UPPER GALILEE, Israel (Jul. 31)
The mobile artillery launchers sit in a large field in wooded, rocky hills near Israel’s border with Lebanon. Under a broiling sun radiating heat off the launchers, which look very much like tanks, Sgt. Eran is explaining how the launchers send 155-millimeter shells to hit Hezbollah launch sites several miles into Lebanon.
Boom: The noise is head-rattling and stomach-shaking. The couple dozen Israeli soldiers spread among the 10 or so launchers in the field on a recent day are all wearing ear plugs.
Eran, the commander of the unit — like all Israeli soldiers, he’s not allowed to give his last name — says the IDF artillery has a precision range of only 50-100 meters, but that Hezbollah’s Katyushas have no precision control at all.
“According to transmission reports, we are hitting the Hezbollah launch sites, but not all of them,” he says.
Eran lives in the field.
“I’ve been here sleeping, eating and launching artillery shells in this field for 16 days, and I’m sure every soldier here agrees with me that we not wasting our time,” he says.
He says that his crew of 18-year-olds felt horribly about the nine soldiers killed last week in the bloody battle at Bint Jbail, not far away in Lebanon, especially because a few Israeli artillery shells could have flattened the town and all the Hezbollah fighters in it. However, hundreds of civilians were in their homes there, and Israel has a policy not to use artillery on civilians.
“I feel very badly, really very badly, about the civilians killed in Lebanon,” Eran says, “but Hezbollah are cowards. They operate in heavily populated areas.”
Boom. Boom. Two more artillery rounds are fired into the hills. Thai workers in a nearby pear orchard don’t even look up.
Isaac, a technician at Ben-Gurion Airport who is a sergeant in a reserve unit, wanders over. He wonders why the world doesn’t see what’s really going on.
“Hezbollah is the little problem but Iran is the big problem,” he says. “They’re using the Hezbollah to make the world forget about the atomic bomb they’re building, and their strategy is working.”
“Among the soldiers in the field, I think there is total consensus that this is our war to fight,” adds Uriel, a tour guide who speaks eloquent English. He wears dark glasses and a stylish cotton hat against the sun, with grease smudges on his face.
Israel last week announced a call-up of an additional 30,000 reserve soldiers. Some Israelis criticized the move, saying it could spell a full-scale ground invasion of Lebanon.
Uriel compares the current situation to painful wisdom teeth.
“Either you take ibuprofen or you get root canal, an invasive procedure. Now our government is thinking of full root canal to disarm the Hezbollah,” he says. “If we can do it, we have done our job. If not, we keep on with the Ibuprofen.”
A German TV crew arrives and does quick interviews with Uriel and Danny, another reserve soldier who wears his thick blond hair in a ponytail. He says he flew in from South America when his family notified him that the army had called.
“I hope we can do the job,” he says.
The TV crew is filming the high hills in front of the field. Another TV van is coming down the dirt road. From the paved road above the field, the view of the Golan Heights and Hula Valley is spectacular.
A few miles from Kiryat Shmona, a highway rest stop is buzzing with soldiers in jeeps, truck drivers and TV crews. Police cars speed by.
Smoke is rising from the town: A small factory has just been hit by a Katyusha. There’s more smoke from over the hills.
“It’s not safe anywhere,” says Shani Amedi. She and her new husband, Yogev, live on Kibbutz Dafna, just west of Kiryat Shmona. Their kibbutz took a rocket hit two weeks ago, although no one was hurt.
They have just returned from Afula, more than an hour away, where they attended to some banking business.
“Everything is closed up here, so we had to go down there,” she says. “We were looking forward to a great tourist season here in the Upper Galilee, and now this.”
They pay for their gas and head down a side road to Dafna to avoid Kiryat Shmona.
An unshaven reserve soldier named Erez, a management student wearing dark glasses, is eating pizza with his rifle at his feet.
The smoke is thick and black. A TV cameraman from Argentina rushes in to buy water.
“We filmed the hit up there,” he says, pointing to the smoke. “No one was hurt.”
The cameraman has family in Israel, while Erez has family in Buenos Aires. They talk in Spanish. The Argentine’s phone rings.
“That was a cameraman I know,” he says. “The TV crews are getting across the border at Avivim. We’re out of here.”
The cameraman says goodbye and runs out.
Not far away, Kiryat Shmona is almost empty. An elderly person is sitting at a cafe table. There’s broken glass all over one intersection. The smoke has almost stopped.
The roads south through the Galilee are virtually empty for at least an hour. Much of northern Israel has gone south.
Those whose stayed are waiting, out of sight, leaving the roads to the soldiers and journalists.