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Behind the Headlines: an Eerie Quiet Descends on Northern Israeli Towns

May 30, 2000
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When Israel ordered its troop withdrawal from Lebanon, government officials did not take into account the fact that cherries and apricots were ripening early this year.

But the farmers here in northern Israel were all too aware that they needed hands to help them with the harvest.

They were also painfully aware that they could no longer count on the help of workers from southern Lebanon, many of whom disappeared during the Israel Defense Force’s hectic withdrawal last week.

The farmers cannot depend on unemployed Israelis from neighboring Kiryat Shmona, accusing them of preferring to receive unemployment benefits rather than work in the orchards.

So the farmers were learning the hard way how totally dependent they are on foreign workers.

“I now have only two Thais, two Chinese and two Mongolians. I just cannot cope,” said Ehud Neustein, 60, a resident of the northern town of Metulla.

Escorted by his newly recruited Mongolian workers, Neustein went down to his apricot and cherry orchards, which had turned overnight into a front line.

Streams of Lebanese cars could be seen jamming the road across the border fence, located just a few yards from the orchard.

In some parts of town, the border with Lebanon was totally open.

Theoretically, Hezbollah fighters could simply walk across the street into Israel.

And some did just that.

They broke down the fence and placed Hezbollah flags on the Israeli side of the border, chanting, “We will continue all the way to Jerusalem.”

The army had torn down the former border fence, but a new, more sophisticated electronic fence had not yet been erected.

Everyone had thought there was plenty of time left before Israel would withdraw its troops from Lebanon — a move that was completed, taking many by surprise, on May 24.

As a result, long sections along the border remained relatively open for infiltrators. It was not until Sunday that the defense ministry gave the go- ahead for intensive construction of a new border fence.

“It’s not that I am afraid,” said Yair Neustein, 16, Ehud’s son. “But I know that I should be afraid. Imagine that I am going with the tractor to the orchard, and suddenly I face a Hezbollah fighter. What do I do then?”

On Monday, Israel distributed weapons to residents of the northern communities.

The move came as tensions lessened on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon following violence along the frontier over the weekend.

The Fatma crossing, scene of demonstrations and rock-throwing by Lebanese civilians and armed Hezbollah members in recent days, was quiet Monday as the Lebanese army and Hezbollah set up roadblocks preventing civilians from reaching the area.

The previous day, at least three Lebanese civilians were lightly hurt when Israeli troops fired warning shots to push back demonstrators attempting to enter Israeli territory.

Now, despite the relative quiet, the situation is still considered highly fragile, and people are not making predictions.

Last week, just before the IDF staged its dramatic pullout from Lebanon, Zehava Neustein feared the worst.

“All hell broke loose. Everyone was shooting at everyone. One boom followed another,” she said.

The eerie quiet that descended this week was a pleasant surprise.

“It is almost hard to get used to the quiet,” said Meir Shaked, 41, of Kibbutz Adamit on the western section of the border with Lebanon.

“For the first time in years, there are no helicopters in the sky and no sounds of shelling.”

But while he and numerous other northern residents praised the withdrawal, there were many who fear what the future will hold.

And these fears center on economic issues — in some cases, more than on concerns for security.

In recent days, the residents of Adamit have had to deal with just such fears.

Adamit is a small kibbutz of 38 members, located on a cliff in the Upper Galilee. With a magnificent view of the Gulf of Haifa, it is certainly one of the more beautiful spots in Israel.

But it is a kibbutz struggling for its life. Not because of Hezbollah, but because it can no longer pay its debts.

“We were hoping that being a border settlement, facing Hezbollah, the government would show some understanding,” said Shaked. But so far, he added, there has been nothing.

On a recent day, when hundreds of Hezbollah grenades fell in the vicinity of the kibbutz, the Mekorot water company cut off the water supply to Adamit.


“Because we were behind paying our water bill,” said Shaked.

Voicing a concern shared by many other Israelis in the region, he added, “The scariest Katyusha rocket in the world does not frighten me half as much as the fear that one day I will find my bank account closed.”

The economically weak kibbutzim and moshavim along the border fear that they will not hold out because of their economic burdens.

They maintain that there is a wide gap between the government’s statements about being committed to helping the northern settlements, and its actions to help the settlements keep their heads above water.

Meanwhile, Yair Neustein is convinced that it is only a matter of time until the IDF will be forced back into Lebanon.

In fact, he is rather disappointed that when he joins the army in two years, he will not be able to serve in Lebanon.

“I wanted to serve in Lebanon. I wanted to be there, to defend my home, not to stand on top of an observation post, not doing anything.”

But people like Yair are really an exception. After several days of tense quiet along the border, there was an air of cautious — very cautious — optimism that Israel would not have to return to Lebanon.

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