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Hezbollah Chief's Town Proud of Native Son

The narrow road that leads to this southern Lebanese town is littered with the hulks of rocketed cars, white flags hanging limply from the windows. An Israeli drone whines overhead.

The streets are silent and empty but for wary young men who slip quietly out of the shuttered buildings when a stranger arrives.

Bazouriya, a farming village that sits on a hill above rolling fields, is the ancestral home of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Support for the guerrillas runs deep here even in the face of Israeli bombardment.

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Two of the first Israeli missiles to hit the village slammed into the home of Mohammad Rida, a bulky man with a small beard. One missile blasted a hole in the house. He, his wife and four children were unable to get out before a second missile struck.

He called it a miracle they all survived, even his 1-year-old daughter who was covered in the rubble.

At a steel-gated private school — now a shelter for more than 200 sweltering Bazouriya residents — Rida cradled the child, Fatima, in his arms and pointed out the small scars on her leg as he explained that Hezbollah's roots ran deep here.

"We are Hezbollah. They are from these places. Their mothers and fathers are from this land. This is the land of their ancestors," Rida said.

A 10-foot poster of Nasrallah stands in the main square of the town. Photographs were not allowed by the young men who escorted visitors to the school and back to their cars. Although they didn't give a reason for the ban, they gestured skyward, indicating they didn't want to give Israelis any information that could become targets for artillery and jet fighter strikes.

Rida, while rejecting relations with Israel, spoke fondly of a more peaceful status quo.

"They should stay in their place, and we will be in our place. But they should accept us for what we are. We are Hezbollah."

Men listening nodded in agreement.

Without Hezbollah and its rockets, Rida said, Israel would destroy Lebanon.

"If we didn't have rockets to strike Haifa (the northern Israeli port) what would Israel do? If we were weak they would destroy us," he said.

Nasrallah's association with the town began when he was 15. During fighting in 1975, the Hezbollah leader's father, a vegetable seller, fled the capital of Beirut with his family to his ancestral town.

Radical politics electrified Lebanon in the 1970s, and Nasrallah joined the Amal movement, known then as an organization that looked after the poor and deprived Shiite Muslims who dominated the south of the country.

Nasrallah left Amal for Hezbollah shortly after Israel's 1982 invasion, becoming a devout member of the resistance as a result of watching the occupiers' campaign of village raids and sweeping arrests. He took over the Hezbollah leadership in 1992, after Israel assassinated his predecessor, Sheik Abbas Musawi.

Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Nabulsi insisted Bazouriya had no special links to the Shiite guerrilla movement despite its deep attachments to Nasrallah.

"It is like any other community. Hezbollah has its support among the people because we are the sons of this country. We are defenders of our land. We are fighting occupation," he said.

Yet the town has another tie to the present conflict. It is the hometown of Nasim Nisr, one of three Lebanese jailed in Israel for whom Nasrallah routinely demands freedom. Nisr was sentenced in June 2002 to six years in prison on charges of spying and treason.

Hezbollah has demanded the release Lebanese prisoners in Israel in exchange for two Israeli soldiers whose July 12 capture ignited the fighting.

In the darkened basement of the school, where children had only blue plastic bottle caps for toys, the youngsters offered messages that appeared carefully coached by their parents.

"We don't need food from America. We don't need help from America. We just need America to stop sending its missiles to Israel," said 6-year-old Hussein Mournia, barely visible in the darkened room.

Before the fighting, Bazouriya was a town of about 14,000, but thousands have fled.

Residents who stayed behind said the rocketing and bombing is relentless.

The only assistance for displaced residents has come from Mahmood Hassan, the school's owner and a Bazouriya businessman who now lives in Beirut. He drives supplies south every day.

"Thank God for Mahmood Hassan because without him we would have nothing," said Laila Nemi, who had been at the school with her six children for two weeks.

Nothing has come from Tyre, about 6 miles away, even though several aid organizations, including the Red Cross, have representatives there.

Rida wondered if that was because the leader of Hezbollah was a native son. "But why should that be? He is not here," he said.

Villagers living in the school said they were afraid to drive to Tyre after cars headed there, flying white flags to identify them as civilians, had been hit by Israeli missiles.

"In my country," Rida said defiantly, "I will never carry a white flag."

CountryWatch: Israel | Lebanon