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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST | COLUMN ONE

Conflict as a Way of Life

Families in southern Lebanon have paid a steep price for their embrace of Hezbollah -- a battle with Israel that spans generations.

July 26, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

TIBNIN, Lebanon — Families hand down tales of mayhem like heirlooms and mark their personal milestones against the dates of wars. Their landscape is layered with reminders of bygone battles: captured Israeli artillery; bombed-out buildings left to crumble slowly into the dirt; posters, everywhere, that bear the faces of the fallen "martyrs."

The years of war have left their shadow on southern Lebanon. For years, Arab guerrillas have used these hills as a base for attacks against Israel. And for years, Israel has invaded and occupied, launched shells and missiles.

Now, fighting once again covers the rolling landscape, and another generation is hardening against the Jewish state. The fervor to fight Israel finds fresh fuel as civilians die, food runs out and villages drain of people.

"In every invasion, there's a massacre in my family," said Soubiha Abdellah. She lost 24 family members, most of them children, when the flatbed truck in which they were riding was bombed by Israeli warplanes. Her relatives died trying to flee the village of Marwaheen, where they had eked out a living growing tobacco and wheat.

"We've tasted it all," Abdellah said.

Abdellah is a Sunni Muslim. And yet, on Friday, when she stood in a sun-scorched vacant lot to see her loved ones buried in a mass grave, she spoke glowingly of Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim organization.

"Hezbollah," she said, "will be victorious, with God's help."

This is the heartland of Hezbollah, the group founded as a band of Shiite Muslim guerrillas after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. From these valleys and olive groves, Hezbollah fighters harassed and killed Israeli soldiers until the army withdrew in 2000. Since then, rockets launched from these villages have struck Israeli towns across the border, about 10 miles from here.

Israeli officials accuse those who live here of supporting Hezbollah, and count them as among their most implacable foes.

Few here would deny it. In an impoverished region that has long languished as a backwater, the power of Hezbollah -- short-handed here as "the resistance" -- is the main point of pride. Many southerners think of themselves as the only Arabs outside the Palestinian territories who have stood up to Israel, over and over again.

Residents of southern Lebanon harbor a profound gratitude to Hezbollah's political party and welfare programs for giving them a political identity and a voice, for turning the populous, predominantly Shiite borderlands into a region that couldn't be shunted aside. For that, they have paid a price.

In the two weeks since Hezbollah fighters slipped into Israel, captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others, southern Lebanon has paid a high price.

Israel has bombed homes and cars; accused residents of harboring terrorists; and ordered them to leave their villages and move north of the Litani River, 20 miles from the Israeli border. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by Israeli bombs.

All the tactics have been tried before.

"The whole thing is a lost cause for Israeli aims," said Timur Goksel, a longtime United Nations spokesman who spent more than 25 years in southern Lebanon. "They can't close down an ideology. They are trying to intimidate the whole public to achieve goals that you can't achieve by military means."

For the people of southern Lebanon, there is almost nothing new about the fighting that has engulfed their villages these past weeks.

"We have seen it before," they say, and rattle off the years of the Israeli attacks.

They mention 1978, when Palestinian fighters based here attacked a bus north of Tel Aviv and killed 35 Israelis, provoking an Israeli invasion. They speak of 1982, when Israel invaded again, seeking to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization. And they invoke the 1993 bombing assault and the "Grapes of Wrath" campaign of 1996, when Israel tried to purge the south of Hezbollah.

Many southerners regard the current fighting as another scene in a continuing tragedy. What's more, they believe it's their lot.

"Israel has shown us southerners no mercy, and this predates Hezbollah and the Palestinians. We have always been in this situation," said Nabil Maleh, a 65-year-old maker of candy and cakes from the coastal city of Tyre. "This is what we have. This is what we are."

Maleh says he fled his home once before, during the 1982 invasion, only to find his sweet shop destroyed by bombs when he returned. No matter what befalls him in the coming days, he says, he won't leave again.

After he lost his shop in the previous destruction, he moved to another neighborhood, opened a new store and worked 16 hours a day to reestablish his trade in wedding cakes, chocolates and petits fours.

When the Israeli bombardment began this month, Maleh moved his family and friends into an underground wedding hall. They play cards on the fancy tablecloths and sleep on foam mattresses in the dank depths of the building.

The same people gathered in the same makeshift shelter during the battles of 1996.

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