Lebanese civilians also feel Israel's attacks on Hezbollah Strategy could fail if attacks fuel support of enemies

April 17, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Joshua Brilliant in Jerusalem contributed to the article.

HAROUF, Lebanon -- The first of the Israeli shells to land prompted a laugh from the Hezbollah soldier, a wiry, bearded man with nervous energy and a pistol stuffed in his belt. The concussion of the next blast, just a few dozen yards away, sent him sprinting for cover.

Israel's bombardment of South Lebanon this week is aimed at the guerrilla and his companions in Harouf, a half-dozen men with Kalashnikov rifles who darted along the deserted street while the village was being shelled.

"Hezbollah is good," the leader of the band shouted toward the Israeli artillery on the high hills above the town. He was answered by another close artillery blast that spit stones into the air.

Israel's stated goal is to force Hezbollah, the "Party of God," to stop launching its Katyusha rockets at northern Israeli towns. Israel calls the militia members terrorists, the name also applied to opponents in the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Israel is using a similar strategy against both groups: It is putting pressure on civilians to try to turn them against the Islamic radicals. In the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has sealed borders to squeeze the Palestinian economy and push Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to make sweeping arrests.

In South Lebanon, Israel has driven an estimated 400,000 civilians from their homes, hoping the chaos will prompt the authorities in Lebanon to curb Hezbollah.

In the last six days, Israeli aircraft have flown 1,000 combat missions and its artillery has fired 10,000 shells to deliver that message: "Damage and suffering to the civilians of Lebanon is strong enough for them to understand," an Israeli army official, Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu, said yesterday.

"The policy is similar to that we used in 1993," said an Israeli military source, who would not be quoted by name. "We will create an impossible situation in the south to cause an influx of refugees and pressure the government in Beirut."

One hitch to that strategy is that it may backfire. The Hezbollah cause, until now a marginal concern to many Lebanese, is suddenly a matter of national unity. The refugees fleeing South Lebanon rage at the Israeli bombardment and cheer Hezbollah for its Katyusha replies.

"All the people are now Hezbollah," said Ahmed Ramadan, 48, at a refugee shelter in south Beirut yesterday. "Israel is the enemy of everyone."

Hezbollah has moved to profit from the situation, welcoming refugees into dozens of centers where it distributes food, blankets and medical supplies.

"I slept in the open with my nine children the first night," said Fatima Zuhur, 32, at a girls' school manned by Hezbollah volunteers. "I came here for help. Hezbollah gave it to me."

Like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah is a fringe group fueled by religious zeal. Like the Palestinian suicide bombers, some Hezbollah are ready to die as martyrs for their cause.

But there are differences. While Palestinians and Israelis fight over land where both now live, the Hezbollah are Lebanese who say their uppermost goal is to get an occupying Israeli army out of Lebanon.

Israel says Hezbollah attacks its civilians. Hezbollah says it has launched Katyushas on northern Israel in response to Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians.

Hezbollah allies now hold 12 seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and the group's social wing runs hospitals, schools and charities. The armed Hezbollah guerrillas are shadowy, wary of publicity. Estimates of their number vary from 300 and 3,000. While Israel says it wants to separate the Lebanese civilians from the Hezbollah guerrillas, that is not always easy.

"The Hezbollah fighter comes into his home, hangs his Kalashnikov on the wall, and sits down in front of the television with his family just like anybody else," said Mikael Lindval, an official of the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, the U.N. peacekeepers. "Is that home, and everybody in it, a military target?"

This week in towns like Harouf, a strip of two-story cement buildings less than a mile from Israel's self-proclaimed "security zone," those homes were targets.

"We want to show the world the wounded and the buildings. It's not the militia who will die, it's the women and the children," said the leader of the Hezbollah guerrillas, who would not give his name. "They are shooting the children and the old."

He would not say why his band and their families remained in Harouf. The answer was likely heard in Israel, where authorities yesterday said more than 200 Katyusha rockets have fallen in six days despite the Israeli bombardment.

"You see the American planes with the bombs, and the tanks," the guerrilla said, as he strolled away from the smoke of a burning building. "We are not afraid."

Israel's best hope may be a diplomatic settlement to inhibit the range of Hezbollah's efforts. Even Israel's big guns and busy planes cannot wipe out all of the small and portable Katyusha launchers. And few believe Israel's punishment of civilians will deter zealous guerrillas fighting with a fatalistic faith.

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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