MAXWELL:  Lebanese and Israelis both suffer on border

5/7/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas fired more than 30 Katyusha rockets into northern Israel Thursday, killing one Israeli soldier and wounding as many as 28 civilians. Israel has retaliated with warplanes.

This time last year, I was in the area touring the towns of Kiryat Shemona and Metulla on the Lebanese border. Relative peace reigned while I was there.

But, like today, the potential for violence between Israeli troops and the South Lebanese Army on the one side and the Hezbollah, or the Party of God, on the other is the subtext that defines everyday life for innocent civilians on both sides of the border.

Only the courageous, or the insane, live in this fertile outpost. Few things there remain normal for very long. Each moment is a bargain with fate, a trade-off between annihilation and perpetual anxiety and flight.

In Kiryat Shemona, the only city in the otherwise agrarian Upper Hula Valley on the Israeli side, I could feel the tension in the air as Jews conducted routine activities, wondering when the Hezbollah’s Shiites would send Russian-made Katyushas raining down on them, when they would have to scramble from the comfort of their homes to find safety in stark underground bomb shelters.

A resident told me that I, an American journalist with no stake in the Holy Land, was a fool to be there. A few hours later, after seeing a wedding ceremony hastily disperse, I agreed. The couple _ a beautiful young woman and a handsome soldier in the Israel Defense Forces _ ran from a courtyard and disappeared inside a one-story brick building squatting on a hillside. Guests ran in all directions as a siren pierced the late-afternoon air. Warplanes roared beyond a mountain range. No Katyushas fell that day.

I learned later that the couple and their families had been warned about having the wedding in Kiryat Shemona, the Hezbollah’s favorite target. Many families, in fact, have weddings in southern cities close to the Sea of Galilee, which is out of the easy reach of Katyushas.

Visitors to the area are impressed with the resilience of the locals, their ability to dash for safety one moment and to regroup the next. A generation of Israelis have lived under these conditions.

On the other side of the border, Lebanese citizens, like their Israeli counterparts, also suffer, a fact often lost in the press. The guerrillas say the Katyusha attack on Kiryat Shemona was in response to Israeli strikes against civilians.

Indeed, earlier Thursday, a shell fired by the Southern Lebanese Army, Israel’s proxy militia in the 9-mile-wide security zone in Lebanese territory, killed an 82-year-old woman and her daughter. The day before, an Israeli bomb injured more than a dozen Lebanese civilians, including children. Israel claims that the attack was a mistake.

I have been on the Lebanese side of the border and can testify that innocent victims there suffer greatly. Their fears are as great as those of the Israelis in Kiryat Shemona. Their children also cry when warplanes scream overhead.

The irony of the current outbreak is that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is determined to pull the IDF out of Lebanon by July 7. Already, some soldiers are dismantling outposts while others are moving to new positions near the Israeli border. The United Nations is going ahead with plans to deploy some 6,000 to 7,000 peacekeepers in the region. Reports indicate that Syria, which controls Lebanon’s government, has agreed in principle to accept the United Nations’ presence.

A real problem with the Israeli pullout is where to draw the new border. The security zone acts as a buffer between Israel’s northernmost towns and Hezbollah fighters. Lebanon wants Israel to return part of the land on the Golan Heights that Israel took during the Arab-Israeli war or the attacks on Kiryat Shemona will continue after redeployment.

Israelis in the area are rightly fearful that after the pullout, they will be more vulnerable to rocket attacks than ever. During a press conference, the mayor of Kiryat Shemona said, “We can’t continue this way. For 33 years, we’ve been living in this inferno.”

He is right, and the same is true for Lebanese civilians beyond the security zone. The same leaping flames, billowing black smoke and screaming sirens so common to Israelis are just as familiar to their Arab neighbors.

Barak’s instinct for peace _ his desire to give civilians a long-overdue respite and to protect his country’s soldiers _ is admirable. But he will need the full cooperation of Syria and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, this unnecessary, deadly tit for tat continues. Weddings will be put on hold on both sides of the border, residents will run for bomb shelters, and innocent children will scream in fear with each blast of a siren and the sound of a bomb striking its target.