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Behind the Headlines a Visit to the Lebanese and Syrian Fronts is It a Calm Before the Storm?

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At 620 in the morning, with the sun just beginning to illuminate the hills of Jerusalem, the driver, a stocky Jew who once body guarded a President, came and we went north towards Tel Aviv, The sharp clear air heightened the clarity and color of the atmosphere so that the road ahead, still uncrowded by traffic, seemed both near and far. In back of us was the Dead Sea –the part of it you can glimpse on a clear day from Jerusalem.

Tall trees planted by the Jewish National Fund line either side of the road and exude a grassy scent. Pretty soon we came into the valley of Avalon where Joshua bade the sun to halt in the sky that he might have more daylight to punish the Givonim for lying to him. It was hard to believe that a mighty historical event took place in that serene and green valley — or that at nearby Emmaus, Jesus was seen for the first time after his death by two people who had witnessed his crucifixion.

In Tel Aviv, we picked up the army officer, a young lieutenant of the reserves whose American-oriented English came from Yale where he said he had studied; the son of parents who had survived World War II in Poland with forged Aryan papers. He carried a “uzzi” submachine gun and maps. He showed us the areas we would be seeing — our objective in the Golan at two p.m.

The choice was between going direct or via the northern Lebanese border, opposite “Fatah land.” I chose the latter so I could see both critical areas, although not without some trepidation. Surprises were constantly happening, We went up the coastal road, the shining Mediterranean on our left, past Nahariya which had been shelled a few days earlier with Katyusha rockets.

THE SANDS OF TIME

The unprotected coast seemed inviting for an attack by sea such as had occurred in Tel Aviv several months ago and I asked whether anything was being done to prevent such actions. The lieutenant said the coast was patrolled and pointed to a small ship that looked like a “painted boat upon a painted ocean,” He said that was an Israeli navy coastal defense craft. It looked innocent.

In Kiryat Shemona, the town bustled with people, very much abroad and in movement. Nobody seemed about to duck for cover. They seemed undaunted in the face of the past and possible future attacks and it was-nothing, later, to see a lone man working the fields. But, closer to the Lebanese border field workers were covered by an armed soldier. The road was fenced with barbed wire on the left side and from the road to the fence a five- or six-foot wide stretch of sand ran parallel to the road, The sand was there to preserve footprints and every so often a vehicle, towing a rake, runs up and down the sandy stretch. This erases any footprints and so determines the time of any previous infiltration.

The other side of the border which gave domicile to “Fatahland,” seemed peaceful. The naked eye saw hills and some houses, Farm animals dotted the hillsides. We discussed the problems here. One was the Palestine Liberation Organization with a choice of breakthrough anywhere along a lonely and winding road of about 25-30 miles, against civilians and army units operationally dispersed, To the east, on the Syrian border, it was an army against an army.

Moving along the border there were supposed to be patrols — but we didn’t see any. Troops were in distant redoubts, not visible but seeing. Once I thought I saw footprints in the sand and I called it to the attention of the lieutenant, But both he and the driver seemed unconcerned. Finally at the top of a winding road we saw a square and in it a stationary army vehicle. Four soldiers were on top of it, exposed; one bent forward to the Israel side. His rear was to Lebanon. I asked if we could talk to them and the lieutenant inquired. There seemed no problem. Four guys, reservists, three in their twenties, the other 32 — bearded, swarthy, bulky — married and father of three. The vehicle was fully equipped with fire-power, weapons at the ready, The electronic communications equipment Jabbered away.

They all had a smattering of English and the lieutenant identified me as representing the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, I asked why they were where they were, and so exposed. I was told the danger was from all sides. They kept ignoring the radio and it made me anxious: maybe they were being warned about something. The older man was a Turkish Jew with a beaming smile and an image of what in a movie would be a combat soldier who had ratted around in the field for months. The four men were all calm and seemed to be glad of the diversion.

ISRAEL KNOWS PLO MOVES

I asked how they felt about what they were doing and the answer simply was that it was their job. They asked where I was from and when I said New York they all laughed. New York seemed to mean something familiar and funny, We left with an exchange of shaloms and moved on towards the Syrian border, now occasionally passing an army vehicle. The lieutenant said once a PLO breakthrough was detected, the area was scoured. We talked about the Kamikaze efforts of the PLO who knew that if trapped they faced death; There was no answer as to why the PLO found a future in dead heroes. Was it in the Arab psyche? Further on there was a road sign saying “Even Menahem — UJA” and that reality from 6,000 miles away — secure and stable (never mind the crime statistics) — even affluent, came crashing in against the backdrop of an area of land nurturing not peace — but violence. History of another kind was memorialized in the Taggart (British police) forts, now in the possession of the Israelis, built on promontories with an all-embracing view against either enemy or marauder.

Israel has its way of knowing specifically where the PLO is in Lebanon and who gives them shelter and cover. Israeli reprisals are not haphazard, nor are all the PLO incursions successful to any degree. Many are stopped and the assailants caught. But Israel does not publicize many of these incidents and for its own good reasons, Just as there is sense — once explained — in the fact that below and around us in forming areas there are paved roads between patches of cultivation to allow easy and secure access, Also, it is difficult to plant mines under pavement.

How refreshing it was suddenly to see below and in the approaching distance the JNF-re-claimed Huleh marshes which I first saw in 1952, now lush and green and productive, A brief stop in what the driver called a guest-house, owned and run by Hungarian Jews who came here in 1957. The entrance was under armed guard and quite near a caged and camouflaged play area with children and their teacher, The kids seemed happy as were the two Israelis whose appetites were not diminished by any concern for the future, As we proceeded, Mt. Hermon became visible with patches of snow on its bald top, The land scape bare of people although occasional farm animals dot the scene, We pass a pipeline which carried oil from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon — with Israel’s permission — and here is evidence that economic cooperation is possible even in the midst of intense hostility. Now anti-tank trenches become more frequent, deep creases in the earth to halt and upend a tank and make it a vulnerable target.

THE ‘VALLEY OF DESPAIR’

We are now on the Syrian front and pretty soon we climb up a winding road to the observation post. It is a contained area — sandbagged and concreted in a circular fashion. The commander is brought out wearing a uniform, but with sandaled feet, We shake hands and go back to the barracks while he puts socks and boots on and picks up his “uzzi” to escort us, He is young 25 — a veteran of the same battlefront in ’73 and in civilian life he sells chemicals. He shows us around, The area is built like a World War I trench compound with underground living quarters, There are two sets of everything — one for relaxing and one for critical hours; sleeping areas, kitchens, food, weapons, ammo, community cations.

The soldiers (all reservists) come and go without apparent supervision, The commander says as long as they do their jobs it doesn’t matter, The conditions are not the best but the army is not required to provide hotels. Nor is it field conditions as I remember them. But that was another kind of war, another time, and the terrain is different as well as the politics,

The commander takes us to the top of a sand bagged area, From there we can see 360 degrees, half of it in Syria. Below us are sheep and the commander explains that frequently “shepherds” come right up to the post. They are yelled at to go away and when they don’t the commander orders firing practice — on the other side — and the “shepherds” go away.

To the right is a despond called Emek Habach (Valley of Despair) where many were killed. It was dominated by a small hill, There, in 1973, the Syrians massed 440 tanks against Israel’s 40, From there Israeli units, including this commander’s, advanced to Sassa, on the road to Damascus.

I asked the commander if it is the same road Paul took and he laughs, The outfit here isolated and I ask some military-type questions, They seem satisfied with the plans, but I feel isolated and scared, The commander shows me some of his weapons: a MAG-7.62 which can hoot shoot 600 rounds a minute — every fifth a tracer, the trajectory visible so they can determine their accuracy, At that rate, I ask, doesn’t the barrel get overheated? The commander says no matter, they have other barrels handy, I tell him that in World War II when rifle barrels became too hot to handle, soldiers would relieve themselves on them, thus cooling them. He appreciates the reminiscence, but seem to consider it irrelevant, Yes, he knows his business. He leads us to a small cubby-hole fitted with communications paraphernalia and a view from a binocular.

SYRIANS OBSERVE CEASE FIRE

He selects spots for me. I lose them in focusing because his eyes are better than mine. But in the corner of the inverted “L” slot I can see a vehicle, human silhouettes, something he calls a ramp. All these have special significance to his trained eye: to mine they are just sights. Where are their troops? I ask, He points. Out there he says. I ask: do the Syrians observe the cease fire? He says yes. they observe it very well, While we are there the phone rings. Some body is asking for the commander, He talks in rapid Hebrew (which I don’t understand except for the 500 words used in Yiddish) and the people with me as well as the soldiers on duty listen intently, I ask my guys what goes on, and they don’t answer. They listen to the conversation, I repeat my question and get no answer — and I begin to suspect danger, Finally the commander hangs up and I ask again, The lieutenant with me says: it’s Motti — he wants to know if he can go home early.

From that distance is he on this clear day seeing forever forwards ? He says: yes, let us hope there is peace. And if not, I ask? Then we have no choice, he says, We take off for Jerusalem, silent for a long while.

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