Lebanese Villagers Hit Back as Guerrillas Provoke Israeli Retaliation
MAJDAL SILIM, Lebanon (AP) _ Angry Shiite Muslims in this southern village beat up a guerrilla last week after his comrades fired two rockets into Israel’s so-called ″security zone,″ provoking retaliatory shelling.
Two days later, villagers in nearby Jwaya shot a guerrilla in the legs as he drove across the square, bundled him into the trunk of a car and drove off.
His fate is unknown. But a police official said: ″His comrades will certainly respond. Tension is very high.″
The south has been a flashpoint in the Arab-Israeli conflict for more than two decades, constantly in turmoil.
Now, hapless villagers caught in the crossfire are starting to fight back, demanding the guerrillas stop attacking the Israelis.
Said Ibrahim Qobeissi, a farmer from Zifta: ″We’re like a horse cinched to two reins. Israel pulls one and the guerrillas pull the other and we’re stuck in the middle. This has got to stop. We’ve had enough 3/8″
Hundreds have been killed or wounded in the last 18 months in Israeli bombardments and air strikes.
The protests center on a couple of dozen villages lying in a belt 6 miles deep north of the security zone and bordering Apple Province, a stronghold of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
It is a no man’s land sandwiched between the Israeli-occupied sector and the southern limit of the Beirut’s government’s writ. The guerrillas rule, flitting through the olive groves and wooded valleys on their nocturnal raids.
They intensified their attacks in late 1991 when U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks began, seeking to undermine the negotiations, which Tehran opposes.
The violence often escalates into serious fighting, which threatens to spin out of control, as it did in February 1992 when the Israelis assassinated Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi.
So far, the protesters have made little headway in curbing Hezbollah and Islamic Resistance Movement fighters who attack the Israeli zone almost daily.
In Zifta, the people last month elected a committee to ask the fighters to stop using their hamlet as a launch pad for raids. The response was a hand grenade lobbed at them outside the mosque.
No one was hurt, but the message was loud and clear. Other villages also report intimidation. Few people will talk on record to reporters for fear of guerrilla reprisals.
But officials and villagers say the protests are growing, and police fear much blood will be spilled.
At least three officers who encouraged villagers to stand up to the bearded fighters were slain recently.
Israel has held the 440-square-mile zone as a buffer against raids since mid-1985, when it withdrew the bulk of its army three years after invading Lebanon. The zone is garrisoned by 1,500 Israelis and 3,000 militia fighters of the South Lebanon Army.
Hezbollah officials refuse to discuss the protests. But the intimidation shows their alarm.
Hezbollah, which usually has a few hundred of its 2,000 to 3,000 fighters in the region, has not had to threaten the villagers on this scale before.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Musawi’s successor as Hezbollah leader, is a southerner and presumably sympathetic to the villagers’ plight.
But he vows the guerrilla war will go on. He told a rally: ″We tell the Jews that war is the only language between us.″
The southerners’ chagrin is intensified by the peace enjoyed by the rest of Lebanon since the 15-year civil war ended in October 1991.
In theory, at least, all militias have been disarmed - except Hezbollah. It says it needs weapons to liberate the occupied zone, an argument the government finds hard to contest since it is unwilling to confront the Israelis head-on.
Military officials say the army has not moved against the guerrillas because the Syrian-backed government has not ordered it to.
Syria, the unrivaled authority in Lebanon and an ally of Iran, allows Hezbollah to operate against the Israelis in the south.
Syria participates in the peace talks, but finds it useful to have a pressure point in the south, the only hot front line left in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel refuses to comply with U.N. resolutions demanding a withdrawal. It says it cannot leave its northern settlements exposed until Beirut shows it can control the south.