WHEN Beirut residents heard the news of the Oct. 25 military operation in the south that killed five of Israel's soldiers, they said little. "The radio reports it was the Hizbullah," says Muna, a local journalist. She shrugs her shoulders and adds only, "Maybe it was Hizbullah; maybe someone else." She and others did not care to speculate who was responsible. A condition, not an event, is the issue here.
In Lebanon, such resistance to the Israeli presence is now routine; it doesn't matter who organized any single attack. The latest incident only highlights an ongoing problem Lebanese quietly live with but do not forget.
Tens of thousands of families from the south live as refugees in the tattered and chaotic Lebanese capital and in the coastal towns of Sidon and Tyre. Driven from their land for refusal to cooperate with the Israelis and their surrogate Lebanese army, they have been abandoning homes and fields for a decade. Not long ago, south Lebanon was the richest breadbasket in the region, cultivated by experienced, proud farmers whose produce was exported to cities throughout the region, from the Mediterranean to th e Persian Gulf.
"The Israelis did not expect such resistance from the hospitable Lebanese; they thought we were too busy fighting each other," notes a Beirut social worker. But the resistance movement is considerable, as reports of attacks show.
To Western observers, Hizbullah guerrillas represent Iranian-backed religious extremists, or vague members of the PLO, not ordinary Lebanese patriots. In fact, however, most resistance actions against Israeli troops in south Lebanon are undertaken by Lebanese themselves. Besides tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the south, a quarter of a million of Lebanon's own people inhabit the "Israeli security zone," located south and east of the Litani River. Although farmers, they are also educated and urbane, with relatives in Beirut and Kuwait, Montreal and Buenos Aires. They are Muslim, Christian, and Druze.
Since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the south has been under virtual occupation by the Israeli Defense Forces, although Israel maintains it is there on the invitation of the South Lebanese Army. Today an iron-fist policy is in effect in the south not unlike the Israeli method of suppressing Palestinian opposition in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Israeli troops in the south are heavily armed and maintain extremely tight security - Lebanese citizens cannot travel to the south without an Israeli-iss ued ID card. But the Israeli soldiers are not invulnerable.
Lebanese resistance fighters sometimes come from families of the dispossessed. "What about our homes and our lives and our sons," asks Abu Ali Ramadan, a refugee from the south in 1983 who has not seen his imprisoned son for over four years. "My son was in college here in Beirut in 1986 when he decided he must try to liberate his country; three years before we were all pushed out of the south. I have my olive orchards there, my house, my father's grave. None of us can return; we live as refugees here in Beirut, in a borrowed basement apartment with no windows. I like neither Amal or Hizbullah. I am not a party member. But I want to return to my land. I bear no enmity to the Israelis; I did not go to their land to take their homes and gardens. Neither did my son. It was they who came to our land."
Israel was outraged by the recent attack. It was a threat to the peace process, negotiators said. When news broke of the incident late in October, the Middle East peace talks were underway, and Israel put the responsibility on Iran and Syria. Head of the Lebanese delegation at the Washington talks, Souheil Chammanas, reminded Israelis and the world press of the reality of life in south Lebanon. "These events are taking place because of their occupation of Lebanon," he said.
Local resistance has not diminished despite 10 years of sometimes brutal organized anti-resistance efforts by the Israeli military authorities and checks on all movement into and out of the region. It is a fact of life, like the wave of Israeli bombings that follow an attack by the resistance. Lebanese, hearing the report of the Israeli casualties, brace for the next news. Within hours, Israeli planes will strike, they know. Only the day before the attack on the Israeli troop carrier, jets passed directl y over Beirut at midday, sending a supersonic boom through the dusty air. An office manager, hearing it, noted, "No, it is not a bomb, just an Israeli plane - to remind us they are here, to tell us we should not forget." Helicopters patrolling southern Lebanese villages offer the same message.
Whatever the pretext for Israel's renewed air raids, they are expected. It was no surprise therefore, when the wave of bombings of towns in the south began the next day. Often Palestinian settlements, undefended camps housing thousands of refugees, are Israel's targets. Just as often, "communist bases" (homes and meeting centers of the communist party) are hit. Or Hizbullah sites - again homes and assembly places - are fired on.
On the other side, one can be sure the Lebanese resistance is not finished either. Lebanese living in the south face constant threats to their families and homes and jobs. The economy of the area is in decline. Homes have been demolished and orchards left untended. Many south Lebanese are now day laborers in Israel.
Listening for progress in the Middle East peace talks, Lebanese hear nothing about Israeli offers to withdraw from this region, to free Lebanese prisoners, or to live as neighbors. Without a political alternative to look toward, their resistance to the occupation will continue.