The young lives interrupted by their nation's call to arms

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The Independent Online

For Itai, 19, the moment he will always remember was when he was at a window of the house in which his paratrooper unit was positioned and a bullet, he thinks from a Hizbollah sniper, missed him by a centimetre. For Zohar, 21, it was when the same house was hit by a Hizobollah missile. "The explosion was so big that you couldn't hear anything," he said. "Everyone was covered with dust. For a few seconds it was complete chaos."

Or at least that is what they are telling their families. For both young soldiers admit they do not tell even their parents the full story of Bint Jbeil, by common consent the most hellish battle of the war so far - " maybe 90 per cent but there are details we don't discuss".

Bint Jbeil is where nine Israeli soldiers were killed in one day, and which observers who have visited it since describe as looking as if it had been hit by an earthquake.

In any other first world country, Itai would probably be on a gap year, and Zohar well into a university course aimed at a career in industrial design. To both, their planned post-army, pre-univeristy tours - Zohar in central America, Itai in Thailand and Australasia - currently seem an unimaginably distant prospect.

Five days after they came out of southern Lebanon at the end of the most intense week of their lives so far, they were mourning yet another of their comrades killed in southern Lebanon the previous day. Yesterday, after the deaths of four more ground troops, the Maariv newspaper headlined its story "Black Day in North"; a few hours later, as the military funerals began again, two more soldiers had been confirmed dead.

From the hills above Bint Jbeil, the men's unit had moved on foot into a house at the edge of the town from which they could identify and, if necessary, draw out Hizbollah fighters. But it was last Friday night, when they were actually preparing to leave, that they came under their fiercest attack from Hizbollah forces in a battle that lasted well into Saturday. "They were firing missiles at the house every minute," said Itai, adding that he had heard they had in turn killed some 26 Hizbollah fighters but admitted he did not know the figure for certain.

Itai and Zohar have no illusions about Hizbollah as a fighting force. Itai has little to compare this with, having seen virtually no combat before in his one year in the army. But Zohar, two years a soldier, encountered Palestinian factions in Nablus, Hebron and Bethlehem. "The difference in the West Bank is that you are not fighting an organised army," he said. "They don't have the missiles [that Hizbollah] does and the army knows the terrain very well. In Lebanon, we had not been there for six years; [Hizbollah] had been able to organise in that period and their missiles were much more technologically advanced - anti-tank missiles, RPGs."

Zohar and Itai have none of the bombastic rhetoric beloved of politicians who send young men to war. Both expect to return to southern Lebanon. While there is little doubt they support the offensive, Itai says quietly, when asked to sum up the campaign: "When you are soldiers you accept what the politicians decide. We have to accept orders. It doesn't matter that you feel it is right or wrong."

Itai points out that both he and Zohar - their brigade's familiar wings embazoned on their shortened M16s - volunteered to be paratroopers before declaring: "Any country that doesn't have mandatory army service should be jealous of us because 21-year-olds who have done military service are more mature and more self-reliant than those who haven't."

Yoni, the young paratroop officer/minder overseeing the interview,prevents Zohar giving more detail about Bint Jbeil, and vetoes the question of whether, after the battle, the soldiers believe that Hizbollah can be defeated by military means. So were they afraid? Itai confesses to a "a sense of excitement" during the battle and Zohar says: "No. When it comes to the moment you want to do the best job you can." Like their US predecessors in Vietnam a generation ago, conscripts like Zohar and Itai are bearing the brunt of a war on foreign soil against a highly disciplined guerilla force. Both will be hoping the comparison ends there.

Day 24

* Israeli missiles hit a warehouse where farm workers were loading vegetables near the Lebanon-Syria border, killing 33 people. 7 other Lebanese civilians died.

* Israel's heavy overnight bombing of Beirut's main access road to the north has severed the last major overland route to bring relief supplies into Lebanon.

* Rockets fired by Hizbollah guerrillas into northern Israel from Lebanon killed three people and injured more than 100.

* The US and France neared completion of a UN resolution designed to set out principles for a lasting ceasefire.

* Thousands of Shia thronged the streets of a Baghdad slum to show support for Hizbollah. About 100 people threw stones and firebombs at the British embassy in Tehran.