Lebanese begin to return to homes

In northern Israel, too, life inches toward normal

August 15, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON AND BRUCE WALLACE | TRACY WILKINSON AND BRUCE WALLACE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

METULLA, Israel -- On both sides of a suddenly quiet Israel-Lebanon border, displaced masses returned to their war-ravaged homes yesterday as the Hezbollah militia and the Israeli army generally held to a brittle cease-fire accord.

Israel and Hezbollah both claimed qualified victory after 34 days of fighting that killed at least 800 Lebanese and 155 Israelis.

Meeting face to face for the first time in six years, Israeli and Lebanese military commanders sorted through the details of a complicated truce agreement that envisions moving Lebanese and international forces into southern Lebanon.

Several officials have said such movement could take weeks, and Israel says it will not withdraw until that happens.

Some Israeli reservist soldiers marched out of Lebanon ahead of the cease-fire, but a senior military official said the bulk of a 30,000-strong fighting force remains in Lebanon, with new rules of engagement after having boxed in the remnants of the Hezbollah forces.

It was not a perfect cessation of hostilities: Israelis skirmished with Hezbollah fighters, killing six; Hezbollah fired 10 rockets early today that landed errantly in Lebanon, the Israeli military said.

In Israel, political fallout from what many Israelis see as a poorly executed war has begun to threaten the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who went before a special session of parliament yesterday and accepted responsibility for "deficiencies." Still, Olmert claimed Israel dealt a devastating blow to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah made a similarly triumphant claim, going on television to celebrate what he called a historic victory.

From civilians to politicians to fighters, Lebanese and Israelis alike expressed hope tempered by considerable pessimism that the U.N.-brokered cease-fire might mark an end to violence that erupted when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, and Israel responded with thousands of aerial bombings and artillery assault.

"I wish this will be the end," a tearful Gabriel Lev said as he mourned his son Heran, one of the last Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon before the cease-fire. "I wish he will be the last one. But if I am a realist, I must say it will never end."

Tens of thousands of displaced Lebanese loaded up cars and trucks and began returning to reclaim their villages and cities in south Lebanon, despite an Israeli travel ban.

Nearly a million Lebanese were displaced by bombings and fighting, according to the Lebanese government. About a half-million Israelis had to flee their homes in the north because of daily barrages of hundreds of rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas.

In a choking free-for-all of exhaust and dust, the Lebanese inched their way along roads littered with rubble, frequently funneling into a single lane where roads and bridges had been cratered by Israeli airstrikes.

Hezbollah's yellow and green machine-gun motif waved from hundreds of car antennas and windows. Car radios tuned to Hezbollah's radio station played jaunty military anthems, and the militia's supporters handed out leaflets that congratulated the returnees for "winning against invasion, destruction and racism."

Young men in Hezbollah Civil Defense T-shirts directed traffic at the hastily plowed earthen bridge that restored the crossing over the Litani River, the northern target of Israel's offensive.

And everywhere, there was the image of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, from sunscreens in the windows to children's T-shirts.

"Our home may be destroyed, but we want to see it," said Rokiah Sheblei, 32, as she waited for traffic to move. "It was all worth it for the sake of Nasrallah."

Israelis, too, were going home. Main highways were bumper-to-bumper with cars all the way from Tel Aviv on the central coast to northern cities besieged by Hezbollah, such as Kiryat Shemona and Metulla.

"If it's quiet for one week, the Israelis will come back," predicted Eilana Rosenfeld, a Metulla resident who runs a bed-and-breakfast and who was driving home for the first time in weeks, her car filled to the windows with food and supplies.

In Kiryat Shemona, where 1,012 Katyusha rockets landed, residents who had languished in bomb shelters began to venture out.

Virtually a ghost town on Sunday, Kiryat Shemona by midday yesterday was beginning to spring to life. Traffic lights were working for the first time in weeks, a barber shop and two hardware stores opened up, and the parking lot at the mall was full.

"Experience tells me you really can't know how quickly [the city] will recover," said Haim Cohen, 47, stepping gingerly through the shattered glass on a sidewalk, where a row of shops took a direct hit. "One little thing and it can all go to pot."

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