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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 July 2006, 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK
Bint Jbeil: Hezbollah heartland
View of Bint Jbeil
Bint Jbeil's streets are a cluster of narrow alleys and homes
Nestled in a shallow valley amid rolling hills, the south-eastern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, where eight Israeli soldiers have died in battle, has a strategic value to Israel and a symbolic history for Hezbollah.

When Israel's generals sent infantry forces across the border to engage Hezbollah directly, they knew one of the first major fights would be for the town.

A swift victory in Bint Jbeil - "daughter of the mountain" in Arabic - would have provided a boost for the Israeli campaign.

But long-standing Hezbollah associations with the town ensured the group's men would fight until the end.

It was a tough day
Maj Gen Udi Adam
Israeli army
When Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah chose Bint Jbeil as the site of his first "victory" rally.

He told tens of thousands of cheering Hezbollah followers that the group would continue campaigning for the release of Lebanese prisoners and the return of the Shebaa Farms, which Hezbollah claims as Lebanese territory but the UN has ruled is Syria's.

Six years on, and two weeks into Israel's military campaign against Hezbollah, Bint Jbeil - normally home to more than 20,000 people - returned to the spotlight.

Ambushed

"It was a tough day," Israel's Maj Gen Udi Adam told journalists after his forces lost nine men in one day of fierce fighting, all but one of them in Bint Jbeil.

Map

Battalion 51 of Israel's elite Golani brigade had arrived in Bint Jbeil after the town was pounded for 48 hours by artillery fire and air power.

Knowing the Israelis would have to pass their way, most of the town's residents had already fled.

But while Israeli commanders had expected Hezbollah resistance - one referred to the area as a "dangerous nest" - it appears guerrillas flocked to Bint Jbeil even as the shells flew in, preparing for the fight ahead.

When Israel's troops arrived in the town's compact, narrow streets, they quickly came under fire from all directions.

The ambush was fierce and deadly: small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank missiles and mortar rounds, according to an Israeli major quoted by the New York Times.

Israel's troops quickly sustained serious casualties, and the nature of their mission changed.

Pinned down by sustained Hezbollah fire, with eight dead and many more injured, Battalion 51 - which reportedly lost nine men in Lebanon in 1996 - spent the next six hours fending off attackers and trying to evacuate their casualties.

Resisting

In the aftermath of the battle, Israel's army talked tough.

Israeli soldier talks to a wounded comrade
Israeli commanders said they knew losses were inevitable
There was praise for the unit that fought in Bint Jbeil, and a constant stress that Hezbollah also sustained heavy casualties. The battalion commander, Lt Col Yaniv Asor, said he was "ready for anything", according to Israel's Ynetnews.com.

But the heavy losses left media commentators divided about whether to intensify the attacks on Hezbollah.

Israel's security cabinet reportedly decided against launching a large-scale ground offensive, with ministers suggesting an intensified use of air power could guard against unwanted casualties on the ground.

On Bint Jbeil's official town website, visitors are greeted by a single-word declaration of intent: "Resisting!"

On the ground, the battle for the so-called "capital of the liberated south" seems set to continue.




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