August 30, 2006

Israel’s Other Rocket War

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – Israel’s other war-without-a-name in the summer of 2006 is eerily similar to the one in the north, the one that got all the attention, against Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

Palestinian terrorists kidnapped the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit just across the border from Gaza and ramped up their Qassam rocket attacks against civilian targets in Israel.

Shika Frista and his friend Zvika took me to Kibbutz Alumim, where Zvika lives with his family, and showed me some of the rockets that landed in and around the community recently.

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Several Qassam rockets had been placed beneath a palm tree.

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Oddly, the Gaza rocket factory took the trouble to brand their weapons in English.

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Elsewhere exploded Qassam rockets and parts were used as garden art.

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There is something slightly creepy about using Qassam rockets as garden art. But Qassams are a part of life in Southern Israel. And there’s something slightly defiant as well as creepy about integrating them into the landscape.

Turning a murderous instrument with your name on it into a community showpiece is a way of taking ownership of it, laughing at it even. Your rockets don’t scare us. They’re just garden art now. We’re still here. And you keep missing the target.

Zvika did seem to think the rocket parts were a little bit funny. He held them up for my camera with the same good cheer as a fisherman who just caught a seven pound bass.

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I, too, picked up some of the rockets, thinking while doing so that thugs from Hamas or Islamic Jihad had handled them before I did, hoping against the odds that they could use them to kill a few Jews.

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Unlike Northern Israel during the Hezbollah war, Southern Israel has not been evacuated. Rockets flying out of Gaza are fewer and smaller than those that were shot out of Lebanon. Terrorism usually doesn’t work as well as its practitioners wish. So far the only thing terrorists in Gaza have accomplished is bringing about the return of the Israeli Defense Forces.

I saw a huge pile of busted up pavement next to one of the streets. “What’s that?” I said to Zvika.

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“It is from a Qassam,” he said. “It landed right next to these houses and shattered the road.”

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“The houses look okay,” I said. But I remembered the damage I saw from Katyusha attacks by Hezbollah in Kiryat Shmona. Most of the damage done to buildings is cosmetic and easily fixable even while Katyushas are extraordinarily dangerous to human beings.

“If the Qassam lands next to you,” Zvika said, “it will kill you. But it if lands ten meters away it won’t kill you. Qassams are lightweight. If they had more explosives and weighed more the rockets wouldn’t go very far. They would land on the Palestinians.” He laughed and made a diving gesture with his hand. “The rockets are made in Gaza. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are not technologically sophisticated like the Hezbollah.”

If Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers compared with IAF missiles, Qassams are practically spit balls compared with Katyushas. Then again, a Qassam is huge compared with a bullet, and a great deal more dangerous. They have only killed a handful of people, even so. The biggest danger from the Palestinian rocket war against Israel isn’t the damage Hamas and Islamic Jihad are able to inflict today. It’s the damage they could inflict tomorrow if they find a way to equip themselves with more powerful missiles that could render Southern and even Central Israel uninhabitable.

Zvika pointed to the alarm system on top of the roof of a school.

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“You have twenty or thirty seconds after you hear that alarm to get to a shelter,” he said. “It scares the children every time it goes off.”

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“Do they ever fire rockets at night?” I said. Hezbollah hardly ever fired Katyusha rockets at night because they did not want to give away the positions of the launchers to the Israeli military.

“Oh yes,” he said. “All day, all night, all the time.”

*

Earlier we had coffee at an outdoor café just far enough away from Gaza that we couldn’t quite see it.

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Zvika’s two children joined us.

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They had accompanied us during our entire tour along the border with Gaza, which just goes to show how normal-seeming such places can be when you live near them. I doubt many tourists ever take their kids to that border.

A Qassam could have struck us at any moment, although the odds were low enough that I didn’t worry about it. I even tried to worry about it just so I would have an idea what it can feel like to live next to Gaza. After spending a day and a half under fire from Hezbollah, though, Qassams didn’t seem like that big a deal.

Just as we were sitting there drinking our coffee, Zvika received a text message on his cell phone telling us that an incoming rocket struck Kibbutz Kissufim.

“That happened just now?” I said.

“Just now,” Zvika said.

It was far enough away that we didn’t hear it.

I wanted to know what Zvika thought about Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year now that he has to live under rocket fire in part as a result. Was withdrawing the settlements and the army the right thing to do?

“Yes,” Zvika said. But he does not want to withdraw from the West Bank. “It is our land. They can have Gaza. But Hebron has always been ours. They have only been there for 200 years.”

The United States has barely existed for more than 200 years. No one thinks non-native Americans should have to pack up and go back to Europe or wherever else their families came from. At some point the statute of limitations has to run out on these things. George Santayana famously said those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. P.J. O’Rourke went further and said it goes double for those who can’t remember anything else.

“Do you just want to sit on top of Palestinians forever?” I said to Zvika.

He shrugged.

“What is the solution to this problem?” Shika asked Zvika. Zvika had no answer, not even a bad one.

“What is the solution?” Shika said again. “What do you think is the solution?”

Zvika didn’t say anything.

“You want to keep the West Bank but give them Gaza?” I said.

“We gave them Gaza,” Zvika said, “and Lebanon. But Hamas and Hezbollah still want to kill us. Why? What did we do to Lebanon? Nothing. And they want to kill us!”

“The West Bank is different from Lebanon, though,” I said.

“Yes,” Zvika said. “It is our land.”

Zvika is in the minority. Shika calls him a “fanatic,” even though they are friends. The Israeli center as the well as the left wants out of the West Bank as well as out of Gaza. Ehud Olmert was elected in part on that platform.

There’s an old formula that has been floating around for a while.

1. Greater Israel
2. Democracy
3. Jewish Majority

Pick two.

Zvika and the rest of Israelis to the right of the mainstream still think, somehow, they will find a way to hold onto all three.

It didn’t matter what I said to Zvika. He just kept saying “It is our land,” as if that settled everything and there was nothing left to be said.

*

Shika and I left Zvika at Kibbutz Alumim and continued by ourselves in his truck to Kelem Shalom, where Israel, Gaza, and Egypt converge.

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This is where the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on June 25, triggering Operation Summer Rain that continues in Gaza today, almost entirely beyond any media coverage.

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Shalit was inside a tank near the tower pictured above. Eight terrorists emerged from an underground tunnel 700 meters long that began in a building in Gaza and ended as a hard-to-see hole in the middle of an Israeli field. They fired an RPG at the tank and killed two soldiers. Gilad Shalit emerged from the tank. The terrorists snatched him off the tank and stole him to Gaza. The whole operation took seven minutes.

Tunnels are appearing all over the place. Tunnels from Gaza into Egypt for smuggling weapons. Tunnels from Gaza into Israel for carrying out terrorist actions.

The Egyptian border patrol (pictured below) does shut down some of the smugglers’ tunnels, even though it is not their top priority.

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Tunnels are a top priority for Israel, though, along the border with Egypt as well as underneath their own territory.

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Those tunnels get people killed. They keep finding new ones beneath the houses.

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Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:15 PM

August 29, 2006

More

I'll have more Gaza material published here shortly. In the meantime, don't forget I'm also filling in for Andrew Sullivan and posting shorter pieces over there.

Here are two recent articles:

Protesters to Olmert: You’re Going to Be Even More Mud than Golda

Hezbollah Dismantles Shebaa Farms Outposts

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:42 AM

August 28, 2006

Bandwidth Problem

Apparently there is/was a bandwidth problem around here. Photos weren't showing up in the post below this one. Can you see them now? My browser cached everything, so I can't tell if the problem has actually been fixed. Someone please verify for me that the pictures are visible. Or not. Thanks!

(I had to use a third-party server because Movable Type broke and I can't upload photos to my own server. Tech Support hasn't been able to figure out why yet. Sigh.)

If you tried to view the photos earlier and still can't see them, try clicking Refresh. If that doesn't work, I need to know so I can work on this problem some more…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:21 PM

Eyeless in Gaza

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The engine of a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into Israel by Palestinian terrorists

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – All eyes turned from Gaza to Lebanon as Israel fought a hot war with Hezbollah across its northern border. Before the Lebanon war broke out, the fighting in and around Gaza was the big story in Israel. But once the media coverage ended it stayed ended, even after foreign correspondents were free to pick up where they left off. Perhaps the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists by the latest in a long line of Palestinian terrorist groups — the Holy Jihad Brigades — all but guaranteed reporters wouldn’t go back.

Even though I’ve been in Israel for a couple of weeks, I still didn’t know any more about what’s going on down there than people who have never been here before. News from Israel’s other rocket war barely trickles up to Tel Aviv. So I hopped in my rental car and drove down to Mishav Klahim, just east of Netivot and 20 kilometers from Gaza, to meet Shika Frista who promised to show me what’s going on.

I missed a turn on the coastal road when I was supposed to veer left to avoid driving straight into Gaza. Suddenly mine was the only car on the road. An aerial surveillance balloon hovered in the air up ahead. It looked just like the one I saw flying on the border with Lebanon while Hezbollah fired barrages of Katyusha rockets into Israeli cities.

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The war of the rockets was supposed to be over. But I was back in it.

The left turn I needed to take was behind me. But I kept driving, slowly, so I could see what was ahead. I rolled down the window and listened for sounds of war. All was quiet, oppressively hot, and still.

The road dead-ends at the Erez Crossing Point. No one was going in or out of Gaza that day. It looked like no one was even there working or watching, like the place had been abandoned and left to itself.

I took a quick picture…

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…then turned the car around and realized I had made a mistake. Any Israeli military personnel who watched me drive up, take a quick picture, and leave right away would have good reason to be suspicious and even arrest me. But no cars followed in the rear view mirror.

The map led me straight to Shika Frista’s house on his Moshav. We sat at little table under the shade of palm trees next to his swimming pool.

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Shika drank a glass of red wine.

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It was too hot for wine, so I asked for a beer. The air outside is drier in the south, though, not humid and heavy like it is in Tel Aviv.

“I can hear the Qassam rockets fired at us from Gaza,” he said and gestured to the farmland beyond. “They shake the windows of my house when they hit.”

Israel ended up with two rocket wars at the same time. One in the north, and one in the south. Unlike Hezbollah’s arsenal, Qassam rockets aren’t made in Iran. They’re made in Gaza itself. They’re smaller, though, than Katyushas. The south has not been evacuated like the north was, even though people still occasionally are killed by the rockets.

“How often does Hamas fire rockets?” I said.

“Hamas doesn’t shoot them,” he said. “Islamic Jihad shoots them.”

“How close to your house has a Qassam hit?” I said.

“About…four or five kilometers away,” he said.

“And you can hear them here,” I said, “even from that far away?”

“Oh,” he said. “Of course.”

We finished our drinks and drove toward Gaza in his truck.

“Ariel Sharon’s farm is near here, right?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “A Qassam landed twenty meters from his wife’s grave on the family property.”

We passed Sharon’s farm and in minutes reached the city of Sderot.

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“Lots of Qassams hit this city,” Shika said. “Most people killed by the Qassams live here.”

“How many rockets are hitting the city right now?” I said.

“Not as many today,” he said. “Because of the war in Lebanon.”

“What does Lebanon have to do with it?” I said.

“All the journalists forgot about us during the Lebanon war. So the terrorists are waiting for the media to come back before firing rockets again. They don’t want to waste those they have.”

“That can’t be the only reason,” I said. “The IDF has been active in Gaza this entire time. Surely that has something to do with it.”

“Yes,” he said. “Also because of the IDF.

Later two more Israelis repeated what Shika said about Hamas and Islamic Jihad cooling their rocket launchers while the media’s attention was elsewhere. I haven’t heard any official confirmation from either side that it’s true.

“How long do people here have from the time they hear an air raid siren until the rockets land?” I said.

“About 20 seconds,” he said.

We reached a small IDF base near the Israeli town of Nir Am where Shika’s friend Zvika waited for us.

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Shika’s friend Zvika

The parking lot was shielded by concrete bomb-blast walls.

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A civilian overlook tower was erected next to the military compound. It was not shielded by walls of any kind. But Gaza was still a comfortable distance away. No sniper could possibly shoot us from the other side of the vast and eerily empty no-man’s wasteland that lay between the de-facto end of Israel and the beginning of Gaza.

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An aerial surveillance balloon flew right over our heads.

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Zvika knew the area well. Shika had asked him to meet us so he could tell me what we were looking at.

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“Over there,” Zvika said, “is the town of Beit Hanun.”

Beit Hanun was far, and I had to zoom my camera lens all the way out to take a picture.

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The Gaza city of Beit Hanun from Nir Am with a zoom lens

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Here is a severely cropped piece from the photo above

“You see those towers off in the distance,” Zvika said. “With the sun shining on them? Those are apartment buildings in Gaza City that Arafat built for members of Fatah.”

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“Where are those smokestacks in the distance off to the right?” I said.

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“That’s Ashkelon,” Zvika said. “Islamic Jihad fires Qassam rockets at that city all the time.”

“Is this overlook point always open to the public?” I said. It felt strange just driving up to an IDF base, even if it was just a small one, and hanging out right next to it without having to even say hi to a soldier guarding the road.

“Very few civilians know about this place,” Zvika said. “Only the people who live nearby ever come here.”

“Is this interesting to you?” I said. “Or is it normal?”

“It is normal,” he said.

“It is interesting for me,” Shika said. “It has been three years since I saw anything like this.”

“There used to be plantations just on the other side of the fence,” Zvika said. “But the IDF uprooted them because Qassams were being launched from there. Now they have to fire Qassams from the buildings farther away.”

“If they fire a rocket you will see it,” Shika said.

“Will we see a trail of smoke?” I said.

Oh yes,” Zvika said and raised his eyebrows. “You will see the smoke.”

Just then several IDF soldiers in the base below shouted something in Hebrew and ran to one of the tanks.

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Several men jumped in, cranked up the tank’s engine, and roared with surprising speed into the field toward Gaza in front of the overlook tower.

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I braced myself for the thunderous racket of combat or a possible incoming or over flying Qassam. Nothing happened. The Gaza area was tense and sporadically violent, but the conflict was significantly dialed down compared with the just-ended open war against Hezbollah in the north.

It was time to move on. Shika and Zvika had much more to show me.

Zvika hopped in his van. Shika and I climbed into the truck and followed Zvika as he drove south down the length of the Gaza Strip.

“You see that dirt road on the other side of the trees next to this one?” Shika said.

I did, and I took a picture of it.

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“Every day a machine goes over it and smoothes it out,” he said. “Trackers, mostly Bedouin, search the dirt every day for fresh footprints. They can tell when someone has come out of Gaza and which direction he’s going. If you put one foot on that road right now you will be arrested.”

“I’m partly relieved that I can’t go into Gaza right now,” I said. I’m being prevented from going into Gaza for a variety of security, logistical, and bureaucratic reasons beyond my control. “But I also partly wish that I could.”

“The beach in Gaza is amazing,” Shika had told me earlier. “It is virgin. You wouldn’t believe it.”

“You’ve been there?” I said.

“Of course,” he said. “We used to go there and eat in the restaurants.”

“When?” I said.

“In the early 80s,” he said.

“It was friendly then?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Israel ruled there. The Palestinians were friendly, I think they miss that period. They had money, they could walk freely.”

We continued following Zvika in his van to the abandoned Karni Terminal.

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“That’s Gaza, man,” Shika said. “Do you want to go inside?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Not without the army, though. If you and I go in there right now, we’re both in trouble.”

“Me more than you,” Shika said.

We were much closer to Gaza this time than we were at the overlook tower. Buildings inside the strip loomed just over the tops of concrete bomb-blast and sniper-fire walls.

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“We are probably over some tunnels right now,” Shika said. “It is very dangerous and we have to be careful.”

The Karni Terminal was a major crossing point for people and goods into and out of Gaza before the place went completely to hell. Today it is abandoned.

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The spooky silence and emptiness only hinted at the violence and anarchy being walled off on the other side after the Israeli withdrawal.

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It wasn’t a safe place to linger. So we moved along and headed further south without getting out of our vehicles.

“The last three prime ministers want peace,” Shika said. “They go out of Lebanon, they go out of Gaza. And look what [Arab terrorists] continue to do.”

“Do you think it was right to leave Gaza?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.”

“Even though there are rocket attacks?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “This is occupied land. They always have excuses to do what they do. Do you know what’s going on in Gaza now?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t.”

“Whew,” he said. “You can’t imagine.”

“What do you know about it?” I said.

“Everybody has weapons,” he said. “The strongest is the ruler. It is not like in Ramallah.”

Smoke rose from Gaza off to the right.

“You see that fire?” Shika said. “It is from missiles. Israel is shooting at where the terrorists hide.”

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Vicious dogs chased the truck and ran right alongside it, furiously barking, snarling, and threatening to lunge at us.

The only thing less dodgy about this environment than the war zone on the northern border is that I couldn’t hear or see live explosions.

I did, however, see a tank moving fast among some trees.

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Once again I braced myself for the unspeakably loud explosions of combat. Once again, though, the IDF just seemed to be moving its forces around. There was no fighting at that particular time on that particular day.

We kept driving and passed by more tanks.

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“They are getting ready to go into Gaza,” Shika said.

Some of the tanks looked idle, though. Notice in the photo below that a cover of some sort has been placed over the barrel.

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“Roll down the window,” I said. “I want to talk to these guys.”

Shika rolled down the window and shouted at an IDF officer. The officer shouted back.

“I told him you are a journalist,” Shika said. “And he said It’s about time you got down here.”

“Ask him if I can interview some of the soldiers,” I said.

Shika asked my question in Hebrew.

“No,” the officer said.

“Can I take pictures?” I said and held up my camera.

“No,” the officer said. Then why did he say It’s about time you got down here? He didn’t send us away, but he didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon.

It was okay, though. Noah Pollak and I were already wrapping up the week-long process of securing interviews with IDF soldiers and military intelligence officers out of Gaza. We had plans to get that side of the story soon enough from people who know who we are and are willing to talk.

You can drive from Tel Aviv to Gaza in an hour. How strange, then, that there’s a little war down there that no one else in Israel – not even the foreign correspondents – have any interest in or are really even aware of. I felt like I had slid off the edge of the country and through a hole in the dimension into a violent alternate reality. It’s as if the Gaza war does not exist in Israel now even though it’s right down the road.

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If a terrorist army fired rockets into Jersey City and the US military deployed tanks and heavy artillery against them, those who live in New York would take a keen interest in the goings-on. So would, I suspect, the people of Britain, France, Israel (!), and Cairo.

People get used to war, though. So do countries. Arabs are firing rockets at Jews? Israelis are sending tanks after their hides? Yeah, well, what else is new. Right?

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It’s tourist season now, just one hour north. And the beach is calling.

To be continued…

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:40 AM

August 25, 2006

Getting the Story

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I spent all day today in the southern region near Gaza and learned part of the story about what’s going on down there. An IDF soldier I ran into said “It’s about time you got down here,” “you” being the media. Most foreign correspondents left the country after the cease-fire in Lebanon, and I don’t know what the rest are doing right now. But then the rental car broke down in the evening and I was stranded for hours. (That in itself is a story.) So now I’m finally back in civilization, but in this time zone it’s way too late to write all this up. Stay tuned, though. I’ll get to it soon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:48 PM

August 24, 2006

The Latest from Fouad Seniora

I wanted to make sure you know, since I posted this over at Andrew Sullivan's place, that Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora is now talking about a peace treaty with Israel. See here and here. This is huge, really, even if it's only talk and even if Hezbollah can unilaterally jam up the deal by shooting more rockets. No Lebanese politician would have dared to say such a thing two months ago with a Syrian gun pointed at the right side of his head, a Hezbollah gun pointed at the left side, and the reactionary mentality that prevails in certain Lebanese quarters.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:56 AM

Reminder

Don't forget I have posts over at Andrew Sullivan's place, too, until Labor Day weekend.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:26 AM

Bomb Shelters

Amichai Geva and Yehuda Beinin, the two peace activists I interviewed earlier, gave me a tour of one of the community bomb shelters at Kibbutz Shomrat, just north of Akko (Acre) near the border with Lebanon.

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The entrance leading underground is in a communal area behind several old houses. The door was unlocked and open just in case the war started again and the sirens went off.

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The stairs lead deep underground, deep enough that I felt psychologically secure down there as well as physically secure.

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The place is purely functional, though. It is not where you want to live for a month.

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This shelter is used by 20 people. There are a couple of smaller rooms that branch off from the main room pictured above.

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But I only saw one single bed.

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Here is a picture of Amichai’s bomb shelter. His house is new, and all new houses are required by law to include sealed rooms (to protect against chemical weapons) that can also absorb a direct hit by a rocket or missile. The walls are solid, thick, and lined with books. Amichai told me he rather enjoys staying in his above-ground shelter. It's just another room in his house. With books, a computer, music, a bed, and a window, what more do you need?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:21 AM

August 23, 2006

Peace Now Under Fire

SHOMRAT, ISRAEL — I drove up to Kibbutz Shomrat, just north of Akko (Acre) near the border with Lebanon, and met two middle-aged members of Peace Now who stayed in the line of Katyusha fire throughout the war. I expected to meet two marginalized members of the old left who were stuck on the sidelines as history roared past. Instead, they insisted the rest of Israeli society is coming around to their point of view.

Amichai Geva warmly welcomed me into his home and fed me pitas, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, and watermelon. Yehuda Beinin joined us in the living room.

Both men and their families stayed on the kibbutz during Hezbollah’s attack.

“Lots of rockets hit near the kibbutz,” Amichai said. “One fell right here in the orchard next to the houses. But none of the houses were hit. Most people without children in the house stayed. It’s hard to keep children in a bomb shelter for almost five weeks.”

“How much time did you have after you heard the siren before the rockets actually hit?” I said.

“Thirty seconds sometimes,” Yehuda said. “Sometimes five seconds. Sometimes minus five seconds…the sirens didn’t always come on until after the rockets exploded. We’re right near the border here.”

I didn’t want to meet these guys to talk about rockets, though. I wanted to get an idea of how the peace movement is faring after Israel was attacked from a country they pushed to withdraw from.

The short answer is that they’re frustrated. But their own country isn't the only one that frustrates them.

Yehuda told me he recently spoke to an Egyptian via email about an anti-Hezbollah article published in Lebanon.

“This guy came up with all of the regular tradition anti-Israel positions that we’re familiar with,” he said. “I responded to this guy and said ‘You’re living in the past. There are things that happened sixty years ago, and if you’re going to relate to them like they happened yesterday then we’re not going anywhere.' I, as an Israeli, don’t have a problem admitting that a tragedy befell the Palestinians in 1948. And this guy, first of all, couldn’t believe that an Israeli would actually admit that something happened to the Palestinians. And in a very course and dogmatic way, just wasn’t going to cut me a break.”

“The Arab Nationalists say Israel has no role to play in the Middle East and that we’ll have to leave,” Amichai said.

“What do you do with this?” Yehuda said. “It’s not reasonable to expect Jewish people to just roll up and go away or disappear. But on the other hand, a true injustice was done to the Palestinians. Between those two poles, you have all sorts of people coming up with all sorts of statements, theories, and whatnot. And it’s all obviously useless. Nothing has led to anything. All we see is military confrontation. When the first Zionists came to Palestine, Palestine was a feudal society. And you have a big clash between concepts that have nothing to do with religion or anything of that nature. The fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is degrading into a religious conflict is a tragedy beyond description. It never really was.”

Israel is often thought of, in the West, as an unhinged fanatically right-wing country, like the U.S. on speed. Israel is far more ‘European,’ though, than it is ‘American.’ If Israel were not constantly under fire and constantly embroiled in conflict with eliminationist enemies, Israel would resemble a Jewish France or even Sweden of the Levant. The country was founded by democratic Labor Party socialists, and only rather recently has become more capitalist and complex.

“We have always considered ourselves leftists,” Yehuda said. “Always questioning ourselves about what is going on. But there is no way to bridge the gap between the statuses of the two societies that came here. Evidently only time will tell. The gaps that were created at the beginning were wide and have become wider. My conclusion for the time being is that just, evidently, not enough people have died for people to catch on here that there is an alternative that would suit everyone better.”

“How many people are in the peace movement?” I said. “It looks pretty small, especially during this latest round of fighting in Lebanon.”

“20 to 50 thousand people generally throughout the 1980s and 1990s came to [Peace Now] demonstrations,” Amichai said. “One of the major things that happened in 1982 was the Sabra and Chatilla massacres.”

He was referring to the massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps south of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. The Lebanese Phalangist militia did the deed under cover of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Defense Forces.

“It was a tremendous shock to Israel,” he said. “Hundreds of people were being massacred and slaughtered. This caused the trauma for many many people in Israel of the Holocaust all over again. But in reverse. People said how could our country allow this to happen? Even if the people who did the actual killing weren’t Israeli soldiers. But the Israeli army was in control of that area. And they let them in. That was the largest demonstration in Israel.”

“Ever?” I said.

“Ever,” he said. “There were 400,000 people. At the time the population of Israel was less than four million. Ten percent of the population went to Tel Aviv and demonstrated.”

I wanted to know if there are many Berkeley-style leftists in Israel.

“I think what’s different from our peace movement,” Amichai said, “from the peace movements in the United States, in other countries, and in Europe is the question of serving in the army. Peace movements are usually pacifists and they don’t encourage their members to serve in the army. The Israeli peace movement believes that Israel would not exist if we didn’t defend it. There is a slogan that’s going around: If the Arabs put down their arms, there will be peace. If the Jews put down their arms there won’t be any Jews left. And I think there’s a basic truth to that.”

“Amichai is speaking in the context of Israel,” Yehuda said, “and I can understand that. My feeling goes beyond the spirit of Israeli society only. I see organizations like Hezbollah as a threat to humanity in the same manner, for me, as the settler movement is also a threat. Where you have a nationalism that hooks up with a religious idea, I see only trouble. I’m not willing to discriminate between Jews and Arabs on this score. Not at all.”

“The Saudi peace plan is on the table,” Amichai said. “It’s what’s going to be in the end anyway. It’s just a question of how many more people are going to get killed.”

“Do you guys think Hamas agrees that the end is going to look like this?” I said. “Or do they actually believe they are going to destroy this country?”

“They actually believe they are going to destroy this country,” Amichai said. “They look at the Crusades as their historical comparison. It took 200 years to kick the Crusaders out. And the Jews have been here for 100 years. Wait another 100 years. If it doesn’t take 200 years, it will take 400. But eventually they think they will succeed.”

The Israeli peace movment serves in the army. Combat units include members of Peace Now. Israel is the only Western country that still fights wars with people like this as its soldiers. Some of the ultra-orthodox, by contrast, do not serve in the army. So while the U.S. military is more conservative than America as a whole, the Israeli army is slightly more liberal than Jewish Israeli society as a whole.

“Our group came to the kibbutz in the early 1970s,” Amichai said. “We were finishing high school and starting college during the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the late 1960s. And we attended the march in Washington and a whole bunch of other massive demonstrations against the American involvement in Vietnam. And then we came to Israel as committed Zionists. And we had to face going in the army. And…all of us did. Many of us served through over 25 years of reserve duty after finishing our regular service. That changes your opinion when you go to reserve duty and put your life on the line.”

“How does that affect you as a peace activist?” I said. “Does it make you more committed or less?”

“It made us more committed to that,” Amichai said. “Especially, I think, when the first intifada broke out. When there was the Yom Kippur War and the Israeli army was attacked on two fronts we felt that by serving in the army we’re defending our country. But when the intifada broke out and there was the question of masses of Arab women and children throwing stones – that was the war of the rocks – we felt that by serving and trying to oppress the justified anger of the Palestinians from trying to achieve self-determination, that made it much much harder to go into reserve duty. It made us more committed to try to leave both Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. The main goal of the peace movement was to get out of Lebanon and to get out of the Occupied Territories. I was very very active in the struggle to leave Lebanon. I served in Lebanon twice.”

“In 1967 Israel just blew it,” Yehuda said. “Ben Gurion said to get rid of those territories. No good is going to come out of it. People were overwhelmed with the victory. I don’t think Israel had a choice. Then we ended up with the territories. Nobody forced us to hold onto that and to start a settlement movement there.”

Amichai and Yehuda both think withdrawing from occupied territory in Lebanon and Gaza was the right decision, even if things did not go as planned.

“This recent war has shown how much latitude the world is willing to give Israel when we fight from our recognized border,” Yehuda said. “I strongly object when people come up with all kinds of excuses for why we can’t withdraw from the West Bank. They come up with strategic excuses or water excuses or land excuses, all kinds of excuses. But the simple fact of the matter is that this is what the world recognizes. And from that border we could wreck havoc on any attack like we did here.”

“You guys,” I said “think the recent invasion of Lebanon was a mistake?”

They both laughed.

“I think that if you ask most Israelis today in retrospect,” Amichai said, “looking at the results after the month, a large majority thinks it was a mistake.”

“I thought it was a mistake right away,” I said.

“Very few of us did,” Amichai said.

“Here was a golden opportunity,” Yehuda said, “that the whole world and half the Arab world gave us on a silver plate. And we blew it. It had to happen quick. You have to understand something, though. Israel is not in the business of killing civilians. People in this country left, right, up, down really can’t tolerate that, won’t tolerate it. Because it’s bad. It’s not a value that Israel goes by. Israel also is sensitive, on the bottom line and in the final analysis, Israel is sensitive to world opinion. Nobody likes to hear all this nonsense. But there is also the realization that the whole ethos of the IDF was the lighting quick strike, boom, and finished. As soon as people saw that it wasn’t getting finished, everyone knew what the consequences were. This is also a major intelligence failure as well.”

“In the first few days,” Amichai said “and I think this was your basic question, almost all of us were supportive of the Israeli action.”

“Yeah,” Yehuda said in a tone of voice that suggested he, too, was supportive.

“We were because for years we were struggling to take the Israeli army out of Lebanon,” Amichai said. “And we did that. And we felt that the United Nations recognized the fact that Israel withdrew from the very very last centimeter of Lebanese territory. And we think this whole Shebaa Farms thing is a ploy. Hezbollah used it as their raison d'être to continue to rearm and continue their resistance movement. We felt that Israel was right to leave Lebanon. And Israel was exactly right to leave Lebanon. But if we’re attacked after we leave then we’re completely right to defend ourselves. And the basic question that I was asking myself was, how do we do that? And I think we did it very very poorly. And we did it without using forethought. Many people in Lebanon supported the action in the first few days and then we lost the support. It was the exact same with me. Sitting in our bomb shelter – and I’ll show it to you right afterwards – and we’re watching our soldiers and the army and…when I mentioned the fact that after being 1960s radicals and coming to Israel and serving in the army it’s a whole complete different mindset when our children start serving in the army.”

“What do you think Israel should have done instead at the beginning?” I said.

“Knowing Hezbollah,” Yehuda said, “there would have been ample opportunities to launch a strike. If the army would have been better prepared, and if the civilian population would have been prepared. What were these people thinking? What were the circumstances that led people into this kind of train of thought that they thought they could get away with this kind of activity being so ill-prepared. Some kind of hubris that goes way beyond, I mean, this is, from my point of view, this whole war and the results thereof have weakened Israel a great deal. And it almost certainly dictates a second round.”

“Yes,” Amichai said. “Many people are talking about the second round.”

“That in itself is a grave error,” Yehuda said. “You don’t want to create a war where you have to have another war to fix the first one. It’s just bad error of judgment.”

“What, as specifically as possible, should have been done instead?” I said.

“I don’t know,” Amichai said. “None of us do. I think what we do know is what shouldn’t have been done. Look at what we did in the past. There were two major bombings of Lebanon in the past. One of them was by the Labor government in 1995 or 1996 called The Grapes of Wrath.”

“That was the first Qana incident,” I said.

“Prior to that,” Amichai said, “there was Judgment Day which was very very similar to that. Trying to bomb Southern Lebanon to force the people to flee and cause pressure on the Lebanese government. This is the third time we’re doing that. And it’s not a very clever way of doing it. And they failed three times. All three cases failed. You would think that an intelligent country would learn from its first mistake or even from the second mistake. Why would you do it the third time? I am flabbergasted by this military strategy. I cannot understand it. I think it had to be done differently and cleverly without causing masses of civilian casualties and civilian destruction.”

“How do you do that with a guerilla army, though?” I said. “There’s no bad guy bullet that just hits Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah.”

“It’s very very hard to destroy Hezbollah,” Amichai said. “I don’t think you can destroy it without sending in tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers and suffering hundreds and hundreds of casualties. That’s one possibility. And it would last a very very long time. That’s what many people said should have been done from the very beginning. Other people said – and this was a debate in the cabinet – that after one week when you’ve tried all the things that you’ve tried with the bombing in first week and you didn’t succeed you try to achieve a cease-fire that will force the international community to disarm Hezbollah.”

“This was the point of view of the Foreign Minister,” Yehuda said.

“And this is the position that I support,” Amichai said. “And this is what we’re trying to do now. And the terrible loss of life on both sides, it’s a tragedy.”

“Do you guys feel alienated from the Israeli mainstream?” I said.

“I think the mainstream has become much closer to what we think,” Amichai said, “than twenty years ago. I mean, leaving the Gaza Strip, we were against the settler movements in Gaza Strip for 30 years. The father of the settlements, Arik Sharon, is the one who removed them. If you would ask me two years ago – it happened exactly one year ago – if you asked me two years ago was that possible, I would say it would be impossible. The people who voted for him in power were all the settlers. They are his political supporters. It’s as if, like, suddenly Bush, who is supported by the Evangelical Christians in the United States, suddenly becomes pro-abortion and anti-NRA. That’s the switch that happened in Israel.”

“That’s why the Likud Party split,” Yehuda said.

“But 70 percent of the people of Israel supported it,” Amichai said.

“How many would support doing the same thing in the West Bank?” I said.

“The same 70 percent,” Amichai said.

“Absolutely,” Yehuda said. “This is the point. The settler movement has shown itself to be very pernicious and has its tentacles very deeply in a lot of different government ministries. The general population perceives this as a basic threat to the country. There were official government decisions not to build any more settlements, and building is going on. In addition to the obvious anti-democratic aspects of this activity, people perceive it as a threat. I mean, we’re trying to get something done here. There is a kind of dialectic here between the left and the right. But people want to be in the center where they’re comfortable.”

“One of the things,” Amichai said, “that I think has put a damper on the idea of removing settlements and leaving the Occupied Territories in the West Bank has been the example of Gaza. Since the day we left we’ve had Kassem rockets fall on our territories. So people say, here’s your example. I was always saying, for years, let’s remove the settlements and let’s let the Palestinians rule, and this will show us that it’s possible to reach peace, by not controlling the Occupied Territories. And anyone saying, well if you open your eyes and look what happened, you’ll see we’ve been proved wrong.”

“So what do you do then?” I said.

“I think my criticism of the Israeli government from the very beginning of leaving the Occupied Territories…was not trying to strengthen the moderates. If Israel would have made gestures of support to Abu Mazen and tried to strengthen the moderate wing and engage with him and give the Gaza Strip back to him rather than not have any negotiations with him, I mean, I cannot understand the logic of that. I mean, they strengthened the radicals who have the glory of kicking the Israelis out of the Gaza Strip. Or out of Southern Lebanon. That’s a stupid way of going about it.”

“But if the moderates are strengthened,” I said, “the radicals haven’t gone anywhere. They still have their Kassem rockets. What do you do with these guys? I mean, you can’t just take rocket hits.”

“No,” Amichai said. “You can’t. You have to strike back. You have to strike back.”

“What do you think about the fact that peace movement don’t exist in Arab countries?” I said.

“Disappointing,” Amichai said. “It is disappointing.”

“I hope this is not an offensive question,” I said, “because I don’t mean it to be. But, do you ever feel like a sucker?”

“No,” Amichai said. “I think my best interest is not to have an occupied people under my foot and under my boot. I think that affects my freedom when Palestinians don’t have their natural rights to live alongside of me. My desire for freedom is to have an independent Jewish state next to an independent Palestinian state. That will liberate me. And I just hope we can find a partner so there will not be Kassem rockets flying from that state into the Ben Gurion airport when they’re just a few kilometers away.”

“I think the occupation makes people think unclearly,” Yehuda said.

“You mean Israelis?” I said.

“Israelis,” Yehuda said. “And Arabs. Everybody’s playing with matches.”

Post-script: Unfortunately I am not allowed into Gaza right now, due in part to security and in part to bureaucracy. I do intend, however, to visit the Israeli areas right next to Gaza so I can get as good an understanding of what’s going on down there as possible. Please hit the PayPal button and help me out.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:20 AM

August 22, 2006

Gaza is Out

In my thank-you notes to readers who donated money via PayPal, I said I was planning a trip into Gaza with the IDF. As it turns out, this will not be possible and I can’t do anything about it. I don’t want to get into the specific reasons why this is, but I will say that that it has nothing to do with Israeli censorship of the media. As far as I know, there is no censorship of the media in this country at all. No one has pressured me in any way whatsoever aside from asking me politely (once) not to take pictures of a single front line military site during the war.

Sorry about missing Gaza. I tried. Maybe on my next trip when American journalists aren't being kidnapped. In the meantime, I will try to figure out what’s happening in there from a distance and report what I can.

UPDATE: Just so we're clear here (and I can see from the comments that this is not clear), I am being prevented from going into Gaza against my will. It's for security reasons, not for government media censorship reasons. That's just the way it is, and I cannot control it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:19 AM

August 21, 2006

Stuff

I'll have more here soon, I promise. Not everything is going up over at Sully's. I'm dealing with logistics again. Just one of those things that has to be done if you want the good stuff. Tomorrow I get to spend some quality time at the Ministry of Bureaucracy.

I'm also in the middle of writing a longish piece that — sorry! — doesn't have any bangbang in it. Not everything explodes all the time (thank God).

In the meantime, I'll be running an Armageddon Watch here. It's August 22 in the Middle East now, when the Zionist Entity is scheduled to be erased…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:28 PM

World Ends Tomorrow! Film at Eleven.

There’s a lot of loose talk in the United States about tomorrow, August 22, Iran’s supposed Armageddon Day for Jerusalem. I wrote a short article about this over at Andrew Sullivan's Time magazine blog. August 22: Tuesday, Not Doomsday.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:14 AM

The Kurds Go Their Own Way

Reason Spread.jpg

I'll have more material from Israel shortly. In the meantime, the feature article I wrote about Iraqi Kurdistan for Reason magazine is online now.

Two hours into my first tour of Erbil, my guide for the day taught me to feel lucky. “If we were doing this in Baghdad, we would be dead by now,” he said.

Our driver nodded vigorously.

“It’s that dangerous?” I asked.

“With your face,” my guide replied, “and with our Kurdish license plates on the car, we could not last two hours.”

So goes the capital of Iraq. But I was touring the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the war is already over.

There are no insurgents in Kurdistan. Nor are there any kidnappings. A hard internal border between the Kurds’ territory and the Arab-dominated center and south has been in place since the Kurdish uprising at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Cars on the road heading north are stopped at a series of checkpoints. Questions are asked. ID cards are checked. Vehicles are searched and sometimes taken apart on the side of the road. Smugglers, insurgents, and terrorists who attempt to sneak into Kurdistan by crossing Iraq’s wilderness areas are ambushed by border patrols.
Read the rest over at Reason magazine

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:23 AM

August 19, 2006

Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan just left for a two-week vacation, and I’ll be filling in for him at Time with Ana-Marie Cox and David Weigel. Long essays will still be published on this page as usual, and shorter bloggy-type stuff will be posted there.

When I filled in for Glenn Reynolds a few weeks ago I cross-posted some of the same material on my blog and on his. I won’t be doing that this time, though, so be sure to look for my posts there as well as here until Labor Day weekend.

Andrew Sullivan’s was the first blog I ever read. It’s an honor to be asked to contribute, especially now that it has been absorbed by Time magazine. Thanks, Andrew. Enjoy your vacation.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:36 AM

August 18, 2006

Terror War

Cracked Windshield Kiryat Shmona.jpg

KIRYAT SHMONA, ISRAEL – The Israel/Lebanon war created hundreds of thousands of refugees on each side of the border, but that’s where proportion ends. Israel has a real army and a real air force and can inflict real damage on its enemies. Hezbollah, on the other hand, is only strong enough to terrorize people.

The so-called Party of God can menace, bully, and sabotage Lebanon. (They are especially good at the latter.) Hassan Nasrallah’s “martyrs” can terrorize Israel. But they cannot repel an invading army. They can only harass that army and kill a miniscule percentage of its soldiers and dent it by one tenth of one percent.

After most foreign journalists packed up and left as soon as the bangbang stopped, I drove to Hezbollah’s most targeted city of Kiryat Shmona to do a little post-war analysis of what had just happened. It looks surprisingly intact from a distance, and even up close the damage is less severe than what I thought it would be.

Kiryat Shmona Distance.jpg

I expected to see at least one destroyed house. There may be a destroyed house in there somewhere, but I drove all over and couldn’t find one.

Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers. They don’t feel like pipsqueakers when they’re flying in your direction. But they are. They can’t be aimed worth a damn, and they’ll only do serious damage if they ignite something else after impact, like the gas tank of a car. They have almost no military value at all unless they are fired in barrages at a reasonably close range. From a distance they can only be counted on to break a few things almost at random in the general direction they’re aimed.

They do break a few things, especially because Hezbollah is clever enough to pack them tight with ball bearings. Kiryat Shmona looks like a city that recently suffered street fights between roving militias with automatic weapons.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona Apartment.jpg

Katyusha shrapnel kills people who aren’t wearing body armor, and wounds those who are. No one wants to be hit with this stuff. But if the side of your building is hit, you can call a repair guy and have it taken care of in one day. It might take a few days if the windows are broken. Either way, Katyushas do quite a lot of damage to people and relatively little damage to infrastructure and buildings.

Broken Kiryat Shmona Store Windows.jpg

Shattered Kiryat Shmona Store.jpg

Throwing high-speed ball bearings at random around an urban area is a great way to terrorize people and get them to hide in their shelters or seek refuge somewhere else. You can empty entire cities this way, and that’s exactly what Hezbollah did. No Palestinian terrorist group had ever been able to accomplish so much. But forget trying to use Katyushas against an army, especially against a properly outfitted and trained Western army. While Northern Israel’s civilian population retreated to the south, the military surged forward straight into Lebanon.

I can say from personal experience that Katyushas really do frighten civilians. I drove through Kiryat Shmona several times (fast) while it was under bombardment. But I didn’t dare stick around. The city was Hezbollah’s favorite target even while it has no military value at all. They couldn’t hit anything in particular in there, but the city is large enough and close enough to the border that it’s easy to hit something and scare everyone out.

Caved In Kiryat Shmona Windshield.jpg

You can’t destroy a city this way, but you can make it uninhabitable for a while.

The worst damage I could find was where a Katyusha hit the roof of a car port. A parked van was torched , the kitchen window was blown in by shrapnel, and a portion of the side of the house was damaged. Anyone washing the dishes when that thing hit would have been killed.

Garage Kiryat Shmona.jpg

Garage Roof Kiryat Shmona.jpg

Kiryat Shmona Roof.jpg

There is a lot of talk in the media and the blogosphere about Hezbollah’s targets in Israel. Some insist that Hezbollah does too aim its Katyushas at the Israeli military. The “proof” is that 12 soldiers were killed by a rocket just before I arrived on the border.

Here’s the thing, though. Hezbollah hit a little of everything in Northern Israel: houses, trees, streams, grass, apartments, roads, vineyards, and cows. Thousands of rockets crashed and sprayed shrapnel inside their shooting gallery. The odds that none of the rockets would hit a single IDF soldier were microscopic. Hezbollah couldn’t have achieved zero Israeli military casualties no matter how hard they tried unless they didn’t fire those rockets at all.

I was far safer on military bases, in open fields, and on tiny kibbutzes than in cities during Hezbollah’s terror war. Katyushas are nearly useless against an army but are devastatingly effective as terrorist weapons against civilian population centers even as they cause relatively light damage. Shrapnel may not hurt your apartment building too bad, but it will tear you to pieces if you’re in the way.

Broken Window Kiryat Shmona Apartment.jpg

Rockets rained down on Kiryat Shmona almost constantly. There were no soldiers, no tanks, no artillery cannons, no bases, nothing of military value in that city at all. None of the journalists I met wanted to linger there for very long. But we were all over the army bases because our odds of being hit by a rocket were merely random, the same as if we were out among cows in the farmland. Haifa, which is away from the border, was hit more often than bases that are right next to the border and therefore easier targets.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona Storefront.jpg

The odds of being hit in Kiryat Shmona were fantastically higher than the odds of being hit anywhere else. Our lives depended on getting this right. There is no room for ideology or taking sides when you’ll die if you get it wrong.

Car Shrapnet Kiryat Shmona.jpg

If Hezbollah really did the best they could to avoid killing civilians with their inaccurate rockets (as their apologists claim) I would have set up shop in Kiryat Shmona. But the situation was exactly reversed. The exception was the town of Metulla, and the reason for that, presumably, is because it is immediately surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. With that exception in mind, the claim that civilian areas were safer places than military areas is terrorist propaganda.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona House.jpg

What happened here doesn’t bode well for the future if Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran want to go another round. And it looks like they do want to rack up another “victory.” It's so easy for Syria and Iran in particular when Lebanon absorbs all the punishment for them.

Missile war may be replacing terrorist war. It's more effective than using hijackers and suicide bombers. Only missile war caused hundreds of thousands of Israelis to flee.

This war was a transition, the testing of a new doctrine. It's a disaster for Israel, but in the end it will be an even bigger disaster for those who think it's a terrific idea.

I don’t know about some of the unhinged Lebanese Hezbollah supporters, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Lebanon if ten Iranian-made Zelzal missiles crash into the sides of Tel Aviv apartments and skyscrapers every hour.

War is coming again, and it’s coming like Christmas. It will not resemble the Middle East wars we are used to.

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent non-corporate writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without you.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:49 AM

August 17, 2006

Gearing Up for the Next Disaster

Beirut Daily Star opinion page editor Michael Young says Hassan Nasrallah sounds “ominously” like a president now while Bashar Assad effectively calls for a coup d’etat against the elected Lebanese government.

Syria, predictably, feels emboldened by Hezbollah’s “victory” and says it will create its own version of Hezbollah. The Damascus-based terrorist army will be trained by the original.

Saad Hariri enables Hezbollah and echoes Hassan Nasrallah by declaring a Lebanese “victory” against Israel. Enough “victories” like that one, Saad, and Lebanon will turn into Gaza.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:51 AM

August 15, 2006

War Warps the Mind a Little

The events in this essay took place on August 11 and 12.

NORTHERN ISRAEL – War does strange things to the mind. The first time you hear the loud BOOM, BANG, and CRASH of incoming and outgoing artillery, you will jump. You will twitch. You will want to take cover. You will want to hide. You will feel like you could die at any second, like the air around you is drenched with gasoline, like the universe is gearing up to smash you to pieces.

It’s amazing how fast you get used to it, even if you have no military training and grew up in a tranquil conflict-free place in suburban America.

It took me four hours.

The BOOM, BANG, and CRASH had nothing to do with me. Oh sure, it could have had something to do with me. I could have been hit. There is no doubt.

But here’s the thing: war is slow. War in Northern Israel, anyway, was slow. It isn’t, or at least wasn’t, anything like fast street to street fighting in Hollywood movies. It wasn’t Black Hawk Down and it wasn’t Omaha Beach.

Any given location in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon would almost certainly never be hit with a missile, bomb, or artillery shell. Lebanon was hit more frequently, and Israel was hit more randomly, but the vast majority of people in both places weren’t even scratched, let alone killed.

Explosions crank your survival instinct up to eleven. But after a while straight math kicks in. You run numbers in your head, even subconsciously. Most specific locations aren’t hit, ever. And most of the time you are standing in one of those locations. Even if you do happen to briefly pass through one of the specific locations that are destined to take a hit, what are the odds, really, that you will be standing there when it actually happens?

Being in Northern Israel was not like being in Baghdad. No one was out to get me. Only Hezbollah fighters and leaders in Lebanon were targeted as individuals. All of Northern Israel was a collective target, but a very large one which I vanished into almost completely.

Hezbollah killed more cows than people in Israel.

The odds that any given place in Northern Israel would be hit were the same as the odds that any other given place in Northern Israel would be hit. Hezbollah’s rockets land almost at random. They are, therefore, pathetic military weapons, but perfect terrorist weapons.

There were a few exceptions. Kiryat Shmona was hit quite a lot, Metulla not at all. Still, anywhere out in the open was just as dangerous as anywhere else out in the open.

This is logical, but the mind doesn’t work like that when sensing danger from the environment.

Driving on an empty road and looking at an impact site up ahead is unsettling.

Burning Ridge From Road Northern Israel.jpg

Getting out of the car at Kibbutz Goshrim is a relief.

Kibbutz Goshrim.jpg

Each location photographed above was exactly, precisely, as dangerous as the other.

Trees blocked out the sky and made me feel safer. Obviously the branches of trees would do nothing to stop or slow a Katyusha attack. But when you’re under rocket and missile fire, the sky feels like a gigantic malevolent eyeball. When you’re underneath trees, the gigantic malevolent eyeball can’t see you. Therefore a rocket won’t hit you. That’s not how it is, but that’s what it feels like.

During my first several hours in the war zone I constantly tried to figure out what I could do to make myself safer. Should I stand here instead of there? How about if I crouch down a little bit? Maybe if I sit on the ground a rocket will miss my head? I figured it was better to stand near things than away from things, as long as those things were not cars.

All this thinking was useless. I would either be hit or I wouldn’t. Walking or driving fast could get me away from an incoming rocket, or it could get me closer. It was all totally random, and after every possibility was considered and rejected as useless the fear slipped away.

Fear forces you to think hard and fast about what you can do to protect yourself. As soon as you become 100 percent convinced that there is nothing more you can do to protect yourself, fear becomes a useless emotion. Then it goes away all on its own. You can’t talk yourself into or out of this mental space. It’s just something that happens.

This is the fatal weakness of terrorism.

When I tell you I was not afraid after four hours in the war zone, it is not because I am brave. Maybe going to the war zone made me a little bit brave, but feeling fearless inside it was different. It certainly helped that the rockets, missiles, and artillery shells were flying over my head rather than at my head.

Missile in Flight.jpg

Kibbutz Goshrim is the place where the IDF Spokesmen set up shop. Journalists came in and out of there all day. The lobby of the hotel had food, drinks, and free wi-fi. My laptop wouldn’t pick up the signal for some reason, but Noah Pollak’s did and he shared his computer.

Michael Oren Checking Email.JPG
Military historian and IDF Spokesman Michael Oren checks his email on Noah Pollak’s laptop in the war zone.

CBS CNN news correspondent John Roberts interviewed an IDF colonel out front.

John Roberts with CNN Cap Guy.JPG

Michael Oren translated. Roberts asked pedestrian questions. The colonel gave stock answers that sounded like propaganda.

Oren and Roberts.jpg

The entire exercise seemed pointless to me. I learned nothing at all from watching and listening.

John Roberts Interviewing Colonel.JPG

The funny thing about it, though, is that I felt safer than usual while it happened. I stood right next to three famous people. Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon was on site as well, volunteering as an IDF Spokesman. What are the odds that three famous people will all get taken out by one Hezbollah rocket? I mean, come on. The CBS news anchor isn’t going to get hit. He creates the Famous Guy Force Field. Michael Oren and Dan Gordon gave the Famous Guy Force Field two extra boosts.

This is the kind of stupid crap that goes through your mind as you struggle to cope with the threat of random attacks. If there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself, your mind will hallucinate bogus strategies.

I also simply got used to the threat of random attacks and forgot all about it, even as the sound of explosions rocked the kibbutz all day long.

The contrast between what I was seeing and what I was hearing really was odd. It was like watching a Green Gables episode with the volume turned down and the audio track for a war movie cranked up instead.

Statue on Kibbutz.JPG
I heard BOOM, BANG, and BOOM as I took this picture.

Noah and I sat in the hotel lobby and surfed around Web sites for digital cameras on his lap top. He was shopping for a new high-end camera and we discussed the pros and cons of various lenses. BOOM. We kept surfing. BANG. Ooh, check out that lens. CRASH. “Nikons are better than Sonys,” I said, “and more worth the money.”

I completely forgot I was in a war zone even though I could hear it outside. I was just as calm sitting there as if I were reading the morning newspaper at the Oregon Coast.

We all know fear is contagious. What might be less understood is that calm is also contagious. It’s hard to even want to freak out when no one else is freaking out.

New York City after September 11 was a lot scarier than Northern Israel on August 11.

Lots of people were in the hotel lobby, surfing the Internet, drinking coffee, interviewing spokesmen, filing stories, watching the news, ordering lunch, whatever.

Kibbutz Hotel Lobby.JPG

BOOM. No one was nervous. It’s not that they were hiding it. They really weren’t nervous. BANG. No one so much as raised an eyebrow at any loud noise. CRASH. It was as though the war outside were just a soundtrack on a movie turned up too loud. Nothing was hitting us, so what’s the big deal?

Wifi and Rifle.JPG

Noah and I spent the night in that hotel while cannons right outside fired sky-ripping artillery shells at Hezbollah. I slept perfectly soundly and did not wake up once.

*

The next day we went back to the Alaska Inn for the view. While we sat on the roof and looked into Lebanon a loud voice down below blared something in Hebrew over a loudspeaker.

“What was that?” Noah asked the Israeli woman standing next to us.

“He said Go to the shelters because a rocket is about to hit the roof of the hotel,” she said.

“Seriously?” I said.

“No,” she said and laughed. “But a rocket really is coming. It really is time to go to the shelters.”

We waited for the elevator. It seemed to take forever.

“Where is the shelter, anyway?” I said.

“I don’t know,” the Israeli woman said.

The elevator doors opened. We all got in. It took ages to get down to the lobby.

When the doors opened on the main floor, no one was moving. Everyone was perfectly calm as though nothing were happening.

I walked up to the front desk.

“Do you have a bomb shelter?” I calmly asked the young man standing next to the register.

“Of course,” he said.

“Should we go down there or does nobody care?” I said.

“Nobody care,” he said.

“Let’s get a Coke,” Noah said.

So we sat in the restaurant and asked the waiter for two Cokes.

I heard a faint whump somewhere off in the distance. The rocket had landed. Nobody moved. Nobody cared.

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent non-corporate writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without you.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:02 AM

Links

Here are some good links to tide you over until I get my next piece ready to publish.

Lisa Goldman went to Northern Israel just before I did and wrote Welcome to the Shooting Gallery.

Noah Pollak went with me to Northern Israel and wrote One Cheer for Ceasefire.

Check ’em out. More soon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:54 AM

August 14, 2006

The Storm Before the Calm

The events in this essay took place on August 11 and 12.

METULLA, ISRAEL – Israel scrapped the proposed ceasefire agreement on August 11 and launched a full-scale ground invasion of Lebanon. Presumably the Israeli Defense Forces wanted to rapidly snap up territory between the border fence and the Litani River before agreeing to the real cease-fire that’s tenuously in effect at the time of this writing. The ceasefire does not require an Israeli withdrawal. Instead it puts their military operations in Lebanon into a holding pattern.

It didn’t take long for the IDF to reach the Litani. Noah Pollak and I watched it happen, as much as we could, from the roof of the Alaska Inn in Metulla right on the border.

Metulla Sunset During War.JPG
The sun sets over the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila in the distance behind Metulla, Israel.

To my knowledge, no Katyusha rockets hit Metulla at any time. The little town sits just inside a “peninsula” that juts into Lebanon. It is surrounded on three sizes by Hezbollah’s territory. Presumably Hezbollah didn’t fire rockets at Metulla because three out of four would miss Israel entirely and explode inside Lebanon. So even though Metulla is literally on the front line, it may be the safest town in all of Northern Israel.

All day long thunderous outgoing artillery tore holes through the sky on the way to Hezbollah targets. But as soon as the ground invasion began, all fell eerily quiet.

The only evidence of war from the top of the hotel was a fire burning in a Lebanese field off to the right.

Fire in Lebanon From Distance.jpg

Fire in Lebanon Up Close.jpg

Also, Israeli barricades had been set up just inside Lebanon on the other side of the fence.

Israeli Barricades in Lebanon.jpg

Just south of Metulla the war was a little more obvious, even though it was quiet there, too. Tanks and heavy artillery were set up in an idyllic field. It was an odd thing to see. The scenery is lovely up there. Lots of Israelis and foreigners like to visit on holiday because it’s so picturesque and serene. Yet war machinery was scattered all over the place. War, in my mind, occurs in ugly places. But that’s in the movies.

Tanks and Farmland.JPG

IDF Tent and Mountain.JPG

Tank Gunner Northern Israel.jpg

Tank Barrel Northern Israel.JPG

You have to understand what an Israeli invasion of Lebanon looks like. When Americans go to war they fly to the other side of the world and spend weeks or even months preparing to tackle some fly-blown dictatorship, then push hundreds of miles through enemy territory on the way to their targets. Israeli soldiers just take out some wire cutters, snip holes in the fence, and walk into Lebanon.

Tanks rolled into Lebanon, too. From the top of the Alaska Hotel I could see a whole line of them getting ready to blast through Fatima’s Gate and into Hezbollah’s territory.

Line of Tanks at Border.jpg

The scene looked ominous, but felt perfectly calm. Birds chirped. The sunset was lovely. The streets of Metulla were clean and well-ordered. A man in sweat pants, a t-shirt, and running shoes jogged through the streets with his dog running alongside, its tongue lolling out the side of its mouth. I waved hello to an elderly grandmother in her gardening hat sitting on her front porch drinking from a tall slender glass. Earlier Noah ordered ravioli in a restaurant and I ordered pizza. I asked a woman behind the counter if she was being paid extra wages for serving food while artillery and rockets exploded outside. “No,” she said and shrugged, as if to say why should they pay me more money?

Fox News interviewed Sheppard Smith from the roof of the Alaska, although I doubt he had much to report. Little was going on at the time. Metulla is a nice little resort town with its restaurants and its bed and breakfasts. And that’s what it looked and felt like.

Noah and I walked down the street to the line of tanks so we could interview some of the soldiers.

A young man with sunglasses and a pierced eyebrow asked me to take his picture. “Put me in your magazine,” he said, “next to the hot models in swimsuits and lingerie.”

Pierced Israeli Soldier.jpg

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said and laughed.

I raised my camera to take another man’s picture.

“No, no, no!” he said and held up his hand. “Last time I went into Lebanon, every guy with me who had his picture taken earlier that day was injured. None of us who didn’t have our pictures taken were injured. I know it’s superstitious and stupid, but I need to feel good before I go in there.”

“What’s it like fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon?” I said.

“It depends,” he said.

“On what?” I said.

“On the place and on the day,” he said. “Sometimes when we go into Lebanon, nothing happens. We can’t find the Hezbollah. Other times they are everywhere and it’s hard.”

“Do you ever see civilians?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Not in the towns. Only in the villages.”

“What do they do when they see you?” I said.

“They go inside,” he said.

“Do they say anything to you?” I said.

“No,” he said. “They don’t say anything, they don’t wave, they don’t throw rocks. They just go in their houses.”

He didn’t want to talk about war. So instead we got into an argument over who has better coffee. Portland and Seattle, or Tel Aviv. He insisted Tel Aviv has better coffee, but he’s wrong.

Noah chatted with two young men who were getting ready to go into Lebanon ahead of the tanks to clear land mines. They didn’t seem nervous at all, although I can’t imagine that job isn’t unbearably stressful.

That was about all we could get out of the soldiers. They seemed happy to see us, not at all suspicious that we might be axe-grinding journalists or even anything other than journalists. No one asked us to show our credentials to get access. But they didn’t want to say much specific. I got the impression they liked us as a civilian distraction that kept their minds grounded in the world they were fighting to protect.

“Can we go with you guys into Lebanon?” Noah asked one of the soldiers.

“Do you want to?” the soldier said.

“Yeah,” Noah said.

The soldier didn’t know if it was possible. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. But I didn’t want to. There was no way I would enter Lebanon with an invading army, for all the usual reasons and also for personal reasons.

Night fell and the soldiers got twitchy. There’s something about darkness in war, even during the quiet times in a war. All of them were less talkative than before, and there was clearly no way Noah and I could get any useful or interesting information out of them then.

So we walked the line of tanks.

Tank Shot in Dark 1.JPG

Tank Shot in Dark 2.JPG

We came across some frightful-looking bulldozers that were sent to smash up Lord only knows what. I took a photo with Noah standing in front of one for perspective.

Israeli Bulldozer on Border.jpg

A soldier walked by.

“Don’t be here,” he said.

“We’re journalists,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “But this is a war zone. Don’t be here.”

So we went back to the hotel in the dark and sat on the roof.

The view north into Lebanon was an ominous sight.

The Lebanese town of Kfar Kila directly faces Metulla across a small patch of farmland. There is no no-man’s land there. The two towns may be in different countries, but they are almost in the exact same location.

Metulla and Kfar Kila.jpg
Kfar Kila, Lebanon, and Metulla, Israel, face each other during daylight hours

But that night all of Lebanon was black. It was as if Lebanon did not exist. The lights of emptied Israeli cities twinkled behind me, but Lebanon was enveloped in a vast darkness.

The fire burning in a Lebanese field off to the right was getting bigger and brighter. No fire department existed on the other side that could douse it. South Lebanon, always lawless and beyond the control of the state in Beirut, was a truly anarchic and perilous place on the night of August 11.

Distant flashes lit up the horizon. A low rumble of war in the distance sounded like thunder. It sounded like the physical breaking of Lebanon.

*

The next day was loud again, as was the middle of the night. Somehow I managed to sleep straight through my first (and so far only) night in a war zone while outgoing artillery tore holes in the sky over my head on route to Hezbollah.

IDF Spokesman Jonathan Davis told me he went jogging first thing in the morning and found a gigantic Katyusha rocket crater in the middle of a small stream near Kibbutz Hagoshrim. Noah and I drove to the spot. I took a picture and once again used Noah for scale.

Katyusha Crater in Water.JPG

It was unspeakably hot outside, much more so than the day before.

“I wonder if Olmert and Nasrallah are thinking of having a talk today,” I said to Noah. “Hey Nasrallah, Olmert would say. I want to kill you. You want to kill me. And it’s hotter than hell this time of the year. That much we can agree on. How about we put this off until November when we can at least fight in comfort? Whaddaya say?”

“Man,” Noah said. “I just want to be out here in my underwear and my flip-flops. Forget wearing a flak jacket and helmet. I can see the headline and lede now: Noah Pollak was killed today by shrapnel from a Katyusha because he was out in a war zone in his shorts.

When we got back to Metulla we heard loud machine-gun fire in Kfar Kila. We could walk to that town in half an hour from where we were standing. And the crazy thing is we really could have walked over there if we were that stupid. No one would stop us from crossing the fence and walking to our doom just on the other side of the line.

I had expected to see serious damage in Lebanese border towns. But those I saw did not appear damaged at all, at least not from my vantage point. Noah scanned the towns from the roof with a pair of binoculars borrowed from a Guardian reporter. He told me he couldn’t locate a single damaged building, not even right on the border where the buildings were easiest for Israelis to hit.

Obviously there is damage in South Lebanon. Those outgoing artillery shells aren’t landing on nothing. For all I know, Bint Jbail is a pile of rubble. But in the vicinity of Metulla, the damage seemed pretty minimal.

There wasn’t much going on that we could see aside from an Israeli tank kicking up dust just to the right of Kfar Kila.

Dust from Kfar Kila.jpg

The IDF spokesmen still had their gag orders and wouldn’t tell us a thing. Military police shooed us away from the soldiers and told us to stay in the hotel or get out of the area. So we decided it was time to head back to Tel Aviv.

Our fuel was running low, so we filled up the gas tank south of Kiryat Shmona.

Israeli gas stations are incredibly annoying. After you swipe your credit card at the pump, the computer asks for your Israeli national ID number. Noah lives in Israel, but he’s an American. He didn’t have an ID number to enter. Obviously, I didn’t either. So we asked an IDF soldier who happened to be there if he would use his credit card to get us some gas if we gave him some cash.

“Of course,” he said and swiped his card into the machine. “Where are you guys from?” he said as he punched in his number.

“We’re both Americans,” Noah said.

“Are you tourists?” he said.

I laughed. “Here?” I said. “No, we’re not tourists. We’re journalists.”

“There are adrenaline tourists up here,” he said. “There are agents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem who set up the tours.”

It couldn’t be too dangerous in Northern Israel if this sort of thing was going on, I thought. Surely there are no “adrenaline tours” in South Lebanon now.

Then a Katyusha rocket exploded inside a residential neighborhood in Kiryat Shmona.

Kiryat Shmona on Fire.JPG

“Wow,” Noah said. “Let’s go take pictures of that.”

“No,” said the IDF soldier. “Don’t go there.”

“Remember,” I said to Noah. “More rockets often follow the first. They arrive in pairs and in threes. I’d love to take a picture of that, but it would be crazy to go there right now.

So we didn’t go there. We went kinda sorta near it and kept a reasonable distance. We drove to a place where we could take pictures without actually standing where another rocket might land any second.

On the way back to Tel Aviv we passed once again through entire towns eerily emptied of people. As far as I know there has been no looting of houses, of stores, or of anything else. It would be so easy to steal whatever you want in an apocalyptic environment. But I don’t think anyone did.

Many countries in the world would not be so lucky, including the United States. Looting was rampant in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Israel is a small country, though. Everyone seems to know everyone else. War brings people together with a shared sense of purpose. So while the laws fell silent in the north of the country, common human decency didn’t break.

Post-script: I can’t go into war zones for free, and Israeli hotels are not cheap during this thing. Please hit the Pay Pal button so I can stick around longer.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:35 AM

August 13, 2006

Inside Hezbollah’s Free Fire Zone

NORTHERN ISRAEL – I teamed up with Noah Pollak, Assistant Editor at Azure Magazine in Jerusalem, and took a rental car through Hezbollah’s shooting gallery to the front line on the Lebanese/Israeli border. Famed military historian Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War and spokesman for the IDF Northern Command, waited for us at Kibbutz Misgav Am up the hill from the heavily bombarded city of Kiryat Shmona.

It looked, then, like the war was winding down. The Israeli government had tentatively agreed to a cease-fire deal that would gain Israel practically nothing. Noah and I were both frustrated and worried. All of Northern Israel is darkened and abandoned, Lebanon is bombed back to the third world, and for what? There was talk in the local newspapers about removing catastrophically unfit Ehud Olmert from the prime minister’s office immediately.

The further north we drove, the less relevant talk of cease-fires and parliaments seemed. The fighting hadn’t yet stopped, and we were entering Hezbollah’s free fire zone.

We drove alongside the West Bank, rather than through the maze of Haifa, and it was unclear where the danger zone started.

West Bank From Israel Driving North.jpg
West Bank just south of Jenin along the highway

Traffic thinned on the roads as we approached the Sea of Galilee. Later we passed through entire towns eerily emptied of people and cars.

Empty Streets of Tiberias.jpg
The empty streets of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

Further up the road past the sea we saw hillsides scorched from Katyusha rocket fire.

Burned Hillside Driving North.jpg

I braced myself as we approached Kiryat Shmona.

Lisa Goldman had been up there just a few days before and described the scene as a horror.

The city is only two only 2 kilometers from the border, and it appears to be Hezbollah’s target of choice. When Israeli radar picks up incoming missiles, the air raid sirens scream and rockets explode simultaneously. There is no time to get to the shelters. A few days ago rockets struck the town every hour. Lisa and her journalist colleague drove as fast as physically possible through burning streets, walls of fire just feet from each side of the car.

Air raid sirens wail even out in the countryside. When you hear these sirens you are instructed to get out of your car. A nearby explosion can startle you and cause you to crash. But that isn’t all.

This is what a Katyusha rocket does to a car.

Car Destroyed by Katyusha.JPG

Here’s where a piece of shrapnel flew into the side of another car parked nearby.

Shrapnel in Car.jpg

Hezbollah stuffs all manner of nasty pieces of metal into their rockets so they can maximize the number of civilians they kill.

Noah and I reached Kiryat Shmona.

Surprisingly, it looked okay from the main road. Although we drove fast through the streets and the turned-off traffic signals, I saw no fires, no smoke, and no serious damage. Storms of incoming rockets move through the north like malevolent weather. It’s sunny and calm here in Haifa today, and a bit balmy (bomby?) in Kiryat Shmona.

I pulled out the map and looked for the turnoff to Kibbutz Misgav Am where Michael Oren was waiting for us. It wasn’t clear which road we should take, and as we left Kiryat Shmona we pulled off to the side of the road and asked directions from two officers in an idle police car.

I stepped out into the road and nearly jumped out of my skin as I heard and felt a loud BOOM from just on the other side of a nearby hill.

“Outgoing,” Noah said to put me at ease. He had been to the border before and was much more comfortable in that environment. I laughed and said “of course,” although to me at the time there was no such thing as “of course.” I had not yet learned to distinguish the sounds of incoming and outgoing.

The officers told us how to get to Kibbutz Misgav Am, which is not really a kibbutz. It’s a military base right on the border. They didn’t ask us who we were, what we were doing, or why on earth we would go to such a place. War creates a crazily “libertarian” environment where, as was said in the time of the Roman Empire, the laws fall silent.

Once we knew where we were going, Noah and I drove through an increasingly dodgy-looking environment where tents, tanks, and heavy artillery were set up in fields scorched by Katyusha fire.

Tent in Burned Field.jpg

Tanks in Scorched Field.jpg

Artillery in Scorched Field.jpg

We turned left past Kiryat Shmona and drove up the steep hill toward the base at Kibbutz Misgav Am. Smoke boiled off the top of a ridge. Israel was on fire. I did not want to be there.

Israel Burning from Road.jpg

Concrete bomb-blast walls lined the road up to the base.

Bomb Blast Walls Along Road.JPG

A few minutes later we reached Misgav Am overlooking the snaking fence on the border.

Gav Am Base with Border Fence.jpg

Gav Am Base 1.JPG

Heavy artillery was fired over my head every couple of minutes toward points unknown on the other side of the horizon. I jumped every time and tried in vain to get used to it.

Noah approached a reservist sitting next to a bomb-blast wall and asked if he knew where we could find IDF Spokesman Michael Oren. The reservist had never heard of him.

Reservist at Gav Am.jpg

I asked him what was going on today.

“It’s quiet today compared with yesterday,” he said. “A rocket fell 30 meters from me yesterday. But I just kept reading the newspaper.”

“How can you do that?” I said. I felt raw and exposed, horribly vulnerable to Hezbollah’s random destruction. Even the thunderous sound of outgoing cannons raised the hair on the back of my neck.

“I have to keep myself normal and clear,” he said. “I have been here for three weeks. There have been lots of rockets in Haifa today. But none here.”

BANG BANG. Earsplitting outgoing artillery shells exploded from cannons just a few dozen meters from where I was standing. Car alarms went off everywhere. Ten thousand volts of adrenaline kicked into my system. I instinctively ducked my head and wondered, for a split second, if I should take cover behind the wall.

Three Katyusha rockets slammed into the side of the mountain on the other side of the valley, all within two minutes of each other.

Three Katyushas.jpg

Rockets often land in clusters. Hezbollah’s rocket launchers are aimed, and several are fired at once. If one hits anywhere even vaguely near you, watch out. More are probably coming.

Real war is not like the movies. At least it isn’t always. It is slow and methodical. I don’t know what the Israeli army was shooting at when they fired their shells into Lebanon. Those who fired the shells didn’t know either. Unlike Hezbollah, though, they were shooting at actual targets. They were not just firing explosives at random toward Lebanese towns. Soldiers on the other side of the border had specific military targets in mind, and they called in coordinates.

Michael still hadn’t arrived. Where was he? Noah and I got back in the car and drove down the hill on the road toward Kiryat Shmona. Noah punched Michael’s number into his cell phone.

“Where are you guys?” he said. (Pause.) “Okay, we’ll wait for you at the bottom of the hill.”

We drove to the bottom of the hill and got out of the car next to an open field arrayed with tanks and gigantic guns.

BANG, followed by an arcing tear in the atmosphere.

BANG, followed by the sound of ripping sky.

A mile or so in front of us a series of glowing surface-to-surface missiles hurtled toward Lebanon at impossible speed and somehow got faster as they flew farther.

Surface to Surface Missiles.jpg

Surface to Surface Missiles 2.jpg

The air raid sirens screamed. Rockets were detected crossing the border. And the border was only one kilometer from where we were standing. Noah and I moved into a bus stop fitted with bomb-blast walls and hoped the rocket would hit on the other side of it if it landed anywhere near us.

Noah in Bus Stop.jpg
Intrepid travel buddy Noah Pollak, managing to smile in the concrete bus stop as air raid sirens wailed.

BANG. BANG. More outgoing artillery. Shells tore menacingly across the sky in an arc over my head.

The air raid siren continued to wail.

Hurry up and get here, Michael Oren, I thought. I can’t take much more of this.

Whump. The incoming Katyusha landed somewhere off in the distance. The air raid siren winded down.

“Man, this is intense,” I said to Noah. “Are we crazy to be here?”

“Probably,” Noah said.

*

We finally found Michael Oren back up top where we looked for him the first time, standing on a ridge next to some bushes, squinting through sunglasses at Lebanon in the distance.

Michael Oren on Ridge.JPG

Noah introduced us. They worked together at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and Michael greeted us warmly.

I wanted to know what he thought of the proposed cease-fire, although I suspected already he wasn’t happy with it.

“It’s probably the best we could get under the circumstances,” he said. “We do not have a lot of leverage right now.”

I told him that I’m not usually pessimistic about the outcome of these things, but that to me it didn’t look good. After all that destruction it didn’t look like much was accomplished. I suspected there would be yet another Lebanon war very soon. “Talk me out of it,” I said. “Tell me if I’m wrong.”

He didn’t want to say much. I could tell from the look on his face that he wasn’t happy with the outcome himself. But he’s an official spokesman and has to be careful with what he says on the record.

“Has anything been permanently accomplished up there?” I said.

“Some things, yes,” he said. “We destroyed a lot of their infrastructure. They had more weapons and more underground bunkers and tunnels than we had any idea. People coming out of there say it’s vast.”

“What do you think about the proposal for an international force on the border?” I said.

“The problem with that,” he said, “is that the force could act a shield for Hezbollah. Hezbollah could fire missiles right over the tops of their heads, and it would make it very difficult for us to go in there and stop them. It needs to be a combat force in Lebanon, not a peacekeeping force. It needs to be authorized by UN Article 7, not 6.”

“Hassan Nasrallah declared victory today,” I said. “What do you think about that?”

He laughed. And of course he would laugh. Everyone in the world knew Nasrallah would declare victory no matter what if he was not in a cage and if he still had a pulse. The Arab bar for military victory is set pathetically low. All you have to do is survive. You “win” even if your country is torn to pieces. The very idea of a Pyrrhic victory doesn’t occur to people who start unwinnable wars with the state of Israel.

“Look at Nasrallah today,” Michael said. “In 2000 he did his victory dance in Bint Jbail. He can’t do that this time. His command and control south of Beirut is completely gone. We killed 550 Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani out of an active force of 1250. Nasrallah claimed South Lebanon would be the graveyard of the IDF. But we only lost one tenth of one percent of our soldiers in South Lebanon. The only thing that went according to his plan was their ability to keep firing rockets. If he has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

“Have Hezbollah’s fighting techniques evolved or degraded since 2000?” I said.

“They’re the same,” he said. “They’re good. These guys are very experienced. They have been fighting for a long time. But we’ve killed more than 25 percent of their fighting force. I think they’ll break. All armies break. Killing even one percent of a Western army is a disaster. It’s prohibitive.”

He told me about his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy that should be released later this year. It will be the first-ever history of US involvement in the Middle East from the founding of the republic up through the present.

Another IDF Spokesman stood at Michael’s side. I was surprised to see this guy. His name is Dan Gordon and he’s a famous Hollywood screenwriter who volunteered for this job. Credits to his name include The Hurricane with Denzel Washington and 1994’s Wyatt Earp.

Dan walked me to another lookout point just at the top of another ridge looking down into Lebanon. A village with apparently intact buildings was just below. We had no cover. The windows of the buildings looked threatening. I remembered last time I stood on this border, back when the IDF soldiers told me everything could explode at any moment, and I was warned that it was possible I was being watched through a sniper scope.

“Have you had any sniper attacks since this started up?” I asked Dan.

“Yes, actually we have,” he said. “This is probably not a good place for us to be standing.” Then we stepped away.

Funny that I was more aware of the danger than he was. That, I suppose, is an advantage of being unused to war zones. My discomfort kept me from falsely feeling like I was invincible.

“Hardly any journalists have mentioned this,” Dan said. “But at the very beginning of this thing, when Hezbollah captured our soldiers, they also tried to invade, conquer, and hold the town of Metulla along with two other towns. And they were repulsed.”

Of course Hezbollah was repulsed. They’re a guerilla/terrorist army, not infantry.

“We do have one serious asset from this war,” Dan said. “Hassan Nasrallah got his ass kicked. And he knows it.”

“Did he really get his ass kicked?” I said. “The IDF fought Hezbollah to a standstill for more than ten years before. What made you think it would be easy to get rid of them this time?”

“This time it’s different,” Dan said. “This time we’re going in there to kill them. We are not trying to hold on to territory. This is actually working. We are not stuck in the mud. Oh, and here’s another tangible…Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon no longer exists.”

Later, Allison Kaplan Sommer called me on my cell phone. “Have you heard the news?” she said.

I hadn’t.

Neither had Dan Gordon. Neither had Michael Oren.

“The cease-fire is dead,” she said. “The ground invasion is starting.”

Noah and I lost access to our spokesmen. The war was ramping up. They were summoned to briefings. So we drove to the town of Metulla, literally right on the border where Hezbollah tried to invade, and watched the Israeli invasion from the roof of the hotel.

To be continued…

Post-script: I can’t go into war zones for free, and Israeli hotels are not cheap during this thing. Please hit the Pay Pal button so I can stick around longer.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:52 AM

August 12, 2006

Back from the Border

I'm back in Tel Aviv from the Lebanese/Israeli border. Some people can write in a bangbang environment if they're used to it. I'm not used to it, and needed to get out. Now I can write. So I'll start doing that now. (If I go up again, I probably will be able to write from there next time.)

Stay tuned.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:12 AM

August 11, 2006

Podcasting from the Border

Tanks on Israeli Border at Night.JPG
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

I'm on the Lebanese/Israeli border, on the front line with Hezbollah, and will have material posted here shortly. It took quite a lot of planning, etc., to get here safely and properly. (And yes, I really am in a fairly safe place, believe it or not.)

In the meantime, here's a quick podcast interview with me at Pajamas Media.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:59 PM

August 10, 2006

Tel Aviv Photos

Tel Aviv at Night 1.jpg

You could pretend, if you want, that Tel Aviv is a normal place even while Israel is at war.

Tel Aviv at Night 2.jpg

The city is fun. Beirut always had the reputation of being a fun place even in war time. I don’t know if that’s true right now (I get the sense that it isn’t), but it’s true in Tel Aviv at least at the moment.

Military Aircraft Over Tel Aviv Beach.jpg

But you can’t ever forget this is a country at war, even if the war is “far” away. All day long military planes fly low over the beach on their way to pound Hezbollah. I can’t say I feel comfortable knowing that those planes are on their way to bomb a country I used to live in. But I’m not comfortable with Hezbollah’s rockets pointing in my direction either.

Tel Aviv Sunset.JPG

May the two best countries in the Middle East find a way out of this soon, and try not to hate each other too bad when it's over. Wishful thinking, I know. But how you can not think wishfully with a sunset like that, the exact same sunset they're seeing in Lebanon?

UPDATE: Doh! It's easy to get details wrong in a new country. Apparently (thanks to Krik in the comments) the planes are flying low because there's another airport (not the main one) just north of the city. They're landing, hence the lowness. Thanks Krik!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:06 AM

Bureaucracy and Logistics

I have all sorts of boring bureaucratic and logistical issues to take care of before I can report from this place properly, if I want to do more than just file pedestrian observations and random on-the-street interviews. Setting up a network of contacts, securing access to valuable sources, determining which places are safe, which places are pretty much “safe,” and which locations are off-limits to all but the suicidally stupid, requires a bit of prep work. Please bear with me while I get set up here. I can’t do this instantly, and the process is way too boring to write about. So we’re in a brief moment of limbo for now. It won’t last long, but it can’t be skipped.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:41 AM

August 9, 2006

Accomodations

Does anyone have a furnished apartment they can rent me short-term in or around central Tel Aviv? The high season hotel rates are killing me…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:44 PM

Arrival

TEL AVIV – Tel Aviv is surreally normal under the circumstances. The soft beaches – and these are some of the best in the Mediterranean – are packed with sunbathers, tourists, and probably refugees. Restaurants, cafes, shops, and bars, are all open. I hear languages from all over the world in the lobby of my hotel. Some of these people are obvious tourists, dutifully attending vacations they booked long before the shadow of war hung over the city.

Tel Aviv Beach During War 2.jpg

Tel Aviv August 2006.jpg

If it weren’t for the military aircraft ominously flying low over the beach on their way to pound Hezbollah, this could be Miami. Or – dare I say it? – Beirut.

Meanwhile, Kiryat Shmona in the north is a bad place today, darkened, covered in smoke, all but abandoned, and randomly exploding like a miniature Sarajevo. If Hezbollah had long range missiles they could really turn the lights out on this country. That’s why the Israelis are trying to deal with them now rather than later.

What the Israelis intend to do to prevent Iran from shipping them an even more formidable arsenal in the future still isn’t clear. Knocking Hezbollah off the border won’t do anything if they acquire more serious weapons. They already have a much greater range than the length of the intended buffer zone anyway.

I’d be lying if I said it’s scary here or that I’m nervous. It isn’t, and I’m not. But I do find my eyes wandering north every couple of minutes, not so much because I’m watching the skies but to remind myself that I’m perched on the edge of an inferno. Safe for the time being, but barely.

The Lebanon war has all but eclipsed the ongoing problems with the Palestinians. Not once in my first four hours in country – and this is highly unusual for someone unaccustomed to being in Israel – not once did I think about suicide bombers…

Postscript: I just got here and don’t have much of substance to report yet. But I’ll get to that as soon as I recover from travel exhaustion and get some field work under my belt. Please hit the Pay Pal link and help me cover travel expenses so I can stay longer.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:10 AM

August 8, 2006

In Transit

I'm on my way to Tel Aviv now.

What do you want to read about that isn't being covered by the media? I can't promise to write about anything in particular, but what's your wish list? Those of you who donate travel expenses through Pay Pal are particularly encouraged to answer in the comments.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:43 AM

August 7, 2006

To War

Hezbollah Logo.jpg
Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Tomorrow I’m going to Israel to get as close to this monster as I can without getting myself killed. (To friends and family who worry about me: I promise not to embed with the IDF and ride into Lebanon on a tank.)

I will stay there as long as events warrant and as long as I don’t start losing money. Please hit the PayPal button so I can stay longer.

If I can raise enough money on the blog I won’t need to subject my stories to the ever-popular editing process for paychecks. So help me out, k? You get what you pay for. If you want non-corporate writing that isn’t first scrutinized by the gatekeepers, this is the place.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:29 AM

August 5, 2006

Hezbollahland Photo Gallery

Lebanon is a beautiful country, and Beirut is a beautiful city. (If you don’t believe me, see here and here.) Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon, though, isn’t so great — especially now.

Last year I took dozens of photos of Hezbollah’s miniature state-within-a-state, along the border with Israel and in the suburbs, the dahiyeh, south of Beirut.

The photos of Beirut’s southern suburbs are not very good quality. Taking pictures in the dahiyeh is absolutely forbidden. I did not dare raise my camera and click the shutter except through the windshield from inside a moving car. Even then I had to be careful.

Here is what Hezbollahland looked like before the war. Much of what you see here has since been destroyed.

Dahieh1.jpg

The portrait of a “martyr” killed in battle with Israel above the sidewalk can be seen in the upper left corner. Off-center is a portrait of the cleric Moussa Sadr, who came to Lebanon from Iran in the 1960s and brought the Shia out of political isolation. He later vanished forever in Libya.


Dahieh2.jpg

Another “martyr” portait above the sidewalk on the left.


Dahieh3.jpg

The Ayatollah Khomeini makes an appearance.


Dahieh4.jpg

Notice that Hezbollah does not require women to wear the hijab, the modest Islamic headscarf. They are, to an extent, “moderate” compared with the regime in Iran.


Dahieh5.jpg

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad makes an appearance.


Dahieh6.jpg

More “martyrdom” posters.


Dahieh7.jpg

The “martyrs” are everywhere in the dahiyeh.


Dahieh8.jpg

Most of the dahiyeh consists of apartment blocks, many of which have since been destroyed.


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More apartment blocks in the Hezbollahland suburbs.


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And still more…


Beaufort from Below.jpg

Beaufort castle sits at the top of a small mountain in South Lebanon where you can see into Israel. Hezbollah uses it as one of their border watch posts.


Hezbollah Flag on Beaufot.jpg

A Hezbollah observation post on top of Beaufort.


Beaufot Outpost Banner.jpg

A few tourists did actually visit this castle before it was engulfed in a war zone. Hezbollah put up this banner for them.


Military Media.jpg

They do like to fashion themselves as media savvy.


Israel 1.jpg

Further south from Beaufort…you can walk right up to Israeli houses without leaving Lebanon. This town pictured above, Metulla, is inside Israel. Look closely at the bottom of the picture and you can see the fence that demarcates the border.


Israel House.jpg

That house is inside Israel. Hezbollah controlled the territory I stood on when I snapped the picture.


Down Into Israel.jpg

Everything you see in this picture is inside Israel, taken from a Lebanese road along the fence.


Israel and Lebanon.jpg

Here’s how crazy the border is. The town in the foreground, Metulla, is inside Israel. The town in the background, Kafr Kila, is in Lebanon. You might think you would have to stand inside Israel to take a picture such as this one. How else would you get a picture of a Lebanese town behind an Israeli town? But you can, because I did. That Israeli town is inside a “penninsula,” or a finger, that juts into Lebanon. It is surrounded by Hezbollah-controlled territory on three sides.


Khomeini in South.jpg

Iran’s dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini makes repeated appearances in the south.


Propaganda Billboard in South.jpg

On the road beneath Beaufort Castle the story of suicide bomber Haitham Dbouq is told next to his portrait. “Haitham stormed into the convoy — that had 30 occupation troops in its ranks — blowing up his car amidst the vehicles that turned into fireballs and scattered bodies on the ground. Thirty Zionist casualties was the size of the material shock that hit the occupation army; the morale shock was much larger and more dangerous.”


Martyr Poster in South.jpg

Portraits of “martyrs” killed in battle with Israel line the streets and the roads.


Border Poster.jpg

Hezbollah says they love peace. Yet they erect billboards like this one all over the south.


Border.jpg

The border. Israel is on the left side. Lebanon is on the right side.


Israel from Road.jpg

The road pictured above is inside Lebanon. The scenery in the background is all inside Israel.


Walking Toward Fatima Gate.jpg

Walking toward Fatima’s Gate, the place where tourists from all across the Middle East go and throw rocks into Israel.


Fatima Gate.jpg

The old Israeli custom’s house at Fatima’s Gate. It was open six years ago when Israel still occupied South Lebanon. Lebanese commuted to jobs inside Israel through the gate. It has been closed since 2000.


Israel Through Fence.jpg

Israel through the fence near Fatima’s Gate.


Two Satans.jpg

“Monuments” of sorts to the two Satans. The United States is the Great Satan. Israel is the Little Satan.


Charity Donation Box.jpg

Here is where you donate money to Hezbollah’s charity operations.


Resistance Donation Box.jpg

Here is where you donate money to Hezbollah’s military operations.


Khiam 2.jpg

Near the entrance to Khiam prison. Until the year 2000, the prison was run by the South Lebanese Army, a Lebanese Christian ally of Israel, inside the occupation zone. Earlier reports from the war said the prison is now destroyed.


Khiam 1.jpg

Khiam was a “tourist” destination of sorts. But it was no place to go if you weren’t in a grim mood already. It wasn’t Disneyland.


Khiam 3.jpg

A lovely exercise yard at Khiam.


Khiam 4.jpg

This ought to be self-explanatory.


Split Village from Distance.jpg

The Alawite village of Al-Ghajar. This is where last November’s round of fighting erupted. The left side of the village is in Israel. The right side of the village is in Lebanon. Both sides of the village formerly belonged to Syria.


Split Village.jpg

The Israeli side of Al-Ghajar. The Lebanese side is a wreck. I mistakenly neglected to take pictures of it.


Border Tomb.jpg

The tomb of the disputed dead man. Lebanon says Sheik Abbad is buried there. Israel says, no, Rabbi Ashi is buried there. The border runs right down the center of his tomb. That’s an Isareli military compound just on the other side of it


Border Posts.jpg

On the right side is an Israeli listening and watch post. On the left side is Hezbollah’s feeble imitation.


Hezbollah Billboard Directed Toward Israel.jpg

This billboard was erected by Hezbollah three feet from the border. The text is in Hebrew, and it faces directly into Israel. It says: “Sharon Don't Forget. Your Soldiers Are Still in Lebanon.”


Severed Head.jpg

Look closely. That’s a severed Israeli head held up by its hair.


Military Stuff in South.jpg

Hezbollah placed military museum pieces all over the towns in the south just to show them off.


Children on Tank.jpg

Children play on one of the tanks.


Hezbollah Jeep.jpg

A blasted truck placed ten feet from the border.


Hezbollah Logo.jpg

The Hezbollah logo and flag on the front of the truck.

Post-script: I am getting on a plane and heading to Tel Aviv as quickly as possible, hopefully within a few days. No more armchair blogging for me. Please hit the PayPal link and help me buy airfare. I can't do this for free, and you deserve better than mere links and long-distance op-ed analysis.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:16 PM

August 4, 2006

Clarification of Bias

No blogger in the world can seriously claim they are “objective” in the literal sense. That includes me.

My traffic is much higher than usual lately, and there are lots of unfamiliar names in the comments. I'm getting all kinds of emails from people I've never heard of before who don't seem to understand me at all.

So let me clarify something here for people who don't know me and who misunderstand where I'm coming from: I hope Israel wins the war against Hezbollah. There is no alternate universe where I can possibly hope that a democratic country loses a war against terrorists.

My affection and concern for Lebanon is obvious, I know, but I'm rather surprised that my opposition to Hezbollah isn't equally obvious. They threatened me personally with violence, and they scream Death to America as well as Death to Israel as part of their daily routine.

If you can't understand how I can sympathize with both non-Hezbollah Lebanon and Israel at the same time, well, I don't know what to tell ya. The now-forgotten Cedar Revolution has something to do with it, and I also lived there for six months. It is, or at least was, a wonderful place despite all its problems.

One thing everyone should realize by now, including my Lebanese readers: If Hezbollah wins, Israel and Lebanon are both really screwed.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:24 PM

Busy

I know you come to this site for more than just a roundup of links. Trouble is I'm working on six projects all at the same time and there's only so much that can be accomplished in a given day.

One thing I'm doing is trying to put together a trip to Tel Aviv so I can do some actual reporting instead of just armchair blogging. So be patient, please. I'll be a normal person again as soon as I can…

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:23 PM

Links

FROM BEIRUT TO JERUSALEM: Lee Smith, recently of Beirut, Lebanon, is now filing dispatches from Jerusalem.

THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF of Kuwait's Arab Times says Hezbollah has found itself in a quagmire. (Hat tip: Stephen Meyer by email.)

WIDENING THE WAR AGAIN: Israel is bombing Christian and Sunni areas in Lebanon.

EVISCERATED: Al Bawaba says Hezbollah's social network is torn to shreds. (Hat tip: Tony Badran via email.)

BELT OF DESTRUCTION: Here are aerial photographs of the “belt of misery,” Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs, before and after the war began.

INSIDE THE MIND OF THE ISRAELI LEFT: Many of those who pushed for Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 now say they were wrong.

NOT OVER SOON: Iran says it will supply Hezbollah with surface-to-air missiles. “Iranian authorities conveyed a message to the Hezbollah leadership that their forces would continue to receive a steady supply of weapons systems.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:19 PM

August 3, 2006

Cross-posted at Instapundit

BELIEVE IT ONLY WHEN YOU SEE IT: Syria says it kinda sorta maybe, if it's not too much trouble and if they get something juicy for doing it, just might consider playing a “constructive role” in pressuring Hezbollah to agree to a ceasefire on Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora's terms.

LEBANESE BLOGGER Josey Wales fisks the useless minister of the interior.

A PEACEKEEPING DREAM TEAM: Mustafa at Beirut Spring says the international peacekeepers Lebanese can trust most would come from Canada, Brazil, and Japan.

IRAN RATCHETS UP THE BELLICOSITY. Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei: “The American regime can expect a resounding slap and a devastating fist-blow from the Muslim nation…”

LEE SMITH challenges the conventional wisdom that everyone in Lebanon loves Hezbollah now. “There are many Lebanese imagining, fantasizing, hoping against hope that Hezbollah will be wiped from the face of the earth.”

Lee is right. He and I both lived in Lebanon, and he lived there longer than I did. (He only left a few weeks ago.) Lebanon’s “support” for Hezbollah is nothing more than an attempt at national unity during a fight. It will evaporate the instant Israel leaves. It will remain, though, as long as Israel stays and throughout cease-fire talks.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:17 PM

August 2, 2006

Instalinks

OOPS! OR NOT? Hezbollah hit Jenin. In the West Bank. Palestinians cheered: “Even if it fall on our heads it wouldn’t have spoiled the party.”

HEZBOLLAH THREATENS JOURNALISTS: Christopher Allbritton, reporting from Lebanon, says “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hizbullah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.” They threatened me too, and that was during peace time.

NOT ANTI-WAR BUT ON THE OTHER SIDE: A group that calls itself the Armed Revolutionary Fascists vandalized Jewish stores in Rome and defaced them with swastikas and pro-Hezbollah propaganda.

REMEMBERING STEVEN VINCENT: Judith Weiss hosts a blogburst commemoration to the murdered journalist over at Kesher Talk.

HEZBOLLAH WOKE UP: Allison Kaplan Sommer interviews Erika Galili live from an Israeli bomb shelter in a podcast for Pajamas Media.

“LEBANON IS A FINAL COUNTRY FOR ALL ITS CHILDREN”: Robert Rabil says a fresh debate has broken out in Lebanon's Shia community about Hezbollah's allegiance to Iran.

WHY LEBANESE BLAME SYRIA: A timeline of events, beginning in 1976, that led up to the current crisis.

WALID JUMBLATT, Syria's fiercest enemy in Lebanon, says Lebanon is being pushed solidly into the Syrian-Iranian axis. “Our government will be like the government of Abu Mazen (Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas) next to Hamas or maybe worse like the government of [Nouri al] Maliki in Iraq.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:46 PM

August 1, 2006

Democracies and War

I forgot something when I made my list of small encouraging signs. Perhaps I left out one that isn't so small.

This war in the Middle East nearly demolishes the theory that democracies don't go to war with each other. Lebanon, aside from Hezbollah's state-within-a-state, is a democracy. At least it's an almost-democracy. Aside from my personal affection for Lebanon, the country where I recently lived, the only country other than the US where I've ever lived, this is what anguishes me the most: The Arab world's only democracy is being torn to pieces by another democracy.

But it's telling, I think, that the Lebanese army, the fighting institution that represents democratic Lebanon and not just one totalitarian-sponsored political party, has chosen to sit this one out.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:56 PM

Some Small Encouraging Signs

First, a huge caveat:

I don’t know what’s going to happen in Lebanon and Israel, okay? And I don’t claim to know. Just about anything could happen in the next couple of weeks. Every option I can think of is possible short of Lebanon declaring an alliance with Israel and short of Hassan Nasrallah becoming Ruler of Lebanon.

I’m already on record in opposition to Israel expanding its war against Hezbollah to the rest of the country. But that’s neither here nor there at this point. The consequences I warned about have already come to pass, more or less, so that’s that. I have no more advice. Hopefully the damage done can be rolled back somewhat in the future.

Here are a few positive nuggets:

1. Hassan Nasrallah is a free man no more. Yesterday I talked to my Lebanese friend Tony Badran (who once guest-blogged for me here and who has his own blog Across the Bay). He pointed out that “Nasrallah is stuck in his bunker – or some other undisclosed location – and may remain stuck there forever.” He's right. Hezbollah’s secretary general is a marked man now, and if he comes out of hiding the Israelis will put one in his forehead. Short of some kind of miracle, Nasrallah will be reduced to releasing Jihad TV videos from exile or from the urban equivalent of a cave in Afghanistan. No more boozing and chasing girls in Gemmayze for him! The problem with an attempted Hezbollah coup d’etat is not that they might succeed, but that they could start another war trying.

2. While Lebanese public opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to both Israel and the United States right now (and believe me, it wasn’t this way a few weeks ago), the opinions of the political leadership are what matter most in the short run. If the leaders of the Christian, Sunni, and Druze communities can be brought around to the international consensus (which is where they already were before the war started, sigh) the view on the “street” will have little or no effect on ceasefire negotiations.

3. Threat of civil war is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously a real civil war would be a disaster for Lebanon, for Israel, for the US, for everyone except Syria and Iran. But it is precisely this possibility that may convince Hezbollah to surrender before this is over. I’ve said before that the Christians, Sunni, and Druze cannot win a civil war against Hezbollah. But that cuts both ways. Hezbollah cannot take over the country unless they summon armies from abroad. Doesn’t mean they won’t try to take over (they just might be that crazy right now), but they will not succeed if they do.

4. Another thing Tony pointed out on the phone: Hassan Nasrallah has dragged Lebanon’s Shia community backward in time to where they were in the days before the cleric Moussa Sadr brought them into politics in the 1960s. The Shia have always been the poor and forgotten of Lebanon, cruelly neglected and shunted aside by the Sunni and Christian elite and middle classes. Hezbollah was the Shia’s revenge. Hezbollah bullied Lebanese as much as they bullied Israelis. Now the Shia are utterly, tragically, destitute once again. Their urban “belt of misery” south of Beirut has become the Belt of Destruction. They have a case against the other Lebanese sects and political parties, but they did not go about redressing their grievances in the right way. Their honor and pride may prohibit them from ever admitting Hezbollah’s latest attacks on Israel were a fatal mistake. But their all too terrible punishment may convince them to seek a healthier and more cautious approach to politics in the future.

UPDATE: Tony adds via email: “The development of moderate Shiite alternatives is necessary (there was a recent meeting of Shiite intellectuals, writers, and independents and they are starting to realize all of this and they called for the full integration of the Shiites into the state), and that Jumblat is fully aware of the dangers of the Shiites feeling disempowered again, which is why he is reaching out to them now, and stressing how they are “partners” and stressing how Berri (who now is the moderate alternative in comparison) is “a pillar of the Taef accords” (i.e. an integral part of the current republic), etc. Ghassan Tueni is calling for the same thing, even going to do away with the sectarian system, etc. So there is awareness on the part of the leadership of the dangers of the Shiites suffering the kind of disillusionment that the Christians did in the 90s under the Syrians.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:42 PM

Hezbollah’s Coup d'État Continued...

I sure hope he's wrong, but I fear he might not be: Lebanon.Profile at the Lebanese Political Journal says Hezbollah effectively mounted a coup using Israel to assassinate the government. There are a few signs it won't turn out this way in the end, and I'll get to them shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:06 AM