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Sectarian Divides in Lebanon Both Strained and Bridged by Israeli Attacks

The Lebanese government estimates that half a million people have been forced from their homes by Israeli airstrikes targeting Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon and south Beirut. Many of the Shiite refugees are taking shelter in Christian villages, an idea unimaginable 25 years ago when Lebanon was enmeshed in a sectarian war. In some places, the strain is showing, but in others the crisis is bringing people together.

It was behind the school, around noon, when she learned that her brother and father had been killed.

The woman, whose name we never learned, fell to her knees. She tore at her veil, and pounded with her small fists on the belly of the man who had given her the news.

Friends and neighbors tried to console her. She collapsed in anguish, and screamed her brother's name over and over.

Her cousin Majid turned away, his eyes red-rimmed, trying to choke back tears.

He said his cousin Hussein had been working in Beirut when the fighting broke out, but his wife and children were still trapped in the southern city of Tyre. Hussein and his father, Zake, had gone down to try to rescue them, but an Israeli bomb tore their car apart and killed both men.

Majid had gotten the news from neighbors an hour earlier. Hussein's sister was just finding out.

The port city of Tyre has been pummeled by Israeli airstrikes since the beginning, but the bombing has intensified in recent days. The public hospital there has started burying unclaimed bodies in a temporary mass grave because there is no more room in the morgue.

Israeli planes have repeatedly dropped leaflets warning residents to flee, but with many roads and bridges bombed out and the shells still falling, thousands of people remain trapped.

But others have gotten out. Hundreds of people from Hezbollah's stronghold in south Lebanon have taken refuge in this Christian village high in the mountains above Beirut. These Shiite Muslim families are sleeping in a schoolhouse, where the windows are stained glass and the roof is topped with a Christian cross.

The shelter is staffed by volunteers from the village, including George Abisamra.

"There is nothing else we can do. We have to help them. They are Lebanese, and they are poor, and their families are divided, everyone is somewhere," he said.

But it was not so long ago, when Abisamra was a child, that villagers from Broummana could look down from their mountaintop at Beirut and watch Christians and Muslims lobbing artillery at one another across the so-called Green Line that divided the city in half along sectarian lines.

"I dunno. We had a conflict with the Shiites. Everybody knows that there was a war in Lebanon. I don't call it civil war, but it was a war," he said. "We used to fight them, and they used to fight us, Christians and Muslims. But now, I'm leaving my family and my children and I'm staying here 24 hours a day, because we forgot that there was a war between us."

Abisamra is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, the country's largest Christian political party. It is headed by General Michel Aoun, who has allied himself politically with Hezbollah, which has the support of the majority of Shiites from the embattled south.

"But what we are doing right now is only as humanitarian help. If it was not Hezbollah, if it was another part of the Lebanese, we would have done the same," he said.

But there are some Lebanese Christians who feel less charitable. In a lot of Christian areas, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has never been popular, but resentment against him has grown sharply since the war started. The tourism industry has collapsed, and with it jobs have evaporated. The country's infrastructure is being destroyed.

In the East Beirut neighborhood of Achrafiyeh, bartender George Slim stood talking with a group of friends who wore the insignia of a different Christian faction, the Lebanese Forces.

"Yeah, I think the people of the south and dahiya (southern suburbs) of Beirut, they were asking for this. Because if they stopped supporting Nasrallah, everything would be solved," he said.

Slim and his friends point toward a school in their neighborhood that is also hosting Shiite refugees from the south. They cynically say they doubt that the refugees will remember who came to their aid.

The Israeli offensive has exposed some of Lebanon's sectarian divides that has been papered over since the end of the civil war. Some speculate that Israel may be trying to spark a new round of sectarian conflict, to turn Christians against Hezbollah.

If that is the goal, political science professor Paul Tabet says it will not work.

"The attack, the Israeli attack and the Israeli war on Lebanon is not going to create divisions. It's going to, on the contrary, overcome divisions and create stronger unity among people," he said.

There have been many calls for national unity in this time of crisis, for Lebanese of all religious groups to put aside their differences. Those calls have come even from the factions most hostile to Hezbollah, including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Several statements by members of the government indicate their priority is simply dealing with the crisis and pushing the United Nations to broker a cease-fire. But they also imply that Hezbollah could have to answer for its own actions after the Israeli strikes end.