QANA, Lebanon – Thousands of civilians trapped in south Lebanon's war zone for three weeks made an exodus for the north Monday, taking advantage of Israel's 48-hour pause in airstrikes to flee. Hezbollah suggested it too would hold off on rocket fire into Israel as long as the warplanes were not flying.
Despite the pause, warplanes struck near the village of Taibeh to cover troops forces still battling Hezbollah guerrillas in the Israeli military's newest ground incursion there, launched over the weekend.
Fighting was heavy in the northeast corner of south Lebanon around Taibeh and other border villages. Constant Israeli artillery blasts — not covered under the air halt — shook the hills. Hezbollah guerrillas in the area fired a volley of rockets at the nearby Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, their first since Israel's suspension began.
On the Mediterranean coast, a Lebanese solider outside the southern port of Tyre was killed by Israeli fire, security officials said — though it was not clear what the blast was from.
Still, the suspension of the air campaign brought relative quiet to much of southern Lebanon.
With the fear of bombardment eased, Lebanese Red Cross teams escorted by U.N. observers went to the village of Srifa to dig up more than 50 bodies believed still buried under rubble since Israeli strikes wiped out an entire neighborhood on July 19. The bodies have begun decomposing, the Red Cross said.
Aid groups were also scrambling to take advantage to rush badly needed food, medicine and blankets to refugees and residents in towns and cities of the south, where supplies have been dwindling. Some convoys headed south, but humanitarian officials said the pause, which began only hours after it was announced, caught them off-guard.
"We're trying to get to as many places as we can, and we're counting on it being safe for us," said Mona Hammam, the top U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon.
Israel called the halt under U.S. pressure amid worldwide outrage over a strike Sunday morning that leveled a house in Qana, killing at least 56 people — mostly women and children — who had taken refuge there. It was the deadliest single strike in the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon, aimed at reining in Hezbollah guerrillas.
The pause meant the first relief for thousands of Lebanese who have been hiding in their homes, in schools or hospitals in the dozens of villages that dot the mountainous south. While huge numbers fled already, those that remained were mostly the old, the sick and those too afraid to risk the drive out on roads pounded by intense Israeli bombardment. Many have not stepped out of their shelters for days.
The strikes of the past weeks have also prevented rescue crews from clearing rubble of buildings to find the dead. The 48-hour halt could mean a big jump in Lebanon's death toll.
So far, 519 are known to have been killed, according to the Health Ministry's count of bodies. But the health minister said Sunday that it could jump to more than 750 because of the missing and those buried under wreckage.
Early Monday, hours after Israel called the pause, few southerners took to the roads, likely wary over whether the news was true. But soon they saw their chance to run.
By early afternoon, the roads from villages into the port city of Tyre, then from Tyre heading north along the coast were packed were pick-up trucks and cars carrying refugees.
Not all were leaving, particularly in Qana. Hassan Faraj shut down his grocery store, piled his wife and child into a van and headed north towards the mountains, where his mother lives — but he was planning to return.
"My mother is very unwell. I must go and see her. If my wife wants to stay there for the sake of the boy, I will come back tomorrow," he said.
With many of the main roads too shattered for use, cars took to dirt side roads, still waving white flags out their windows or covering the vehicles roofs with white sheets. On a long dirt-road detour north of Tyre, cars were piled up in a traffic jam. The few gas stations that were open had lines of cars.
Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah, speaking for the guerrilla organization, raised the possibility that Hezbollah might stop firing rockets as long as warplanes were not striking.
"Shelling [Israeli] settlements is a Lebanese reaction to [Israel] shelling Lebanese civilians," Fadlallah told LBC television. "When Israel stops its aggression on the south, on Lebanon, on civilians ... naturally this reaction could stop. But has Israel stopped its aggression? It said it has suspended air operations, it did not suspend artillery or naval shelling."
Fadlallah — a former news director for Hezbollah's TV station Al-Manar — accused Israel of using the suspension as "an attempt to absorb international indignation over the Qana massacre."
Late Sunday, Israeli warplanes attacked for the second time in the last few days a road between Lebanon and Syria just outside the Lebanese border post at Masnaa, severing the main artery between the two capitals.
Israeli jets also carried out two raids at approximately 1:30 a.m. local time near the village of Yanta, Lebanese security officials said because they were not authorized to give statements to the media. The village lies about 3 miles from the border with Syria and 34 miles southeast of the capital, Beirut.
It was not known what was hit in the Yanta area, where radical Syrian-backed Palestinian factions maintain bases in the mountains abutting the Syrian border.
An Israeli army spokesman said the pause began a half hour later, at 2 a.m. Israeli officials earlier left open the possibility that Israel might hit targets to stop imminent attacks on Israel, and that the suspension could last less than 48 hours if the military completes its inquiry into Sunday's incident in Qana before then.