They emerged from the rubble of their homes, looking tired but triumphant, hugging their comrades, shaking hands and kissing each other on bearded cheeks, pleased to have survived and knowing, too, that their monthlong defense of this village has turned them into legends in the eyes of Muslims and Arabs around the world. It was in the thick undergrowth south of this border village that the seeds of the war between Israel and Hizballah were sown. On July 12, a squad of Hizballah fighters slipped across the border under the cover of a rocket barrage to snatch two Israeli soldiers. For Israel, it was one provocation too many from their Shi'ite Lebanese foes, and the order was given for a massive air and ground offensive against Lebanon, the largest since Israel's 1982 invasion. Days after the war began, Israeli forces crossed the border south of Aitta Shaab, determined to capture and hold this normally scruffy village of tobacco farmers which is known for its strong support for Hizballah. But instead of encountering simple farmers, the Israeli troops came across some of the toughest guerrilla combatants in the Middle East. Armed with advanced anti-armor missiles and religious conviction, the small squads of Hizballah fighters holed up in Aitta Shaab thwarted the Israeli advance, destroying Merkava tanks and firing missiles into houses sheltering Israeli soldiers, killing or wounding those inside.
They prevented the Israelis from taking Aitta Shaab, but it came at a price the near destruction of a large part of the village. Houses of two or three stories lie pancaked like decks of cards; the burnt-out wrecks of cars destroyed by missiles are scattered up and down the main street. The simple cinder-block buildings are pitted with holes from flying shrapnel and machine gun bullets. The village will take months if not years to rebuild, but for these stoical residents, the pride of driving away the most powerful army in the Middle East takes precedence over more immediate concerns. "Yes, it looks like Leningrad," concedes Sameeh Srour, 53, a policeman,> "but we brought the Israelis to their knees."
It seems extraordinary how the Hizballah men could have repulsed the Israeli attack, especially as the village lies less than a mile from the border. Perhaps the difference lay in experience the Hizballah men lolling around the village were in the late 20s to mid-30s, at least a decade older than most of the Israeli troops they were fighting. All of them would have been combat veterans of the 1990s, when Hizballah fought a resistance campaign against the Israeli army occupying south Lebanon. Perhaps most of all, they relied heavily on their Islamic faith, accepting the will of God on matters of life and death, defeat and victory. For these fighters, victory was assured because they had God on their side. But even defeat would have meant their martyrdom in battle, thus an even greater honor.
"Only God was saving us," says a fighter who gave his name only as Al-Hajj. He and his four colleagues were driving a dented black SUV, the windows blown out and a rear tire squashed flat. One of his comrades had a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. They were all dressed in grubby civilian clothes, although some had combat trousers and boots. "The Israeli enemy used all kinds of weapons against the resistance men, but despite this we overcame them because of our unity and religion," says a grinning Al-Hajj, fired up with a zeal that overcame his evident exhaustion. Most of the villagers fled the fighting in the early stages, following the potholed road to the southeast to the neighboring Christian village of Rmeish.
With the commencement of a tenuous ceasefire on Monday morning, the residents began trickling back to the village, looking with astonishment at the destruction that lay before them but also with pride at what their fellow villagers had achieved. "There is much destruction," admits Jamil Jamil, 75. "For 10 days, the Israelis tried to get in but they couldn't. They failed and only reached the outskirts. Hizballah is very tough. Those men have their dignity."
Although the Israelis had departed Aitta Shaab, they are still present on Lebanese soil, mainly in apparently isolated patches of high ground no more than three or four miles from the border. The road leading from the north into Bint Jbeil, the largest Shi'ite town in the border district, passes through the Israeli army's area of operations. But there is no sense of cutting through Israel's front line. Indeed, there is no meaningful front line between Israeli forces and Hizballah fighters. A mile southeast of Beit Yahoun, a village straddling a ridge two miles north of Bint Jbeil, four Merkava tanks could be spotted, two of them parked in an olive grove, the other two nestled up against a house where the crews were billeted. The tanks looked as benign as sleeping dogs in the noonday sun, and temptingly juicy targets for the Hizballah men keeping an eye on them from the corner of a house in Beit Yahoun. The tanks were later joined by another Merkava and an armored bulldozer, which brazenly crossed the main road leading into Bint Jbeil, causing consternation to motorists forced to brake to an unexpected halt. Further east, huge clouds of yellow dust rose into the sky as Israeli armored vehicles plowed through the rocky grassland. The Israeli movements were closely observed by Hizballah men, who have foregone their normally unobtrusive presence and are now swarming over all the villages of the south.
Still, the ceasefire holds, helped partly by the swift political measures to dispatch Lebanese troops to the south and arrange for the arrival of the first of some additional 13,000 reinforcements for the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. As theU.N. and Lebanese troops move into the south, the Israelis are expected to begin withdrawing, possibly as soon as by the end of the week, a move that will further mitigate tensions here. But perhaps the most important contribution to maintaining stability is the returning hordes of refugees whose presence here speaks more of rebuilding and looking to the future than returning to the violence of the recent past.