TYRE â€” “They’re coming â€” again,” said Yussuf Ismael, a teacher who grabbed his family and fled his Lebanese border village, fearing an imminent full-scale invasion like that of 1982 when Israeli troops marched on Beirut.
As Israel ramps up its air campaign across the south, fleeing villagers say history is on the verge of repeating itself as the Jewish state’s offensive seems to be heading in only one direction â€” a full-scale land invasion.
Israel’s 11-day air offensive has been punishing, taking well over 300 lives, destroying hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure and levelling whole villages and neighbourhoods as half a million Lebanese have fled their homes.
And the border villagers have been receiving chilling warnings, signed by “the State of Israel,” that the worst is yet to come.
“To residents of villages south of the Litani River, you are requested to abandon your homes immediately,” read the sunshine-coloured flyers fluttering down from the skies of south Lebanon.
Evacuees from the dozens of mostly Shiite communities nestled into the rolling hills north of the Israeli border describe a relentless air bombardment crushing scores of homes, and turning packed vehicles into tangled heaps of charred metal and burnt flesh.
“Smoke and fire” were the last things Ali Sheikh Hussein saw of his village as he fled with his family Thursday. “We got on the road to leave and we could still hear them striking us. Lots of people are left behind, buried under the rubble,” the farmer said. “They completely destroyed the village.” But Israel’s F-16 fighters have yet to break the group who triggered this latest conflagration by capturing two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid July 12.
The Hizbollah-launched rockets continue to fall on northern Israel and the Shiite fighters remain defiant, unwilling to disarm or withdraw from Israel’s border.
The New York Times has reported that the United States will allow Israel one more week to complete its mission, as calls for an immeidate ceasefire multiply.
With time running out and Israeli goals still out of reach, a ground assault seems the only option.
Israeli tanks have been positioned at two points inside south Lebanon for the past three days. Hizbollah has claimed to have rebuffed a number of incursions along the border.
Many here celebrated as Hizbollah’s Al Manar television showed pictures of destroyed tanks and other battlefield paraphernalia left behind by retreating Israelis.
It is feared, however, that such small-scale incursions are mere feelers, reconnaissance missions to gauge the strength of the Hizbollah defences.
If the ground assault does come, it would not be the first time, as villagers here well know.
“This is 1982 all over again,” said Ismael, referring to Israel’s devastating push on the Lebanese capital that year from the border strip it had occupied four years earlier. The Lebanese are still traumatised by that invasion which left some 20,000 people killed.
The onslaught also proved a fateful decision for Israel, as their commanders were accused of abetting horrific war crimes and the army remained bogged down in a lethal quagmire for 18 years before it ended its occupation of southern Lebanon under Hizbollah attacks.
It was the 1982 invasion which gave birth to a new movement Hizbollah whose primary mission remains preventing Israel’s return.
“Let them invade us again,” says Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who lived through the 1982 assault. “This time there is real resistance. The last time there was just a few guns.” In 1982, the Israelis succeeded in driving the Palestinian Liberation Organisation out of Beirut, but Hizbollah soon took up the mantle of resistance in Lebanon, and has proven to be just as irksome a thorn in Israel’s side.
If Israel should succeed in driving Hizbollah from the south, Abu Zeid wonders what will come next.
“Until they respect our rights, and stop considering Arab blood worthless, things will only get worse for Israel,” he says. “If they send their whole army into Lebanon, maybe they can defeat Hizbollah, but then what? It will be Al Qaeda or something worse.”