Lebanese begin to return to homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

METULLA, Israel -- On both sides of a suddenly quiet Israel-Lebanon border, displaced masses returned to their war-ravaged homes yesterday as the Hezbollah militia and the Israeli army generally held to a brittle cease-fire accord.

Israel and Hezbollah both claimed qualified victory after 34 days of fighting that killed at least 800 Lebanese and 155 Israelis.

Meeting face to face for the first time in six years, Israeli and Lebanese military commanders sorted through the details of a complicated truce agreement that envisions moving Lebanese and international forces into southern Lebanon.

Several officials have said such movement could take weeks, and Israel says it will not withdraw until that happens.

Some Israeli reservist soldiers marched out of Lebanon ahead of the cease-fire, but a senior military official said the bulk of a 30,000-strong fighting force remains in Lebanon, with new rules of engagement after having boxed in the remnants of the Hezbollah forces.

It was not a perfect cessation of hostilities: Israelis skirmished with Hezbollah fighters, killing six; Hezbollah fired 10 rockets early today that landed errantly in Lebanon, the Israeli military said.

In Israel, political fallout from what many Israelis see as a poorly executed war has begun to threaten the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who went before a special session of parliament yesterday and accepted responsibility for "deficiencies." Still, Olmert claimed Israel dealt a devastating blow to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah made a similarly triumphant claim, going on television to celebrate what he called a historic victory.

From civilians to politicians to fighters, Lebanese and Israelis alike expressed hope tempered by considerable pessimism that the U.N.-brokered cease-fire might mark an end to violence that erupted when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, and Israel responded with thousands of aerial bombings and artillery assault.

"I wish this will be the end," a tearful Gabriel Lev said as he mourned his son Heran, one of the last Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon before the cease-fire. "I wish he will be the last one. But if I am a realist, I must say it will never end."

Tens of thousands of displaced Lebanese loaded up cars and trucks and began returning to reclaim their villages and cities in south Lebanon, despite an Israeli travel ban.

Nearly a million Lebanese were displaced by bombings and fighting, according to the Lebanese government. About a half-million Israelis had to flee their homes in the north because of daily barrages of hundreds of rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas.

In a choking free-for-all of exhaust and dust, the Lebanese inched their way along roads littered with rubble, frequently funneling into a single lane where roads and bridges had been cratered by Israeli airstrikes.

Hezbollah's yellow and green machine-gun motif waved from hundreds of car antennas and windows. Car radios tuned to Hezbollah's radio station played jaunty military anthems, and the militia's supporters handed out leaflets that congratulated the returnees for "winning against invasion, destruction and racism."

Young men in Hezbollah Civil Defense T-shirts directed traffic at the hastily plowed earthen bridge that restored the crossing over the Litani River, the northern target of Israel's offensive.

And everywhere, there was the image of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, from sunscreens in the windows to children's T-shirts.

"Our home may be destroyed, but we want to see it," said Rokiah Sheblei, 32, as she waited for traffic to move. "It was all worth it for the sake of Nasrallah."

Israelis, too, were going home. Main highways were bumper-to-bumper with cars all the way from Tel Aviv on the central coast to northern cities besieged by Hezbollah, such as Kiryat Shemona and Metulla.

"If it's quiet for one week, the Israelis will come back," predicted Eilana Rosenfeld, a Metulla resident who runs a bed-and-breakfast and who was driving home for the first time in weeks, her car filled to the windows with food and supplies.

In Kiryat Shemona, where 1,012 Katyusha rockets landed, residents who had languished in bomb shelters began to venture out.

Virtually a ghost town on Sunday, Kiryat Shemona by midday yesterday was beginning to spring to life. Traffic lights were working for the first time in weeks, a barber shop and two hardware stores opened up, and the parking lot at the mall was full.

"Experience tells me you really can't know how quickly [the city] will recover," said Haim Cohen, 47, stepping gingerly through the shattered glass on a sidewalk, where a row of shops took a direct hit. "One little thing and it can all go to pot."

Israeli military commanders said yesterday that their forces have surrounded Hezbollah fighters by taking control of territory south of the Litani River and north of the Israeli-Lebanese border. The proximity of the two forces makes confrontation likely, although the Israeli commanders said new rules of engagement included instructions that soldiers not fire on Hezbollah guerrillas unless they appeared to be a threat; they also were told not to fire on Hezbollah weapons.

Israel's rocket launchers and artillery batteries scattered in the fields of the Upper Galilee, which for periods over the past weeks had roared every couple of seconds, remained idle yesterday.

At the hour the cease-fire began, one soldier near the border kibbutz of Misgav Am donned a prayer shawl and swayed in prayer, propped against the barrel of his artillery piece.

In Metulla, the last Israeli town before entering Lebanon, scores of tanks, bulldozers, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces clogged the roads and churned the pavement into a reddish dust. Many had just pulled out of Lebanon. At one point, Israeli paramedic teams in military ambulances worked to pull the bodies of soldiers from a burning tank attacked by Hezbollah before the truce took effect.

Elsewhere, a company of Israeli infantrymen, smiling and exhausted, walked out of south Lebanon's forested hills ahead of the cease-fire. They smoked cigarettes, flashed V-for-victory signs and embraced each other, happy they had made it out alive. Some held captured Hezbollah flags.

The soldiers were relieved but also chafing at what some saw as a premature end to their mission, which fell short of the annihilation of Hezbollah.

"Militarily we could have acted another month, and then we would be able to count on 10 years of peace," said the head of an Israeli reservist reconnaissance unit working in Lebanon. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Nasrallah, he said, "has been beaten up, but the desire and will are still there. In six months, he will be back in business."

Tracy Wilkinson and Bruce Wallace write for the Los Angeles Times.

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