A LIFE UNDER FIRE Lebanese adapt to survive along tense border


KAFRA, Lebanon -- As night falls over the dark hills, the kathump of Israeli shelling begins. The men of this town pause with a wariness honed sharp through the years and judge the target distant.

Soon, they say with wry grins, the Israeli electric company will arrive: helicopter gunships that will drop flare after flare, illuminating the darkened village to spot Hezbollah guerrillas crawling through the scrubby brush.

Life in southern Lebanon near Israel's security zone has adapted to the rhythms of war. The squalls of artillery fire send the people fleeing, or hunkering behind sandbags. The lulls let them venture out to buy food or haul water, or reopen the schools for a few days.

But the metronome swaps of the artillery fire between Hezbollah and the Israelis have increasingly gone further: Twice in three weeks raids have escalated into a flurry of wider fighting.

At least 21 people have been killed and 57 wounded since Oct. 25. Israel gathered armaments last week and threatened to move further into Lebanon, as it did 10 years ago, to quiet the opposition, which was then Palestinian.

By yesterday both sides had apparently drawn back again from the brink. But such flare-ups will happen again as long as there is this standoff: Israel refuses to leave southern Lebanon until attacks on its border cease, and the guerrillas -- now predominantly Lebanese Shiites -- refuse to end the attacks until Israel leaves.

Through some grim warriors' understanding, the thin security zone established by Israel in Lebanon is considered the acceptable killing field. Troubles mount when the warfare spills outside the zone.

Last week, Israeli planes raided the central Bekaa Valley, and Hezbollah responded by pouring rockets into northern Israel. Residents of Israel's border towns took cover in basement shelters, and the Israeli government vowed this threat to its citizens must end.

Just 10 miles across the security zone from the Israeli towns, the residents of Lebanese villages know well the feeling of living under gun sights.

From his concrete patio, Adnan Kamal Mukalid can look at the nearby mountaintops that ring his small community and see three Israeli army posts.

They peer down at his village of Jarjouaa from the security zone.

Like the Crusaders before them, Israelis have placed their fortifications on the tops of mountains, visible crowns of fear and resentment to those below.

Gardens of wreckage

From those posts, Israel and its Lebanese surrogates -- the Christian-dominated South Lebanon Army (SLA) -- regularly fire at movement in the village. Mr. Mukalid serves coffee in his sitting room, which is riddled with holes. Of 280 homes in the village, only 30 are undamaged, he says.

The spire of the mosque has been blown away; the roof of the Catholic church is in shambles. Chunks are missing from nearly every neighbor's house, and Mr. Mukalid's once-proud garden of fruit trees and vegetables now blooms only with the bombed wreck of a car.

Refugees in their own land

There is no signature to each bullet hole, and Jarjouaa has been a target for many in Lebanon's rivalries. But residents say most of the damage comes from Israelis. To prove the point, Mr. Mukalid's son and three other men escort a visitor to an open street in clear sight of the Israelis. Within a few minutes, Israeli gunfire begins. Perhaps the shots are aimed in warning, perhaps not.

His neighbors have fled to Beirut or Sidon, but the 65-year-old Mr. Mukalid says he is not ready to leave. "Where would I go? To be a refugee? This is my home. This is my land."

The tension has left many areas closest to the security zone virtual ghost towns. There is little to stay for: The water and electricity sputter on and off or have quit altogether, businesses have closed, the neat olive groves carved into hillsides are treacherous with unexploded bombs.

Israel and the SLA hit these towns with gunfire, artillery and air raids because they consider them the source of guerrilla raids. They are often right.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, or Party of God, has strong support in these areas despite a long weariness among the Lebanese at having their land used as a scrimmage field for imported grudges.

Many of the villages sport large portraits of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or current Iranian leaders. In towns like Jibshit, where a popular Hezbollah leader was ambushed and killed with his family by Israeli helicopter gunmen in Febru

ary, women and even small girls wear the Islamic veil in support of the fundamentalists.

"The Israelis will not leave our land. Whoever is against Israel, I am with," explains Mr. Mukalid.

Israel created new foe

It is bitter irony to the Israelis that in squelching one foe, they nurtured another. Israel effectively eradicated the Palestine Liberation Organization's infrastructure in Lebanon with its invasion in 1982. But by remaining in the south they drew the increased resentment of the native, predominantly Shiite population.

Islamic fundamentalists and their Hezbollah militia were nurtured that resentment and now have stepped in where the PLO used to be.

"Our objective is a war of attrition with the Israeli enemy," says a leader of the Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, in an interview published Saturday in a Beirut newspaper. "This aims at inflicting as many losses as possible against them."

In many ways, the Hezbollah is a tougher foe. Israeli aircraft can find the Palestinians, who have returned, in camps with their flag flying. They are easy targets. The Hezbollah are part of the population, hard to find.

"They are ghosts," says Mohammed Salam, a journalist with good contacts in the south. "They hit and run, and then just vanish. They go into the olive groves or underground."

The difficulty is evident in Kafra, a village of bullet-pocked buildings one hill away from the Israeli security zone. On Thursday, a Nepalese soldier in the United Nations peacekeeping force was killed trying to stop a group of Hezbollah. A few hours later, Hezbollah fighters slipped into the security zone near Kafra. In a shootout, one Israeli was killed and two were wounded, and one Hezbollah was killed.

Israel considers it imperative to retaliate for any such attacks. It shelled Kafra hard. But who were the targets?

On a darkened stoop in Kafra, a young man who gives the name "Abu Islam" acknowledged that "in one hour, I will change from my sweater to the dress of a soldier.

"We are all part of the resistance," he says of the several young men around him. "We fight the Israelis by any means we can."

But next door, Abu Siyan, a 48-year-old grocer, holds out TC chewing gum box filled with jagged scraps of metal. He collected the shrapnel from the road outside his house after the shelling Thursday.

"Look at this shrapnel. Was it for them?" he says, nodding to the three young girls standing shyly by his home with a diapered baby, his fourth daughter.

"The fighters will always escape. Why do they try to kill children and old men and old women?" he asks.

Israeli aircraft have been carefully selective at times, demolishing a single house or the car of a Hezbollah leader with a combination of intelligence and precision weapons.

Random shelling

But at other times, the Israelis and SLA have simply sprayed the region with gunfire and artillery. The rash of bullet holes in the homes here attest to the random fire.

Political persuasion also has its limits. Israel negotiates in the Middle East peace talks with Syria and Lebanon, but the Hezbollah is said to take its orders from Iran. Its renegade nature has been amply proven in the last decade, when Hezbollah or its allies were said to be responsible for kidnapping 92 foreigners.

The hostage-taking hobbled U.S. foreign policy here. The last Western hostage was released June 17, but U.S. citizens still are officially barred from travel in Lebanon.

"Israel would do what America wants it to do," says one of the men on the stoop in Kafra. The thumps that announced the night's start of Israeli artillery seemed to underscore his point. "Who do you think supplies all of those shells?" he asks.

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