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Israel's 'scorched-earth tactic' in Lebanon raises alarms

Israeli artillery sets fires in occupied zone to expose guerrillas. But farmers are hurt. Israel also took soil.

Framed by rustic stone terraces, olive trees stretch their gnarled limbs above the rich, sunbaked soil of southern Lebanon. But these days, the ancient trees have been caught in a destructive line of fire - literally - in turbulent southern Lebanon.

Since 1985, Israel has occupied a nine-mile-wide buffer zone in southern Lebanon to prevent cross-border attack. The zone skirts poor farming villages, where olives are the lifeblood of agriculture.

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"More than 1,000 of my trees got burned last month when the Israelis shelled the area," says Hassan Rachid Towrany in the village of Yatar. "It was a real catastrophe because any trees we plant now won't bear olives for another 10 years."

Israeli artillery, positioned in the hills overlooking this and other villages, has set off a series of fires during the past few months. Dozens of burned apple trees, blackened fruit still clinging to their limbs, line the hillside facing the village of Ghandouria. The area is a no man's land where Hizbullah guerrillas, backed in their resistance by Iran and Syria, sometimes attack the occupied border strip.

Israeli artillery and that of their South Lebanese Army auxiliary militia have peppered the region with mortar rounds.

"These fires caused by Israeli shelling are a day-in, day-out problem," says Lebanese Army Gen. Yehya Raad, who heads the Popular Salvation Committee for Southern Lebanon.

"In some places, as much as 40 percent of trees and crops have been destroyed by fires or shelling," says Abbas Jamaa, regional head of the Agriculture Ministry for southern Lebanon.

Making matters worse, Israeli artillery often prevents villagers from working in their fields or harvesting their crops. "Farmers must get clearance from the Israelis in some areas to pick their crops," says Ari Kuikka, deputy commanding officer of the Finnish battalion of the peacekeeping United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). "Our men are required to accompany them as they work in the fields," he says.

"People continue to desert villages closest to the buffer zone because they can't make a living there, even if they are willing to put up with the danger," says Mr. Jamaa. In many villages, the majority of young people have fled, leaving behind a skeletal population of mostly old people, eking out an impoverished existence.

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UN peacekeepers, for their part, work to limit the damage. "The fires were so bad this year that we had to equip our helicopters with buckets to help put them out. In all of southern Lebanon there is only one firetruck," says Timor Goksel, spokesman for UNIFIL.

Fouad Hamdan, who represents the environmental action group Greenpeace, accuses Israeli forces of following a scorched-earth policy in burning areas beneath their positions. "They are obviously quite scared in their hilltop bunkers, shelling anything and everything. This in turn is causing systematic damage to agricultural lands and forests."

Beirut's An Nahar newspaper also reported that Israel recently stepped up the use of phosphorous shells in southern Lebanon. Mr. Kuikka of the Finnish battalion concurs. "They were not using such weapons before," he says, "and suddenly we started to see them."

Mr. Hamdan alleges that they are making a "deliberate attempt to denude the hillsides facing their positions ... and keep Hizbullah guerrillas from infiltrating."

UNIFIL's Mr. Goksel downplays suggestions of malice, attributing much of the agricultural damage to this year's "severe heat wave." Hundred-degree temperatures scorched the entire region during much of the summer and early autumn.

"Many things can start a fire," Goksel points out, "from phosphorous shells to tracer bullets. Anytime they hit dry land they will start a fire, intentional or otherwise."

"One must put things in context," he argues. "The fires were bad, but not so bad in terms of what happened in the Amazon or Borneo, because ... southern Lebanon has no real dense forests and most of the fires are just brush fires; even these are often stopped by the rocky terrain."

More accusations were raised against Israel last month when the Lebanese government accused it of stealing truckloads of topsoil from within the buffer zone. Israel initially denied the theft but later recanted. An Israeli official declared that "a stop had been put to the practice."

For now, the fires are tapering off as winter sets in. And farmers can look forward to one positive development: The Agriculture Ministry is now handing out free olive saplings to farmers with the worst damage.

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