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Christian Villages in Lebanon Spared

August 4, 2006

QLEIA, Lebanon (AP) _ This tiny Christian village is barely three miles from Israel’s border. Shelling pounds surrounding hills, and neighboring towns have been left in ruins, yet Qleia has been largely unscathed.

Christian villages across Lebanon’s mainly Shiite Muslim south have been spared the death and destruction wrought by Israeli warplanes since fighting broke out July 12

The fact that such villages haven’t been attacked showcases the complexity of south Lebanon’s political map and the contrasting sentiments about Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

``So far, the Israelis only shelled the edges of the village,″ said Qleia Mayor Shafiq Wanna. ``We asked people who live on the outskirts to move in with relatives in the center. If they shell there too, we will flee.″

Israel on Friday targeted bridges for the first time in the Christian heartland north of the capital. Four civilians were killed and 10 wounded in the airstrikes in Jounieh, the Lebanese Red Cross said.

As a rule, Christians in southern Lebanon have little sympathy for Hezbollah, a Shiite group whose capture of two Israeli soldiers last month provoked the fighting. The region’s Druse and Sunni Muslims are split into pro- and anti-Hezbollah factions, while support for the guerrillas is nearly universal among Shiites.

These views are coming into sharp focus as Israel prepares to expand its ground offensive to take control of an area 20 miles deep inside Lebanon to reduce the threat from Hezbollah’s rockets, hundreds of which have fallen on Israel in the past three weeks.

Israel’s control of Lebanese territory could last for weeks, maybe months, until a cease-fire takes hold and a proposed international force is put together and deployed.

That prospect is stirring feelings thought to have been buried with the end of Israel’s 18-year occupation of a south Lebanon border strip in 2000. Israel withdrew from the area in the face of mounting casualties caused by Hezbollah attacks.

During the years of occupation, thousands of southern Lebanese _ Christians, Druse and Shiites alike _ joined a local militia that fought along the Israelis against Hezbollah. Many more took jobs in Israel, earning wages twice or more what they made at home.

Israel is also thought to have used its time in southern Lebanon to build a large network of agents that, according to Hezbollah, are active to this day.

Six years after Israel left, the legacy of its occupation lives on. Those who were caught up in its institutions or practices, like members of the South Lebanon Army militia, are still on a government wanted list. The stigma of being an ``Israeli agent″ can still hurt, and thousands of Lebanese who worked in Israel have been convicted of dealing with an ``enemy state,″ fined and jailed.

Hezbollah made a museum out of a notorious prison used by Israel and its Lebanese allies to house captured guerrilla fighters and their sympathizers. The museum had the names and hometowns of every Lebanese employed in the Khiam prison under the categories of guards, doctors, nurses and torturers. Many of them were Christians and Druse.

An Israeli airstrike reduced the museum to rubble late last month.

Southern Lebanon has traditionally been one of the country’s poorest regions, with unemployment thought to be in double digits. Residents have long complained that not enough attention has been given to the farming region’s development, and that Beirut, the capital, takes more than its fair share of state funds.

Israel is at once enemy and key to economic opportunities.

``We are still walking and driving on roads built by Israel here,″ said Hamoudi Zeineldine, a 29-year-old hotel worker from the village of Ein Qana. ``Our government should have embraced us. I fear that even after this war, the reconstruction will be in Beirut, not here in the south.″

With an Israeli military sweep seemingly imminent, some are entertaining dreams of finding employment in Israel again.

``I am fed up with all this fighting,″ said Majed Hamza, a Druse from the village of Hasbaya who served a two-year sentence for his membership of the South Lebanon Army. ``If they come again, I am moving to Israel and will stay there.″

This time around, many of Lebanon’s Christians and Druse are reluctant to take sides, with memories of Israel hurriedly abandoning them in 2000 still fresh, and the duration of any new Israeli occupation uncertain.

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