunas in (our) area all together," boasted a junior officer of his men's creature comforts. "There's one at every position" the Finnish contingent mans.
On the coast road south of Tyre, a Lebanese taxi was parked on the side while the driver changed a wheel. The passengers, an American television crew, stood by munching on miniature pizzas and passing around a bottle of champagne.
A well-known Tyre merchant who had helped the crew rent the taxi had happened by from his wedding anniversary party and decided to share the leftovers with his temporarily inconvenienced clients.
Even the Israelis seem to be developing a Lebanese sense of the surreal. After holding the entire village of Maaroub hostage during a nearly seven-hour search Monday, an Israeli officer made a brief parting speech, recalled resident Fiyad Dimashk, a teacher.
"He told us that in about 10 weeks, they will be surrendering this area and going back to Israel," Dimashk related. "He said they hoped they will not return to Maaroub and that the people in Beirut will not come back to Maaroub until they're gone."
Still, the officer said he hoped to see the villagers again, according to Dimashk. "He said they hoped one day to visit us with their families, and that we will visit them with our families."