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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 February 2007, 10:02 GMT
Slow recovery in south Lebanon
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, south Lebanon

Unifil forces
Unifil hopes to prevent further armed confrontations on the border
A massive French battle tank swings its turret slowly from left to right, its cannon barrel pointing straight at Israel down below.

About a dozen French peacekeepers from the United Nationals Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), stand by two other military vehicles parked along the road.

The picturesque, lush green scenery, with rolling fields on either side of the border fence is deceptively peaceful.

But a rare exchange of fire between the Israeli and Lebanese armies took place just a few hundreds meters away, 12 days ago, the first serious incident on the border since the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel ended six months ago.

UN peacekeepers reinforced their presence in the area hoping to make sure it would be the last one.

Under pressure

The reticent French soldiers had little to say other than "Tout est calme", all is quiet.

If anything happens, people will take off, no-one wants to get stuck here no more
Ali Faraj
A Lebanese army jeep with a couple of officers drove past, heading further down the valley, closer to the border fence.

Lebanese troops hadn't had a presence in the area for decades, until UN resolution 1701, which ended the 34-day conflict, paved the way for the deployment of about 10,000 Lebanese and 11,000 more UN peacekeepers.

That is why Hezbollah is feeling under pressure in south Lebanon.

Under the UN resolution, only the Lebanese army and Unifil are allowed to carry weapons in the border area.

Gone are the small Hezbollah positions and the yellow and green Hezbollah flags fluttering in the face of Israelis soldiers.

But these were only the visible signs of the Shia guerrilla group's presence along the border.

Hezbollah forces are still operational in the area, and they work hard to conceal their true strength.

Caught in conflict

In the southern town of Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah stronghold, still heavily scarred by the fighting, life is very slowly returning to normal.

Kids play on the street, shops are full of fresh vegetable produce - but memories of the war are still vivid.

A village in southern Lebanon badly damaged by bombing (picture courtesy UNHCR)
Many towns in south Lebanon were left in total ruin
"Everybody went to the gas stations to fill up on gas," said Ali Faraj, recalling the latest border incident.

"If anything happens, people will take off, no-one wants to get stuck here no more," he says speaking English picked in Dearborn, Michigan, in the United States.

Thousands of Lebanese emigrated to the US over the years and Dearborn is a popular destination for people from the south.

Ali and his friend do not see any problem if Hezbollah units work alongside the regular army in the south.

"The Lebanese army is not strong enough to defend south Lebanon.

"What the army can do against Israeli planes?" asks his friend, also with a strong American accent.

Many of the locals, like Ali, say they don't trust the UN peackeepers and see them as protecting Israel instead of Lebanon.

In the last few days, a Spanish patrol was stoned by locals and French soldiers distributing medicine were kicked out by villagers in Maroun el-Ras by the border.

The unusual incidents are a worrying development for the authorities in Beirut. Anger at government

Surrounded by bombed-out buildings, torched cars and a badly damaged mosque, you can really feel the frustration and many people say they've been abandoned by their government.

It's a disgrace, they take our taxes but they don't even come to see us
Ali Bazzi
Head of Bint Jbeil municipality

"Nobody got any help from the government. In any self respecting country, the government would have come to visit the damaged area, we didn't see a single minister," said Ali Bazzi, the head of the Bint Jbeil municipality.

"It's a disgrace, they take our taxes but they don't even come to see us. Given the current political situation in Beirut, we have no relations with the central government in Beirut."

The cash-strapped government has lobbied international donors and brought in international teams to help with reconstruction.

But it was no match for the speed and organisation of Hezbollah, which distributed around $300m in cash straight after the war.

The group's vast social network is highly appreciated by locals. But if you're not a Hezbollah supporter you can be left out.

'Turned away'

"Hezbollah say they don't differentiate between Lebanese people," said Sita Balhas, a mother of five in the village of Siddiqine.

"But when my son was wounded in the war, he went to one of Hezbollah's medical centre, they told him: your legs are not for Hezbollah, so we won't treat you."

The Balhas tobacco crop was mostly burned during the conflict, their butchers shop destroyed, but they say they didn't receive any aid from Hezbollah.

They haven't received anything from the government either - but their anger seems mostly directed at Hezbollah.

"The government is powerless, they don't have money. Hezbollah started the war, they should pay us compensation," said Sita.

Hezbollah wields enormous power and control over the Shia community so it's unusual to hear criticism of Hezbollah among ordinary people, but disgruntled voices are starting to be heard occasionally.

Widening rift

The nearby Christian village of Ain Ebel is practically a ghost town.

Those villagers who remain blame Hezbollah for the conflict - which started after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers - but are glad about the deployment of government forces in the area.

"After the war it's so different, after so many years in an area without any Lebanese security forces here we see now the army, we see the checkpoints," said Emad Lallousse, a translator for Unifil.

He dismisses claims that Hezbollah is needed to "defend" south Lebanon.

"We can live without any war, like the Egyptian, like the Jordanians, like the Syrians, why do we always have to worry about defending south Lebanon?"

Tensions in south Lebanon about who should defend - and control - this region are amplified in Beirut where the political standoff continues between the government and the Hezbollah-led opposition.

Although most people in the south still support the Shia group, the country as a whole is split down the middle and the rift is only widening.

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