Reporter's Notebook:Cease-Fire on the Ground

Greg Palkot
Filed Aug. 15, 2006 — We were driving along the Israeli-Lebanese border just inside southern Lebanon on Monday, the first full day of the new cease-fire here, and it all of a sudden became clear what this was all about.

I looked to my south and within a mile or so were pristine Israeli villages, within easy firing range and killing distance of the Hezbollah militia’s Katyusha rockets and other bits of arsenal.

Now, as we looked north, (commanding the high ground) in full view, were the tanks of the Israeli Defense Force.

Further north, this time hidden from view inside houses, we found Israeli soldiers. Their presence was only given away to us by the airlifted provisions we found lying in front of the houses — parachutes splayed out on the ground. When we walked near one box, we even heard shouts of the soldiers from inside!

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Everything else we found in between? Destruction, death and the injured. We watched as emergency crews pulled two still living, but badly hurt elderly civilians out of the wreckage of one nearby home.

All around were the remains of what must have been some ferocious ground battles between the Israelis and Hezbollah. Shell casings and unexploded munitions. Wildly veering tank tracks left on the ground. We even saw an Israeli combat bulldozer, abandoned in the gully of one road, its windshield shot out, the soldier-driver’s gun still sitting on the seat.

More often, we saw all around the remains of even more ferocious air bombardments. Town after town left as nothing but rubble. Totally flattened. How many bombs, artillery shells, and navy gunboat firings did it take to do this, I thought to myself.

The apparent thinking by the Israelis was that these towns were hotbeds for the Hezbollah. By obliterating them, their strategy seems to go, you obliterate your enemy.

Maybe. Maybe not.

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As we entered the thoroughly-destroyed (and now abandoned by the Israelis) border town of Ayt Asch Chab, we encountered about two-dozen men picking through the rubble. They were fighting-age men who didn’t want (under any circumstances) their faces videotaped.

I could be wrong, but I was fairly certain we were finally mingling with the Hezbollah.

Again, no one wanted to go on camera. Except for one self-appointed spokesman. He called himself “Jemail.” He told me, “We are all Hezbollah. We will never leave. We live here.”

He had a whole bunch of nasty things to say about Israel. Then he blasted the key clause of the recently-inked Cease Fire U.N. resolution.

I asked him if Hezbollah would disarm. “Why?!” he asked furiously, “Why?! We need the power…to protect ourselves.”

Beaten bravura? Possibly.

We drove to the next town over, Rumaysch. I suppose because of its Christian, unthreatening population, the Israelis left this town basically untouched, in pristine condition.

Here, I heard “Alex” say to me the unthinkable in these parts: Something vaguely negative about the Hezbollah. “We don’t want any militia around here,” he confided.

Then he offered up some heartening support for the U.N. resolution. “We want the Lebanese government, the Lebanese army, to come here and take control.”

That IS one of the important elements of the deal.

The hitch is, even if there are 15,000 of the Lebanese soldiers in the south as mandated, many have questioned their competence.

Still, the Lebanese will be backed up by another 15,000 international peacekeepers. We watched Monday, as the basis of the force, the U.N. folks who have been here since 1978, UNIFIL picked their way through this latest conflict.

Many who now have doubts about the new peacekeepers point to UNIFIL’s less-than-sterling record of keeping the peace here.

And of course, before the Israelis leave, both the Lebanese and the U.N. have to be in place.

And the Hezbollah has to give up their weapons.

That’s enough question marks to make the locally-displaced thousands forget about the dangers and the destruction, throw caution to the hot wind, and head back home.

As we left the southern Lebanon region, even on the first day of a shaky cease-fire, we watched streams of cars packed with people, mattresses and belongings quickly head back for… who knows what.

In a funny way, though, the presence of all these people, the majority of whom, I’m guessing, really just want to live in peace like the rest of us, might, more than anything that the U.N. is mandating, help secure that peace.

For the sake of everybody in this beautiful, but battered region, let’s hope so.

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Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.