- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

JBAA, Lebanon — Thousands of Lebanese began streaming home yesterday, jamming the roads with cars, buses and trucks in a hopeful gamble that a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah will hold.

That hope was rewarded in the first hours of the truce, with the warplanes, artillery and missile batteries largely falling silent on both sides of the border. Israel reported killing six Hezbollah fighters and said early today that 10 rockets of the type used by Hezbollah exploded in south Lebanon.

Many Lebanese set out even before the cease-fire took hold at 8 a.m., disregarding Israel’s week-old threat to attack any vehicle moving south of the Litani River.

With the main roads and bridges made impassable by Israeli bombing runs, the secondary roads became four-lane free-for-alls with drivers inching forward, angling for advantage. At checkpoints along the way, militiamen handed out candies and water, celebrating what Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah claimed as a “strategic, historic victory” over Israel.

“I was so happy,” said Ola Hussein, 37, returning home to her family’s spacious apartment in Jbaa, a picturesque town nestled between the hillsides 10 miles east of Sidon. “No one in my family is killed, and we can go back to our land.”

After spending three weeks in a shelter in Beirut, she said, she did not mind taking five hours for what should be a 90-minute drive. She knew she was going home.

Israelis were slower to return to their homes in the north of their country, where more than 250 Hezbollah rockets rained down on Sunday. But long-shuttered stores began to reopen in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, and a few people were seen on the city’s beaches.

Officials in Beirut said the Lebanese army would begin moving troops south to the Litani River before the end of the week, the first step in deploying a combined Lebanese and international force as a buffer between Hezbollah and Israel.

Officers of the Lebanese and Israeli armies met face to face for the first time since Israel’s withdrawal from its northern neighbor in 2000, convening with U.N. officers at the border to discuss the next steps toward ending a war that has claimed more than 900 lives in nearly five weeks of fighting.

In Jbaa, the Hussein family arrived to a gruesome welcome on their town’s main street. One long drip stain of blood on the wall of the mosque highlighted a scene of incinerated cars, smashed buildings and crumpled storefronts.

“Salaam Aleikum (God is great),” said one member of the Hussein family as she greeted a neighbor she hadn’t seen in three weeks. “Hamdulillah (Thanks be to God).”

The Lebanese Higher Relief Council estimates that close to 1 million people have been displaced by the monthlong war, most of them from villages south of the Litani River. Yesterday, it seemed as if every one of them was trying to go home.

Since the cease-fire agreement was announced on Friday night, residents of southern and central Lebanon have been buying gas, one 2-gallon ration at a time, in preparation for the drive home.

Most, like the Hussein family, returned to homes with no power or water. Many will find no shops to buy provisions. Still others will find no home at all, just a pile of rubble where clothes, possessions and memories used to be.

The Jouni family, too, was lucky. Aside from a parched garden, they found their house in the village of Roumine much the way they left it when the shelling grew too close on the 12th day of the war.

Ali Jouni, a retired accountant, said he was so depressed staying with friends in an overcrowded home a few miles away that he spent the following weeks just watching news of the war on television.

His son, Ahmad, 19, said the exile was not so bad because he had lots of friends around from school. But he doesn’t have much hope for his prospective career, air-conditioning repair.

“No homes, no power, no AC,” he said, shrugging.

Lebanese officials yesterday could not say when they expected to restore basic services, such as electricity and water. Repairing the country’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure could take months.

Officials expect gasoline for generators and cars to be readily available and back to prewar prices soon after the seaports reopen to traffic. It could take more than a week for the situation to stabilize, however, because so much emergency relief is backed up by an Israeli blockade in Syria and Cyprus.

Aid workers yesterday were frustrated by the impenetrable traffic. They pulled convoys off the road for several hours to conserve gasoline and wait for traffic on the roads to thin.

“We will try again later this afternoon,” said the driver of a truck in an Islamic Relief convoy.

In Tyre, which sustained heavy bombardment for several days, residents ventured out after nightfall for the first time in weeks. The mood was celebratory, and they embraced the cease-fire and what they clearly felt is Lebanon’s victory over Israel.

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