Saturday, August 5, 2006

SRIFA, Lebanon — They use three-digit numbers as code names, live off canned tuna and tape over their jewelry so an accidental twinkle doesn’t give away their position to Israeli warplanes.

Among the Hezbollah fighters prowling what remains of the heavily bombed south Lebanese village of Srifa are a pair of former middle school history teachers who have given up their grade books for two-way radios and Kalashnikov rifles.

Over cups of coffee and the din of Hezbollah’s FM radio station narrating developments on the front lines, they opened up to visitors recently and offered a glimpse into the guerrillas’ secretive world.

“This is the battle we have long expected and long prepared for,” said Haj Rabia Abu Hussein — known to his soldiers simply as “103.”

“I know my mission. I must make my rockets hit Israel,” he said matter-of-factly.

The 40-year-old field commander, who oversees military activities in one sector — generally comprising three villages — of the Hezbollah-dominated south, said he has fired many such rockets since the conflict began three weeks ago.

As Mr. Hussein talked, he fingered his Motorola radio, his means of communication with his soldiers farther afield. He wore a blue denim button-down shirt and a baseball cap that he slung backward when the conversation turned intimate.

Mr. Hussein sat beside Abu Mohammad, 44, a longtime friend in Reeboks, a loose-fitting T-shirt and cargo pants.

In their fashion choices, mild manners and neatly trimmed beards, Mr. Mohammad — code name “121” — and Mr. Hussein very much fit the Hezbollah mold.

They shift seamlessly from civilian garb to soldiers’ wear, they said.

“It’s not reasonable to walk around in military uniforms and carry rifles when, for example, the Red Cross comes into town,” Mr. Hussein said.

The bucolic farming village they grew up in is one of dozens scattered across these hills that are absorbing the brunt of the Israeli air strikes. The Shi’ite fighters are outgunned, outmanned and confronting one of the most technologically savvy armies in the world. Still, Hezbollah rockets continue to fall on northern Israel.

Mr. Hussein and Mr. Mohammad, not their real names, explained how the militants continue to dodge Israel’s wrath and live to fight another day.

“We use local knowledge,” said Mr. Hussein. “On the radio, we talk about a certain tree or a certain cliff. How will the Israelis understand that?”

In their current struggle, the shared history of fellow fighters is a powerful weapon that helps them evade Israeli intelligence, they said.

“For example, Haj used to love someone about 20 years ago,” Mr. Mohammad said. “So I’ll tell him, ‘Haj, go and meet me at the house of the girl you used to love, who melted your heart.’”

The men survive on what they call “the mujahedeen’s lunch.”

“We eat mostly canned food, mortadella, tuna and some chocolate,” said Mr. Hussein. “But yesterday we had fried potatoes, and sometimes we make eggs.”

Mr. Hussein — who joined Hezbollah in 1982 to fight a previous Israeli occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2000 — has covered a large ring on his right index finger with tape. The ring glistens in the sun and might be picked up by a trolling Israeli drone, he fears, but it’s his lucky charm, engraved with a prayer to Ali Ibn Abu Talib, revered by Shi’ites as the rightful successor to the prophet Muhammad.

“It says ‘Ya Ali,’ and it protects me. It’s been blessed at a number of religious shrines,” he said.

The fighters pepper their narrative of resistance with references to Islamic history.

“Muslims have the battle between Muhammad and the Koraysh,” said Mohammad, referring to the prophet’s early struggle against Mecca’s merchant class.

“There was a big difference in the numbers between the two parties, but the prophet Muhammed fought and won. God said, ‘Don’t worry, I will assist you with angels you can’t see.’ ”

Hezbollah fighters, now scattered throughout the south, “are as numerous as those angels,” he said.

Despite their pious rhetoric, the Hezbollah fighters are not heartless killers in the al Qaeda mold, the men said.

“We don’t love killing,” said Mr. Hussein. “We look at all people as brothers. We deal with people as people, regardless of religion, but we will defend our land, our honor and our dignity.

“Just as we love martyrdom, we also have love for life; we don’t want to die just to die.”

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