Hezbollah Fighters Hard to Spot in Battle Zone

Hezbollah's leader says his goal is not to hold the villages of south Lebanon, but to inflict as many casualties as possible on Israeli troops. Hezbollah fighters are present throughout the region. But, like guerrillas in previous conflicts, they are largely invisible.

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DON GONYEA, host:

Hezbollah guerillas are still firing rockets and missiles into northern Israel. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, says his goal is to inflict as many casualties as possible. Hezbollah militants are present throughout southern Lebanon, but like guerillas in previous conflicts, they are largely invisible.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Beirut.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Distant Israeli artillery rumbles around the southern Lebanese coastal town of Tyre. Suddenly, Hezbollah fighters unleash a salvo of more than a dozen Katyusha rockets from a point in the countryside several miles south of the port.

As the rockets fly south, a Lebanon man briefly applauds. Minutes later, an Israeli warplane roars overhead, dropping bombs on nearby hills and villages. But by then, the Hezbollah rockets were already well on their way towards Israeli towns and cities. Israel's two-week bombing campaign has not succeeded in reducing Hezbollah's daily rocket barrages. And Hezbollah's guerilla fighters have a reputation for being an elusive target.

Mr. TIMOR GOKSEL (Former United Nations Official): They have a nickname in the past. They used to call them the ninjas, because they never showed themselves when they move.

WATSON: Timor Goksel is a former official with the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. For years he dealt with Hezbollah's guerilla fighters. He says their low profile is their greatest military strength.

Mr. GOKSEL: There is no Hezbollah formation bigger than 20 men, that's too difficult to move and then they become too noisy, and that defeats their purpose. So they don't work in large formations. They will fight and they will disappear.

WATSON: In the mostly deserted streets of Tyre, it's easier to spot Israeli warplanes and helicopters flying overhead than it is to find Hezbollah militants. But the town is decorated with posters of Hezbollah fighters who were killed battling Israel's long occupation of southern Lebanon.

(Soundbite of town hall)

WATSON: A town hall in Tyre, local residents crowd into a small office, clamoring for food rations. The Mayor, Abu Zafar Husseini(ph), tells a visiting reporter he has no contact with Hezbollah's Shiite militia, which he calls the Resistance.

Mayor ABU ZAFAR HUSSEINI (Tyre, Lebanon) (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: The Resistance did spring from the people, the mayor says. But the places that the Israeli planes are bombing don't have any fighters or weapons from the Resistance.

Ask locals, like this man, and they say they have heard outgoing rockets but have never seen any fighters.

Unidentified Man: No. No. No. No. There is nobody. Nobody of Hezbollah. I didn't see no one.

WATSON: Tariq Abusallah(ph) is a dual national British/Lebanese mechanic who is trapped by the fighting while on summer vacation.

How come nobody ever really wants to talk about Hezbollah and how they're fighting?

Mr. TARIQ ABUSALLAH (Trapped in Lebanon): I'll tell you what, man. I don't know. I mean, some other people might know but they don't like to tell, especially foreigners like us.

WATSON: But Hezbollah does maintain a discrete security presence in Tyre. Men dressed in civilian clothes, driving unmarked cars and mopeds, at one point ordered foreign journalists away from a mosque in town. And at another point demanded that a reporter - who was apparently asking the wrong questions - leave Tyre by noon the next day.

To get a sense of what Hezbollah's fighting force looks like, it is better to watch al-Manar TV, which constantly plays videos like this one.

(Soundbite of an al-Manar TV)

WATSON: They show men in green combat fatigues and helmets, carrying machine guns, firing rockets, and driving Jeeps through the hills of Lebanon. These are the kinds of guerillas who probably sprang the ambush yesterday in the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbail, which killed at least eight Israeli soldiers and wounded 22 more.

In a televised appearance on Tuesday, Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said he was trying to draw Israeli troops into Lebanese territory to make it easier to ambush them.

Sheikh HASSAN NASRALLAH (Hezbollah Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: We are fighting a guerilla war, he said. The arrival of the Israeli army on our land will only give us more opportunities for direct clashes, so that we can make the enemy bleed.

It was this kind of war of attrition, fought by Hezbollah's ghost fighters, which led to the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Beirut.

GONYEA: This MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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