- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

12:41 p.m.

BINT JBAIL, Lebanon — Lebanese civilians defied an Israeli travel ban and streamed back to war-ravaged areas today after a United Nations cease-fire halted fighting between Israel and Hezbollah that claimed more than 900 lives.

For the first time in a month, no rockets were fired into northern Israel, but few Israelis who had fled the war were seen returning, and Israel’s government advised them to stay away for now to see whether the truce held.

Israeli soldiers reported killing six Hezbollah fighters in four skirmishes in southern Lebanon after the guns fell silent, highlighting the tensions that could unravel the peace plan.

Lebanese, Israeli and U.N. officers met on the border to discuss the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon and the deployment of the Lebanese army in the region, U.N. spokesman Milos Strugar said.

The meeting, the first involving a Lebanese army officer and a counterpart from Israel since Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, marked the first step in the process of military disengagement as demanded by a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The fighting persisted until the last minutes before the cease-fire took effect this morning, with Israel destroying an antenna for Hezbollah’s TV station and Hezbollah guerrillas clashing with Israeli troops near the southern city of Tyre and the border village of Kfar Kila.

Israeli warplanes struck a Hezbollah stronghold in eastern Lebanon and a Palestinian refugee camp in the south, killing two persons, and Israeli artillery pounded targets across the border through the night.

After the cease-fire took effect, lines of cars — some loaded with mattresses and luggage — snaked slowly around bomb craters and ruined bridges as residents began heading south to find out what is left of their homes and businesses.

Humanitarian groups also sent convoys of food, water and medical supplies into the south, but the clogged roads slowed the effort. U.N. officials said 24 U.N. trucks took more than five hours to reach the port of Tyre from Sidon, a trip that normally takes 45 minutes.

Israel has not lifted its threat to destroy any vehicle on the roads of most of southern Lebanon. However, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said at midafternoon that aside from isolated skirmishes with Hezbollah, the cease-fire was holding and could have implications for future relations with Israel’s neighbors.

In some places in the south, the rubble was still smoldering from a barrage of Israeli air strikes just before the cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT).

“I just want to find my home,” said Ahmad Maana, who went back to Kafra, about five miles from the Israeli border, where whole sections of the town were flattened.

In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, people wrapped their faces with scarves as wind kicked up dust from the wreckage left by Israeli bombardments. Ahmed al-Zein poked through the ruins of his shop.

“This was the most beautiful street in the neighborhood,” he said. “Now it’s like an earthquake zone.”

There were no reports of Israeli strikes on cars — a sign Israel did not want to risk rekindling the conflict. However, at least one child was killed and 15 persons were wounded by ordnance that detonated as they returned to their homes in the south, security officials said.

The rush to return came despite a standoff that threatened to keep the cease-fire from taking root. Israeli forces remain in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said the militia would consider them legitimate targets until they leave.

Still, the truce ushered in a calm that the border region had not seen for more than a month.

Stores that had been closed for weeks began to reopen in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city and a frequent target of Hezbollah rockets, and a few people returned to the beaches.

In Kiryat Shemona, where more than half the population fled during the war, streets were mostly empty, but traffic lights winked on again. The few grocery stores that had braved more than 700 rockets on the town were still the only places for food, with restaurants and cafes shut.

Residents stirred from their bomb shelters, but there was no influx of returning refugees.

“People are still scared,” said Haim Biton, 42, predicting things would not get back to normal soon. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Lebanon said nearly 800 people were killed in the fighting. Israel said 116 soldiers and 39 civilians died in combat or from Hezbollah rockets.

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