Bolts from the sky turn fields into desert

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The sound of the Israeli jets power-diving over the main road from Tyre to Qana sent us scurrying to the window. There was a rumble of bombs to the east and black fingers of smoke shot into the sky. When we reached the scene of the air strike, there was a 30ft crater in the highway and the olive trees were blessed with a fine grey dust from the explosion. The Israelis were cutting the roads all across southern Lebanon.

Over the hills of this poor, stony land, they were blowing up the ancient highways, isolating Qana from Tyre, Tibnin from Qana, Ghandouriyeh from the Litani river. They have now bombed three of the bigger water reservoirs, cutting water from 20 villages in the north and another 15 to the south, turning fertility into a future desert.

"I had 800 goats," a middle-aged farmer lamented to me in the village of Kneyseh, as the jets howled over us. "Now 400 of them have died for want of food and the rest will die soon. The Israelis are driving out those of us who wish to remain on our land."

And, he might have added, stopping the brave young soldiers of the United Nations peace-keeping force, driving every day through Israeli shellfire, from delivering the supplies which allow these tough Lebanese villagers to cling to their homes and land under the Israeli artillery bombardment. Convoys of bedding and of grain for livestock are humming south along the coast road, past Israel's three marauding gunboats. But after yesterday's air strikes, they will be stranded in Tyre, unable to take their vehicles down the broken roads to those who so desperately need their supplies.

The Israelis will no doubt argue that their road-blasting is intended to hinder the movements of the Hizbollah, whom they still claim to be attacking after 15 days of their multi-billion dollar "Grapes of Wrath" epic. But the Hizbollah, as the Israelis should know very well, come from the south and live among these hills, living at night in the orchards, walking between villages, avoiding the dangerous roads.

The scale of the war in southern Lebanon and of Israel's debacle in this hopeless conflict is obvious to the UN statisticians who daily log the outgoing and incoming fire of both Israel and the Hizbollah. In the 14 days since Israel's offensive began, for example, UN troops have recorded 523 Israeli air strikes in just their own area of operations, along with 23,000 Israeli artillery rounds fired into Lebanon.

But in the same period, the Hizbollah have managed to fire 1,100 Katyusha rockets at northern Israel, more in a fortnight than in the past 20 years, and were yesterday still retaliating with missile fire for Israel's destruction of the very infrastructure of southern Lebanon.

But the Lebanese are a resourceful people, and within hours of the air strikes they were driving their cars and vans around the massive bomb crater at Ein Baal, ploughing through the grey earth of the olive groves. The UN's Irish battalion was cut off in Tibnin by the Israeli road bombing, but by midday, Sergeant Thomas Byrne, Trooper John Hanley and their colleagues were manoeuvring their big SISU UN armoured vehicles along the same track through the orchard, the radio aerials of the Finnish-made personnel carriers thwacking into the branches of the olive trees.

Relations between the UN and the Israelis are deteriorating almost as rapidly as Israel's disastrous military operation is collapsing. Two days ago Israeli officers made it clear that UN personnel could report their movements but would receive no more "safe clearance".

If UN soldiers were close to a village from which Katyushas were fired, the Israelis would fire back and the UN would have to take the consequences. This warning, it should be remembered, came from an army which massacred 120 Lebanese refugees in a UN compound only a week ago because two Katyushas had been fired 350 yards from the post.

From the old village of Shaiyetieh, its homes built with the stones from a long-pillaged castle, we could watch the Israeli assault yesterday, plumes of black smoke rising from the gentle hills around us and, just once, we caught a glimpse of an Israeli jet falling like an arrow into a cloud.

"We will live here or be taken from here to our cemetery," a woman in a dark gown shouted at the UN soldiers who had brought food to the 100 people of her village.

"There are no Hizbollah here but the Israelis want us out, away from our land. Never, never, never." The soldiers from Norway and Ireland and Sweden and Poland watched her in silence.

Are these, then, to be ghost villages in a depopulated land, a free-fire zone for both sides as Israel's fruitless offensive moves darkly into a third week?