'Grapes of Wrath' leaves a bitter taste For some Lebanese, Israeli bombardments give Hezbollah boost

April 28, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HAROUF, Lebanon -- The people of this town had abandoned their stony fields when the air grew thick with steel. Yesterday, they returned to a harvest of bitterness.

They came back to their town in cars crowded with children and piled high with foam mattresses, and along the way skirted bomb craters and pieces of buildings. They came to see the results of 16 days of rocket and artillery duels between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas that ended at dawn with a limited cease-fire.

Harouf awaited them with blackened eyes and fresh scars.

The downtown strip of apartments and auto repair shops had charred storefronts and burned cars. Scattered houses in the town were pocked by shrapnel. In one section high on a hill, homes had gaping holes and shattered roofs. The mayor of the town, himself a returning refugee, guessed that 20 percent of the buildings had suffered some damage.

"How can one feel when one leaves their home and returns to this?" said Zenab Karaki, a stout, matronly woman who arrived to find her home pried open by explosives, its interior in shambles. "We have nothing to build with, nothing but hope."

"Everything I had is gone," said Jihad Karaki, whose house, workshop and bakery went up in flames after a direct hit by Israeli artillery. When he heard about it in Beirut, he collapsed and was hospitalized for four days.

"Operation Grapes of Wrath," the Israeli code name for its military campaign, finally seemed to fit. Like the desperate migrants of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," the refugees had piled into dusty farm trucks and old cars and headed first to Beirut and now back home. On a smaller scale, something similar had happened a few miles away in northern Israel, where residents fled and yesterday returned.

Harouf, 13 miles south of Sidon, is a grim smear of cement buildings on a pastoral landscape. In the past, perhaps before the old Arab architecture was overwhelmed by gray sprawl, it was a place of poets. Even today, a few local bards gather regularly to read and sing their lyrical tales.

It is a farm town. The people bring olives and wheat down from the rocky hills and send their sons back up to fight for the land. There is little pretense in the local politics. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stares with smoldering eyes from a huge poster on the main street.

Haj Hassan Badr Eddin, 62, the mayor, said his 19-year-old son was killed last year participating in a Hezbollah attack against Israelis. "Of course, I am proud. He died fighting the enemy," said Mr. Eddin. "I have eight other sons, and I am willing for them to do the same."

The latest bombardments were fierce. Most of the 17,000 people fled. On a reporter's visit one day early in the fighting, the downtown appeared abandoned but for furtive men carrying Kalashnikov rifles. The guerrillas slipped in and out of buildings as the Israeli artillery shells slammed about them in a noisy game of hide and seek.

The artillery was destructive but not deadly. Israel's tactic was akin to trying to swat flies with a baseball bat. No one among the handful of guerrillas in town was wounded, the residents say.

In the rubble of Mrs. Karaki's home, someone found a partly exploded Israeli 155mm shell, and perched it on her front porch -- a southern Lebanon lawn ornament.

Several of her six grown sons stayed behind to fight with Hezbollah while Mrs. Karaki and several grandchildren fled to Beirut. One of the sons was sleeping when the Israelis struck, but he escaped unhurt.

"Naturally, I stay in my house. Naturally, if I'm going to fight someone who occupies my land, am I going to do it from China? No, I'm going to fight from here," Abu Zahra, 24, said as he stood next to a gaping hole in the Karaki house.

The young man had close-cropped hair, much the same style as Israeli soldiers. He wore a beard and a black T-shirt, and had an "evil eye" tattooed on his right hand. He has fought with Hezbollah for years, he said.

Israel had declared all of southern Lebanon a virtual free-fire zone and targeted any movement, arguing that anyone who did not flee was Hezbollah. Many were not.

Amin Kassem Ayub, 60, stayed in his house through the bombardment, keeping company with the confused old man who is the town's ward.

"I have chickens here. If I left them for weeks without food and water, they would die," Mr. Ayub said with a shrug.

If Israel hoped its operation would undercut support for Hezbollah, somehow teach the Lebanese the lesson that they should not support the Islamic group, its tactics failed. Its shells did not stop the Hezbollah rockets but boosted public support for the group.

"We are with them totally. We want Hezbollah to fire bigger rockets. We want Scuds, not Katyushas," said Hassan Ibrahim Harib, 37, an olive-tree farmer.

"The only thing we want now is for Israel to get out of Lebanon," said Ali Sabra, 47, a teacher, whose house was badly damaged. "Everyone will fight for that."

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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