Israeli soldiers take shelter in ancient ruins as Hizbollah guerrilla squads lie in wait

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From massive fortresses overlooking the Israeli occupation zone in south Lebanon, Israeli troops play a lethal game of cat-and-mouse with Hizbollah guerrillas. But agitation is increasing in Israel for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Patrick Cockburn talks to Israeli soldiers on the front line.

Karkum is a fortress out of the Middle Ages, its garrison protected by 50-foot-high ramparts of concrete and tumbled stone. From steel observation posts capable of withstanding a direct hit from a mortar round, Israeli soldiers peer into the mist, trying to detect Hizbollah guerrilla squads moving through the steep hills of south Lebanon.

"We are squeezed together like chickens," says Dotan, 21, a lanky infantry sergeant who is trying to read a book sitting in a tiny room, mostly filled with metal bunks, deep inside a bomb-proof bunker made out of three-foot- by-three-foot concrete blocks. Pinned to the walls are graphic pictures of missiles like the wire-guided Sagger which Hizbollah use with lethal effect against Israeli tanks.

It is a measure of the intensity of the controversy which has erupted in Israel this year over its presence in Lebanon, that a few minutes after we had talked to Dotan he returned to make clear to us that his mild complaint about claustrophobia did not mean that he opposed Israeli policy. "We are not a conquering army," he explained. "We are defending our country."

The conflict in south Lebanon, where 1,500 lightly armed but highly experienced Hizbollah guerrillas face heavily equipped Israeli troops, is less of an all-out war than a gladiatorial conflict. Since Israel failed to do any damage to Hizbollah by bombarding southern Lebanon in its "Grapes of Wrath" operation last year, the fighting has been refereed by an international committee from Israel, Syria, the United States, Lebanon and France.

Some 219 Israeli troops have been killed and 694 wounded since 1985, in addition to 358 soldiers from the 2,500-strong South Lebanon Army. Divisions in Israel spring from the fact that these seem to be lives wasted because Israel has no policy in Lebanon and because, as never happened with Palestinian guerrillas, Hizbollah shows equal skill to the Israelis in small unit actions.

Karkum, which in Hebrew means "crocus", is a good place from which to view the guerrilla campaign in south Lebanon. In other parts of the zone the front line positions are manned by the SLA. But Karkum, although it is only just north of the Israeli border, is an Israeli base which has come under repeated attack because here the zone is only 2.5 miles wide, compared to 14 miles at its widest point.

"In the last one-and-a-half years we have been rebuilding all our posts so they can resist mortars," says an Israeli officer. "They are not dangerous so long as you obey regulations," says another commander, explaining that by this he means staying inside the bunker. At Karkum, bizarrely, the tops of ancient Greek columns from a temple which once crowned the hilltop stick out of the Israeli fortifications.

The base has come under co-ordinated attack from Hizbollah three times this year, not counting sporadic bombardment by mortars. On one occasion two Hizbollah were seen on a hill top and pursued, but they turned out to be the bait for an ambush. More recently an Israeli patrol saw several Hizbollah soldiers on the base's helicopter pad. When they followed them the patrol's tracker saw they were walking into brush where Hizbollah had prepared bomb traps. In each case moves by Hizbollah infantry, anti- tank and mortar units were carefully co-ordinated.

"Hizbollah are real guerrillas, not terrorists," explains an Israeli officer, who did not want his name mentioned. "There is a big difference between them and the Palestinians [in south Lebanon until 1982] who used what were close to ... suicide tactics. Hizbollah never wants to lose men. When one of its soldiers is killed it tries to get the body back." Going by Lebanese security figures the guerrillas are losing close to one man for every Israeli soldier they kill, compared to three-to-one at the beginning of the decade.

These figures are disputed by Israeli commanders on the spot, who say the Israeli media is only interested in their failures. The problem is that Israelis are brought up on tales of military derring-do. Many of these were achieved against Yasser Arafat's ill-trained and incompetently led militiamen.

In reality the military balance in south Lebanon is fairly stable - though the Hizbollah success rate is climbing. It is the political not the military situation which is changing. So long as Israel and its Arab neighbours seemed to be heading for peace guerrilla successes in south Lebanon were of marginal significance. With the collapse of the peace process this has changed. Not for nothing has Hizbollah recently had meetings with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic organisation, advising it to start guerrilla warfare in the West Bank.