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CEASE-FIRE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Clustered in Fear, and Now Death

The close ties of a town in southern Lebanon span oceans. That same bond linked neighbors who gathered in vain to escape Israeli shelling.

August 16, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

AINATA, Lebanon — All the dead were neighbors, killed as they huddled together in the basement of the Fadlallah family house in the old quarter of this southern Lebanese town. The Fadlallahs' two-story home had offered false hope against Israeli shells fired from the terraced hills above, blasts that scattered concrete blocks like dice and smashed the shelter into a tomb.

Now, with fighting suspended, the rubble gave them up: at least 14 bodies with perhaps more still buried, pulled free by neighbors' hands tearing at the stones. The dead were old men and old women, teenage girls and children as young as 3, postscripts to the roll call of victims from this summer's spasm of war.

"That's what we do here: When people get scared, they get together -- 30, 40 people," said Hassan Mansour, who grew up in Ainata and still comes back with his family every summer, even though he lives in Miami. "I had 30 people in my house when it was hit. And in the center of town, hundreds of people would come together to wait out the shelling."

Ainata is a middle-class Shiite Muslim town surrounded by tobacco and olive farms with a winter population that the residents estimate at 15,000 to 20,000. These are the people who elected a Hezbollah member to the Lebanese parliament when they got a chance after the Israeli occupation ended in 2000.

Yet Ainata also displays shades in its beliefs and politics that make it more than a simple pro-Hezbollah bastion. It changes character in summer, when the town swells with thousands of its sons and daughters who have gone abroad to work in North America, Africa and across the Middle East. They are a well-educated and well-paid expatriate class who love to return to Ainata's quiet and climate.

"We say here that every house has an engineer or a doctor in it," said Mansour, who runs a variety of businesses in Florida and has built an expensive house in the hills overlooking the town for his annual summer return. "These are mostly secular people, not religious people. We are not fanatics. We are hard-working, 100% law-abiding good people.

"These are the people Israel has hit badly."

It was the traditional people who elected the Hezbollah lawmaker, he explained, because the religious organization had led the Israeli resistance during the occupation and, unlike so many Lebanese political parties, remained free of corruption. The election was also held in winter, he said, when the more cosmopolitan summer crowd was out of the country and barred from voting.

The sights and, it must be said, smells in this pretty town offered a glimpse Tuesday of what occurred behind the lines during a month of fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.

Israeli forces pummeled Ainata with bombs and mortars. The barrage tore up roads and left electrical wires dangling over alleyways strewn with the carcasses of cars. Many of Ainata's houses were flattened -- a few defy gravity to stand -- and all but the rarest exception were splattered with shrapnel.

Many here insisted Tuesday that there was no reason for Israel to target these homes.

"I wish Hezbollah had been firing rockets from here," Mansour said. "Then at least I could be satisfied that there was some excuse for what has happened to us."

"I don't like Hezbollah and I don't like the Israelis," Mohammed Arbid, 36, an optometrist, said as he walked through the shattered glass and plaster of the home he had shared with his mother, and where he had planned to bring his bride after their July 30 wedding.

"But Hezbollah fighters never entered this town," he insisted. "One day they came to the border of the village and people said: 'We don't want you here. We have children.' "

Like most of the residents, Arbid fled north after a few days when there seemed to be no imminent end to the Israeli shelling. Most of the rest used a 48-hour truce early this month to get out, leaving just a few stubborn families and several dozen fighters in the town when the heaviest beating came. It was not clear whether the fighters had always been in the town, unknown to some summer residents, or arrived after most families had left.

"Some people had to be forced to leave because women and children are a burden on warriors," said a man who identified himself only as Nassim and claimed to be the regional military commander of the Amal militia, which fought alongside Hezbollah in Ainata.

On Tuesday, the wiry 42-year-old commander walked through the twisting alleys of the old town, pointing out places where house-to-house fighting occurred. The Lebanese militias held off the Israelis using antitank weapons, he said, shuffling up Ainata's main street, which had been bulldozed of debris and, hopefully, was free of any unexploded ordnance.

The Israelis flew F-16s over the town in close support so troops could get in to take away their dead, he said, with the worst destruction delivered in the last two days before the cease-fire. That is when most of the houses in the heart of the town crumbled under the bombing. Nine militiamen died in the fighting, he said.

Just yards away, the rescue workers were shutting down their excavation of the Fadlallah house. The signs of family life were mixed in the debris: a newspaper, carpets and a child's school exercise book.

And as evening closed in, a column of Israeli tanks withdrew from positions in the hills around Ainata. They drove past the blasted city, towing one of their crippled tanks with them.

Going home.

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