April 28, 2006

“Everything Could Explode at Any Moment”

NORTHERN ISRAEL - Last year I drove down from Beirut into Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon along the border with Israel. Aside from Hezbollah’s other miniature state-within-a-state in the suburbs south of Beirut, the border region is the craziest place in the country.

The Lebanese government doesn’t control it and cannot police it. The army is not allowed to go down there. Soldiers I’ve talked to refer to the southern-most checkpoint before the Hezbollah-occupied zone as “the border." Psychotic road-side propaganda shows severed heads, explosions from suicide-bombs, and murderous tyrants from Iran and Syria.

Border Poster.jpg
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Severed Head.jpg
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Lisa Goldman and I decided to drive up there and take a look from the Israeli side.

“I should warn you,” I said in the car. “Something is wrong on the border. Something bad is going to happen.”

“Why do you say that?” she said.

I told her what I knew, what had recently happened when I tried to visit the border again from the Lebanese side just two weeks before.

*

My British friend Andrew flew out to Beirut from Washington. He wanted to visit the border. I wanted to go back to the border. So we rented a car and drove down to Saida where foreigners are required to get permission from the Lebanese army before being allowed beyond the last official checkpoint.

We found our way to the office of the ranking military intelligence officer.

“What is your nationality?” he said.

“He’s British,” I said, referring to Andrew. “And I’m American.”

The officer clasped his hands loudly together. “You are not going down there today,” he said.

“Why not?” I said.

He made an I-don’t-know face that was terrifically, intentionally, and even comically insincere.

“Is it for security reasons?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “You can go,” he said to Andrew. “But you,” he said, meaning me, “can’t go anywhere near the border right now.”

“Why not?” I said. “What’s going on?”

He laughed.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “You can tell me. Who am I going to tell?” (Har har.)

He shook his head. “No,” he said. He was deadly serious about keeping me away from that border.

“Are you worried I will do something?” I said. “Or are you worried something will happen to me?”

“Something might happen to you,” he said.

“Is it Hezbollah? The Israelis? What?”

He made his goofy what-do-I-know face once again. “I am sorry,” he said. “It’s too dangerous. You aren’t going.”

*

That was all I could get out of the Lebanese army. The Israeli army was a little more willing to talk.

Lisa and I met Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman Zvika Golan at a base in the north near the border. He told us to follow him in his jeep as he drove to a lookout point next to an IDF watch tower that opened up over Lebanon.

Israeli Border Post.jpg
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Lebanon from Israel.jpg
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“You aren’t safe here right now,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “The Lebanese army wouldn’t let me anywhere near the border two weeks ago. What’s going on?”

“Hezbollah is planning an operation,” he said.

“How do you know?” I said.

“We know,” he said and nodded.

I knew he was right. The Lebanese intelligence officer more or less told me the same thing. He didn’t say the threat was from Hezbollah, but he didn’t have to.

“What do you think about all this?” I said.

“We really want the Lebanese army on this border,” he said.

Lebanon and Israel technically have been at war for many decades. But Israel and Lebanon have never actually fought any battles. Israel has been involved in plenty of fighting in Lebanon, but none of it ever involved the Lebanese army or government. Neither side has ever actually fired on the other. Neither side wants to. All Israel’s Lebanon battles were waged against the PLO and Hezbollah.

“Are you in contact with the Lebanese government?” I said.

“We pass messages to the Lebanese army through the UN,” he said.

“How well are they received?” I said.

“Oh, they’re received very well,” he said. “The only problem is the Lebanese army can’t act against Hezbollah.”

He introduced me to a young bearded lieutenant in the IDF (left, below) on border patrol duty.

IDF Lieutenant and Spokesman.jpg
Photo copyright Lisa Goldman

“I have worked on the Jordanian and Egyptian borders,” he said. “This is the worst. The strangest feeling here is that the other side is a no-man’s land. There is no authority that you’re working against. It is extremely out of the ordinary to see any Lebanese police or army. Only Hezbollah is armed.”

“What do you see when you look at Lebanon?” I asked the lieutenant.

“I see poverty and difficult circumstances,” he said. “I see poor farmers who work hard. After so many years of war, the last thing they probably want is more war.”

“Do you know what you’re looking at when you look into the towns?” I said.

“We track movement on the other side,” he said. “I can tell you exactly what each of those buildings are for.”

Lebanese Village from Israel.jpg
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“What about people?” I said. “Can you tell who belongs to Hezbollah and who just happens to live there?”

“99 percent of the time I know who I’m looking at by their face,” he said. Hezbollah will love learning that if they’re still reading my blog.

The lieutenant was easily ten years younger than me. But he was so ground down from world-weariness he sounded like a man 30 years older who hadn't slept for three days.

“Any minute now something huge could break out," he said. "I am afraid to go home and leave my soldiers. When Hezbollah decides to do something, they do it. And they’re pretty good at it.”

"What do you think they'll do next?" I said.

“I have no idea," he said. "They could do anything. Kidnapping. Sniper.”

"How do you feel about that?" I said.

“Well,” he said. “You get pretty cynical about it after a while.”

“Do you think they’re watching us?” Lisa said.

“They are watching you right at this second,” the lieutenant said. “You are definitely being photographed. It’s possible you’re being watched through a sniper rifle.”

To say I felt naked and exposed at that moment would be a real understatement. I felt like my skin was invisible, that psychopaths were boring holes with their eyes straight to the core of my being. At the same time, I knew they did not see me as a person. They saw me as a potential massacre target.

I know Hezbollah wouldn’t hurt me in Lebanon, even though they did call me on my cell phone and threaten me with physical violence. All bets are off while standing next to IDF soldiers in Israel, though. Whoever was watching me surely dehumanized me as a Jew (even though I'm a non-religious "Christian") who belonged to the little Satanic fit-for-destruction Zionist Entity.

I wouldn’t say I felt scared. But I certainly didn’t feel comfortable. The earth seemed slightly tilted. Lebanon feels unhinged and psychotic from the Israeli side of the line. At least it did on that day. I kept having to remind myself that the country I love and lived in is not at all represented by the nutcases with guns in the hills who like to pick off Jews on the border.

Lebanon at a Tilt.jpg
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

“How dangerous is it here, really?” I asked the lieutenant.

“I say this to my guys every morning: Everything could explode at any moment. Just after I said it this morning a bus load of pensioners showed up on a field trip. An old woman brought us some food. It’s crazy. They shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here.”

“What’s happening here is very unusual," Zvika, the Israeli Defense Forces Spokesman, said. But he wouldn't tell me what, exactly, was so unusual. Shortly after I left the country, a story broke in the Daily Telegraph that explained it.

Iran has moved into South Lebanon. Intelligence agents are helping Hezbollah construct watch towers fitted with one-way bullet-proof windows right next to Israeli army positions.

Here's what one officer said:
This is now Iran's front line with Israel. The Iranians are using Hizbollah to spy on us so that they can collect information for future attacks. And there is very little we can do about it.

More powerful weapons, including missiles with a range of 30 miles, are also being brought in.

I asked Zvika about the last time Hezbollah and Israel got into a hot war.

“It was last November,” he said. “Hezbollah invaded the village of Ghajar in white jeeps that looked like they belonged to the UN. We bombed their positions with air strikes. After a while, the Lebanese army asked us to stop. So we stopped right away.”

"Why did you stop?" I said. "You stopped just because the Lebanese army asked you to stop?"

He looked surprised by my question.

“Of course we stopped because they asked," he said. "We have very good relations with them. We're working with them and trying to help make them relevant.”

Lebanon never admits anything like this in public.

The rhetoric that comes out of Beirut in Arabic rarely has anything to do with reality. The Lebanese government regularly affirms its "brotherhood" with Syria, its former murderous master that still knocks off elected officials and journalists. Undying loyalty to the Palestinian cause is constantly trumpeted, even while Lebanon treats its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees worse than neglected zoo animals. Arab Nationalism is another regular theme, even though Arab Nationalism is more dead in Lebanon than in any other country around.

"The UN says Hezbollah started the last fight," I said to the lieutenant. "Do you ever start any fights?"

“They always initiate," he said. "We never do. I want to go home. I want to read the newspaper and get more than three hours of sleep every night. We have no business here.”

"Are you scared?" I said.

“I am scared," he said. "As an officer I want my men to be scared.”

"Are they?" I said.

“Not enough," he said. "Not enough.”

Read Part Two

Post-script: Please help support non-corporate writing. Your donations make these dispatches possible. Thanks so much for your help so far.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 28, 2006 3:01 AM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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