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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK
Eyewitness: Meeting Hezbollah fighters

A guerrilla keeps watch as his comrades pray on the battlefield
Hilary Andersson was granted a rare meeting with Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon shortly before the Israeli withdrawal.

They took Terry Waite hostage, they are funded by Iran, they are Islamic extremists to the letter, or so the image goes, and the beginning of my outing with Hezbollah was fertile material for the imagination.

Hezbollah's fighters hide out in the ravines and valleys of south Lebanon.

From there, they launch attacks against the Israeli army which occupies the hilltops.

For almost 20 years, Hezbollah has operated in the greatest of secrecy, using guerrilla tactics to fight Israel's standing army. And if ever a Hezbollah fighter appears before the press, it is anonymously, with his back turned to the camera.

Hezbollah support

We were to be taken for a rare glimpse of the fighters in their secret hideouts. As we wound through the roads of south Lebanon, we passed posters bearing the faces of long-bearded Hezbollah sheikhs.

It felt a bit like a bad war movie, but of course, we did as we were told. We jumped out of the car and charged through muds and streams

Almost everyone here supports the war against Israel. As well as learned-looking sheikhs, the huge signs also bore the faces of dreamy-eyed youths, the so-called Hezbollah martyrs, who had died in the war.

On the streets, women dressed in headscarves peered at us inquisitively as we passed, and I peered at them.

We came to a rendezvous point on an empty road far from any villages, and there we met our hosts.

Journey to secret hideout

They bustled us quickly into their vehicle which had curtains tightly pulled across all the windows so that we couldn't see where we were going.

In it, at breakneck speed, the anonymous men screeched up and down the winding hills, en route to one of their secret positions.

Just before stopping, we were told to get ready. When we stop, they said, you have to run. For a few minutes, we were told, we might be visible from an enemy position.

It felt a bit like a bad war movie, but of course, we did as we were told. We jumped out of the car and charged down a tiny track, through muds and streams, into a small, steep-walled ravine. Finally, there they were, Hezbollah's guerrilla fighters.

Recent Hezbollah attacks were shown on Lebanese TV
After all this, they surely should have been dressed in black, and had long, disapproving beards. But they weren't. They were young, smiling men in neat, camouflage uniforms. Some of them were even wearing spectacles. They handed out a few Mars bars and cans of orange juice, and we settled down for a conversation.

Some of them spoke English. No-one mentioned fighting for God or a religion. They said they simply wanted to drive the Israelis from their land.

One of them had a brother, who fought as a holiday job when he was back from his medical studies in the United States. Three of the 10 or so men had university degrees.

Israeli planes overhead

It all felt so perfectly normal that for a minute I forgot we were 500 metres from the nearest enemy position, and that this was a war.

Then came the sound of airplanes overhead. These were Israeli jets which might be coming to bomb us.

Israeli troops on patrol in the Golan Heights
Israeli troops on patrol in the Golan Heights
We dived for cover against the walls of the ravine, even though where we were was so well hidden that there was no way we could be seen.

For almost two decades, Hezbollah fighters have waged guerrilla warfare on the Israelis - the kind of war the Israelis can counter, but not win.

Now, finally, Israel has decided to withdraw its troops. It's no longer willing to pay the price of the war in lives. The question everyone is asking though, is this: will the withdrawal end the fighting?

After all, Hezbollah is backed by Syria as well as Iran. It's a regional force in a region where Israel's occupation of Lebanon is just one of many problems.

And there's the question of what kind of withdrawal it will be - complete, partial, violent, peaceful? At this point, nobody knows.

Border disputes

Deep inside the zone of south Lebanon which is occupied by Israel, there is a village called Shebaa. It's nestled right under Mount Hermon where Israel has its listening station which monitors Damascus and the surrounding area.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah
As I entered Shebaa, on a misty, cold day, it seemed like the end of the earth, the last vestige of the Arab world before Israel proper begins.

A lone cat walked across the street, and old men sat outside their homes. Half the town had abandoned the place because of the occupation.

An old man of about 70, who ran a general supply shop in Shebba, rummaged excitedly through his shelves when I arrived.

He pulled out papers, some of them from as far back as the Ottoman Empire, some from much more recently, proving his ownership of farmlands which are on the other side of the border fence with Israel.

Other men from the village joined us, and there was general agreement that if they didn't get their farmlands back after the Israeli pullout, the fight against Israel must go on.

The fight goes on

There are several places where the border between Israel and Lebanon is in dispute.

Hezbollah may well fight on after the withdrawal if Israel does not comply with its concept of where the border is.

The UN will help to fill power vacuum after the Israeli withdrawal
The UN will help to fill power vacuum after the Israeli withdrawal
Yet, if this happens, Israel has vowed to hit back with overwhelming strength to make the point that further attacks will not be tolerated.

This could lead to an ugly escalation in one of the most sensitive corners of the Middle East.

It's a frightening prospect - bespectacled guerrillas, a new generation of Hezbollah, fighting an old war again, missing this critical opportunity the Israeli withdrawal will present to end the conflict.

And if Israel hits back, its Arab neighbours will harbour yet more bitterness and hatred against their Jewish neighbours. If things go this way, who will be to blame? I don't know. But history will be turning in circles.

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See also:

02 May 00 | Middle East
Mid-East negotiators await US envoy
29 Apr 00 | Middle East
Israel threatens major retaliation
28 Apr 00 | Middle East
Three dead at Israeli outpost
03 Apr 00 | Middle East
Syria dismisses Lebanon troop idea
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