Israeli reservists return from front as Lebanon digs out
Lebanese return to ruins, hunt for bodies Say foe ‘controlled the battlefield’
BINT JBEIL, Lebanon — Lebanese sifted throughtheruins of shatteredtownsand villages onAug. 15, looking for survivors or simply fragments of their former lives, with scant regard for Israeli warnings that it is not yet safe to return.
Rescuecrews digging with shovels and bare hands pulled out bodies that couldnotberecoveredwhile the fighting raged.
Hardly a building remained intact in Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold that became the scene of more than aweek of intense ground combat.
“My God, my God,” said an elderly woman, her voice so hoarse it was almost inaudible. She stood at the crest of town to look down at the destruction, weeping.
Rescue workers and young men scrambled over the wreckage to reach the rubble of ahome that had entombed an entire family.
Doctors from Qatar worked beside townspeople to pry loose huge rocks and twisted steel. They labored for hours, with the smell of decaygrowingmore intense as they got closer.
Despite the thousands of returning residents who have clogged roads since dawn on Monday, only a handful of visibly shocked returnees could be seen in the streets of this and other villages.
“There are veryfew people here, and they are hiding,” said Mathias Lenggenhager, a Geneva-based relief manager and agronomist for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The ICRC estimates that fewer than300 families stayed in southern Lebanon throughout the siege.
Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets warning civilians not to return home until international troops are deployedbecause“the situation will remain dangerous.”
Relief workers on Aug. 15 made it to villages where they fear some residents havebeen sheltering for a month without provisions. But the agency found few residents to accept food, blankets andhygiene kits. Wire services said relief workers found 15 bodies across southern Lebanon.
Returning to Bint Jbeil is no easy matter, which explains why so few families have made it back.
There is a three- to four-hour traffic jam to get across the Litani River, and the roads are so badly bombed that every few miles the surface gives way to a crater deep enough to swallow a school bus.
Once inside the town, one finds entire streets lost under rubble and pieces of furniture visible through sheared off walls.
The mosque is awash in broken concrete andaccentedwithburned, flipped-over cars.
For the Dbaga family, the pain was overwhelming.
They returned on the afternoon of Aug. 15 to their home in nearby Ainata, but found it leveled.
With nothing left to claim, the family piled back into their car, and spent their last bit of money on gasoline and tried to drive away. But the car bottomed-out on the rough road, the gas tank ruptured.
Despite the assistance of a halfdozen strangers, the car hemorrhaged fuel and the family was stranded.
Strangers passed food and water between vehicles and freely shared cigarettes.
Lebanese soldiers, who are to be deployed in the south as part of a peace agreement brokered by the United Nations, have been working round-the-clock to patch roads and build crossings over the Litani River.
Traditionally, the Lebanesearmy has maintained only a cosmetic presence in an area controlled by Hezbollah guerrillas.
KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel — Several hundred foot-weary reservists trudged home across the border on Aug. 15 as Israel began thinning its troop presence in Lebanon less than 48 hours into a tenuous cease-fire.
Relieved to be back in Israel, returning soldiers described an enemy that had controlled the battlefield and enjoyed the element of surprise.
“The fighters of Hezbollah had six years to prepare. It’s their stage. They are the director, and you are the actor,” said Yaron Yaniv, a sniper who spent the previous five days in Lebanon. “It’s their land. They know the disadvantages and the advantages.”
Only a few scattered incidents disrupted the cease-fire that took effect at 8 a.m. Aug. 14. Israel said its forces killed five Hezbollah fighters on Aug. 15 in defensive actions.
No casualty report was available from Hezbollah, but its allies took to the airwaves proclaiming a victory for the Iranian-armed organization and a changed Middle East.
In a strident post-war address, Syrian President Bashar Assad said Israel risked defeat unless it sought peace with Arab countries. He declared the war a “failure for Israeli and its ally,” referring to the United States.
Mr. Assad also pledged to “liberate” the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, “with our hands and determination,” according to wire service reports from Damascus. He declared the Arab-Israeli peace process dead and said “the next generations in the Arab world will find a way to defeat Israel.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a large crowd in the Iranian city of Arbadil that “God’s promises have come true.”
“On one side, it is corrupt powers of the criminal U.S. and Britain and the Zionists [. . .] with modern bombs and planes. And on the other side is a group of pious youth relying on God.”
In Kiryat Shemona and other towns in northern Israel, residents who had spent long weeks in bomb shelters or further south began surveying the damage from the daily rain of Hezbollah missiles.
At one road junction, teenaged girls handed flowers to Israeli soldiers as they passed on foot.
Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz found himself fighting on a new front on Aug. 15, facing calls for his dismissal after reports that he sold off investments in the first hours of the monthlong crisis.
The Israeli military has come under a torrent of criticism saying it was unprepared to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli news Web sites said lawmakers spanning the political spectrum were pressing for Gen. Halutz to resign.
Sitting in a wheelchair with stitches after being injured by an anti-tank missile that struck his tank, Cpl. Michael Mizrahi said Hezbollah had displayed a high level of training in its use of advanced weapons. “They know how to fire and where to fire,” he said.
Cpl. Mizrahi’s tank was hit after he and his crew had given up the search for a Hezbollah squad firing rockets into Israel. The gunner complained that Hezbollah fighters shoot and then melt into the population or dive into a bunker. Driving a tank in southern Lebanon exposed the crew to severe danger, he said.
Laid up in a ward of Haifa’s main hospital, Capt. Arik Dayan said Hezbollah was fighting a different sort of war, in which the goal was not to conquer territory, but to inflict maximum casualties.
“They say, ‘Come take the village,’ then they come to you,” he said. “They work in small groups. Simplicity wins.”
This article is based in part on wire service reports.
Homeward bound: Lebanese, their vehicles packed with their belongings, waited to cross the Litani River into southern Lebanon on Aug. 15. People were stuck in traffic jams for as long as four hours as the roads, pockmarked by craters caused by Israeli bombs, made travel slow.