A mile further down the potholed and shell-scarred border road is Aitta Shaab, a bastion of Hizballah support, now deserted, which has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting between Israeli forces and Hizballah fighters. It was in the rolling brush-covered terrain south of the village that Hizballah fighters punched through the border fence to snatch two Israeli soldiers nearly a month ago, triggering Israel's onslaught against Lebanon.
The conflict raging in south Lebanon is like no other fought by Israel or Lebanon-based guerrillas. Israel is the most formidable military power in the Middle East and can defeat with ease the conventional armies of its Arab neighbors. Yet Hizballah's lightly armed but devoted, disciplined and combat-experienced guerrilla fighters are a different matter.
"[The Israelis] are not in a position to say they are in control of the area. They are proceeding very slowly. They are being very cautious and Hizballah is putting up a fight in places of its own choosing," a senior U.N. official in Lebanon says. That much was evident when TIME joined a convoy run by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) the 2,000-member-strong peacekeeping force that has been in the region since 1978 carrying humanitarian supplies to some of the beleaguered villages along the border whose remaining residents have either chosen to chance their luck by staying in their homes or have nowhere else to go.
The border road running east from the coastal village of Naqoura, where UNIFIL has its local headquarters, hugs the frontier, coming in some places to within two hundred yards of the fence. No Israeli soldiers were to be seen even though the border road technically lies behind the Israeli army's frontline in some places. Still, the Israeli military activity was manifest in the numerous tank tracks that criss-cross the border road and run through fields of bright green tobacco plants. The border road, a potholed single-lane route even in normal times, is pockmarked from exploding artillery rounds, the asphalt churned by caterpillar tracks.
An unexploded 155mm artillery shells rests guiltily on the verge. A series of blast marks scorched rocks, burnt earth and small holes gouged into the soil along one stretch of road leading to the Christian village of Dibil suggests either a heavy artillery bombardment, or perhaps signs of Hizballah's roadside bombs, possibly detonated against Israeli tanks.
There are around 500 people still living in Dibil, some of whose population once fought Hizballah guerrillas alongside Israeli forces occupying south Lebanon before 2000. Most of them have moved into the center of this hillside village, around the pretty church with its honey-colored stone walls and red tiled roof, hoping that Israel's anger toward the Shi'ite Hizballah will pass them by. "We are putting our faith in our Lord," says a tired, haggard-looking Father Yussef Nadaf, the priest of Dibil.
French UNIFIL troops hand over to the queuing residents boxes of military rations, part of the peacekeeping force's own supplies but all they can offer given the inability of the Lebanese government and international NGOs to dispatch aid to the deep south. "We are okay in the village, but it's noisy outside," says Diah Bassar, 20. An understatement, perhaps. The sound of warfare is inescapable. The sharp crack of outgoing artillery rounds from Israeli positions just across the border is accompanied by the door-slamming sound of exploding shells nearby. Dirty clouds of smoke and dust blossom on the rocky hillsides. The flames and smoke of brush fires sparked by shelling add to the noonday haze and turn vast expanses of countryside into sterile charred deserts. Jets swoop overhead, dropping massive bombs that leave huge towering columns of smoke, the blast carried for miles on the hot breeze.
The contrast with Israel's last major incursion into Lebanon couldn't be more stark. Back in 1982, when Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) then controlling south Lebanon, the Israeli army smashed through the Palestinian lines and reached Beirut in just nine days. But after nearly a month of fighting Hizballah, Israeli troops have advanced only a few miles at the most into Lebanon. And despite saturation air coverage with reconnaissance drones, helicopters and jets as well as multiple air strikes and heavy artillery bombardments and in the past few days raids by Israeli special forces, Hizballah in some places is still firing rockets into Israel from mobile batteries deployed within a few hundred yards of the border. One such location is on a hill outside Naqoura riddled with Hizballah bunkers from where the Lebanese guerrillas have fired dozens of rockets within full view of the border and Israeli military outposts.
According to UNIFIL military and political sources, Israeli forces so far have been staging limited incursions across the border, using tanks to advance around villages at night before withdrawing during the day. In some places Israeli forces have established toeholds across the border and in others maintain forward positions two or three miles inside Lebanese territory, but without necessarily securing the territory to their rear. "I think the Israelis perhaps underestimated the strength of the Hizballah positions," General Alain Pellegrini, the commander of UNIFIL told TIME in an interview at his headquarters in Naqoura. "I think they would have hoped for quicker progress by now."
In the Sunni village of Jibbayn, panic-stricken residents beg the UNIFIL convoy for lifts to the comparative safety of Tyre, a coastal town that so far has remained relatively immune to the Israeli assault. But the UNIFIL peacekeepers are under orders not to transport civilians from the area, so the disappointed villagers, a few aged men and women, shoulder the brown cardboard boxes of food and stalk resignedly back to their homes. Israeli troops have deployed at the northern end of Jibbayn, cutting the road to Teir Harfa village to which the UNIFIL convoy was hoping to proceed. "The Israelis have invaded our homes," wails Mustafa Kheir, 65, who says he refuses to leave Jibbayn because his crop of fresh tobacco leaves from which he derives a meager income is drying in the sun on a wire rack beside his house.
With the road cut by the Israelis, Warrant Officer Martin Lionel, the convoy commander, studies his military map, seeking an alternative route to Teir Harfa. Many of the roads marked on his map show hand-drawn red crosses. He explains that they represent bomb craters where Israeli jets have rendered the road impassable. "Every day we add new crosses," he says.
There are no favorable alternative roads to Teir Harfa, however. One shows a near constant line of red crosses, the other is a track that meanders through a deep valley used by Hizballah to fire rockets. Lionel sighs and orders the convoy to return to base in Naqoura.
It's a frustrating experience for the UNIFIL officer, but the Israeli forces are in Jibbayn with good reason. A day later, Israeli commandos advance from Jibbayn to the cliff top village of Biyada, a strategic location overlooking the Mediterranean and a huge tract of territory stretching north up the coastline to Tyre and beyond. The move effectively cuts off the Hizballah fighters dug into the hillside around Naqoura two miles to the south. The Hizballah men are now surrounded and unless they can evade the enclosing Israeli troops and escape to the north, they face a grim but certain fate. But hours after the Israeli thrust, Hizballah rockets are still being fired from near Naqoura, suggesting that those battle-hardened guerrillas intend to fight to the last.