Israeli-Hezbollah Clash Tests U.N. Cease-Fire

Israeli commandos raid a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon early Saturday. It's the first significant fighting since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect five days ago. Meanwhile, refugees are beginning to return to southern Lebanon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Today in Lebanon, as many return to their homes and bury their dead, the cease-fire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah forces appears more tenuous. Israeli commandos dropped by helicopter into Lebanon's eastern Beqaa Valley to raid Hezbollah forces there. They retreated under cover of rocket fire.

The Israeli army says it struck the area to disrupt arms shipments from Syria, this as French engineers began arriving in southern Lebanon as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay joins us from Tyre. Jamie, thanks for being with us.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

It's my pleasure.

SIMON: And can you add anything about the Israeli commando raid earlier today?

TARABAY: Well, as you said, the reports that we've been getting are that the commandos landed deep inside Lebanon by helicopter and they engaged in a gun battle with the Hezbollah fighters in one of their strongholds outside the village of Boudai, which is west of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.

An Israeli soldier was killed in the incident and two others were wounded. We're getting different reports from both sides about the incident. Hezbollah says that its guerillas foiled the raid, and the Israeli army says that the mission was successful. It was supposed to prevent any weapons smuggling and that it will continue to carry out these kinds of operations until there was a more effective monitoring unit, as they put it, in place.

Reports also say that Israeli aircraft destroyed a bridge in the area where the landing took place. Now, Lebanon's Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called this a flagrant violation of the cease-fire and says he's reported to visiting U.N. envoys. The U.N. has also been keeping tabs on the truce.

Yesterday it reported that Israeli aircraft violated Lebanese airspace twice, and that two Lebanese shepherds and about 100 sheep crossed the U.N. buffer zone towards Israel, so they also violated it too.

SIMON: You got to watch the sheep. This cease-fire began on Monday. Are you seeing people moving back to their homes in significant numbers?

TARABAY: I drove this morning along the border through at least a dozen villages, and it was really interesting to see the contrast. There were some that were still completely deserted. They were like ghost towns. I mean there was even one house that was completely shuttered tight but still had its laundry hanging outside.

There was - and then in the next village, people were outside, people were clearing the rubble from outside. The roads were a mess. There wasn't a road that we took that didn't have a giant crater in the middle of it. Every place that we visited had been touched in some way by the fighting, and most of the people in there had either known someone who was injured or lost someone in the fighting as well.

We saw several armored personnel carriers belonging to UNIFIL, the U.N. presence on the border, and we saw them actually closer to the Israeli border than the Lebanese army forces that we came across.

SIMON: And you saw some Lebanese army forces? They, after all, have a job ahead of them. They're supposed to engage with Hezbollah.

TARABAY: Yes, that's right. They're still spreading out into the south. They're only in certain areas, and as I said, they're not particularly close to the border. We went to a Christian village called Ramesh(ph), which is very close to the Israeli border. In fact, when we were there, my mobile phone reception switched to the Israeli mobile phone network.

And the people there said that they hadn't seen any army and that they were waiting for the army to arrive. But they were also out there in the streets in different areas.

SIMON: Short answer: Hezbollah popular in south Lebanon?

TARABAY: Extremely. People are still defiant, and they're calling this a great victory over Israel and America.

SIMON: NPR's Jamie Tarabay speaking from Tyre, Lebanon. Thanks very much.

TARABAY: You're welcome.

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