The holy warriors of Hizbollah realise their impossible dream

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The Independent Online

They stood along the border fence and stared at the impossible. The Hizbollah men - hundreds of them, in their combat fatigues and with their rifles in their hands and their flak jackets over their shoulders - just stood in silence beside me and looked out, awestruck at the fields and orchards of Galilee. Bathed in the blue mist of dawn, Israel - or Palestine as the Hizbollah men called it - looked almost holy. We could see the glow of oranges in the trees and hear the water dripping from an irrigation tap and, not so far away, see the red roofs of homes. The gunman beside me breathed in deeply. "Azeem," he said. "Incredible."

They stood along the border fence and stared at the impossible. The Hizbollah men - hundreds of them, in their combat fatigues and with their rifles in their hands and their flak jackets over their shoulders - just stood in silence beside me and looked out, awestruck at the fields and orchards of Galilee. Bathed in the blue mist of dawn, Israel - or Palestine as the Hizbollah men called it - looked almost holy. We could see the glow of oranges in the trees and hear the water dripping from an irrigation tap and, not so far away, see the red roofs of homes. The gunman beside me breathed in deeply. "Azeem," he said. "Incredible."

And it was. Here they were, the bearded men who had routed one of the world's most powerful armies, standing at last on the very frontier of Israel after driving the last Israeli soldier the last mile out of Lebanon. In fact, the Israeli border wire was only three feet from us. And there was Sheikh Sami Khadra, one of the Hizbollah's senior clerics, standing in his white turban and long black robes, staring into Galilee. There was no overt hositility, no threat, no raised rifle. At one point an Israeli van drove down the other side of the wire, the driver waving oddly at the Hizbollah men.

Had the world gone mad? Sheikh Khadra did not think so. "It is a reality more than a dream," he said. "But it is a sight we could not have dreamt about. We have moved south and now, we hear, the Jewish settlers over there are frightened and moving south." The sheikh's armed protectors searched the horizon for Israeli troops. There were none to be seen. Just that morning mist and the dew on the trees and the odd feeling that the Hizbollah war had come to an end. The men who fought their way from Beirut had at last reached the border and looked upon the land of their enemies and understood the transitory nature of victory. It was God's work, one of the Hizbollah men said.

Behind us a convoy of cars was waiting for the Hizbollah to fill up a mine crater - a few hours earlier, the departing Israelis had detonated all the Lebanese approach roads to the frontier. Loudspeakers perched on trucks vibrated with Muslim prayers. There were children in some of the cars and a woman who threw rice and rose petals over the Hizbollah men, many of whom glowered from Mercedes cars with smoked windows, rifle barrels resting on their knees, two-way radios crackling.

Did they want to cross that border fence? It did not seem so. The Palestinians had to secure their own liberation. That's the way the conversation went beside the Israeli frontier wire yesterday. The Hizbollah had come to look, the most privileged sightseers in the world. Over and over they used that same word. Incredible. I only heard one man talking about "the liquidation of Zionism".

It was the same all across southern Lebanon, as if the guerrilla victory had not been fully comprehended. The South Lebanon Army - Israelis' final protectors in this dangerous land - had abandoned their tanks and trucks and ammunition and guns in the fields, the roads, their barracks and their homes. In the Christian town of Marjayoun, the home of Antoine Lahd, the SLA leader, was systematically looted by gunmen from the rival - and venal - Amal movement. They drove captured tanks through the streets, the engines roaring as they crushed pavements and flower gardens. A mobile artillery piece - a big Israeli army gun - was driven around the town.

Israel had said it would not disarm the SLA. It didn't need to. We saw some of them, young men with heads lowered, standing with Hizbollah members who were reading through their identification papers. But there was no revenge killing. No massacre. The Hizbollah stayed out of Christian towns. Amal was not so disciplined. And I did begin to wonder whether things might crack if the Lebanese army or the United Nations did not bring in some troops quickly. I think it was a visit to the old SLA "war" memorial that worried me.

The SLA's "martyrs" - collaborators to the victors of this war - were commemorated in a Muslim-Christian shrine on a hill and a garden in which each dead gunman's name, listed by town and religion, was fixed on a brass plaque to marble walls. "Eternity to our heroic martyrs", it says over the door. I thought it might be the first place to be destroyed and when I arrived there yesterday, militiamen and civilians from nearby villages were already looting the memorial. I found one Shia Muslim woman on her hands and knees, digging up rose bushes with a crazed look on her face.

And along the memorial wall, I discovered a bearded man with a knife, cutting one of the plaques off the marble. The name was that of Akl Ibrahim Hashem, one of the most senior officers in the SLA who was blown up by a Hizbollah mine on 3 January this year. The bearded man held the plaque out to me with a laugh. "I'm taking this one because it is still fresh." And other men then came to cut out more of the plaques. They were killing the dead.

But if anything symbolises Israel's defeat and Hizbollah's victory, it is the old Crusader keep of Beaufort. High above the Litani river gorge, it was bombed by the Israelis when Palestinians used it as a mortar position in the late 1970s, then occupied by Israeli paratroopers - at great cost - in 1982. It was as impregnable a fortress for the Israelis as it had once been to the knights of France. But yesterday, it was open to us all. The Israelis had dynamited the approach roads and their reinforced living quarters and their artillery bunkers. But we could still climb through the smouldering wreckage of their most powerful gun battery in Lebanon and clamber up the ancient Crusader steps to the original ramparts. There were children in party clothes, families picnicking in the grass and an ice-cream van that came chugging through the desolation to sell chocolate cornets.

At the very top, where Israel's soldiers had been peering from an observation platform only hours before, there was a stone parapet and a massive Hizbollah flag in which the "l" of "Allah" is formed from a Kalashnikov rifle. So I climbed into the khaki-coloured post from which Israel's soldiers had looked out each night in fear and, no doubt, loathing for their enemies. And before me was spread the land of Lebanon, up to the 2,000-year-old cedars of the Chouf mountains, across to the snows of Hermon which Saladin had once sent to Richard the Lionheart as a cure for sickness, and down to the flat, mellow lands of Galilee. I could see the Mediterranean and the border of Syria and half way to Haifa.

And the message? That the Israelis lost and the Hizbollah won? Definitely. But something else. That high-tech fighter-bombers and precision artillery and massively armoured soldiers are not necessarily a match for people who think they have God as their commander-in-chief. Not a happy thought for everyone living in the Middle East.

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