Border tensions dog south Lebanese longing for peace
"Liberated Territory: Enter Peacefully and Safely," reads a road sign erected by Hizbollah sometime since its guerrillas hounded Israeli forces from south Lebanon in 2000.
Sporadic flare-ups along the tense frontier mean liberation has so far brought about neither peace nor safety.
Locals say they are concerned that tensions are exacerbating economic malaise in the under-developed area. Some suggest it is time Lebanon's army replaced the Shiite Muslim militia that has controlled the border since Israel ended its 22-year occupation.
"The army should deploy now the Israelis are gone, not leave it loose so anyone can come and take a pot-shot," said Nidal Yassin, trembling with anger a day after a group of Palestinians tried firing rockets from hills near his village into Israel.
"Last time these bastards fired rockets, they hit our house and killed my nephew. We pay the price for their political messages. Well, our land is free now so these terrorists can go."
Two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air raid on south Lebanon on March 23 as they fired rockets to avenge the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of the militant Hamas movement.
A day earlier, Hizbollah attacked Israeli positions in the disputed Shebaa Farms border area, again in response to the killing of the wheelchair-bound Palestinian cleric in Gaza.
Israel responded with air strikes round the edges of some Lebanese border villages, shattering windows.
"Everyone wishes things were more stable," said Mohammed Yacoub, a shopkeeper in the southern town of Houla. "It would be better if the army came. The Lebanese army is our army, all of us, not some party or militia."
Lebanon rejects US demands it take over, saying it will not let its military act as border police for an enemy state.
Some analysts say deploying an army too weak to confront Israel's military prowess could prove more volatile than leaving the border in the hands of a force whose tenacity it has tasted.
Hizbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, won hero status across the Arab world when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon.
This year's prisoner exchange deal- which swapped than 400 Arabs for one Israeli businessman and the remains of three soldiers - elevated the group's standing in Arab eyes.
Residents of Kfar Shouba, the town nearest the Shebaa Farms, were publicly supportive of the group that has long championed the Palestinian cause too.
"As long as the Zionist enemy is on our land, we, the residents, must be side by side with the resistance," said Abu Bilal, a poster of the slain Yassin in his shop window.
"Our problems began when the Zionists came to Palestine. But this is our land and we will hold onto it and not leave."
Lebanon and Hizbollah say the Shebaa Farms is still-occupied Lebanese soil. Residents of the border towns of Shebaa and Kfar Shouba say it is land they once farmed but can no longer access.
The United Nations considers the strip Israeli-occupied Syrian territory and Israel's pullout from Lebanon as complete.
Hizbollah regularly struck Israeli posts in the area in the early stages of the more than three-year-old Palestinian uprising next door.
The frequency of attacks has waned as US pressure has mounted on Lebanon and Syria, which has broad political sway in its tiny neighbour, to rein in the group it calls "terrorist".
Locals pointed to regular Israeli over flights, which draw Hizbollah fire and UN criticism, as proof that Israel was not seriously committed to peace. Some complained that the Shebaa Farms was being exploited as a proxy battleground in a regional conflict.
"We want our land free but there are other ways. They hit the Shebaa Farms. So what difference did it make?" said one southern businessman. "It was about Yassin, about Palestine, about Syria, not about freeing Lebanese land."
Southerners, many of whom returned from years abroad to help rebuild their native villages after the liberation, say they just want to make a living.
"As far as business is concerned, we are affected tremendously," said Simon Hamra, manager of the Dana Hotel near Ibl al-Saqi. "It may be safe but to people abroad, it looks like the south is burning," he said, adding that all his rooms were empty and two functions had been cancelled after the latest tension.
Since August, two Israelis, two Palestinians and at least four Lebanese have been killed in border flare ups.
"Farmers don't plant areas near the fence because you never know when there's going to be an attack or shelling," said Ali Amra, who runs an agricultural coop in Kfar Shouba.
"We just want it all to end so farmers can make a living."