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Support for Hezbollah Increasing Among South Lebanon Residents


As Israel's military offensive in Lebanon continues for a third week, the death toll on both sides of the border is climbing. There has been intense fighting between Hezbollah and Israeli troops, and Israeli airstrikes have continued to flatten the towns and villages of southern Lebanon. Israel has never claimed to be fighting for hearts and minds, but besieged Lebanese southerners say Israel's tactics will only increase support for Hezbollah. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Lebanon's southern port city of Tyre, 25 kilometers from the border.

Day and night, aerial reconnaissance drones buzz in the sky over Tyre, scouting targets, frequently heard but seldom seen. There is a constant drumbeat of distant explosions as Israeli shells pound nearby villages. Every day, more refugees from the south arrive in Tyre, on their way further north to safety.

The Lebanese government estimates that at least 750,000 people have been forced from their homes, more than a quarter of the country's population. The death toll in Lebanon is well over 400, almost entirely civilians.

Israeli political and military leaders say their aim is to render Hezbollah incapable of attacking Israel anymore, to chase the militant group away from the border. But the military campaign has proven to be much tougher than Israel anticipated, and Hezbollah a much more capable adversary than they realized.

Despite the massive Israeli firepower focused on southern Lebanon over the past two-and-a-half weeks, Hezbollah's rocket attacks on northern Israeli have continued, including on the third-largest city of Haifa.

Israeli planes have also dropped leaflets over the south, with cartoon characters and Arabic captions, trying to convince residents that the person to blame for the entire crisis is Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The caricatures depict him as a snake, or as someone holding the Lebanese people hostage.

But many residents of south Lebanon say the military campaign is strengthening support for Hezbollah, not weakening it.

Waiting in line to buy his daily ration of bread, Tyre resident Jameel Bilal says bombing villages, attacking civilian vehicles and demolishing Lebanon's infrastructure will backfire.

"The Israelis think that with these tactics they're able to force the populations here to submit to the will of Israel," he said. "But on the contrary, what they're doing is inspiring resistance. This is inspiring young children and grown ups.'"

Here in the south, Hezbollah is not just a militant group, it is a political party with deep roots in the community. It provides social services, such as schools and clinics. Together with the Shi'ite Amal party, it is the de facto authority here.

And so it is no surprise that support for what locals call "the resistance" is strong. An elderly woman named Husna expressed a common view as she described the conditions her family is living under.

"The situation is non-existent for us," she said. "We are living in the bunkers, taking cover. We have no food." Then she says, "We are with Nasrallah, and we are with the resistance, even if it means total destruction."

At a local vegetable market, a man who did not give his name said he thinks Israel is trying to turn Lebanese people against each other.

"And this war, this war is not dividing us," he said. "It's actually quite the contrary, it's uniting us against Israeli terror, against Israel's barbaric actions. When this happens to us, it unites us, it doesn't divide us."

And to a degree, that is true. Shiite refugees from the south are sheltering in Christian, Sunni and Druze villages to the north. This outpouring of support for their plight has been a remarkable show of cross-sectarian unity in a country that fought a 15-year civil war along religious fault lines.

It is difficult to find anyone in the south who is willing to publicly express criticism of Hezbollah. That may partly be because some residents are afraid to speak out against the group, fearing repercussions, but it is also due to Hezbollah's genuine popularity here.

What can be felt, palpably, is exhaustion, fear and a true longing for peace.

The same man in the marketplace had this to say, after overhearing others vowing to fight the Israeli offensive even if it kills every last Lebanese:

"Come on, let's be rational here in the market, let's be reasonable," he said. "There are some things that should be said, and other things that just don't make sense. We need peace. We want to live in peace. We want Muslims, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Christians to all live in peace. We don't want aggression. We don't want to be aggressed against. We don't want to aggress against anyone."

A Lebanese-American man, Ali Chahine, stopped in Tyre overnight on his way to Cyprus after being trapped for two weeks in the besieged border city of Yaroun. He came away from that traumatic experience fervently wishing for a cease-fire, for at least long enough to get other civilians out of harm's way.

"Through war, they're not going to accomplish anything, either Israel or the people of Lebanon, the Hezbollah," he said. "Only through negotiation. And I will say for both parties, just to save and minimize the casualties among civilians, it's time to throw away the guns and discuss that problem like a human being through the United Nations or whatever international body, so they can stop that massacre there."

But international talks aimed at brokering a solution have failed so far, and there is little sign of progress in convincing either side to abandon its fight. Israel has called up 30,000 reserve troops to face two fronts, in Gaza and in Lebanon.

On Friday, the United Nations announced that it is withdrawing its troops from the border, just days after an Israeli attack on a U.N. border post killed four unarmed U.N. observers.

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