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To Mesa Verde

I told Jean I was driving from Washington DC to Santa Barbara, California, to pick up Sean LaFreniere “on my way” home to Portland. She said I absolutely must stop at Mesa Verde in Colorado and see the cliffside towns of the Anasazi. So I cut across Kansas at the right angle to bypass Denver and entered Colorado in the south.

The first third of Colorado looks little different from Kansas.

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The plains are so big and so wide it’s hard to believe they’re even real. There’s something almost otherwordly about them.

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I wanted to pull over the car and walk. Just keep walking until I was so far out that I could see neither road, nor tree, nor house, nor telephone pole. Just slightly rolling ground in every direction. How beautifully eerie a view like that must be. Someday I’ll do it in one of the national grasslands.

Every once in a while I found a lone tree. All just begged to be photographed.

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The Western-style ghost towns came before the mountains.

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Right next to the 19th century ghost homes was a 1950s ghost gas station.

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In front of the ghost gas station was a ghost car from about the same era. The whole American West (excluding the coast) is full of such things. The history of the place and its people are laid bare for all to see.

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The mountains don’t rise all of sudden from the Great Plains. First there are little bits of microtopography.

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Then the moutains rise above the microtopography.

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For a brief transitional period the mountains and the plains exist side by side. I can see why Colorado’s major cities are in the eastern flat part of the state. Denver is the “This is Far Enough!” city. It must have taken a special kind of person to cross thousands of miles of plains in a covered wagon and want to continue after looking up at the imposing wall of the front range.

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I have only spent a few days total, altogether, in Colorado. But after spending some time in the eastern and central part of America, Colorado felt like my home. I was back in the world I grew up in and know.

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I made it just in time to see the Fall colors. I love how the deciduous trees change while the evergreens don’t.

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The contrast is so dramatic.

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The Roman Empire labeled Lebanon’s Bekka Valley the “Land of Milk and Honey.” I’ve always thought the Willamette Valley in Oregon could be called that as well. That lovely turned phrase could also describe parts of Colorado.

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Other parts are much drier. But those explosive Fall colors followed me everywhere.

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In the south-central part of the state is an enormous pile of sand dunes. I took a brief detour to look at them and passed one of the West’s UFO nuts on the side of the road. I get a kick out of these goofballs in the mountains. You just know this guy has tried at least once to be a caller on the Art Bell show.

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From a distance the dunes look half as tall as the mountains.

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Up close they look like mountains.

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The weather turned on me as I approached Mesa Verde in the southwestern corner of Colorado.

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This was the home of the Anasazi Indians in their cliffside dwellings up in the sky.

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Here is one of their towns. We have so few ruins in the United States I often forget we have any.

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But we do.

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I wanted to get to Arizona before the sun set. But I made a wrong turn and ended up driving into New Mexico. I only drove maybe fifty feet inside the state. I had never been there before, and I only stayed for two minutes. But I’ve technically been to New Mexico now. This is what I saw. It is all that I saw. Funnily enough, it looked exactly like I thought it should look.

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And it wasn’t until I saw the “Entering New Mexico” sign that I saw any topography that looked anything like this. The border seemed to start in just the right place.

I backtracked for twenty minutes and entered Arizone at the Four Corners monument, the geographic place where Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona converge. So, okay, I lied. I did go back to New Mexico. One half of one of my feet returned to the state.

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“Darfur is Rwanda in Slow Motion”

I discuss genocide in Africa and the possibility of civil war in Lebanon with Austin Bay and Gerard Van der Leun in a podcast show at Pajamas Media.

Across the Great Plains

There is no more boring a drive in the world than cruising for hundreds of miles on an Interstate freeway in the Midwest. These roads are bad enough in the West where there’s at least topography off in the distance. But a Midwestern Interstate is nothing but a chore.

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Midwestern back roads can be pleasant and even charming in a Norman Rockwell sort of way. I did get off the freeway in Illinois for a few minutes just to get a little variety.

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But I wanted to get from Chicago to the Rockies in a reasonable amount of time. So for the most part I hurtled down Illinois and across Missouri just slightly faster than safety and the law would allow, yearning to drive through small town Middle America, hang out with ma and pa at the diners, and photograph the Fall colors.

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The only time I got out of the car in Illinois was at a random Starbucks with wi-fi in a small town that I can’t remember the name of. The only time I got out of the car in Missouri was just outside Columbia where I slept at a trucker motel at one of the junky corporate asteroid belts around an off ramp.

I have no doubt Missouri has something to offer. Every state does. There has to be a cool blues bar in St. Louis that would have kept me better entertained than the cookie cutter Denny’s where I had breakfast at sunrise.

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The St. Louis arch, at least, would be worth looking at for a minute. But I didn’t have time for any of that. Pavement, trees, cornfields, traffic and suburban/Interstate smarm was all I had time for in Missouri.

By the time I reached Kansas I was getting a little bit twitchy.

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Kansas is a l-o-n-g state.

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Even once I reached Colorado I would still be out in the flatlands for one-third of the way to Utah. So I took the Parkway to Emporia and got the hell off and onto the back roads.

Emporia isn’t exciting. But at least it’s actually Kansas.

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An Interstate freeway is nowhere in particular. There’s no there there, as the old saying goes.

The thing about Kansas is that it’s actually a little bit interesting once you can see it. It’s tranquil, somewhat endearing in places, and at least seemingly innocent. Dorothy’s lament that “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” has a certain resonance and heft to it when you’re actually in the safe and secure environment the girl longed for when she found herself all of a sudden in Oz.

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But there’s a dark side to Kansas, as well. The state is (just) barely growing in population. But rural Kansas is hemorrhaging people.

You can see it from the road. I found a ghost house so old it’s a ruin.

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And right next to it, perhaps fifty feet to the right, was a ghost house from a more recent era.

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Down the road from the ghost homes is an old stone bridge on a ghost road that no longer exists. It ends in somebody’s field.

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Some of the people who live in ghost towns to-be feel the ominous dread of looming collapse and depopulation. So they will give you free land. That’s right. It’s free land homesteading all over again. All you have to do is build a house on the land. If you like living in the middle of nowhere, if you don’t mind harsh weather and a lack of topography, and you’re looking for the cheapest deal in the country, Kansas just might be your place. Go to Kansasfreeland.com and take a look.

I pulled the car off the highway and drove into downtown Peabody when I saw a sign that pointed to a 19th century Main Street. I found it after driving past some lovely Victorian homes, some of which look perfectly homey, others which look like they’re starting the death spiral already. The rot in the house below is further along that it appears in the photo.

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Downtown could have been nice. It did have the Main Street layout, which is infinitely preferable to Taco Bells and Wal-Marts surrounded by parking lagoons.

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But vibrant is not how I would describe it. Even in the middle of October, it was, weirdly, 95 degrees and humid outside. Hot cloying air blew in from the south. Empty old buildings, stripped of their former grandeur, leaned and moaned in the wind.

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The only resident I saw on the streets was an old man well into his seventies. He did a double-take when he saw me pull up alongside him with my sports car and sunglasses. Obviously I was not from around there. But it wasn’t just that. It seemed (and I’m sure I exagerrated this in my mind) that he was shocked to see another living human being in an outdoor museum piece.

Sure enough, Peabody is one of those towns that will give you or anyone else some free land. They desperately need people. Here is the application for a free lot. If you’re 25 and want to have kids you’re most likely a shoo-in.

They say the three most important considerations when purchasing real estate are location, location, and location. The middle of Kansas sucks at all three. There is nothing wrong with the land. It’s quite pretty in many places, and in the eastern half of the state it is perfect for growing crops.

It’s just too far away from everything else.

I didn’t see any part of Kansas that was completely abandoned. It’s not like the Nevada desert where no one lives for swaths of acreage larger than Belgium. There were always some people around pretty much everywhere. It’s just that the density is so painfully low. Distances between places are enormous, and it’s lonely wherever go you.

The roads are so long and lonely I got to thinking some rather strange thoughts. Why not carve up parts of Kansas into cantons? Let the stateless Palestinians have one of them. Let the Kurds from eastern Turkey move into another one if they want. How about letting poor Mexican laborers in on the homesteading action? Let them come and build their own farms in the state if they want to.

None of these things will ever happen, of course, and I’m not actually serious. (Except, perhaps, for the Mexican homesteading. Why the heck not? It’s a lot less crazy than moving Gaza to Middle America. And Mexicans keep coming here anyway.) I just kept thinking: krikey! There’s a lot of good land out in Kansas that is not being used. And there is nothing physically wrong with it. If Kansas can’t give it away for free to other Americans, surely there is someone in the world who would want it.

Geographically speaking, the Midwest ends (or begins) at the Rockies. Culturally, that isn’t the case. Culturally, the West begins (or ends) at the tree line.

The Rocky Mountains cast a rain shadow hundreds of miles into the Great Plains, deep into Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Trees will not grow by themselves. Instead of National Forests, there are National Grasslands. The region is a semi-arid sort-of desert, eerily flat to the horizon like you’re adrift on an ocean of land. Only occasionally will you find the barest suggestion of hills.

This part of the country is not good for farming. You can’t just plant crops. You have to irrigate. Water is scarce and expensive. So it makes more sense to ranch than to farm. The John Deere culture of the rural Midwest gives way to the cowboy culture of cattle.

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Diners give way to saloons. Fall colors in October give way to cacti struggling in the grass.

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There is oil in the transition zone. Not a lot of it, but some, certainly more than you’ll find around the Great Lakes.

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You know what you can “farm” in the great plains, though, without water? You can “farm” wind. The biggest wind farm I’ve ever seen is in Kansas. Kansas, for a brief stetch of road, looked futuristic.

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It’s weird and eerily beautiful when the trees vanish and you can see horizon to horizon in every direction without any obstruction. You can watch the sun go down over land. It doesn’t set behind mountains or hills. It sets behind utterly flat ground miles and miles away.

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My camera works in the dark, so I kept taking pictures after the light went out in the sky.

It’s easy to snap pictures at dusk.

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My headlights are good enough, too.

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Other places in the back-of-beyond are lit up at night.

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Other parts of Kansas are lit only by starlight. Starlight is still, just barely, enough for my camera. Below is what the Great Plains look like at midnight.

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Blogosphere Dispatches Now Available Through Amazon

The three little books Adam Bellow and I just published (details here) now ship from Amazon.

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Come on, you know you want these. Know what they’re perfect for? You can give them to all your friends for Christmas who don’t get the blogosphere and think it’s just a bunch of geeks with Web pages who can’t, or won’t, write anything real.

North to Chicago

I’m not physically capable of driving anywhere near Chicago without driving into it. I just can’t bring myself to depress the accelerator and keep going past, even if the city is 500 miles to the north. Those of you on the coasts who have never been there have no idea. Unless you live in New York, Chicago is better than your city. Sorry, that’s just how it is.

So I was in Louisville, Kentucky. Right across the river from downtown is Indiana — not an exciting state, but some of Chicago’s suburbs (the grim ones that Chicago doesn’t want anyway) spill over into it. By my way of thinking I was already right next to Chicago! So I crossed the river, formally left the South, and entered what is technically and geographically the Midwest.

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Indiana may be physically in the North, but it is kind of, culturally, a Southern state. Internal migration patterns long ago brought Southerners north into the plains. So you’ll hear lots of Southern accents in South Indiana, even though the state is ostensibly Northern and Midwestern. This partly explains, perhaps, why Indiana is a conservative “red state” while other Midwestern states on the Great Lakes are more liberal, “blue,” and Democratic.

I found evidence of Indiana’s unofficial Southernness even at a rest stop on the Interstate. Three flags flew from the pole: the American flag, the state flag, and the Vietnam “Prisoners of War” banner that I otherwise saw only in Southern states (and also in Missouri which, like Indiana, is sort of Northern and also sort of Southern.)

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There isn’t much to see from the Interstate. Just pavement, trees, and traffic, the same as on just about every other Interstate freeway in the eastern part of the country.

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Because Indiana is the Midwest, though, (sort of) there also were wheat and corn fields.

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The freeway took me through Indianapolis. I’ve heard the city is nicer than it used to be. Lots of American cities are nicer than they used to be now. So I was slightly curious about what kind of urban renewal has taken place.

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But I didn’t stop. Indianapolis can’t compete with Chicago for my time and attention. Sorry Indiana! It’s nothing personal.

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They say every state in America has a city names Springfield. (Does that include Hawaii? Somehow I doubt it.) You know what else pretty much every state has? Every state, or so it appears, has a small town somewhere named Lebanon.

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I don’t know what’s up with that. There are more Lebanese in America than there are in Lebanon. There are more Lebanese in Brazil than there are in Lebanon. Lebanese, as the Perpetual Refugee used to put it, are masters of voyage. Like Indians and Chinese, they’re pretty much everywhere. But they’re urban, for the most part. They are traders and businessmen and restauranteurs. They didn’t move to America to get into farming. So I suspect all of America’s Lebanons were named thusly because Lebanon is a Biblical place. (Jesus turned water into wine at Israel’s favorite target village of Qana.) I doubt you’ll find many Lebanese-Americans in America’s little Lebanons.

Below is a picture of Lebanon, Indiana. It isn’t exactly Beirut when it comes to fun, exotic, and charming. But hey, at least no Hezbollah!

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Like I said, Indians are pretty much everywhere. The guy who owns the gas station (complete with a bail bonds office in back) spoke English with an Indian accent. All the other customers in the store spoke English with a Southern rather than the flat Midwestern accent. How weird is it that an Indian moves to small-town America and helps bail out the local yokels who find themselves in the clink?

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You won’t find Lebanese (I don’t think) in Lebanon, Indiana. But you will find at least some in Northern Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan.

I stopped to pick up Charles Malik (formerly known as Lebanon.Profile at the Lebanese Political Journal) who is temporarily staying at his parents’ house in Chicago’s eastern suburbs. He was more or less driven out of Beirut during Israel’s war against Hezbollah. He’s marooned there for the time being until he figures out what to do next, stuck in one of Indiana’s nicer ‘burbs with no social life and a gigantic phone bill. Poor Charles. You can see the faint skyline of Chicago from the deck of his house.

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But he does not own a car. So the city of fun and light is close enough to see but just far enough away to be unreachable. So I picked his refugee ass up and took him to town.

He, or least his parents, lives in a nice place, though, right on the lake next to the beach and some sand dunes.

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Most of Northern Indiana in the region next to Chicago is industial. But Indiana has some nice beaches, too. If you squint you can pretend you’re on actual coastline.

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Charles made fun of his mother in the kitchen and said “Leave it to an Arab to move to Indiana and buy a house on top of the only sand dunes in the Midwest.” (Nevermind that there aren’t any sand dunes in Lebanon.) He also made fun of his mother (behind her back) for her large signed portraits of Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) and George W. Bush (R-America). “Just like a Middle Easterner, hanging up portraits of the Leader in the living room.”)

His mother may be American. But she also is Lebanese. Old world habits die hard — she kept pushing food on me. She insisted we stay for dinner and gave me a five-pound bag of pastries, apples, and pomegranite juice to take with me in the car as I drove west toward home.

Charles and I did not stay for dinner. We piled into the car and took the Chicago Skyway into the heart of the city, which is great fun to drive on if there isn’t very much traffic. You soar over the lake and the city below in the plains. And when you enter Chicago from Indiana the sign says “Welcome to Chicago.” Not “Welcome to Illinois.” Welcome to Chicago. Greater Chicago, or “Chicagoland” as the locals like to call it, is practically a city-state unto itself, a spectacular cosmopolitan megalopolis that only accidentally happens to exist in the Midwest surrounded by farmers and cornfields.

He took me out to dinner at a restaurant called Avec near the Greek neighborhoods just west of downtown. We ate duck, pork shoulder, and dates stuffed with sausage. (The last may sound bizarre, but it was fanstastic.)

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Avec is one of those restaurants where everyone sits together, which encourages socialization at dinner with strangers.

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Then we drove downtown at night and walked around so I could take night shots of the city. You see that building pictured below, the one with the top that’s shaped like a diamond? Although you can’t make it out in the photo, the words “Think Pink” were lit up inside. The diamond, you see, represents a vagina, supposedly as a counterweight to the hundreds of “phallic” skyscrapers that make up the city.

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Chicago is truly an architectural wonderland, possibly the most aesthetically spectacular skyscraper city on Earth.

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I could spend a week photographing the city and never get bored.

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We later ended up at a bar in the bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood. I like Wicker Park. It reminds me of the fun hipster neighborhoods of Portland and Seattle.

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Later that night a storm blew over the lake. Here’s what it looked like on the south shore along Indiana, lightning on the right and the lights of Chicago on the left.

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Home Again

It’s hard to drive all across the country by yourself (in a reasonable amount of time) and blog while doing so. I didn’t get to write much, or even post many pictures, if I wanted to get home before November. But I’m home again now and I have more than a thousand pictures of America from East to West and North to South. I won’t post that many, of course, but I’ll post some.

In the meantime, while I put together a gallery and some commentary from the Midwest, here’s an email I got from one of my neighbors in Oregon who can relate to some of what I wrote about earlier.

Last April wife and I spent three weeks in Atlanta visiting one of our daughters and her family. We flew from Oregon to Atlanta. While there we rented a car and drove to Williamsburg, Virginia to visit other family members. We drove, thinking we would be able to see some country.

All we saw in the six hundred plus miles from Atlanta to Williamsburg was a tree lined freeway. Pavement and trees. We drove up on Interstate 75 and back on Interstate 85. Nothing but trees and pavement, just like the photograph you included of a freeway in Kentucky.

On another trip to Atlanta we drove to Charleston, S.C., from there to Savannah, and back to Atlanta. On the way back we stopped in Dublin, Georgia for lunch. Ate in a little storefront restaurant that obviously catered to a clientele other than the aristocracy. Ma Hawkins Cafe.

Friendly little old lady waited on us. She recognized that our accent wasn’t local, and asked where we were from. “Oregon”, we said. She got a blank look on her face and I asked her if she knew where Oregon is. She didn’t. I then asked if she knew where California is and she did. I told her that Oregon is just north of California. Her response “I hope you’re not as crazy as those Californians.”

More soon.

Dispatches from the Front Now in Print

The first project Doubleday editor Adam Bellow and I worked on together is finished. (The second will take a lot longer.) I told you the project isn’t a book. And it isn’t. But we are releasing something in print. Three things, actually. Pamphlets!

The first is a collection of essays written by me, here on the blog and elsewhere, filed from Lebanon and Israel before and during the war.

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Included is an article about my personal experience with Hezbollah that first appeared in the LA Weekly. But this is not the same version. It’s the Director’s Cut — longer, more detailed, better written, and more damning of Hezbollah than the shorter version you may have already read. The remaining pieces are published more or less as they originally appeared, but they are all collected in one place for the first time.

The second pamphlet is a collection of essays written by Lebanese and Israeli bloggers during the latest round of hostilities. This is the best of the Lebanese blogosphere and the best of the Israeli blogosphere at a time when each group of writers mattered more than ever before.

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I didn’t write this one. I edited it. And rather than summarize and explain what I hoped to accomplish, I’ll publish the short introduction.

- – -

Introduction

by Michael J. Totten

Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon may be the most-blogged war in history.

Until now the most-blogged war was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thousands of self-styled “war bloggers” in the United States covered, if that is the word, the conflict from a distance. A handful of Iraqis started their own blogs in English. But blogosphere coverage of the Iraq war was overwhelmingly American and overwhelmingly written by people who were thousands of miles away from the fighting.

This time it’s different.

Israel and Lebanon are both sophisticated and well-educated countries. Each already had a large pre-existing national blogosphere of its own. Israeli bloggers and Lebanese bloggers were, for the most part, already aware of each other. Many had developed a friendly sort of rapport before hostilities broke out. Then civilians in both countries were swept up in the fighting, were traumatized, were wounded, were killed. This war wasn’t being fought far off in a distant land they could only dream of ever seeing. It was fought in their very own neighborhoods.

Foreign correspondent Michael Yon was once asked why he files combat dispatches from Iraq written in the first-person. He said everything in the Middle East is first-person. He’s right. And that’s especially true when you’re being shot at.

This pamphlet is a selection of short personal essays from the Lebanese and Israeli blogospheres that tell the story of a war one person at a time. Everything is personal. Everyone is biased. Many of these pieces are shot through with fear, depression, and rage. War does that to people. They don’t say it’s hell for no reason.

There are small glimmers of beauty and hope in these pages, too. Lebanese and Israelis still talked to each other throughout the war. Sometimes the talk was even civil and friendly. Not everyone surrenders to hatred during war, even in the Middle East.

Most of all what I wanted to capture here is the human dimension. Most Lebanese and Israelis have never met a single person from the other country. Yet they have more in common with each other than most of them know. I know because I have been to both countries, and I lived for a while in Lebanon. Israel and Lebanon are beautiful and intoxicating places, in my opinion the two best countries by far in the Middle East.

Some of the people on each side of the line who are featured here are my friends. A few of them met each other online, in the blogosphere, before this got started. A smaller number kept lines of communication open even while rockets and bombs exploded in their cities. They meet again in this collection. I sincerely hope — and I know at least some of them feel the same way — that they can one day meet in the real world, in more peaceful and less “interesting” times.

Michael J. Totten

Portland, Oregon

- – -

The third pamphlet is a collection of speeches and writings by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, edited by Stephen Schwartz.

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You can buy one for four dollars or the whole set for ten dollars. Please help support us! No one else is publishing the best of the blogosphere in print, and it’s about time somebody did.

To Louisville, Kentucky

It’s not much fun driving across America on one Interstate freeway after another. So when I got past Knoxville, Tennessee, and turned north toward Chicago I took some of the back roads instead. I had never been to the South, and I wanted to see it.

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Tennessee is a beautiful state, and you can hardly see any of it from the freeway.

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This place must be incomparably beautiful in the Fall. I barely missed the changing colors.

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Some of the leaves were just starting to turn as I drove past.

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Most of Tennessee’s topography is mild compared to that in the West, but it’s still rugged enough to be interesting.

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Once again, the weather shifted as I crossed a state line. First the clouds thickened up.

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Then the clouds became solid.

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I took a smaller road off the main highway to get deeper into the woods.

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Here is the Daniel Boone National Forest in Southern Kentucky.

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You can’t tell, but it was raining when I took this picture.

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There were occasional clusters of trees that all started changing their colors at once.

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I saw more election posters in Kentucky than in any other state so far.

One billboard promoted someone for the county jailer. I loved that strong word and could almost hear the door slam: Jailer. Kentucky does not mess around with its criminals.

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If I wanted to get to Louisville before 2:00 in the morning, I would need to get back on a major highway. So I drove onto the parkway going west across the southern part of the state. I had the whole thing to myself even though it was Saturday. That part of Kentucky is not densely populated.

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I saw occasional oncoming traffic, but for the most part I owned the road.

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The Interstate leading into downtown was closed. So I had to get off and drive on surface roads through the city to reach the center. I didn’t know it at the time, but Louisville (apparently) has the largest intact Victorian neighborhood in America. The entire inner city south of downtown is packed with block after block after block of perfectly preserved 18th century houses.

(It was dark when I arrived, and I went back and took these pictures after I woke up the next morning.)

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Somehow Kentucky garnered a reputation for being a trashy state where cars can be found up on cinder blocks and everything from used tires to refrigerators are strewn across people’s front lawns. The second photo in this Onion spoof article pretty much sums it all up.

If I lived in Kentucky I would be pissed off at how my state is perceived on the outside. I didn’t see anything trashy, anywhere, and instead found Kentucky to be a beautiful, clean, tasteful, and dignified place. (Maybe I didn’t see the “right” parts.)

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I suppose every region of America is unfairly stereotyped by people who live in other parts of the country. I wondered how Oregonians are thought of in Kentucky. Are we all lumberjacks? Hippies? Computer nerds?

I bought some road food (don’t ask) and an atlas of all 50 states at a Kentucky gas station. As I placed my items on the counter the old lady behind the cash register said, in a Southern accent, of course, “Looks like yer gettin’ some travelin’ fooooood.”

“Yep,” I said.

“Where ya goin?” she said.

“Oregon,” I said.

“Don’t know nuthin’ about it,” she said. “Don’t even know where that is.”

At first I thought she was kidding. Then I realized she wasn’t. She didn’t even know enough about Oregon to think we’re all a bunch of vegans or geeks. And so I felt slightly less bad about how her state is thought of by people in mine.

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An antique storefront in old Louisville.

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An old building in downtown Louisville. I took this picture while stopped at a red light, and I couldn’t tell you what it is. (Someone in the comments probably knows.)

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Louisville’s Jewish hospital surprised me for some reason.

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The city is famous for its Kentucky Derby. But the entire state is famous for, uh, southern-style fast food.

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Urban sprawl killed off far too many downtowns in American cities. Portland, Oregon, where I live, has reversed the hollowing out trend perhaps more than anywhere else in America. Louisville has not yet recovered. But it looked to me like the recovery was getting started. Fourth Street was hopping on Saturday night. A whole section of it was closed to automobile traffic so drunken pedestrians could jam up the streets while going bar- and club-hopping.

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Police officers cordoned the area off and checked IDs. You weren’t even allowed to walk on the street if you weren’t 21 years or older.

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A group of young women with an inflatable man insisted I take their photo as they played with the man’s inflatable “penis.” They all laughed when I snapped the picture.

“We’re gonna be in the pa-per,” the black woman said.

Better than that, girl, you’re on the Internet!

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Club-goers wait in line to get inside.

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Milling around in front of the Lucky Strike bowling alley.

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A Fourth Street bar, downtown Louisville.

From Washington to Knoxville

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After the Pajamas Media conference ended in Washington it was time to make my zigzagging way back to the West Coast — by ground. I bought a car out east, a 2002 Acura RSX. I can’t really afford one of these, but I managed to get one anyway because I bought it on eBay. I saved 7,000 or 8,000 dollars by buying on eBay because I got the cheapest one in the entire country. So I could afford one after all. And, hey, I get a road trip out of it too.

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(For those curious, no I did not just blindly buy a random car on the Internet. I hired a local mechanic to take a look at it for me and tell me whether I should do it or not.)

My first stop on the way home was Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to see newspaper editor and former guest-blogger of mine Callimachus. I was late getting to Cal’s house because the hotel in Washington held my laundry hostage for more than 36 hours, but I finally made it around midnight.

Cal and I sipped scotch on the back porch, bemoaned the sorry state of journalism and politics, talked shop, talked travel, and went to sleep around 4:00 am. He just about knocked me out of my chair when he told me you can buy one of these fine old houses in Lancaster for just 75,000 dollars.

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The next morning we had breakfast at a diner out in Amish country. Amish country diners are far indeed from the rarefied air of Manhattan. A sign taped to the door said “We do not have a non-smoking section!” Ha ha, I thought. Just like the Middle East. They smoke in hospitals and schools in the Middle East. Maybe they do out in Bumpkinville, Pennsylvania, as well.

I couldn’t stick around Amish country, though, much as I would have liked to. It was time to drive south and west. First stop: Knoxville, Tennessee, to see Glenn and Helen Reynolds.

Aside from some of the airports, I had never been to the South. Not once for any reason, not even briefly. It’s not because I avoided the South for some reason. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

While driving in Maryland I felt a slight tingle of anticipation as I approached the Virginia border. There I would cross a line for the first time. Maryland and Virginia don’t have (or at least have not always had) the same kind of relationship with each other that, say, Oregon and California have. Oregon and California were never at war with each other. The southwest never tried to violently break from the northwest.

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In the modern era, though, I suspected Maryland and Virginia wouldn’t look different from each other at all. At least not from the Interstate. You can’t see much from the Interstate anyway. The same Shell stations and McDonalds grease pits clutter the exit ramps from Miami to Seattle.

It was irrational to expect everything, or even anything, to suddenly change once I crossed from the North to the South. I knew it, too. But as I drove toward the state line and toward the old Confederacy I also drove toward a storm.

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And I reached that storm the instant I reached Virginia.

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Rain spattered the windshield. The sky went almost black. Ferocious wind whipped leaves around in cyclonic patterns across the road. Traffic came to a stop. Welcome to Virginia.

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I got an occasional glimpse of what the Virginia countryside looked like. It’s lovely, I’m sure.

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But mostly what I saw in Virginia was the backs of the cars in front of me in bumper-to-bumper stalled traffic.

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At one point I thought I saw a small patch of snow. How could that be? Snow? In September? In the South? I figured it must have been something else.

Sure enough, though, a guy got out of his car in stalled traffic, ran to a snow patch, and made a snowball to throw at his friends.

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The rest of the trip to Knoxville was in the dark. I called Glenn to tell him I would be late, that we would have to meet the next day.

The picture below was my first real view of the South that was not from an airport or a car. It’s from the window of my hotel room in Knoxville at midnight.

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Here is Knoxville again in the cold light of dawn.

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The next day I met Glenn and Helen in their spacious new house. They have a special studio just for podcasting, and they use serious professional equipment. I didn’t go there to be interviewed, but I didn’t mind being interviewed either. So they plunked me down in a chair, stuck a gigantic microphone in my face, and prompted me to blab about the Middle East for half an hour. You can listen to the interview here if you’re so inclined.

Later Glenn took me to one of Knoxville’s microbreweries downtown. He likes to bring his law students here during class on occasion. They seem to be prefer that to the classroom.

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The next morning I toured downtown Knoxville myself on foot.

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I recognized the Downtown Bar and Grill because Glenn has posted photos of this place himself.

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Knoxville isn’t a big city, and it’s mostly pretty quiet. But it’s a pleasant enough place to spend a day.

Outdoor restaurants and cafes line the edges of Market Square.

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A band played live salsa music on the square itself.

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Since Knoxville is in the South I would have expected, oh I don’t know, a statue of a Confederate something-or-other in the middle of the city. Instead of a monument to anything old, dead, slave-holding, and male I found a memorial to women’s suffrage.

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Welcome to the New South.

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Talking, Not Writing

I have been making my living as a writer of one kind or another for years, as a technical writer, travel writer, opinionated bloviator, journalist, and reader-supported blogger. It’s the only real skill I have, so thank God I’ve made it work. Otherwise I’d be waiting tables or tending bar. Sometimes, though, I need to talk instead of write. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of days.

I spent a few days in New York and a few days in Washington. Doubleday editor Adam Bellow was kind enough to give me the spare room in his Manhattan apartment. He and I spent two days on and off working out a verbal agreement for our next project. The first project he and I put together — which isn’t a book, exactly — should be announced in a couple of days. Our second project will be a great deal larger and more significant if everything works out and, well, you can probably guess what it is.

Lebanese blogger Tony Badran called me as I was getting ready to leave New York for Washington. So I turned the car around and spent the afternoon with him and Paul Berman (author of Terror and Liberalism) in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Paul took us to a Jordanian Bedouin restaurant and guided us through the menu. Tony may be an “Arab,” (the quote marks are on purpose, long story, ask Tony) but Jordanian Bedouin food is not exactly the sort of thing you’re likely to find in the hip and sometimes snobbish establishments of Beirut.

Paul suggested Tony, Lee Smith, and I join forces on the Internet. We should write, edit, and archive articles in one place instead of in several. See Lee? See Tony? I told you guys we ought consider something like this. Berman came up with this all on his own, apropos of nothing. It isn’t just me.

Then it was time to head down to Washington for the Pajamas Media panel at the National Press Club. I went for the socializing, the networking, and the shop talk more than for the panel. Lots of us did. The panel, for me anyway, was what made the important parts possible.

Those of us who sent an RSVP picked up name tags at the door. I’ve always thought name tags were a bit dorky, but they had an interesting effect at the pre-panel cocktail party. I’d walk around the room making eye contact with various people. I recognized some by their faces. Others I didn’t. Few people recognized me. They looked at me the same way everyone else in the world I don’t know looks at me. Then they saw my name tag and something clicked. They knew who I was by my name, but not my face.

It happened over and over again, and it happened to lots of us. It was pleasant but odd. Nothing like that ever happens in regular life. It can’t. The only time I walk into a room and everyone recognizes me is when I walk into a room full of my friends. But then they know me by face. Even the most famous writers in the world won’t have that kind of experience except when specific people are artificially herded together in one place. Journalists and bloggers make up a geographically fragmented community. Sometimes it’s nice to be in one room.

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Since few people recognized me, here’s what I look like. At least this is what I looked like on the night of the PJ event. I don’t wear a tie every day.

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Just before the event I visited the Washington Memorial with Fausta (left, and yes that’s her real name) and Judith Weiss.

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Here is Roger L. Simon, with his new hairless Kojak look, at the podium introducing the panel discussion of how partisan is too partisan?

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Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal sits next to Jane Hall of Fox News on the panel.

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Richard Miniter wore a pair of silk pajamas. But he wasn’t the most casually dressed at the event. His jammies cost 3,000 dollars.

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Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie wore a “D.A.R.E to keep kids off drugs” t-shirt, which is a bit like me wearing a Hezbollah t-shirt. (As a side note, though, I did pick up a Hezbollah t-shirt in Baalbeck. My brother bought a Hezbollah flag. Because it was funny! That doesn’t mean I would wear it, especially not in Beirut or Jerusalem. Nick would get the joke, but a Lebanese army officer saw us buying that stuff and sadly shook his head in disappointment.)

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Adam Bellow (left) chats it up with Oxblog’s David Adesnik.

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PJ editor Gerard Van der Leun, who sort-of recently relocated from Los Angeles to my part of the country.

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Glenn Reynolds moderated the event. Michael Barone of US News and World Report is to his right.

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Some of us went out for food and drinks after. Here is Glenn again with Austin Bay.

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Here are Sandra Rozanski (left) and Claudia Rosset. Claudia and I were also in Beirut at the same time, but we didn’t meet until we both went to Washington.

On the Road

This weekend I’m staying at Doubleday editor Adam Bellow’s house in New York City, and tomorrow I’m driving to Washington DC to attend a Pajamas Media conference at the National Press Club. After the DC conference I’ll be driving from the East Coast to the West Coast, camera in hand, and will blog the road trip home. In the meantime, we’ll be a little slow around here.

Nasrallah’s Malaise

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While I’m being slow, here is something to read. Hezbollah really did get its collective ass handed to it.

UPDATE: See also Mustapha at Beirut Spring and Abu Kais at From Beirut to the Beltway.

Slow Blogging

Slow blogging again. Sorry, I know I keep saying that. I’m planning a trip to the East Coast. It will be partly social and partly work-related. I’m also buying a car over there and saving many thousands of dollars by doing it. So I’ll be driving back. Should be fun. More material from Israel will be posted before I leave.

Getting Lebanon Wrong

Right after the end of the Hezbollah war I interviewed two members of Israel’s Peace Now who stayed on a kibbutz just a few kilometers south of the border under Katyusha fire attack. Not wanting to give space only to the Israeli left, I sought out someone who could give me a different point of view, someone who was not an officer or spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, someone who could speak his or her own mind freely without having to answer to the government or the army.

Yaacov Lozowick seemed perfect. He’s the archivist at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and he wrote a book called Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars. His Introduction is titled Why I Voted for Sharon.

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If anyone would be able to provide a clear and thoughtful defense of Israel’s most recent war in Lebanon, it should be him. But he did not say what I thought he would say. The Hezbollah War, or whatever it ought to be called, is one of the least popular wars in Israel’s history.

We met at Yad Vashem and he gave me the best insider’s tour of the museum I could ever have hoped for. Afterward we sat down in the restaurant to talk about his book and the recently concluded hostilities.

MJT: So your book is a defense of Israel’s wars. All of them?

Lozowick: (Long pause.) No.

MJT: The main ones?

Lozowick: No.

MJT: Well, what’s missing? If it’s not a defense of all of Israel’s wars, which ones are not…

Lozowick: The ones that aren’t defensible.

MJT: And which ones are not defensible?

Lozowick: Lebanon One [in 1982] was not defensible. Although the first three days of it could have been. Lebanon Two wasn’t in my book, and that was a stupid one.

MJT: Why was it stupid?

Lozowick: It was stupid because we stumbled into what…it wasn’t a full-fledged war, but it was pretty close to it. From the perspective of the people living up north it was a full-fledged war. So we stumbled into what was an almost full-fledged war with absolutely no prior strategy. If you look — and you don’t have to go back far, we had an election here in March — you can go back and look at the election campaign, it was all of six months ago, and you will not find Lebanon mentioned once. It was totally off the map. It was not a subject that interested anybody. It was off our screen. We had left Lebanon in 2000. Those of us who are educated enough to follow the newspaper and to remember what is says knew that Hezbollah was building this tremendous armory of weapons that were aimed at us. We put it in the way back of our minds, didn’t deal with it, and we went to war with them with a prior notice of about 32 seconds. So that’s one very strange thing.

The second one was that over the next two days Olmert defined for us what the goals were. And they were goals that we could definitely agree with, but they were not realistic.

And the third thing was that after taking us to war in 32 seconds and having defined goals which were very…far reaching goals, he then did nothing to make them happen. He just squandered. He wasted time. There has never been a war — except maybe 1948 — that Israel started out with as much diplomatic…if not backing at least it was acquiescence…as this one, right? The Americans were backing us. Tony Blair was backing us. The Germans, the Czechs, and the Poles were sort of backing us. And most of the West was saying okay, well, you know, let’s pretend we don’t like it, but if you kill the Hezbollah that’s fine. We’ve never been in that situation. Those are better opening cards than we’ve ever had.

MJT: Yeah.

Lozowick: So what did we spend the first days doing? Killing Lebanese civilians for no obvious reason that anybody could see. Right? Bombing Lebanese bridges I could see. You didn’t like it at the time, but that I could see. There’s a military…

MJT: I can see it too. I don’t like it, but I get it.

Lozowick: There’s a military justification for that. You can rebuild bridges.

MJT: Right. It’s not like bombing a restaurant.

Lozowick: Right, but we were clearly not…I always say if you’re ever in the mood for some real good hardcore criticism of Israel…

MJT: Only if it’s intelligent…

Lozowick: …the best and almost only good place to go, you go to Ha’aretz. They are better at it than anybody else because they know what they’re talking about. There was a guy in Ha’aretz, I don’t remember who it was, about the second week of the war, demonstrated in a factual tone of voice that the moral criteria which we were fighting this war were lower than the war with the Palestinians.

It’s very simple. The IDF finds a terrorist holed up in a building in Nablus. They will surround the building. They will…at the end of the day they will have killed the guy or arrested him. But they will not do so as long as civilians are in that building. One civilian and one terrorist and we will figure out a way of getting rid of the civilian before we kill the terrorist.

In Lebanon we weren’t doing it that way. By the third day it was obvious that we had changed our own rules. We were still being careful. We weren’t using Hezbollah tactics. But we were not abiding by the rules that we use fifty miles south.

MJT: Okay, so let me play Devil’s Advocate. It’s a lot easier for them to have these rules inside Nablus — isn’t it? — because they can kind of control Nablus, at least on again off again control, and they know the area. But the dahiyeh [Hezbollah suburb] south of Beirut is 100 miles from the border. And the IDF has no ground control over that place, ever. Not even Lebanon has control of that place. Only Hezbollah does. So how could the IDF have those rules of engagement all the way up there?

Lozowick: I don’t know the numbers, and I don’t know if anybody does know the numbers, but I don’t even know the number of the dead civilians up in the dahiyeh. It wasn’t very high.

MJT: I saw the pictures, and it doesn’t look good.

Lozowick: It doesn’t. But as far as we know — and we could be wrong here — the populace of the dahiyeh had at least a twelve-hour warning that this was going to happen and at least most of them weren’t there. There must have been tens of thousands of people living in the dahiyeh. You were there.

MJT: Yeah, it’s not the size of Tel Aviv, but the size of Ramallah maybe.

Lozowick: Okay. So tens of thousands of people live there. We killed…500 of them? That means that most of them weren’t there. Right? Now, clearly it’s easier to do this in Nablus than in the dahiyeh, and I think from the perspective of the Israelis that a certain amount of collateral damage was inevitable. But…what for? Killing Lebanese civilians in order not to achieve anything…there’s no justification for that that any of us can see.

So we stumbled into this thing without thinking, we set very high goals, we had international backing at one point to an unprecedented degree, and then within days we were killing hundreds of civilians which…we don’t like. The army was saying “it will take us ten days and we’ll kill off Hezbollah.” So had we killed off Hezbollah and had 600 dead Lebanese civilians, nobody would have been happy about it, but maybe you say, okay, maybe there’s no choice. Hezbollah hides itself among civilians, etc, etc, etc. I don’t know. The question would have been raised after the war, not during the war, and it would have been raised in any case, but maybe we would have said there was no choice.

But by the second week of the war the air force clearly wasn’t going to beat the Hezbollah. And then we squandered a week doing absolutely nothing. And then in the third week of the war, and the world is getting more and more impatient with us, the goodwill that had been there was being dissipated. We finally started going in there with totally the wrong forces. They were sending in small units. You know, it wasn’t even done right.

MJT: If I quote you saying all this stuff, I can already see what’s going to be said about what you’re saying. I’ve already said a lot of this myself and was dismissed by the right.

Lozowick: What I’m saying, this is…

MJT: You’re saying a lot of what the Peace Now guys said. Some readers of my blog told me I need to get out of the left-wing bubble. And here you are saying…

Lozowick: Okay, I’ll delineate for you. Number one. I’m saying that although the war was not planned and certainly was not discussed, way over 90 percent of the Israelis in those first days thought it was justified. Myself included. And it was justified even if we were killing some Lebanese civilians because there’s no way you can get at Hezbollah without also getting people that Hezbollah is using as shields.

MJT: Yeah.

Lozowick: Also, so that’s one. Basically I’m smack in the middle. I’m about as close to the Israeli consensus as anybody can be. With springs left and right. Because I zigzag myself. I’m more critical than mainstream Israelis at the moment because of the Lebanese civilians. People can say “Michael, you’re quoting a lefty on that one.”

I’m also saying something which is more right-wing. And that is, I’m not saying that the war shouldn’t have been carried forward. It should have been carried forward. We should have poured in five divisions. We should have done it with as much force as we could muster. And we should have killed every single Hezbollah fighter in Southern Lebanon. I’m not saying it’s a stupid war because it couldn’t have been won. Because I think it probably could have. Or anyway it could have been fought on a level where it would have been obvious to everybody that although Nasrallah on the last day of the war could have been claiming victory it would have been clear to everybody that he’s just talking through his hat.

Having said that, I think that you can quote me as much as you want because this is what most Israelis are saying.

MJT: It’s just funny because I was told by several people to get out of the left-wing bubble. And I’m talking to you, and you’re out of the left-wing bubble, and it sounds the same. There’s a right-wing bubble here, too, isn’t there?

Lozowick: Yeah, the settlers.

MJT: I hate to stick labels on you, I’m just trying to figure out what the Israeli political spectrum is.

Lozowick: We’re in one of those very rare cases right now where there is a consensus. There was a consensus at the beginning of the war that stretched deep into the left-wing bubble. I’m not talking about center-left. Deep into the left. And the consensus now is that it was a stupid war. And that’s, again, left to right. It’s a stupid war because it caused tremendous damage without bringing anything.

MJT: But is there a consensus for why it was a stupid war? Or do you have a left-wing critique, a centrist critique, and a right-wing critique? Because it seems to me like there are some people who are upset that it was stopped early, that it should have been more ruthless. And I’ve heard others say it was too much, it was over the top.

Lozowick: You have to remember where Olmert is coming from. Olmert is a lawyer at heart. He’s also a politician. There’s this trauma of Lebanon from 1982. And we dare not march large forces into Lebanon because our own populace won’t allow it. And the air force says we can do it from the air, so let’s do it that way. So that’s where they were at the first few days.

What I think happened — and I thought so at the time also — was that by the end of the first week…the Israelis are a very educated public when it comes to waging war. Unfortunately. Okay? We know what we’re talking about. We know what we’re talking about on a personal level and on a national level. It was pretty clear to all of us by the end of the first week that this was not going to work because there were going to have to be ground forces.

I think that a sizeable proportion of the Israelis would have been willing or even eager to have a real invasion of Southern Lebanon in the second week. Olmert, I think, didn’t realize that and didn’t follow that. He drew it out until the fourth week. Now, by the fourth week we get people like David Grossman who published a quarter-page ad in the newspaper who said this is a just war. We didn’t expect that from him. And then a week later was saying it’s time to stop the war. His reading of it was that if you haven’t beat the Hezbollah by now then you’re not going to. And maybe we even can’t. And if we’re not going to and we can’t then it’s time to stop the war. That’s the left.

From the perspective of the more military-minded right, it was the other way around. It was, if it’s not going to happen in the third week, then at least it should happen in the fourth week. Which is why at the end they were saying “don’t stop.”

But both camps, the argument between them is the argument that appeared in the third week. In the first two weeks they were all of the same opinion. And that is: we’re in it, we have to go kill the Hezbollah.

When Israelis are angry at one another, they’re angry. And they’re not angry at one another right now. They’re angry at their government and they’re angry at the generals. You get this movement of soldiers and parents who are from two different directions and have somewhat different agendas, but they’re merging. The two groups are the parents and the soldiers. It’s not left and right. There are left and right in both of those groups. They haven’t worked together for twenty years and they will not work together again for the next twenty years. But right now they’re working together. And everybody is conscious of all those three sentences. They know that they haven’t in the past, they know that they won’t pretty soon, but right now they know who they are. Because everybody is aggravated and furious at the political leadership for totally mismanaging the war and at the military leadership.

MJT: So you thought the 1982 Lebanon war wasn’t a good one either. What is it about Lebanon? Israel doesn’t seem to get Lebanon.

Lozowick: It’s a complicated place.

MJT: It is a complicated place. It’s the most complicated place I’ve ever been.

Lozowick: Well…

MJT: I spent seven months there and it took me three months before I felt like I had a grip on the basics. It took three months to get Lebanon 101.

Lozowick: (Laughs.)

MJT: And that was before I could start fine tuning and drilling down into anything. Just getting a mental map of the place and who’s who and what they really think, what they say. It’s…not an easy country.

Lozowick: You have to remember that up until the 1970s, Lebanon was not regarded by the Israelis as an enemy at all. We were fighting war against the Egyptians and the Syrians and sometimes the Jordanians. The Lebanese were not participating in any of this. Even in 1948 the Lebanese hardly participated.

MJT: And it’s still sort of that way.

Lozowick: Well…

MJT: After Hezbollah it is totally that way.

Lozowick: Perhaps, yeah. I can remember in the late 1960s there was no fence between Israel and Lebanon. There was a line sort of there which…part of the problem in 2000 was that nobody remembered exactly where it was.

MJT: Right. They had to redo it with the U.N.

Lozowick: And they did it with old maps. Unlike some places where you can go and see the old patrol roads, like in 1967. In the case of Lebanon there was no old patrol road. Israel even today, Israel has never been at war with Lebanon. It was at war with the PLO. And now it’s at war with Hezbollah.

MJT: What do you think about how the Lebanese government insists, seriously or not – and I say, to an extent, not – that they’re at war with you? The Lebanese government does say this. But they never act on it.

Lozowick: Well, I think legally they probably are. There’s a state of war between Israel and most of its neighbors. Egypt and Jordan no longer. There’s a state of war between us and Iraq also.

MJT: That’s finished, though. It’s de facto finished.

Lozowick: Lebanon…why do we keep getting Lebanon wrong? Maybe it’s precisely because we’re not at war with Lebanon. Next time we go to war with Syria, which may happen, we will be at war with Syria. We will hit Syria. When we go to war in Lebanon then it’s not quite clear who we’re at war with.

MJT: It’s a war in Lebanon rather than a war with Lebanon.

Lozowick: In a war with a country you win by hitting that country so hard that they call uncle, basically. There are even more drastic ways of winning wars, but basically that’s the standard way. You win a war until a country says they’ve had enough and can’t do this anymore. If it’s not a country then…how do you do it?

MJT: It’s like that in the West Bank. The West Bank is not a country with a government that controls everything either.

Lozowick: And we’ve never managed to fully win a war with the Palestinians. We functionally win wars with the Palestinians, we functionally won the second intifada.

MJT: It stopped.

Lozowick: Yeah. So functionally life is normal here. That’s part of the problem between us and the Palestinians. One of the things that the left in Israel used to say was that we need to give the Palestinians a state among other reasons so that we have somebody to hit if they continue to wage a war against us.

MJT: It might work and it might not. Who are you going to hit in Lebanon? They have a government. And they also have a terrorist army separate from that.

Lozowick: I think the third Lebanese war, by the way, will look different. Because we’ll get our act together.

MJT: You really think there’s going to be another one?

Lozowick: Don’t you?

MJT: Probably. I think there’s a small chance there won’t be.

Lozowick: It’s not inevitable, it’s like…

MJT: Predicting the Middle East, politics and war, is kind of a fool’s game. There are so many variables and surprises that…the way I see Lebanon right now is that literally anything could happen.

Lozowick: There’s no doubt that we are preparing for the next war against Hezbollah. We’re not ready for it now. And given the depth and breadth of the stupidities and mistakes that we just did, then it will take a while. But we won’t make the same mistakes twice. Lebanon and Hezbollah will now remain on our radar. They’re not going to drop off like they did before. And remaining on our radar means that serious money and serious effort will be put into preparing for the next round.

MJT: Do you really think it’s possible to solve the Hezbollah problem without dealing with Iran and Syria? They’re trying to rearm Hezbollah right now. And they’ll do it for a third round, too, unless they have some reason not to.

Lozowick: Had we severely hit Hezbollah now…I mean, you can’t eradicate them. The idea is in the minds of half a million people. You can’t make that go away. But had we in this war really severely reduced the strength of Hezbollah, and then the French would have come marching in without hesitation because they wouldn’t have had to confront Hezbollah, would the Lebanese government plausibly been able to then take over? Maybe they could have.

MJT: If you could knock Hezbollah down by 90 percent, then yes.

Lozowick: Yeah. That’s what we thought we were doing.

MJT: But do you think that’s really possible? I mean, look at how long Israel and Hezbollah were slugging it out until 2000. Like the US in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq. It’s been going on for a long time. I think the insurgency in Iraq is breakable, but it’s going to take a long time. With Hezbollah it’s the same thing.

Lozowick: No. Hezbollah is better armed than the insurgency. And they’re more visible. You can hit them with bigger stuff. They’re more concentrated in a very clear area. If there were armed Hezbollah guys up in Nabatiya, we didn’t have to hit them. They weren’t bothering Lebanon either in some major way. Most of Hezbollah’s armed power was either in the Bekka Valley or in Southern Lebanon facing us. Had we – I don’t want to say demolished – had we seriously hit them in Southern Lebanon and then moved aside for a heavy European force whose job is to hold the hand of the Lebanese central government until they can grow into it…that’s basically what Ehud Olmert said in his first speech during the first week. He didn’t spell it out that way, but he basically said that’s what the goals of the war were. And we could have done that. We would have just had to run a different war than the one we ran.

And you know what? We could have done so, probably, while killing a lot fewer Lebanese civilians in Beirut. We didn’t gain anything from that. Hitting their command post site made sense, but you know what? It turns out that hitting their command post didn’t make much difference. They weren’t in disarray. Either they had subterranean communications that we didn’t figure out. Or they prepared themselves so well they didn’t need the command post. The guys underneath that bunker in the village in Southern Lebanon knew exactly what they were supposed to do. And they had it all worked out for six weeks. And the only thing we needed to do then was get into the bunker and kill them. And hitting the command post in Beirut didn’t make any difference.

You can forgive the army for not knowing that in advance. You cannot forgive our army for not knowing that they were dug into these gigantic labyrinths. That, we should have known about. How come we didn’t know? It’s ridiculous. You can’t build those things shovel by shovel with nobody noticing it. Not if they’re good enough to withstand aerial bombardments. Not knowing that Hezbollah could keep going without its head…maybe we can be forgiven for that. I don’t know. But we’re doing it wrong. All right?

The peacenik that is in me – and I used to be one – prefers every method except war. But the experienced soldier in me, and also the historian in me, tells me that military power really can achieve most of its goals if done correctly. It doesn’t always, but it can.

Military power cannot make your neighbors love you. You cannot force them to make peace with you. There’s no way you can do that. Only they can do it. But you can hit your enemies to a degree that they no longer threaten you. So if you quote that no one will tell you that you’re in the left-wing bubble.

There is a group of hard-core left that does have a knee-jerk reaction against us just about all the time. What was interesting about the first week of this war was that support of the war even lapped that group. It got that far left.

There’s another thing you need to remember, too, and that’s historical context. Israeli society, as you’ll see when you read the last few pages that I added to my book when it came out in paperback, a significant majority of Israeli society wants to end the occupation.

MJT: What percentage do you think? Do you know?

Lozowick: Anywhere between two thirds and 80 percent, depending on which day you ask them. The reason Arik Sharon did what he did in Gaza is because he’s a canny politician and he wanted to be re-elected. And he was playing to that group, which crosses political parties. Okay? He was playing to that group. The reason he pushed through the disengagement from Gaza was because he felt confident at every single moment of the process that he was backed by a solid majority of Israelis.

Previous to that, Ehud Barak was elected in 2000 on two planks. One was that he was not Bibi Netanyahu, a catastrophic prime minister. And the second was that he was going to get us out of Lebanon. That was his promise. He got elected on that plank, and indeed he left Lebanon. And up until this summer, many people in Israel would tell you nothing Barak did was right except for that.

Olmert was coasting to victory, partly on Sharon’s coattails, but mostly not. We’re not idiots. We know that if Sharon’s gone, Olmert can’t replace him. He’s Olmert, not Sharon. He was coasting to victory because he was going to do the same thing in the West Bank that Sharon had done in Gaza.

The fact that his victory was no narrow, then, was because he’s a fool. He made some stupid statements. He was arrogant. He said “we’re gonna win.” In American politics every presidential candidate always says “we’re gonna win.” That’s the way it happens. With us, no. You don’t say that. You say “we will try to win.” But to say “the election’s finished, we already won,” as Olmert did a month before the election, it’s very stupid. He turned off a sizable chunk of his voters.

The point is, by the summer of 2006, Palestinians were busy proving to us that the disengagement from Gaza was a mistake. And they were busy forcing down our throats that a disengagement from the West Bank would be an even bigger mistake. And then having the Hezbollah join the fight and say leaving Lebanon was also a mistake, that was just too much for people to take. Part of the reason that so much of the left was so solidly behind this war was because they had to win the war in order to be able to continue on the program of getting rid of the occupation.

That’s why Olmert was able to go to war in 32 seconds. Because everybody was absolutely furious at the situation. And it has to be changed. The fact that they made it even worse makes everybody even more furious. But that wasn’t foreseen on the 12th of July.

MJT: So do you think it was a mistake to leave Lebanon and Gaza?

Lozowick: No.

MJT: Why?

Lozowick: Because Zionism is not about controlling Arabs.

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal button and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help. I want to do more of this in the future, and I intend to go back to Lebanon soon. Other countries tentatively on my list include Iran, Algeria, Bosnia, Dubai, and Afghanistan.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

“A Volcano of Terror”

Tank at Karni.jpg

SOUTHERN ISRAEL, NEAR GAZA – On June 25, 2006, eight armed Palestinian men emerged from an underground tunnel through a hard-to-see hole in the ground, fired an RPG at an Israeli tank, killed two soldiers, snatched another young soldier, Gilad Shalit, and stole him away into Gaza. The attack lasted seven minutes. The Israeli Defense Forces then launched Operation Summer Rain against the kidnappers, against those who fire Qassam rockets at Israeli civilians, and against those who dig tunnels under the earth so they can smuggle weapons out of Egypt and carry out terrorist attacks inside Israel.

Soldiers keep watch on the border at a small military outpost just south of Kibbutz Nir Am.

Gaza Lookout with Major.jpg

There I met Major Tal Lev-Ram, Spokesman for the IDF Southern Command. He unfurled an enormous map of Gaza and asked me please not to take any pictures of it. Code names for villages and neighborhoods were hand-written with red ink in Hebrew.

IDF Spokesman Southern Command.jpg

“When we left the Gaza Strip we didn’t think the terrorism would stop,” he said. “We understood that there would no longer be any legitimacy for them to act. A year after they continue to re-arm. The terrorist groups — Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad — they did not turn the areas we left into schools, factories, and so on. They became training camps for the terrorist groups.”

The major knows passable English, but he chose to speak to me in Hebrew through a translator. I had hoped for an interview with an English-speaking officer. But none of the spokesman for the Southern Command are fluent in English. All the English speakers were sent to the Northern Command so they could talk to foreign media during the Lebanon war. Only Israeli journalists who write and broadcast in Hebrew showed much interest in the military confrontation in Gaza.

“We also left the Egypt-Gaza border,” he said. “The Egyptians are responsible for it now. They are doing an okay job, but there is still a lot of smuggling and so on.”

“They’re using tunnels?” I said.

“We found two tunnels just two weeks ago,” he said. “They are very organized, with electricity and everything. One city straddles the border. It’s basically one city on each side. They are digging tunnels to connect them.”

“Do the Egyptians shut down the tunnels?” I said.

“We spend great effort finding and exposing the tunnels,” he said. “The Egyptians make an effort, but it is not the highest priority for them.”

I taped our conversation with a digital voice recorder, as is routine for me lately. A young Israeli soldier took notes by hand at the same time. Perhaps it was her job to make sure I did not misquote the spokesman. Or maybe she was checking on him. It’s hard to say. I didn’t ask her why she recorded everything, and no one in the military ever told me I need to clear my work with any censors.

“We have good defenses on the border fence,” the major said. “Last year more than 70 terrorists were killed trying to breach it. Because the area is very confined, terrorism is brewing. They keep trying to find ways to go outside. It is like a volcano of terror. It needs to go somewhere. They try to go around, out into Egypt, and then over to the Israeli side. Sometimes they try to cross back in right next to Gaza. Other times they go down near Eilat [at the bottom of Israel.]”

Gaza is tiny. It’s 30 or so miles long and only a few miles wide.

Israel Map.JPG

“[They try] to go around the border,” he said, “in order to move information, training, and terrorists, and ammunition to their side from the West Bank. They are always trying to find ways to go around the Israeli border. They also fired something like 1,000 Qassam rockets since the disengagement until now. For no reason.”

“How many people have been killed by the Qassams?” I said.

“This year?” he said. “Zero.”

Zero! No wonder the Israelis who live near Gaza haven’t evacuated. Southern Israel at war is not like Northern Israel during Hezbollah’s Katyusha war.

“But terror is terror,” he said. “If you are afraid to send your child to a kindergarten, for me it’s the same. For now it’s the Qassam. In the future they will have more than today. 20 people in the past were killed by the Qassams. And like I said, terror is terror. You feel terror.”

I asked him if he thought the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a good idea. He wouldn’t answer and said that his opinion as a military man didn’t matter. The Israeli military takes orders from the democratically elected government, and that’s that.

“One of the major events after the disengagement,” he did say, “was the election of Hamas. They became the government in the Gaza Strip. Their principal goal is to destroy Israel. And they actually commit terror. Israel can’t accept that we left the Gaza Strip and still face daily terror attacks on and over the fence. Around 60 times charges of 50 kilograms were exploded on the fence. Also RPG and M-16 attacks on the fence against our forces. On Passover an attempt was prevented to go into a Kibbutz near the Karni Terminal…The second event that had a significant role in changing the rules of the game was the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. We came to the decision that we need to take some sort of aggressive action in the Gaza Strip. The decision was to act against specific cells in different places. So we’re not talking about conquering land. We’re talking about operations of a few days each. We’re going in to destroy the infrastructure of terrorists. We can’t finish all the terror. But we can punch against it. During these operations more than 200 terrorists were killed. Weapons storages, training camps, all the infrastructure, factories where they make Qassam rockets.”

“How do you know where the factories are?” I said. “Do you have Palestinians informers?”

“We have good intelligence,” he said and laughed. “We have good military intelligence.”

It’s no secret that many Palestinians cooperate (or “collaborate”) with Israel against terrorists. But I decided to be a good sport and let him deflect the question. He wouldn’t be able to say anything on the record that isn’t already widely known anyway.

“Another pattern that’s unusual,” he said. “They use the civilian population as human shields.” It’s not really unusual. Hezbollah did the same thing in Lebanon. Fighters in Iraq do it there, too, although some in Iraq also deliberately murder Iraqis.

“Does the local population let them do this?” I said.

“It’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes we see resistance. But it’s difficult to judge from our perspective. We see a lot of cases where Katyusha or Qassam rockets are fired from within populated areas. More than that, they came up with a system that was based on the fear that we would find the exact location of the rocket launchers. So they place the launchers with a timer. And ten, eleven, and twelve year old children come and take the launcher away afterwards. Often we’re faced with fourteen or fifteen year old youth who come, armed, and place charges along the fence. When we see them, even when we see that they are armed, if they are only fourteen or fifteen we only shoot to scare them. We don’t actually fire at them. Of course, only if there is no immediate danger to our forces.

“Our general instructions,” he continued, “not just in the these cases, is if we see a militant who is armed, a terrorist, and there is no immediate danger to our forces, we don’t fire if there is a danger that we would hurt the innocents, people who are not involved. But with that, it’s important to say that when we have such aggressive fighting in populated areas, when there’s an exchange of fire between terrorists and the IDF, there are cases where innocent people get hurt. But we warn as much as we can to step back, step away, to clear the area. So we see the terror organizations as responsible when civilians get hurt. And when there is a case and we know that a civilian was killed by mistake or unnecessarily, we check ourselves. When a rocket is fired and we respond with artillery fire, there could be civilians hurt. We don’t fire into populated areas. Only to the exact spots where they fired Qassams. If it’s in the middle of the city, we will not shoot.”

Sadly it’s impossible to fight terrorists, guerillas, or whatever you want to call them, in populated areas without hurting civilians. No one has yet invented the Bad Guy Bullet that flies safely past innocents and hits only the armed. The fact that Palestinian terrorists, like those everywhere else in the Middle East, make blending in with the civilian population part of their modus operandi means civilian casualties are unavoidable in a fight. It doesn’t help that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth.

“About a month and a half ago,” he said, “another event that shows you the dilemma here: Two terrorists with an RPG tried to shoot a tank. We shot back. In the same house the mother of them, and a cousin, were in the same house. They fired five meters away from where the mother and cousin were standing. The Palestinian headline said that a mother and child were killed. The child was twenty two years old. And he was a member of Hamas. So, I am not happy about the mother. But, this is my right. You know? In the houses of Hamas militants, and all the other terrorist organizations, there are storages of weaponry. That’s because in the past we would avoid attacking houses with families. Which raises the question: Sometimes we as the IDF care more about the families and the children than he who would put them in danger. In a house, let’s say of three floors, a whole floor may be used as a storage.”

A tunnel had recently been found near the Karni terminal where goods and materials cross from Israel into Gaza. I asked if I could see it.

“I will take you to Karni,” he said. “But you cannot see the tunnel. It is inside the Palestinian territory. One kilometer inside. You understand? It is one kilometer inside the Palestinian territory.” In other words, the tunnel diggers are determined. They will spend Lord only knows how many hours digging and digging and digging, knowing most tunnels are discovered before they’re completed, just on the off chance that they’ll make it all the way into Israel and get to maybe kill one or two people.

“One more thing I want to say,” he said. “We will not stop the military action until Gilad Shalit comes back to us. But — and I say this to the press all the time — if there will be silence on our side for our villages it will be quiet on the Palestinian side.”

“How many soldiers have been killed since Gilad Shalit was kidnapped?” I said.

“All the year, before Gilad Shalit, no one. In the Shalit event, two soldiers died. And after that one more soldier died from friendly shooting. That’s all. So this is the big question for them. The spokesman of the government for Palestinians three days ago said the same thing I say all the time. For what? For what? For three soldiers who were killed in Gaza. In all the year something like 500 terrorists died in Gaza. So for what? The organizations of terror need to understand that it’s not worth it for them. And they can choose. We left the territory in the Gaza Strip, so it’s up to them. We will not stop the Qassam only with military pressure. They need to decide that they want to stop it. And if they will stop the Qassams, if they will stop the terror, free Gilad Shalit, we won’t have anything to fight about. And Karni will be open more. And everything will be better for them, not for us. This is the question. This is the biggest question, I think. And if you have time to read what the spokesman for Hamas government said, I think he can replace me.” He laughed. “Yeah? This is the truth. He is a good man.”

And he laughed again. Not because he was joking, but because it truly is an alternate Middle Eastern universe when the spokesman for Hamas echoes precisely the views of the spokesman for the IDF Southern Command.

Skeptical? Read for yourself. Hamas Spokesman Ghazi Hamad comes across like a world-weary man ground down and plainly despondent from a largely self-imposed Palestinian catastrophe.

I had a faint hope after Hamas was elected that the reality check from hell might finally kick in. And at least in one case, and for one day, it did.

*

The major drove to an area near the Karni Terminal in his jeep.

Karni Terminal Sign.jpg

I followed behind him in my rental car. He took us straight into a dirt field. I nearly took the muffler off my poor little Hundai when I drove over a basketball-sized dirt clod as hard as a rock. We stepped out into the open where there was no shade from the fierce Levantine sun at the end of the summer. Distant machine gun fire was almost, but not quite, drowned out in the wind.

“Kalashnikov,” said my translator who, like many Israelis, can identify weapons by sound.

A large truck-mounted surveillance camera monitored Gaza just to our left.

Gaza Surveillance Truck.jpg

“Two days ago was Gilad Shalit’s birthday,” said the major. “One soldier from his unit said he was glad to be in Gaza fighting the people who took him. His family and friends released hundreds of balloons into the air from the place where he was kidnapped.”

I wanted to know about that tunnel the IDF found.

“The plan was to use it for suicide bombings at Karni,” he said. “I can’t understand it. Karni is their lifeline, their life. This is the biggest reason we closed it. It’s hard to understand why they keep doing these things at the crossing points unless they are trying to make life harder in Gaza.”

Two months ago Palestinian police stopped a car bomber heading toward Karni. Six months ago the IDF stopped three terrorists with M-16s, grenades, and suicide bomb belts at the Erez crossing point where people, rather than goods, transit into and out of Gaza.

“We think there are many many more tunnels,” the major said. “The Kelem Shalom action [where Gilad Shalit was kidnapped] was through a 700 meter-long tunnel. We can’t just stay here and wait for the tunnels to come to us. In a few hours we will bomb that one we just found.”

And bomb it they did, from below. Click here to watch the video.

“How many Qassam rockets are they firing now?” I said. I saw more than a dozen Katyushas fired from Hezbollah in the north, but I did not see a single Qassam fired from Gaza.

“Sixty per week at the start of Operation Summer Rain,” he said. “Ever since the number has been going down. Now there are only five per week. Hamas has partly put a stop to this because they know terror does not work for them.”

“How good are the fighters in Gaza compared with the Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon?” I said.

“I don’t mean to dismiss anyone,” he said. “Some fights are serious here. But you can’t compare them with Hezbollah. Hezbollah has more weapons and uses more guerilla activity. Hamas doesn’t have big rockets yet. Yet. The word yet is very important. Hezbollah also is more organized. You shouldn’t underestimate anyone. We had some people wounded in the fight here. Some in Gaza fight very good. But we killed hundreds of terrorists since Summer Rain. We had only one soldier killed in friendly fire, and ten to twelve wounded.”

“How long until this fight is over?” I said. I meant the current fighting in Gaza, but he seemed to have thought I meant the Arab-Israeli conflict in general.

“I don’t see the end now,” he said. “Maybe this part will be soon be finished. Shalit will be back. For a while it will be quiet. The question, you know, is for the other side. Because we went out of Gaza and then it started. If they get more democratic and reduce the chaos…that’s my hope. We need to be strong and give a chance for something else. It’s in the interest of the Palestinian side now to have another life.”

We left the field and drove straight to the fence. I wanted to get as close to Gaza as possible. We parked next to large concrete wall placed there for protection.

“So this wall,” I said. “Is it to protect us from snipers or from rockets?

“From everything,” the major said. Barriers of all kinds are erected near the Palestinian territories. One road I took next to the West Bank was shielded on one side by bullet-proof glass because some Palestinians like to randomly shoot rifles at cars.

The fenced border between Israel and Gaza was right in front of us. The fence is electric. It won’t shock you if you touch it. But it will send a signal to the Israeli military telling them where contact was made so they can dispatch soldiers to that location.

“What would you do,” I said, “if you saw somebody from the other side walk up and stand right there?”

Gaza Through Barbed Wire 3.jpg

“Eh, it depends,” he said.

“It depends on what he’s doing?” I said.

“Of course.”

“If he’s just standing there it’s not a problem?” I said.

“No, it’s a problem,” he said. “Because sometimes they come like a citizen and they put charges there. If it’s in the day and we see a man, the soldiers come. If someone goes to the fence he has some reason. If we see some people come in the night we have a procedure. We start by shouting to them to go. But if they continue…okay? If it’s in the night, well you know, night is night. The thing is to make them understand not to come. Sometimes Palestinians come and want to go into Israel to work. They want to come into Israel not for military action but to come inside for working. But it is very complicated, especially in the night, to know who is the person.”

“How many people who come to the fence aren’t here to fight?” I said.

“Here is a sad story,” he said. “One Palestinian went to the fence with a grenade. Not a militant. He came to the fence and we did not understand it. Because we told him to stop and he dropped it and everything was okay. Sometimes they want to be in the Israeli jail.”

“To get out of Gaza?” I said.

“Because maybe the food in the jail is better,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s a few, it’s not, you know, all the time.”

Gaza itself is often described as a prison. The reason I didn’t go in there myself is because I was briefly affiliated with Time magazine and they ordered me to stay out. They had neither the time nor the inclination to take out a war insurance policy on me. But a Danish journalist I know, Louis Stigsgaard Nissen, did get a brief tour of Gaza and she described it as an absolute horror, a far worse place than the West Bank which both of us had visited in the past.

Trash has not been collected for months, so much of Gaza City looks like a garbage dump that happens to have buildings inside it. The garbage is seeping now into the water. Israeli doctors are returning because the Palestinians desperately need medical help. She interviewed a man who lives in a sports stadium with his children. She was nearly run over in the street by a truck driven by gunmen and bristling with weapons.

Gaza Through Barbe Wire 2.jpg

“Is anyone really in charge inside Gaza?” I asked the major.

“That is the question,” he said. “They have a government, but there is a power struggle among the armed groups.”

Once again we heard rapid machine gun fire in the middle distance. He and I stood right next to the concrete wall and could have taken cover. But the shooting had nothing to do with us and sounded just barely far enough away. So we didn’t move. It’s funny what you get used to. I’ve never been in the army, and I’m unaccustomed to being in war zones. But it doesn’t take long to get used to it.

“We have a connection with the Palestinian police and with the army,” he said. “For example if we found some charges that they put on their side of the second fence the Palestinian police come to take it or to boom it. In the operations today because of the army, and the pressure, and the militants, there was a fire between us and the Palestinians next to a place where gasoline was stored and also some baby chickens, you know, the little ones. And we talked with the Palestinian police and they brought some trucks in to take them out. We saved them from the RPGs.”

He spoke in English now instead of through a translator, and I wasn’t sure I understood.

“So the Israeli side and the Palestinian side cooperated in the middle of a war to save baby chickens?” I said. “And then started fighting again?”

“Not exactly,” he said. “If you see the story as a simple one, yes. But the ones we talked with were not the ones shooting the RPGs. So it’s a very complicated story. But we talked with the police and the citizens talk with the army to help them. We told the citizens: Not now. It’s dangerous. The militants are firing RPGs.

Gaza Through Barbed Wire.jpg

“It is very strange,” he continued. “But it is our world. It is us against them, but they are divided inside. This is the story of Gaza.”

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal button and help pay travel expenses for independent writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without help. I want to do more of this in the future, and I intend to go back to Lebanon soon. Other countries tentatively on my list include Iran, Algeria, Bosnia, Dubai, and Afghanistan.

If you would like to donate money for travel expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, you can send a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten

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