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LEBANON: Fear of new Israel war over Gaza

January 8, 2009 |  3:20 pm

Unifil

At first, he thought the sound was just thunder. But Hussain Fouani, along with the other inhabitants of Dhaira, a small Lebanese village close to the border with Israel, quickly realized today that what they long feared could happen was turning into reality.

Rockets were being fired from the hills behind their town into the north of Israel.

The 21-year-old stone quarry worker saw women screaming desperately to their children to return home. And in the middle of the confusion, they heard explosions of a new series of shells. This time, about 15 minutes later, it was Israel retaliating with rockets hitting the uninhabited valley between Dhaira and another village, Tayr Harfa.

“The situation is scary. We don’t know how it flares up at any moment. But what can we do? We will just wait and pray to be safe,” said Fouani, who gazed with other men at the rocky hills covered with shrubs at the edge of their village.

Precarious calm prevailed over this poor agricultural area by the afternoon after a morning of overflight by Israeli jets.

The people of Dhaira deny any knowledge of who was behind the rockets. They say they haven’t seen anything suspicious in past days.

Since the beginning of the Israeli campaign against Hamas on Gaza, the Lebanese, especially those in the south, worry that a new war with Israel would break.

Many have not yet wiped out the atrocious memories of the 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and the Jewish state.

In the aftermath of today's incident, schools in Dhaira and all over the south closed their doors. Many sick and elderly people as well as entire families left the border villages to stay with relatives in safer areas.

“Israel cannot be trusted. The whole situation could collapse at any moment,” said Zaher Abou Sari, 32, a chef. “We feel compassionate for our people in Gaza, but we cannot help them. Any small rocket fired from here could lead to our destruction. We cannot pay the price alone.”

Like elsewhere in southern Lebanon, Dhaira’s residents are still restoring their damaged houses hit by Israeli shells in 2006.

Some still recall with anxiety the several days they spent sheltered from the bombs at a nearby United Nations base.

Today, tens of armored U.N. vehicles patrolled the streets. Several Lebanese military checkpoints stopped passing cars to check identification papers.

In Tayr Harfa, signs of support for Hezbollah were more apparent through posters of martyrs from the Shiite militant group hanging on building walls.

A group of twentysomething Hezbollah supporters sat at the doorstep of a small empty cafe with a billiard table. “We feel protected by the resistance. They are stronger than ever, and if God wills they will defend us against any Israeli aggression,” said Hassan, a 25-year-old engineering student.

But a few yards down the road, veiled women peeking from their modest rural homes seemed more worried about a new conflict.

“We had enough. Those who fired the rockets are trying to make us panic. May God punish them,  whoever they are,” said Mariam Rahhal, 64, who makes her living cultivating tobacco plants and olive trees.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Lebanese army officers and peacekeeping troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, inspect the area where rockets were fired into Israel near the southern Lebanese village of Tayr Harfa. Credit: Joseph Barrak /AFP/Getty Images

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