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 August 14, 2006 10:35 AM

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