Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan just left for a two-week vacation, and I’ll be filling in for him at Time with Ana-Marie Cox and David Weigel. Long essays will still be published on this page as usual, and shorter bloggy-type stuff will be posted there.

When I filled in for Glenn Reynolds a few weeks ago I cross-posted some of the same material on my blog and on his. I won’t be doing that this time, though, so be sure to look for my posts there as well as here until Labor Day weekend.

Andrew Sullivan’s was the first blog I ever read. It’s an honor to be asked to contribute, especially now that it has been absorbed by Time magazine. Thanks, Andrew. Enjoy your vacation.

Terror War

Cracked Windshield Kiryat Shmona.jpg

KIRYAT SHMONA, ISRAEL — The Israel/Lebanon war created hundreds of thousands of refugees on each side of the border, but that’s where proportion ends. Israel has a real army and a real air force and can inflict real damage on its enemies. Hezbollah, on the other hand, is only strong enough to terrorize people.

The so-called Party of God can menace, bully, and sabotage Lebanon. (They are especially good at the latter.) Hassan Nasrallah’s “martyrs” can terrorize Israel. But they cannot repel an invading army. They can only harass that army and kill a miniscule percentage of its soldiers and dent it by one tenth of one percent.

After most foreign journalists packed up and left as soon as the bangbang stopped, I drove to Hezbollah’s most targeted city of Kiryat Shmona to do a little post-war analysis of what had just happened. It looks surprisingly intact from a distance, and even up close the damage is less severe than what I thought it would be.

Kiryat Shmona Distance.jpg

I expected to see at least one destroyed house. There may be a destroyed house in there somewhere, but I drove all over and couldn’t find one.

Katyusha rockets are pipsqueakers. They don’t feel like pipsqueakers when they’re flying in your direction. But they are. They can’t be aimed worth a damn, and they’ll only do serious damage if they ignite something else after impact, like the gas tank of a car. They have almost no military value at all unless they are fired in barrages at a reasonably close range. From a distance they can only be counted on to break a few things almost at random in the general direction they’re aimed.

They do break a few things, especially because Hezbollah is clever enough to pack them tight with ball bearings. Kiryat Shmona looks like a city that recently suffered street fights between roving militias with automatic weapons.

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Katyusha shrapnel kills people who aren’t wearing body armor, and wounds those who are. No one wants to be hit with this stuff. But if the side of your building is hit, you can call a repair guy and have it taken care of in one day. It might take a few days if the windows are broken. Either way, Katyushas do quite a lot of damage to people and relatively little damage to infrastructure and buildings.

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Shattered Kiryat Shmona Store.jpg

Throwing high-speed ball bearings at random around an urban area is a great way to terrorize people and get them to hide in their shelters or seek refuge somewhere else. You can empty entire cities this way, and that’s exactly what Hezbollah did. No Palestinian terrorist group had ever been able to accomplish so much. But forget trying to use Katyushas against an army, especially against a properly outfitted and trained Western army. While Northern Israel’s civilian population retreated to the south, the military surged forward straight into Lebanon.

I can say from personal experience that Katyushas really do frighten civilians. I drove through Kiryat Shmona several times (fast) while it was under bombardment. But I didn’t dare stick around. The city was Hezbollah’s favorite target even while it has no military value at all. They couldn’t hit anything in particular in there, but the city is large enough and close enough to the border that it’s easy to hit something and scare everyone out.

Caved In Kiryat Shmona Windshield.jpg

You can’t destroy a city this way, but you can make it uninhabitable for a while.

The worst damage I could find was where a Katyusha hit the roof of a car port. A parked van was torched , the kitchen window was blown in by shrapnel, and a portion of the side of the house was damaged. Anyone washing the dishes when that thing hit would have been killed.

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There is a lot of talk in the media and the blogosphere about Hezbollah’s targets in Israel. Some insist that Hezbollah does too aim its Katyushas at the Israeli military. The “proof” is that 12 soldiers were killed by a rocket just before I arrived on the border.

Here’s the thing, though. Hezbollah hit a little of everything in Northern Israel: houses, trees, streams, grass, apartments, roads, vineyards, and cows. Thousands of rockets crashed and sprayed shrapnel inside their shooting gallery. The odds that none of the rockets would hit a single IDF soldier were microscopic. Hezbollah couldn’t have achieved zero Israeli military casualties no matter how hard they tried unless they didn’t fire those rockets at all.

I was far safer on military bases, in open fields, and on tiny kibbutzes than in cities during Hezbollah’s terror war. Katyushas are nearly useless against an army but are devastatingly effective as terrorist weapons against civilian population centers even as they cause relatively light damage. Shrapnel may not hurt your apartment building too bad, but it will tear you to pieces if you’re in the way.

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Rockets rained down on Kiryat Shmona almost constantly. There were no soldiers, no tanks, no artillery cannons, no bases, nothing of military value in that city at all. None of the journalists I met wanted to linger there for very long. But we were all over the army bases because our odds of being hit by a rocket were merely random, the same as if we were out among cows in the farmland. Haifa, which is away from the border, was hit more often than bases that are right next to the border and therefore easier targets.

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The odds of being hit in Kiryat Shmona were fantastically higher than the odds of being hit anywhere else. Our lives depended on getting this right. There is no room for ideology or taking sides when you’ll die if you get it wrong.

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If Hezbollah really did the best they could to avoid killing civilians with their inaccurate rockets (as their apologists claim) I would have set up shop in Kiryat Shmona. But the situation was exactly reversed. The exception was the town of Metulla, and the reason for that, presumably, is because it is immediately surrounded on three sides by Lebanon. With that exception in mind, the claim that civilian areas were safer places than military areas is terrorist propaganda.

Shrapnel Kiryat Shmona House.jpg

What happened here doesn’t bode well for the future if Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran want to go another round. And it looks like they do want to rack up another “victory.” It’s so easy for Syria and Iran in particular when Lebanon absorbs all the punishment for them.

Missile war may be replacing terrorist war. It’s more effective than using hijackers and suicide bombers. Only missile war caused hundreds of thousands of Israelis to flee.

This war was a transition, the testing of a new doctrine. It’s a disaster for Israel, but in the end it will be an even bigger disaster for those who think it’s a terrific idea.

I don’t know about some of the unhinged Lebanese Hezbollah supporters, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Lebanon if ten Iranian-made Zelzal missiles crash into the sides of Tel Aviv apartments and skyscrapers every hour.

War is coming again, and it’s coming like Christmas. It will not resemble the Middle East wars we are used to.

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent non-corporate writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without you.

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.

Gearing Up for the Next Disaster

Beirut Daily Star opinion page editor Michael Young says Hassan Nasrallah sounds “ominously” like a president now while Bashar Assad effectively calls for a coup d’etat against the elected Lebanese government.

Syria, predictably, feels emboldened by Hezbollah’s “victory” and says it will create its own version of Hezbollah. The Damascus-based terrorist army will be trained by the original.

Saad Hariri enables Hezbollah and echoes Hassan Nasrallah by declaring a Lebanese “victory” against Israel. Enough “victories” like that one, Saad, and Lebanon will turn into Gaza.


Here are some good links to tide you over until I get my next piece ready to publish.

Lisa Goldman went to Northern Israel just before I did and wrote Welcome to the Shooting Gallery.

Noah Pollak went with me to Northern Israel and wrote One Cheer for Ceasefire.

Check ’em out. More soon.

War Warps the Mind a Little

The events in this essay took place on August 11 and 12.

NORTHERN ISRAEL — War does strange things to the mind. The first time you hear the loud BOOM, BANG, and CRASH of incoming and outgoing artillery, you will jump. You will twitch. You will want to take cover. You will want to hide. You will feel like you could die at any second, like the air around you is drenched with gasoline, like the universe is gearing up to smash you to pieces.

It’s amazing how fast you get used to it, even if you have no military training and grew up in a tranquil conflict-free place in suburban America.

It took me four hours.

The BOOM, BANG, and CRASH had nothing to do with me. Oh sure, it could have had something to do with me. I could have been hit. There is no doubt.

But here’s the thing: war is slow. War in Northern Israel, anyway, was slow. It isn’t, or at least wasn’t, anything like fast street to street fighting in Hollywood movies. It wasn’t Black Hawk Down and it wasn’t Omaha Beach.

Any given location in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon would almost certainly never be hit with a missile, bomb, or artillery shell. Lebanon was hit more frequently, and Israel was hit more randomly, but the vast majority of people in both places weren’t even scratched, let alone killed.

Explosions crank your survival instinct up to eleven. But after a while straight math kicks in. You run numbers in your head, even subconsciously. Most specific locations aren’t hit, ever. And most of the time you are standing in one of those locations. Even if you do happen to briefly pass through one of the specific locations that are destined to take a hit, what are the odds, really, that you will be standing there when it actually happens?

Being in Northern Israel was not like being in Baghdad. No one was out to get me. Only Hezbollah fighters and leaders in Lebanon were targeted as individuals. All of Northern Israel was a collective target, but a very large one which I vanished into almost completely.

Hezbollah killed more cows than people in Israel.

The odds that any given place in Northern Israel would be hit were the same as the odds that any other given place in Northern Israel would be hit. Hezbollah’s rockets land almost at random. They are, therefore, pathetic military weapons, but perfect terrorist weapons.

There were a few exceptions. Kiryat Shmona was hit quite a lot, Metulla not at all. Still, anywhere out in the open was just as dangerous as anywhere else out in the open.

This is logical, but the mind doesn’t work like that when sensing danger from the environment.

Driving on an empty road and looking at an impact site up ahead is unsettling.

Burning Ridge From Road Northern Israel.jpg

Getting out of the car at Kibbutz Goshrim is a relief.

Kibbutz Goshrim.jpg

Each location photographed above was exactly, precisely, as dangerous as the other.

Trees blocked out the sky and made me feel safer. Obviously the branches of trees would do nothing to stop or slow a Katyusha attack. But when you’re under rocket and missile fire, the sky feels like a gigantic malevolent eyeball. When you’re underneath trees, the gigantic malevolent eyeball can’t see you. Therefore a rocket won’t hit you. That’s not how it is, but that’s what it feels like.

During my first several hours in the war zone I constantly tried to figure out what I could do to make myself safer. Should I stand here instead of there? How about if I crouch down a little bit? Maybe if I sit on the ground a rocket will miss my head? I figured it was better to stand near things than away from things, as long as those things were not cars.

All this thinking was useless. I would either be hit or I wouldn’t. Walking or driving fast could get me away from an incoming rocket, or it could get me closer. It was all totally random, and after every possibility was considered and rejected as useless the fear slipped away.

Fear forces you to think hard and fast about what you can do to protect yourself. As soon as you become 100 percent convinced that there is nothing more you can do to protect yourself, fear becomes a useless emotion. Then it goes away all on its own. You can’t talk yourself into or out of this mental space. It’s just something that happens.

This is the fatal weakness of terrorism.

When I tell you I was not afraid after four hours in the war zone, it is not because I am brave. Maybe going to the war zone made me a little bit brave, but feeling fearless inside it was different. It certainly helped that the rockets, missiles, and artillery shells were flying over my head rather than at my head.

Missile in Flight.jpg

Kibbutz Goshrim is the place where the IDF Spokesmen set up shop. Journalists came in and out of there all day. The lobby of the hotel had food, drinks, and free wi-fi. My laptop wouldn’t pick up the signal for some reason, but Noah Pollak’s did and he shared his computer.

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Military historian and IDF Spokesman Michael Oren checks his email on Noah Pollak’s laptop in the war zone.

CBS CNN news correspondent John Roberts interviewed an IDF colonel out front.

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Michael Oren translated. Roberts asked pedestrian questions. The colonel gave stock answers that sounded like propaganda.

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The entire exercise seemed pointless to me. I learned nothing at all from watching and listening.

John Roberts Interviewing Colonel.JPG

The funny thing about it, though, is that I felt safer than usual while it happened. I stood right next to three famous people. Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon was on site as well, volunteering as an IDF Spokesman. What are the odds that three famous people will all get taken out by one Hezbollah rocket? I mean, come on. The CBS news anchor isn’t going to get hit. He creates the Famous Guy Force Field. Michael Oren and Dan Gordon gave the Famous Guy Force Field two extra boosts.

This is the kind of stupid crap that goes through your mind as you struggle to cope with the threat of random attacks. If there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself, your mind will hallucinate bogus strategies.

I also simply got used to the threat of random attacks and forgot all about it, even as the sound of explosions rocked the kibbutz all day long.

The contrast between what I was seeing and what I was hearing really was odd. It was like watching a Green Gables episode with the volume turned down and the audio track for a war movie cranked up instead.

Statue on Kibbutz.JPG

I heard BOOM, BANG, and BOOM as I took this picture.

Noah and I sat in the hotel lobby and surfed around Web sites for digital cameras on his lap top. He was shopping for a new high-end camera and we discussed the pros and cons of various lenses. BOOM. We kept surfing. BANG. Ooh, check out that lens. CRASH. “Nikons are better than Sonys,” I said, “and more worth the money.”

I completely forgot I was in a war zone even though I could hear it outside. I was just as calm sitting there as if I were reading the morning newspaper at the Oregon Coast.

We all know fear is contagious. What might be less understood is that calm is also contagious. It’s hard to even want to freak out when no one else is freaking out.

New York City after September 11 was a lot scarier than Northern Israel on August 11.

Lots of people were in the hotel lobby, surfing the Internet, drinking coffee, interviewing spokesmen, filing stories, watching the news, ordering lunch, whatever.

Kibbutz Hotel Lobby.JPG

BOOM. No one was nervous. It’s not that they were hiding it. They really weren’t nervous. BANG. No one so much as raised an eyebrow at any loud noise. CRASH. It was as though the war outside were just a soundtrack on a movie turned up too loud. Nothing was hitting us, so what’s the big deal?

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Noah and I spent the night in that hotel while cannons right outside fired sky-ripping artillery shells at Hezbollah. I slept perfectly soundly and did not wake up once.


The next day we went back to the Alaska Inn for the view. While we sat on the roof and looked into Lebanon a loud voice down below blared something in Hebrew over a loudspeaker.

“What was that?” Noah asked the Israeli woman standing next to us.

“He said Go to the shelters because a rocket is about to hit the roof of the hotel,” she said.

“Seriously?” I said.

“No,” she said and laughed. “But a rocket really is coming. It really is time to go to the shelters.”

We waited for the elevator. It seemed to take forever.

“Where is the shelter, anyway?” I said.

“I don’t know,” the Israeli woman said.

The elevator doors opened. We all got in. It took ages to get down to the lobby.

When the doors opened on the main floor, no one was moving. Everyone was perfectly calm as though nothing were happening.

I walked up to the front desk.

“Do you have a bomb shelter?” I calmly asked the young man standing next to the register.

“Of course,” he said.

“Should we go down there or does nobody care?” I said.

“Nobody care,” he said.

“Let’s get a Coke,” Noah said.

So we sat in the restaurant and asked the waiter for two Cokes.

I heard a faint whump somewhere off in the distance. The rocket had landed. Nobody moved. Nobody cared.

Post-script: Please hit the Pay Pal link and help pay travel expenses for independent non-corporate writing. I am not a rich person, and I can’t do this without you.

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.

The Storm Before the Calm

The events in this essay took place on August 11 and 12.

METULLA, ISRAEL — Israel scrapped the proposed ceasefire agreement on August 11 and launched a full-scale ground invasion of Lebanon. Presumably the Israeli Defense Forces wanted to rapidly snap up territory between the border fence and the Litani River before agreeing to the real cease-fire that’s tenuously in effect at the time of this writing. The ceasefire does not require an Israeli withdrawal. Instead it puts their military operations in Lebanon into a holding pattern.

It didn’t take long for the IDF to reach the Litani. Noah Pollak and I watched it happen, as much as we could, from the roof of the Alaska Inn in Metulla right on the border.

Metulla Sunset During War.JPG

The sun sets over the Lebanese town of Kfar Kila in the distance behind Metulla, Israel.

To my knowledge, no Katyusha rockets hit Metulla at any time. The little town sits just inside a “peninsula” that juts into Lebanon. It is surrounded on three sizes by Hezbollah’s territory. Presumably Hezbollah didn’t fire rockets at Metulla because three out of four would miss Israel entirely and explode inside Lebanon. So even though Metulla is literally on the front line, it may be the safest town in all of Northern Israel.

All day long thunderous outgoing artillery tore holes through the sky on the way to Hezbollah targets. But as soon as the ground invasion began, all fell eerily quiet.

The only evidence of war from the top of the hotel was a fire burning in a Lebanese field off to the right.

Fire in Lebanon From Distance.jpg

Fire in Lebanon Up Close.jpg

Also, Israeli barricades had been set up just inside Lebanon on the other side of the fence.

Israeli Barricades in Lebanon.jpg

Just south of Metulla the war was a little more obvious, even though it was quiet there, too. Tanks and heavy artillery were set up in an idyllic field. It was an odd thing to see. The scenery is lovely up there. Lots of Israelis and foreigners like to visit on holiday because it’s so picturesque and serene. Yet war machinery was scattered all over the place. War, in my mind, occurs in ugly places. But that’s in the movies.

Tanks and Farmland.JPG

IDF Tent and Mountain.JPG

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Tank Barrel Northern Israel.JPG

You have to understand what an Israeli invasion of Lebanon looks like. When Americans go to war they fly to the other side of the world and spend weeks or even months preparing to tackle some fly-blown dictatorship, then push hundreds of miles through enemy territory on the way to their targets. Israeli soldiers just take out some wire cutters, snip holes in the fence, and walk into Lebanon.

Tanks rolled into Lebanon, too. From the top of the Alaska Hotel I could see a whole line of them getting ready to blast through Fatima’s Gate and into Hezbollah’s territory.

Line of Tanks at Border.jpg

The scene looked ominous, but felt perfectly calm. Birds chirped. The sunset was lovely. The streets of Metulla were clean and well-ordered. A man in sweat pants, a t-shirt, and running shoes jogged through the streets with his dog running alongside, its tongue lolling out the side of its mouth. I waved hello to an elderly grandmother in her gardening hat sitting on her front porch drinking from a tall slender glass. Earlier Noah ordered ravioli in a restaurant and I ordered pizza. I asked a woman behind the counter if she was being paid extra wages for serving food while artillery and rockets exploded outside. “No,” she said and shrugged, as if to say why should they pay me more money?

Fox News interviewed Sheppard Smith from the roof of the Alaska, although I doubt he had much to report. Little was going on at the time. Metulla is a nice little resort town with its restaurants and its bed and breakfasts. And that’s what it looked and felt like.

Noah and I walked down the street to the line of tanks so we could interview some of the soldiers.

A young man with sunglasses and a pierced eyebrow asked me to take his picture. “Put me in your magazine,” he said, “next to the hot models in swimsuits and lingerie.”

Pierced Israeli Soldier.jpg

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said and laughed.

I raised my camera to take another man’s picture.

“No, no, no!” he said and held up his hand. “Last time I went into Lebanon, every guy with me who had his picture taken earlier that day was injured. None of us who didn’t have our pictures taken were injured. I know it’s superstitious and stupid, but I need to feel good before I go in there.”

“What’s it like fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon?” I said.

“It depends,” he said.

“On what?” I said.

“On the place and on the day,” he said. “Sometimes when we go into Lebanon, nothing happens. We can’t find the Hezbollah. Other times they are everywhere and it’s hard.”

“Do you ever see civilians?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Not in the towns. Only in the villages.”

“What do they do when they see you?” I said.

“They go inside,” he said.

“Do they say anything to you?” I said.

“No,” he said. “They don’t say anything, they don’t wave, they don’t throw rocks. They just go in their houses.”

He didn’t want to talk about war. So instead we got into an argument over who has better coffee. Portland and Seattle, or Tel Aviv. He insisted Tel Aviv has better coffee, but he’s wrong.

Noah chatted with two young men who were getting ready to go into Lebanon ahead of the tanks to clear land mines. They didn’t seem nervous at all, although I can’t imagine that job isn’t unbearably stressful.

That was about all we could get out of the soldiers. They seemed happy to see us, not at all suspicious that we might be axe-grinding journalists or even anything other than journalists. No one asked us to show our credentials to get access. But they didn’t want to say much specific. I got the impression they liked us as a civilian distraction that kept their minds grounded in the world they were fighting to protect.

“Can we go with you guys into Lebanon?” Noah asked one of the soldiers.

“Do you want to?” the soldier said.

“Yeah,” Noah said.

The soldier didn’t know if it was possible. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t. But I didn’t want to. There was no way I would enter Lebanon with an invading army, for all the usual reasons and also for personal reasons.

Night fell and the soldiers got twitchy. There’s something about darkness in war, even during the quiet times in a war. All of them were less talkative than before, and there was clearly no way Noah and I could get any useful or interesting information out of them then.

So we walked the line of tanks.

Tank Shot in Dark 1.JPG

Tank Shot in Dark 2.JPG

We came across some frightful-looking bulldozers that were sent to smash up Lord only knows what. I took a photo with Noah standing in front of one for perspective.

Israeli Bulldozer on Border.jpg

A soldier walked by.

“Don’t be here,” he said.

“We’re journalists,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “But this is a war zone. Don’t be here.”

So we went back to the hotel in the dark and sat on the roof.

The view north into Lebanon was an ominous sight.

The Lebanese town of Kfar Kila directly faces Metulla across a small patch of farmland. There is no no-man’s land there. The two towns may be in different countries, but they are almost in the exact same location.

Metulla and Kfar Kila.jpg

Kfar Kila, Lebanon, and Metulla, Israel, face each other during daylight hours

But that night all of Lebanon was black. It was as if Lebanon did not exist. The lights of emptied Israeli cities twinkled behind me, but Lebanon was enveloped in a vast darkness.

The fire burning in a Lebanese field off to the right was getting bigger and brighter. No fire department existed on the other side that could douse it. South Lebanon, always lawless and beyond the control of the state in Beirut, was a truly anarchic and perilous place on the night of August 11.

Distant flashes lit up the horizon. A low rumble of war in the distance sounded like thunder. It sounded like the physical breaking of Lebanon.


The next day was loud again, as was the middle of the night. Somehow I managed to sleep straight through my first (and so far only) night in a war zone while outgoing artillery tore holes in the sky over my head on route to Hezbollah.

IDF Spokesman Jonathan Davis told me he went jogging first thing in the morning and found a gigantic Katyusha rocket crater in the middle of a small stream near Kibbutz Hagoshrim. Noah and I drove to the spot. I took a picture and once again used Noah for scale.

Katyusha Crater in Water.JPG

It was unspeakably hot outside, much more so than the day before.

“I wonder if Olmert and Nasrallah are thinking of having a talk today,” I said to Noah. “Hey Nasrallah, Olmert would say. I want to kill you. You want to kill me. And it’s hotter than hell this time of the year. That much we can agree on. How about we put this off until November when we can at least fight in comfort? Whaddaya say?”

“Man,” Noah said. “I just want to be out here in my underwear and my flip-flops. Forget wearing a flak jacket and helmet. I can see the headline and lede now: Noah Pollak was killed today by shrapnel from a Katyusha because he was out in a war zone in his shorts.

When we got back to Metulla we heard loud machine-gun fire in Kfar Kila. We could walk to that town in half an hour from where we were standing. And the crazy thing is we really could have walked over there if we were that stupid. No one would stop us from crossing the fence and walking to our doom just on the other side of the line.

I had expected to see serious damage in Lebanese border towns. But those I saw did not appear damaged at all, at least not from my vantage point. Noah scanned the towns from the roof with a pair of binoculars borrowed from a Guardian reporter. He told me he couldn’t locate a single damaged building, not even right on the border where the buildings were easiest for Israelis to hit.

Obviously there is damage in South Lebanon. Those outgoing artillery shells aren’t landing on nothing. For all I know, Bint Jbail is a pile of rubble. But in the vicinity of Metulla, the damage seemed pretty minimal.

There wasn’t much going on that we could see aside from an Israeli tank kicking up dust just to the right of Kfar Kila.

Dust from Kfar Kila.jpg

The IDF spokesmen still had their gag orders and wouldn’t tell us a thing. Military police shooed us away from the soldiers and told us to stay in the hotel or get out of the area. So we decided it was time to head back to Tel Aviv.

Our fuel was running low, so we filled up the gas tank south of Kiryat Shmona.

Israeli gas stations are incredibly annoying. After you swipe your credit card at the pump, the computer asks for your Israeli national ID number. Noah lives in Israel, but he’s an American. He didn’t have an ID number to enter. Obviously, I didn’t either. So we asked an IDF soldier who happened to be there if he would use his credit card to get us some gas if we gave him some cash.

“Of course,” he said and swiped his card into the machine. “Where are you guys from?” he said as he punched in his number.

“We’re both Americans,” Noah said.

“Are you tourists?” he said.

I laughed. “Here?” I said. “No, we’re not tourists. We’re journalists.”

“There are adrenaline tourists up here,” he said. “There are agents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem who set up the tours.”

It couldn’t be too dangerous in Northern Israel if this sort of thing was going on, I thought. Surely there are no “adrenaline tours” in South Lebanon now.

Then a Katyusha rocket exploded inside a residential neighborhood in Kiryat Shmona.

Kiryat Shmona on Fire.JPG

“Wow,” Noah said. “Let’s go take pictures of that.”

“No,” said the IDF soldier. “Don’t go there.”

“Remember,” I said to Noah. “More rockets often follow the first. They arrive in pairs and in threes. I’d love to take a picture of that, but it would be crazy to go there right now.

So we didn’t go there. We went kinda sorta near it and kept a reasonable distance. We drove to a place where we could take pictures without actually standing where another rocket might land any second.

On the way back to Tel Aviv we passed once again through entire towns eerily emptied of people. As far as I know there has been no looting of houses, of stores, or of anything else. It would be so easy to steal whatever you want in an apocalyptic environment. But I don’t think anyone did.

Many countries in the world would not be so lucky, including the United States. Looting was rampant in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Israel is a small country, though. Everyone seems to know everyone else. War brings people together with a shared sense of purpose. So while the laws fell silent in the north of the country, common human decency didn’t break.

Post-script: I can’t go into war zones for free, and Israeli hotels are not cheap during this thing. Please hit the Pay Pal button so I can stick around longer.

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

Inside Hezbollah’s Free Fire Zone

NORTHERN ISRAEL — I teamed up with Noah Pollak, Assistant Editor at Azure Magazine in Jerusalem, and took a rental car through Hezbollah’s shooting gallery to the front line on the Lebanese/Israeli border. Famed military historian Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War and spokesman for the IDF Northern Command, waited for us at Kibbutz Misgav Am up the hill from the heavily bombarded city of Kiryat Shmona.

It looked, then, like the war was winding down. The Israeli government had tentatively agreed to a cease-fire deal that would gain Israel practically nothing. Noah and I were both frustrated and worried. All of Northern Israel is darkened and abandoned, Lebanon is bombed back to the third world, and for what? There was talk in the local newspapers about removing catastrophically unfit Ehud Olmert from the prime minister’s office immediately.

The further north we drove, the less relevant talk of cease-fires and parliaments seemed. The fighting hadn’t yet stopped, and we were entering Hezbollah’s free fire zone.

We drove alongside the West Bank, rather than through the maze of Haifa, and it was unclear where the danger zone started.

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West Bank just south of Jenin along the highway

Traffic thinned on the roads as we approached the Sea of Galilee. Later we passed through entire towns eerily emptied of people and cars.

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The empty streets of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee

Further up the road past the sea we saw hillsides scorched from Katyusha rocket fire.

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I braced myself as we approached Kiryat Shmona.

Lisa Goldman had been up there just a few days before and described the scene as a horror.

The city is only two only 2 kilometers from the border, and it appears to be Hezbollah’s target of choice. When Israeli radar picks up incoming missiles, the air raid sirens scream and rockets explode simultaneously. There is no time to get to the shelters. A few days ago rockets struck the town every hour. Lisa and her journalist colleague drove as fast as physically possible through burning streets, walls of fire just feet from each side of the car.

Air raid sirens wail even out in the countryside. When you hear these sirens you are instructed to get out of your car. A nearby explosion can startle you and cause you to crash. But that isn’t all.

This is what a Katyusha rocket does to a car.

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Here’s where a piece of shrapnel flew into the side of another car parked nearby.

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Hezbollah stuffs all manner of nasty pieces of metal into their rockets so they can maximize the number of civilians they kill.

Noah and I reached Kiryat Shmona.

Surprisingly, it looked okay from the main road. Although we drove fast through the streets and the turned-off traffic signals, I saw no fires, no smoke, and no serious damage. Storms of incoming rockets move through the north like malevolent weather. It’s sunny and calm here in Haifa today, and a bit balmy (bomby?) in Kiryat Shmona.

I pulled out the map and looked for the turnoff to Kibbutz Misgav Am where Michael Oren was waiting for us. It wasn’t clear which road we should take, and as we left Kiryat Shmona we pulled off to the side of the road and asked directions from two officers in an idle police car.

I stepped out into the road and nearly jumped out of my skin as I heard and felt a loud BOOM from just on the other side of a nearby hill.

“Outgoing,” Noah said to put me at ease. He had been to the border before and was much more comfortable in that environment. I laughed and said “of course,” although to me at the time there was no such thing as “of course.” I had not yet learned to distinguish the sounds of incoming and outgoing.

The officers told us how to get to Kibbutz Misgav Am, which is not really a kibbutz. It’s a military base right on the border. They didn’t ask us who we were, what we were doing, or why on earth we would go to such a place. War creates a crazily “libertarian” environment where, as was said in the time of the Roman Empire, the laws fall silent.

Once we knew where we were going, Noah and I drove through an increasingly dodgy-looking environment where tents, tanks, and heavy artillery were set up in fields scorched by Katyusha fire.

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We turned left past Kiryat Shmona and drove up the steep hill toward the base at Kibbutz Misgav Am. Smoke boiled off the top of a ridge. Israel was on fire. I did not want to be there.

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Concrete bomb-blast walls lined the road up to the base.

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A few minutes later we reached Misgav Am overlooking the snaking fence on the border.

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Heavy artillery was fired over my head every couple of minutes toward points unknown on the other side of the horizon. I jumped every time and tried in vain to get used to it.

Noah approached a reservist sitting next to a bomb-blast wall and asked if he knew where we could find IDF Spokesman Michael Oren. The reservist had never heard of him.

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I asked him what was going on today.

“It’s quiet today compared with yesterday,” he said. “A rocket fell 30 meters from me yesterday. But I just kept reading the newspaper.”

“How can you do that?” I said. I felt raw and exposed, horribly vulnerable to Hezbollah’s random destruction. Even the thunderous sound of outgoing cannons raised the hair on the back of my neck.

“I have to keep myself normal and clear,” he said. “I have been here for three weeks. There have been lots of rockets in Haifa today. But none here.”

BANG BANG. Earsplitting outgoing artillery shells exploded from cannons just a few dozen meters from where I was standing. Car alarms went off everywhere. Ten thousand volts of adrenaline kicked into my system. I instinctively ducked my head and wondered, for a split second, if I should take cover behind the wall.

Three Katyusha rockets slammed into the side of the mountain on the other side of the valley, all within two minutes of each other.

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Rockets often land in clusters. Hezbollah’s rocket launchers are aimed, and several are fired at once. If one hits anywhere even vaguely near you, watch out. More are probably coming.

Real war is not like the movies. At least it isn’t always. It is slow and methodical. I don’t know what the Israeli army was shooting at when they fired their shells into Lebanon. Those who fired the shells didn’t know either. Unlike Hezbollah, though, they were shooting at actual targets. They were not just firing explosives at random toward Lebanese towns. Soldiers on the other side of the border had specific military targets in mind, and they called in coordinates.

Michael still hadn’t arrived. Where was he? Noah and I got back in the car and drove down the hill on the road toward Kiryat Shmona. Noah punched Michael’s number into his cell phone.

“Where are you guys?” he said. (Pause.) “Okay, we’ll wait for you at the bottom of the hill.”

We drove to the bottom of the hill and got out of the car next to an open field arrayed with tanks and gigantic guns.

BANG, followed by an arcing tear in the atmosphere.

BANG, followed by the sound of ripping sky.

A mile or so in front of us a series of glowing surface-to-surface missiles hurtled toward Lebanon at impossible speed and somehow got faster as they flew farther.

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The air raid sirens screamed. Rockets were detected crossing the border. And the border was only one kilometer from where we were standing. Noah and I moved into a bus stop fitted with bomb-blast walls and hoped the rocket would hit on the other side of it if it landed anywhere near us.

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Intrepid travel buddy Noah Pollak, managing to smile in the concrete bus stop as air raid sirens wailed.

BANG. BANG. More outgoing artillery. Shells tore menacingly across the sky in an arc over my head.

The air raid siren continued to wail.

Hurry up and get here, Michael Oren, I thought. I can’t take much more of this.

Whump. The incoming Katyusha landed somewhere off in the distance. The air raid siren winded down.

“Man, this is intense,” I said to Noah. “Are we crazy to be here?”

“Probably,” Noah said.


We finally found Michael Oren back up top where we looked for him the first time, standing on a ridge next to some bushes, squinting through sunglasses at Lebanon in the distance.

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Noah introduced us. They worked together at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and Michael greeted us warmly.

I wanted to know what he thought of the proposed cease-fire, although I suspected already he wasn’t happy with it.

“It’s probably the best we could get under the circumstances,” he said. “We do not have a lot of leverage right now.”

I told him that I’m not usually pessimistic about the outcome of these things, but that to me it didn’t look good. After all that destruction it didn’t look like much was accomplished. I suspected there would be yet another Lebanon war very soon. “Talk me out of it,” I said. “Tell me if I’m wrong.”

He didn’t want to say much. I could tell from the look on his face that he wasn’t happy with the outcome himself. But he’s an official spokesman and has to be careful with what he says on the record.

“Has anything been permanently accomplished up there?” I said.

“Some things, yes,” he said. “We destroyed a lot of their infrastructure. They had more weapons and more underground bunkers and tunnels than we had any idea. People coming out of there say it’s vast.”

“What do you think about the proposal for an international force on the border?” I said.

“The problem with that,” he said, “is that the force could act a shield for Hezbollah. Hezbollah could fire missiles right over the tops of their heads, and it would make it very difficult for us to go in there and stop them. It needs to be a combat force in Lebanon, not a peacekeeping force. It needs to be authorized by UN Article 7, not 6.”

“Hassan Nasrallah declared victory today,” I said. “What do you think about that?”

He laughed. And of course he would laugh. Everyone in the world knew Nasrallah would declare victory no matter what if he was not in a cage and if he still had a pulse. The Arab bar for military victory is set pathetically low. All you have to do is survive. You “win” even if your country is torn to pieces. The very idea of a Pyrrhic victory doesn’t occur to people who start unwinnable wars with the state of Israel.

“Look at Nasrallah today,” Michael said. “In 2000 he did his victory dance in Bint Jbail. He can’t do that this time. His command and control south of Beirut is completely gone. We killed 550 Hezbollah fighters south of the Litani out of an active force of 1250. Nasrallah claimed South Lebanon would be the graveyard of the IDF. But we only lost one tenth of one percent of our soldiers in South Lebanon. The only thing that went according to his plan was their ability to keep firing rockets. If he has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

“Have Hezbollah’s fighting techniques evolved or degraded since 2000?” I said.

“They’re the same,” he said. “They’re good. These guys are very experienced. They have been fighting for a long time. But we’ve killed more than 25 percent of their fighting force. I think they’ll break. All armies break. Killing even one percent of a Western army is a disaster. It’s prohibitive.”

He told me about his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy that should be released later this year. It will be the first-ever history of US involvement in the Middle East from the founding of the republic up through the present.

Another IDF Spokesman stood at Michael’s side. I was surprised to see this guy. His name is Dan Gordon and he’s a famous Hollywood screenwriter who volunteered for this job. Credits to his name include The Hurricane with Denzel Washington and 1994’s Wyatt Earp.

Dan walked me to another lookout point just at the top of another ridge looking down into Lebanon. A village with apparently intact buildings was just below. We had no cover. The windows of the buildings looked threatening. I remembered last time I stood on this border, back when the IDF soldiers told me everything could explode at any moment, and I was warned that it was possible I was being watched through a sniper scope.

“Have you had any sniper attacks since this started up?” I asked Dan.

“Yes, actually we have,” he said. “This is probably not a good place for us to be standing.” Then we stepped away.

Funny that I was more aware of the danger than he was. That, I suppose, is an advantage of being unused to war zones. My discomfort kept me from falsely feeling like I was invincible.

“Hardly any journalists have mentioned this,” Dan said. “But at the very beginning of this thing, when Hezbollah captured our soldiers, they also tried to invade, conquer, and hold the town of Metulla along with two other towns. And they were repulsed.”

Of course Hezbollah was repulsed. They’re a guerilla/terrorist army, not infantry.

“We do have one serious asset from this war,” Dan said. “Hassan Nasrallah got his ass kicked. And he knows it.”

“Did he really get his ass kicked?” I said. “The IDF fought Hezbollah to a standstill for more than ten years before. What made you think it would be easy to get rid of them this time?”

“This time it’s different,” Dan said. “This time we’re going in there to kill them. We are not trying to hold on to territory. This is actually working. We are not stuck in the mud. Oh, and here’s another tangible…Hezbollah-occupied Lebanon no longer exists.”

Later, Allison Kaplan Sommer called me on my cell phone. “Have you heard the news?” she said.

I hadn’t.

Neither had Dan Gordon. Neither had Michael Oren.

“The cease-fire is dead,” she said. “The ground invasion is starting.”

Noah and I lost access to our spokesmen. The war was ramping up. They were summoned to briefings. So we drove to the town of Metulla, literally right on the border where Hezbollah tried to invade, and watched the Israeli invasion from the roof of the hotel.

To be continued…

Post-script: I can’t go into war zones for free, and Israeli hotels are not cheap during this thing. Please hit the Pay Pal button so I can stick around longer.

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

Back from the Border

I’m back in Tel Aviv from the Lebanese/Israeli border. Some people can write in a bangbang environment if they’re used to it. I’m not used to it, and needed to get out. Now I can write. So I’ll start doing that now. (If I go up again, I probably will be able to write from there next time.)

Stay tuned.

Podcasting from the Border

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Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

I’m on the Lebanese/Israeli border, on the front line with Hezbollah, and will have material posted here shortly. It took quite a lot of planning, etc., to get here safely and properly. (And yes, I really am in a fairly safe place, believe it or not.)

In the meantime, here’s a quick podcast interview with me at Pajamas Media.

Bureaucracy and Logistics

I have all sorts of boring bureaucratic and logistical issues to take care of before I can report from this place properly, if I want to do more than just file pedestrian observations and random on-the-street interviews. Setting up a network of contacts, securing access to valuable sources, determining which places are safe, which places are pretty much “safe,” and which locations are off-limits to all but the suicidally stupid, requires a bit of prep work. Please bear with me while I get set up here. I can’t do this instantly, and the process is way too boring to write about. So we’re in a brief moment of limbo for now. It won’t last long, but it can’t be skipped.

Tel Aviv Photos

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You could pretend, if you want, that Tel Aviv is a normal place even while Israel is at war.

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The city is fun. Beirut always had the reputation of being a fun place even in war time. I don’t know if that’s true right now (I get the sense that it isn’t), but it’s true in Tel Aviv at least at the moment.

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But you can’t ever forget this is a country at war, even if the war is “far” away. All day long military planes fly low over the beach on their way to pound Hezbollah. I can’t say I feel comfortable knowing that those planes are on their way to bomb a country I used to live in. But I’m not comfortable with Hezbollah’s rockets pointing in my direction either.

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May the two best countries in the Middle East find a way out of this soon, and try not to hate each other too bad when it’s over. Wishful thinking, I know. But how you can not think wishfully with a sunset like that, the exact same sunset they’re seeing in Lebanon?

UPDATE: Doh! It’s easy to get details wrong in a new country. Apparently (thanks to Krik in the comments) the planes are flying low because there’s another airport (not the main one) just north of the city. They’re landing, hence the lowness. Thanks Krik!


TEL AVIV — Tel Aviv is surreally normal under the circumstances. The soft beaches — and these are some of the best in the Mediterranean — are packed with sunbathers, tourists, and probably refugees. Restaurants, cafes, shops, and bars, are all open. I hear languages from all over the world in the lobby of my hotel. Some of these people are obvious tourists, dutifully attending vacations they booked long before the shadow of war hung over the city.

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If it weren’t for the military aircraft ominously flying low over the beach on their way to pound Hezbollah, this could be Miami. Or — dare I say it? — Beirut.

Meanwhile, Kiryat Shmona in the north is a bad place today, darkened, covered in smoke, all but abandoned, and randomly exploding like a miniature Sarajevo. If Hezbollah had long range missiles they could really turn the lights out on this country. That’s why the Israelis are trying to deal with them now rather than later.

What the Israelis intend to do to prevent Iran from shipping them an even more formidable arsenal in the future still isn’t clear. Knocking Hezbollah off the border won’t do anything if they acquire more serious weapons. They already have a much greater range than the length of the intended buffer zone anyway.

I’d be lying if I said it’s scary here or that I’m nervous. It isn’t, and I’m not. But I do find my eyes wandering north every couple of minutes, not so much because I’m watching the skies but to remind myself that I’m perched on the edge of an inferno. Safe for the time being, but barely.

The Lebanon war has all but eclipsed the ongoing problems with the Palestinians. Not once in my first four hours in country — and this is highly unusual for someone unaccustomed to being in Israel — not once did I think about suicide bombers…

Postscript: I just got here and don’t have much of substance to report yet. But I’ll get to that as soon as I recover from travel exhaustion and get some field work under my belt. Please hit the Pay Pal link and help me cover travel expenses so I can stay longer.

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.


Does anyone have a furnished apartment they can rent me short-term in or around central Tel Aviv? The high season hotel rates are killing me…

In Transit

I’m on my way to Tel Aviv now.

What do you want to read about that isn’t being covered by the media? I can’t promise to write about anything in particular, but what’s your wish list? Those of you who donate travel expenses through Pay Pal are particularly encouraged to answer in the comments.

To War

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Photo copyright Michael J. Totten

Tomorrow I’m going to Israel to get as close to this monster as I can without getting myself killed. (To friends and family who worry about me: I promise not to embed with the IDF and ride into Lebanon on a tank.)

I will stay there as long as events warrant and as long as I don’t start losing money. Please hit the PayPal button so I can stay longer.

If I can raise enough money on the blog I won’t need to subject my stories to the ever-popular editing process for paychecks. So help me out, k? You get what you pay for. If you want non-corporate writing that isn’t first scrutinized by the gatekeepers, this is the place.

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.


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