MAROUN AL RAS, Lebanon—With weeks of Israeli shelling finally stopped, Tami Mahanah on Tuesday grabbed his iron cane and walked two miles uphill with his 70-year-old wife to see what the fighting had wrought in their small Lebanese town.
"Destruction," Mahanah, 74, said as he took in the bomb-scarred houses, shrapnel-littered streets and the ruins of pancaked apartment buildings. "I only see destruction."
A few miles away, in the Israeli city of Kiryat Shemona, brothers Kobi and Nir Levy packed up their Israeli army uniforms and returned to their clothing store in a three-story shopping mall where a Hezbollah rocket had blown a gaping hole in the roof.
"Only the dumb don't want peace," said Kobi Levy, 23, shaking his head as he worked to get the store back open for business. "All your life, because of one war, things get screwed up. Because of one goddamn war."
Residents along both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border returned to their homes on Tuesday to discover that while getting life back to normal won't be easy in either country, the task will be far more difficult in Lebanon, where the devastation dwarfs that found on the Israeli side.
More than 10,000 Lebanese homes have been damaged or destroyed by thousands of Israeli airstrikes. The country's roads and bridges have been carved up.
Rebuilding could cost more than $3 billion, by some estimates.
Along with Beirut, places facing the longest road to recovery are towns like Maroun al-Ras. The tiny enclave sits on a hill with views of an Israeli kibbutz on a neighboring rise just a short hike away.
It was here that Hezbollah fighters staged their first showdown with Israeli tanks that punched into southern Lebanon to rout the militants. Eight Israeli soldiers died here and the evidence of street battles, airstrikes and artillery barrages is everywhere.
A decomposing cow, its skull visible, lies on one street. Jagged shrapnel litters the roads. Apartment buildings and homes lie in ruin.
Mahanah and his wife were lucky. Their home, nestled on a hillside, was largely spared in the fighting. He and his wife didn't venture into Maroun al-Ras; Israeli troops had warned Lebanese civilians not to go there. The town remains under Israeli control.
"Is it safe?" asked Mahanah shortly before an Israeli patrol took up positions on the rise above his house, fired warning shots at visitors and ordered the couple to stay in their home.
Aid convoys are slowly working their way south, but no one has made it to Maroun al-Ras. Israeli soldiers warned that the town was still a danger zone, but aside from the Mahanahs and the troops, there were few signs of life. A trio of puppies scurried under a wall next to an abandoned store still stocked with chips, soda and canned goods.
Mahanah and his wife fled their town as the Israeli shelling intensified in the first days of the ground invasion. They spent weeks in the nearby valley, surviving on crusts of bread that they scavenged in abandoned schools and homes.
"All this destruction is not worth the reason this war started," said Mahanah. "It will take years to rebuild Lebanon, and it will take years to rebuild what we once had in peace and comfort."
To Kobi Levy and his brother Nir, the reason for the confrontation—Hezbollah's July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers—was worth the destruction.
"They kidnapped our soldiers. What did they expect?" said Nir Levy, a 26-year-old reserve soldier who took part in repeated raids into Lebanon.
On Tuesday, the brothers returned to Kiryat Shemona to check on their clothing store. Nearly 1,000 Hezbollah rockets had slammed into Kiryat Shemona during the fighting, making the town the biggest Israeli target in the confrontation.
Dozens of buildings were hit, scores of people were wounded, the surrounding hillsides were set ablaze and most of the town's 22,000 residents fled. But the intense rocket barrage did little destruction compared with what took place at Maroun al-Ras, and on Tuesday Kiryat Shemona was quickly regaining a sense of normality.
Traffic lights on the main street set to blink orange for weeks resumed their red-green alternation. Stores reopened. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni traveled throughout the area to reassure returning residents that they wouldn't be forgotten.
The Israeli government estimates that the fighting caused $1 billion in damage to the country and its economy. Israel already has given some financial help to businesses and provided free hotel rooms for hundreds of people whose homes were destroyed. Reconstruction is expected to begin soon.
"It is our obligation to help the citizens," Livni said during a stop in Kiryat Shemona.
But that's not enough for the Levys, who, like many in the north, feel they were abandoned by their government during the fighting.
"I was really ashamed of our government," said Kobi Levy, who was called back to military service as a medic.
When the rebuilding will start in Maroun al-Ras is anyone's guess. There's doubt that many of those returning to southern Lebanon will stay for long.
An estimated 6,000 people were returning to the south every hour, said officials in Beirut. They found devastation so deep that it's unclear where people will sleep. A quick assessment of a few villages by U.N. peacekeeping troops found 80 percent of the homes in one village destroyed and that half the homes had been destroyed in at least two others.
"We don't really understand where people are going," said Gabi Kattini, a volunteer in Beirut with Lebanon's Higher Relief Committee, a government agency coordinating the relief effort. "We think a lot of them will take a look and see what happened to their villages, and then they will come back to Beirut."
Asked about the destruction, Nir Levy shrugged and blamed Hezbollah for making homes and hospitals their bunkers.
"This is the way they fight," he said. "Every house has weapons and ammunition. Every apartment." He has no doubts about what was done. "I think it was necessary," he said.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Shashank Bengali contributed from Beirut.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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