Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Where the shepherds tend guns by night By Peter Beaumont

In this border village, many civilians flee the Israeli bombardment. But others, compelled by a mix of religion and patriotism, have joined the fight

Peter Beaumont in Kfar Kila | Sunday August 6, 2006 | The Observer

When war came to the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, a stronghold of the Hizbollah-led Islamic Resistance, it did not have very far to travel. A kilometre of olive groves, and decades of hatred and mutually divisive history, separate this impoverished mountain village from the uniformly red-roofed houses of Metula, Kfar Kila’s nearest neighbouring town. Except Metula is in Israel.They are so close that from the village you can see Israeli cars parked by their houses. So close that the border at one point – at the Fatima Gate – forms the eastern boundary of the village.

Now Israel is at war with Hizbollah, Kfar Kila is at the very front of the front line. The olive trees on the ridge above the village have been scorched black by the phosphorus flares Israeli soldiers used last week to set them aflame. Buildings have been smashed and ruined, set on fire. Some are stained with blood.

Farm animals, kept in sheds and yards behind the bigger houses, have been injured by the shrapnel from tank shells, which scream in with a jarring, lethal regularity. Ibrahim Yahia, a 26-year-old farmer and part-time defender of Kfar Kila, leads us to a Friesian cow, blinded in one eye by shrapnel. Blood streams from one nostril. As Yahia tries to take its muzzle and comfort it, the animal is spooked, and bucks and kicks.

But nothing appears to spook Yahia. A member of Amal, the group fighting alongside Hizbollah in the Islamic Resistance, he barely flinches as the Israeli shells crash in. The streets are open on one side to observation from the gunners around Metula. ‘If they want to come, they’ll come,’ he said sombrely, showing off the rubble in his parents’ house, where a shell had punched a hole through the wall. ‘Then we will fight them.’

It is a confidence buoyed by the sense of victory that followed the fighters of Kfar Kila’s first major encounter with Israeli ground forces in this war. The day before we spoke, the Israelis had tried to take the village with three tanks and infantry advancing from two directions. Over two days, Yahia and his colleagues fought them to a standstill.

One tank was disabled, by Israel’s account – three according to Hizbollah’s – before the Israeli troops pulled back from Kfar Kila across the fence, burning the olive groves as they went, to resume the business of hurling high explosives against the ridges above the village.

‘I’m not like the Israelis,’ Yahia said.

‘I won’t fight without a reason. But because I have a reason I will fight. Because this is my land, I am prepared to die for it. How could you stay silent when you see your land burn and your children get killed? The whole population here is now resisting.’

It is a crucial difference, he seems to suggest, which explains why Israel is struggling to make ground in this campaign – its soldiers are not fighting in their own villages to defend their homes.

‘They hit and run,’ Yahia said scathingly about the Israeli tactics. ‘When they meet us they run like rabbits.’

It is something that strikes you forcefully when you reach the front line of this war. In these villages that form the strongholds of the Islamic Resistance, the men – many of them obviously fighters out of uniform – do not talk much in terms of ideology or religious fanaticism. They are not the zealots and jihadis that Israel claims. Instead, they talk about their damaged property and their livestock scattered by the shelling on the mountains. They talk about family who have fled and those who have stayed. And all the time they carefully skirt talk of the fighters. If they do talk politics it is sometimes with an unexpected spin. Several say that it is not so much the Israelis they blame for this – indeed, who they suggest would agree to a truce – but US President George Bush, who they claim is the real force behind the war.

While religion is an element, it is part of a much more complex formula. Yahia mentions that he follows Ayatollah Sistani, the moderate Shia leader in Iraq, and says he is prepared to be a martyr in this fight for his home. But it is said in a casual way. For Yahia, like the other men in the village, religion is important in the same way as his land, his home, his family and his people.

The south of Lebanon, with its Shia majority, is both strongly observant and socially conservative. ‘We do have time to pray while we are fighting,’ said Yahia. ‘Some of us defend while others pray and then we pray while others defend. If I get an hour of rest I will try to visit my family. Otherwise we eat sand and bullets!’

As we talk, Yahia’s commander and another younger fighter arrive to examine a dud shell. The older man is bearded and in his late fifties. ‘I don’t want to say how many fighters we have in Kfar Kila, but it is a large number. If the Israelis come again they will not get in.’

All the evidence suggests that the commander is not exaggerating. While uniformed members of the Hizbollah missile brigades in the villages around the largely Christian town of Marjeyoun are almost invisible, evidence of their presence is not. It suggests that the fighters here are more numerous, better armed and better trained than Israel imagined.

One afternoon, by chance, we do see three Hizbollah fighters walking down from the olive groves on the slopes into Kfar Kila carrying an ammunition bag. Despite the bombardment, their walk is jaunty and they return a wave with an embarrassed grin, as if caught out by being spotted in the open.

Otherwise, the presence of Hizbollah is only discernible in the puff and whoosh of their missiles; by the scorched ground in the scrub where the launchers briefly halt to fire, and by their many bunkers, heavily camouflaged on the hillsides.

While both sides speak of their victories, seen from the frontline vantage point of Kfar Kila, this is a grinding, grimly pointless war of mutual intimidation that, it appears, neither side can win.

Israeli jets drop their expensive US bombs, usually far from where Hizbollah has been firing. Tanks pound the limestone ridges and envelop them in smoke (‘Shooting at ghosts and trees,’ says Yahia wryly). In retaliation, Hizbollah fires its rockets blindly across the border, while Metula’s sirens wail.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army, the world’s fourth most powerful, is driven back by the fierce resistance of shepherds, farmers and mechanics – who are not afraid to die, unlike young Israelis – and then retreats, while leaders on both sides threaten worse, while hinting at conditions for peace.

Caught in the middle, inevitably, are Lebanon’s civilians. And every day they flee or die. And sometimes both. Last Tuesday afternoon, as the Israelis were still trying to enter Kfar Kila, we met Ismail Hamoud, 53, on the northern outskirts of the town. His family have gone but, like so many men, Hamoud has chosen to remain.

‘It’s the second day that the Israelis have tried to advance,’ he said wearily, after a sleepless and fearful night and amid the noise of shellfire hitting the village’s southern half. ‘They already tried once to get into the village and then at 5.30 last night they tried again to come in from the other side of the town.

‘We heard small-arms fire, but the resistance fought back and hit three of their tanks. That is when they started firing phosphorus and setting fire to the crops, burning all the houses on the hill.’

And while the Islamic Resistance claimed the battle as a victory, other villagers are less certain. The Israeli action, they suspect, was not to capture Kfar Kila, but to frighten out its remaining residents.

With Hamoud was Yamen Hassan, a tattooed young man in a blue T-shirt. As Hamoud looked warily up the street, Hassan called us over to observe a small group of approaching Israeli troops, moving through the olive trees on the small plain between Metula and the northern outskirts of Kfar Kila, trying to outflank the fighters in the village.

Hassan had come to Kfar Kila to rescue families trapped beneath the Israeli bombardment, but he had halted on its outskirts. ‘I am crazy,’ he said. ‘But I am not so crazy that I will go any further.’

Instead, Hassan had found different passengers to drive out of the town, Mousab and Zainub Rida, who on hearing that Israeli soldiers were creeping through the groves beside their home, elected to flee with a handful of their belongings. As Zainub packed a few possessions on to a tractor-trailer for her husband to take out of town, she wept.

‘I’ve had enough,’ said Mousab, a rubbish collector. ‘And my wife is just too scared for us to stay.’

A day later, however, they returned to their house. It was only a brief respite. The next day, amid new fears of a general Israeli invasion of the south, up to the Litani river, we saw them once again. This time they finally had fled Kfar Kila. They had not been alone in struggling between fear and their desire to remain.

After more than three weeks of shelling that has seen most of the population of 12,000 flee, a handful are still slipping out of the village every day, their endurance finally brought – like the Ridas’ – to snapping point. A few escape in private cars driven by volunteers such as Yamen Hassan. Others leave in a private ambulance, whose insanely cheerful drivers – apparently impervious to the fear of death – shuttle in and out a day, even under the worst fire, delivering bread and other food provided by the local municipality and taking out those who want to leave to the school in Marjeyoun.

But there are those in Kfar Kila – a few hundred at most, perhaps – who have decided to stay. Among them is Mahmoud Hassan Ali, 76. We met him among a small group of women and children who had emerged from their shelters during a lull in the bombing. He showed us his home, damaged by an Israeli shell. ‘We were in the house sleeping when the shell came in,’ he said. ‘Then we ran.’

While we were talking another shell came into the village, scattering the residents back to their homes and basement shelters. So Kfar Kila’s war goes on.

Day 25 of conflict

· Helicopter-borne Israeli commandos attack Hizbollah guerrillas near Tyre. The Lebanese say that 900 civilians – a third of them children – have died since hostilities began on 12 July.

· Hizbollah rockets wound five people north of Haifa. Israeli television reports that three people die in a rocket strike on a house in Galilee. 2,600 rockets have now killed 33 Israeli civilians.

· Eight Israeli commandos are wounded, two seriously, in an operation against militia fighters suspected of firing missiles at Israel

· An Israeli air strike kills two Palestinians, including an elderly woman, in Rafah, Gaza.

What comes next


Final version of the draft Security Council resolution must be formally tabled and voted on, a process that could be wrapped up by tomorrow if no last-minute disputes intervene.

Over the week

Israel and Hizbollah would have to cease-fire under the reported terms, though the Israelis would be likely to hold their positions inside Lebanon until an international force could be assembled and deployed under a further Security Council resolution.

Over the next fortnight

Negotiations to put together an international ‘stabilisation’ force, probably led and dominated by French troops, with the eventual aim of disarming or displacing Hizbollah and giving Lebanon’s regular army sole military control of the entire country.

Aid cut off

The amount of aid entering Lebanon was still severely limited yesterday, the day after Israeli bombers severed the road artery, or ‘umbilical cord’, used to feed thousands of displaced citizens.

The United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) distributed food to 8,000 in Beirut after warplanes struck four key bridges necessary for the delivery of supplies by road, but said that thousands still remained helpless.

The WFP said that tens of thousands more were trapped without aid.

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This entry was posted on 7 August, 2006 by in Empire, War and Terror, Israel, Lebanon, Religion, Strategy.

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