QANA, Lebanon, AP – The breeze blew fine dust across graves where 29 people killed in an Israeli airstrike — half of them children — were buried, as the ground was opened for funerals in south Lebanon on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
Women in black robes, their heads hidden by black scarves, held pictures of the dead and threw rice and rose petals on the plywood caskets in the village of Qana, struck during the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah war. Twenty-six coffins were draped in the Lebanese flag and three in the yellow Hezbollah flag.
To the east, the Lebanese army symbolically took control of a first border village from withdrawing Israeli forces, as two soldiers drove slowly through Kfar Kila in a jeep. And in a bid to prevent more arms from reaching Hezbollah fighters, the government vowed to take over all border crossings nationwide, including 60 known smuggling routes from Syria.
At a school in south Beirut’s Bourj el-Barajneh neighborhood, Hezbollah started handing out crisp $100 bills to residents who lost homes in the Israeli bombing campaign — $12,000 to each claimant. The stacks of bills were pulled out of a suitcase. Hezbollah is financed by oil-rich Iran.
The Higher Relief Council, the government agency that deals with disasters, said Friday that the Lebanese government and U.N. agencies were undertaking assessments countrywide. While the government was still absent from the reconstruction effort, there were other offers of private help besides Hezbollah’s direct payments.
Qana, about six miles southeast of the port city of Tyre, held the most elaborate of several funerals in southern Lebanon on Friday after residents decided it was finally safe and hospital morgues made sure all bodies could be claimed. A caravan of cars made its way from one service to the next.
“This is the day to bury our dead,” said Shiite cleric Sheik Shoue Qatoon. “It was decided that we would schedule the funerals so that we could all attend them all.”
During the war, bodies were taken to the Tyre morgue and later buried in a shallow mass grave when refrigerated trucks holding the corpses became too crowded. On Friday, the bodies were exhumed and taken to the home villages for burial. The coffins were marked with the names of the dead.
Funerals in northern Israeli towns proceeded throughout the fighting, though they were sometimes disrupted by rocket fire. But because of the war in Lebanon, it sometimes took more than 24 hours to bring the bodies of soldiers to Israel for burial, the army said. Jewish law requires burial within 24 hours after death.
In the Lebanese village of Srifa, 12 miles east of Tyre, more than 20 people were buried in a mass grave Friday. Airstrikes damaged a large swath in the village center.
In Qana, the dead were buried in individual graves one beside the other.
Women broke into piercing screams as the 29 coffins were carried shoulder-high to the grave site, about a third of a mile from the two-story home blasted by an Israeli missile on July 30. World outrage caused Israel to announce a 48-hour halt in aerial attacks while it investigated the assault after Lebanese authorities initially said 56 people were killed.
Hezbollah flags were planted in the mound of earth scooped from the graves. Scores of cars paraded through Qana waving large Hezbollah flags. Banners stretched across the main street read in English: “The great Lebanon has defeated the murderers.” Arabic language banners called the war dead “martyrs” and said civilian deaths in Qana “woke up the world.”
The dead were all from the Shaloub and Hashem families of Qana.
Fatin Shaloub, a 23-year-old English teacher, lost several members of her family.
“I also lost five of my students,” she said. “We didn’t think the war would be horrible like this.”
Hourra Shaloub, 12, was one of her favorite students and not just because she was a relative, Shaloub said.
“She was very, very smart. She always got top marks. I remember when I heard about the bombing and her death that I recalled her in a play three years ago. That’s how I will always remember her, wearing her blue skirt and white T-shirt and singing very loudly,” she said.
Throughout the day the hum of an Israeli drone could be heard. One of the pilotless planes also flew above south Beirut, according to Associated Press photographers in the area.
Israeli drones and warplanes also crisscrossed the skies above Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley on Friday night, near the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek, security officials said. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release information to reporters, said there had been anti-aircraft fire to drive off the aircraft but no weapons fired by the Israeli drones and jet fighters.
Standing on a platform overlooking the grave site in Qana, the Hezbollah chief in southern Lebanon, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, accused the United States of being “a partner” in Israeli attacks by supplying Israel with sophisticated weapons.
“You Americans and you in the U.S. administration are partners in committing massacres. You are partners in killing us. You are partners in destroying our country. There will be no friendship between you and us,” Kaouk said.
In a televised speech, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud paid tribute to Hezbollah fighters, who he said “brought down the legend of the invincible (Israeli) army. I also salute the leader of the resistance, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who wanted this victory to be for all the Lebanese and Arab people.”
President Bush acknowledged it could take time for the people of Lebanon and the world to view the war as a loss for the militant group. The State Department has designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
“The first reaction of course of Hezbollah and its supporters is to declare victory. I guess I would have done the same thing if I were them,” Bush said.
“Sometimes it takes people awhile to come to the sober realization of what forces create stability and what don’t,” he said. “Hezbollah is a force of instability.”
Near Israel’s Galilee panhandle, the Lebanese army’s 10th brigade set up camps within a mile of the border — a key step toward taking control of the whole country for the first time since 1968 and a major demand of the U.N. resolution that ended the war on Monday.
The deployment marks the first time the Lebanese army has moved in force to a region that was held by Palestinian guerrillas in the 1970s and by Hezbollah since Israeli troops withdrew from the area in 2000.
“We are all very happy,” Brig. Gen. Charles Sheikhani said. “It’s our country. and this is the first time we’ve really been in south Lebanon.”
Lebanese troops also deployed in the town of Chebaa near the Israeli-occupied and disputed Chebaa Farms, which Lebanon claims but which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. It was the first time in 38 years that the Lebanese army had been in Chebaa’s Arqoub region, an area that between 1969 and 1982 was a launching pad for Palestinian attacks on Israel.
When the troops arrived in Chebaa, they were showered with rice and flower petals, and villagers also danced and slaughtered sheep. Troops also deployed in the towns of Kfar Chouba and in Khiam.
With Lebanon moving quickly to get 15,000 soldiers into the south as demanded by the U.N. cease-fire resolution, there was still no firm date for a deployment of an equal number of international peacekeepers. The United Nations had pledges of 3,500 troops for the force, with Bangladesh making the largest offer of up to 2,000 troops.