Page last updated at 23:43 GMT, Saturday, 17 January 2009

Lebanese fear Israel's next step

Natalia Antelava
South Lebanon

There are 13,000 peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon

United Nation helicopters circle in the cloudless sky above South Lebanon. The bumpy road below them is dotted with Lebanese army checkpoints.

Past them lies what is known here as the land of resistance - the villages where the Shia militant group Hezbollah controls hearts and minds.

From here, its fighters battled Israel in a fierce conflict in 2006 and now the portraits of Hezbollah fighters killed in that war look down from the roadside billboards.

Some look straight at Israel, which stretches just a couple of hundred of yards away beyond the barbed wire.

Hezbollah's turn

During the war in Gaza, Israeli officials warned Hezbollah that after Hamas it would be their turn. And so what is happening on the other side of the border concerns everyone in Lebanon.

I don't know who is behind these attacks, whoever it is wants to drag us into the war. We are very worried
Hajj Rakhal

In Yareen, a small village, a mullah's voice echoes through the dusty narrow streets. He describes the suffering in Gaza and calls on his followers to pray for the Palestinians.

But it has not been just about the prayers. Twice in the last week, unknown militants launched rockets across the border and Israel retaliated with artillery fire.

It is not clear who was behind the attack. What is clear is that it is a response to Israel's actions in Gaza.

High up in the hills, surrounded by olive groves, UN peacekeepers patrol the patch of land from where rockets were launched.

Little boys from the nearby village hide in bushes and shoot their toy guns at the peacekeepers. "Ciao" - they laugh and shout to the Italian soldiers.


For the past two years, 13,000 peacekeepers from 28 countries have been deployed in South Lebanon.

Peacekeepers have found several small stockpiles of rockets
They are working together with the Lebanese army.

Since the conflict in Gaza began, they have found several small stockpiles of rockets. After the first attack, they deployed additional troops.

"We've intensified the patrols that we are conducting with the Lebanese army to keep this area safe," says Yasmina Bouzeian, a spokesperson for the UN force, Unifil.

But the measures that the UN and the Lebanese army are taking failed to prevent a second attack just days later.

Harsh rhetoric

Hezbollah - which always claims responsibility for its actions - says it is not behind these rockets, and some analysts believe that whoever is behind the attack may be trying to drag Hezbollah into the fight.

Nevertheless, the party's rhetoric has been harsh and militant.

In Beirut last week, tens of thousands came out to celebrate the Shia festival of Ashura and to show their support for the Palestinians in Gaza.

Helzbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed the crowd via a videolink. He announced that he was ready for another war, and Israel too has said that its prepared to fight the group.

Hajj Rakhal
Many of Hajj Rakhal's neighbours left when the rockets were launched

So far Hezbollah has clearly restrained its fighters from taking military action. But if hostilities break out, it is not only Mr Nasrallah's supporters who say they will stand behind him.

"I am a Sunni, and I thought that Hezbollah was wrong to fight the 2006 war but if Nasrallah goes to war now, I will support him. What has happened in Gaza is not human," said one man who lost his family in 2006 and who did not want to be named.

Anger and fear

But while there is a clear sense of anger here, in the South there is also plenty of fear.

Seated on a low plastic chair in front his house, Hajj Rakhal cut up firewood throwing branches in the floor in front of him.

He told me many of his neighbours had packed up and left after the rockets were launched.

"I don't know who is behind these attacks, whoever it is wants to drag us into the war. We are very worried," he said.

"If these attacks continue Israel will start another conflict," he says.

For the people of Southern Lebanon, the threat of violence is never far, and the war in Gaza has brought it closer.

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