Michael Totten

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Here’s where a piece of shrapnel flew into the side of another car parked nearby.
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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.
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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.
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Concrete bomb-blast walls lined the road up to the base.
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A few minutes later we reached Misgav Am overlooking the snaking fence on the border.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten