But sporadic flare-ups along the tense frontier means that there are still ways to go before complete peace is achieved. 

   

Overwhelmingly, the people of south Lebanon are supportive of Hizb Allah and its activities, which ended Israel's 22-year-old occupation of Lebanese territory - except for the Shebaa Farms area.

 

But some residents say they are concerned that tensions are exacerbating economic malaise in the under-developed area.

 

They suggest it is time Lebanon's army replaced the Shia Muslim group that has controlled the border since Israel ended its brutal 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 Yasin, a day after a group of Palestinians tried firing rockets from hills near his village into Israel.

 

Others say Israel's harsh policies and targeted assasinations in the occupied Palestinian territories justify the attacks against Israel in what is considered the last segment of occupied Lebanese territory - the Shebaa Farms.

 

The last time the Palestinians fired rockets, Nidal said, the Israelis hit his house and killed his nephew.

 

"We pay the price for their political messages," he said.

   

Israeli attacks

 

Hizb Allah members are seen as
heroes by many Lebanese 

Two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air raid on south Lebanon on 23 March as they fired rockets to avenge the killing of Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, founder of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas.

   

A day earlier, Hizb Allah attacked Israeli positions in the Shebaa Farms border area, again in response to the killing of the wheelchair-bound cleric.

   

Israel followed with air strikes around the edges of some

Lebanese border villages, shattering windows.

   

"Everyone wishes things were more stable," said Muhammad

Yaqub, 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."

   

But this is not the position of the Lebanese government.

 

Lebanon rejects US demands it take over, saying it will not let its military act as border police for an enemy state.

   

And some analysts say deploying an army too weak to confront Israel's military could prove more volatile than leaving

the border in the hands of a force whose tenacity it has tasted.

 

Hizb Allah support

 

Hizb Allah, 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 more

than 400 Arabs for one Israeli businessman and the remains of

three soldiers - elevated the group's standing in Arab eyes.

   

"As long as the Zionist enemy is on our land, we, the residents, must be side by side with the resistance. Our problems began when the Zionists came to Palestine. But

this is our land and we will hold onto it and not leave"

Abu Bilal,
Kfar Shuba resident

Residents of Kfar Shuba, the town nearest the Shebaa Farms, are 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 assasinated Yasin 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 Hizb Allah say the Shebaa Farms area is still-occupied Lebanese soil. Residents of the border towns of Shebaa and Kfar Shuba say it is land they once farmed but can no longer access.

   

On the other hand, the United Nations considers the strip Israeli-occupied Syrian territory and Israel's pullout from Lebanon as complete.

 

Syria, meanwhile, agrees with the Lebanese position on the issue.

   

Occupied area

 

Hizb Allah 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".

   

But locals pointed to regular Israeli overflights, which draw

Hizb Allah fire and UN criticism, as proof that Israel is not

seriously committed to peace.

 

Civilians have been caught in the
middle of the conflict

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 Yasin, 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.

   

Ordinary people

 

"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 Shuba.

   

"We just want it all to end so farmers can make a living."