August 07, 2006
BY Hadas Ragolsky
Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of First Corporal Liran Saadia, killed in fierce fighting in southern Lebanon.
Editor's Note: As the fighting continues unabated between Israel and Hezbollah, we asked Israeli television producer Hadas Ragolsky to report on conditions on the ground there and to include her own thoughts as well as public opinion inside Israel on a crisis now entering its fourth week.
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Only a few dozen people succeeded in paying their respects to First Corporal Liran Saadia on his final journey two weeks ago to the military graveyard in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona. The city was covered with smoke, testament to several Katyusha rockets that were fired by Hezbollah a few hours before the funeral. Saadia was killed in a fierce battle over the village of Marun al Ras in Lebanon, where those Katyusha rocket launchers were threatening his home and the entire north of Israel.
The police ordered those who came to console the family to evacuate the house. "Please go way," said Saadia's uncle in tears.
The funeral had already been postponed; the hour it was supposed to take place, Hezbollah bombed the cemetery. The Saadia family also felt it was too dangerous to hold Shiva (the traditional seven days of Jewish mourning) at their home. Instead, they moved to the local shelter hoping that none of their visitors would get hurt.
In the last few weeks, Hezbollah has tried to take the entire country hostage. More then two million Israelis are within the range of Hezbollah's fire.
The residents of Kiryat Shmona are accustomed to Katyusha rockets and Hezbollah attacks. The Lebanese militants have been terrorizing their lives for years. Every now and then, even during the last -- supposedly quiet -- six years, residents were targeted. Now they aren't the only ones. In the last few weeks, Hezbollah has tried to take the entire country hostage. More then two million Israelis are within the range of Hezbollah's fire. More then 2,500 rockets have hit Israeli cities. Several dozen Israelis have been killed; hundreds injured; many houses damaged. Though the death toll is considerably higher in Lebanon, there is a sense here of a country under siege. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in shelters or have found refuge in the southern part of Israel. The cities of Haifa, Nahariya, Safed, Afula, and others in the north have become ghost towns.
While producing hours of news on the crisis for Israeli national television, I have often found myself horrified by the images coming out of the north. Events chase each other in a constant stream of information. When the six o'clock show airs, it's old news by the time the eight o'clock edition is ready. After a week of trying, I finally tracked down my house committee representative to ask her where my Tel Aviv neighborhood shelter is. "We don't have one," she said confused. Tel Aviv, like most Israeli cities, hasn't been bombed since 1948. Most of the buildings simply don't have shelters. "Good," I thought to myself. "No running out in the middle of the night in my pajamas when it arrives." Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah announced last week that he plans to reach Tel Aviv with his rockets.
These rockets don't discriminate between the people of Israel; among the dead are at least 13 Arab citizens of Israel. Two of them were young brothers from Nazareth -- a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old. Another was a 27-year-old mother of two from a village in the Lower Galilee. Last week, a missile ruined a wedding party in the small village Piqiin. It is one of the oldest villages in Israel were Druse, Muslims, Christians and one Jewish family have lived together for hundreds of years. "Eighty-one Katyusha rockets hit us. It is time for the government and the media to notice that this small village suffers so much," said Muhammad Hir, Piqiin's mayor.
A policeman holds a Katyusha rocket fired by Hezbollah into the village of Piqiin.
Many Israelis are asking themselves, "How did we reach this point?" The Lebanese will also have to ask themselves the same question in the coming years while they rebuild their country again. Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers from the legitimate border drawn by the United Nations, hoping to blackmail Israel into exchanging them for three Lebanese prisoners. It forced Israel to respond. Hezbollah's decision to launch rocket attacks after these kidnappings exposed a terrifying reality -- Iran and Syria have armed Hezbollah with more advanced weaponry, all aimed at Israeli cities. Many of us Israelis think we are lucky that we discovered this now rather than later.
In the last six years, tourism in both Israel and Lebanon has flourished. Instead of fighting, civilians built guesthouses and developed tourist attractions. Meanwhile, trucks loaded with missiles and rockets trailed the Damascus-Beirut highway. The Lebanese government and the Lebanese people succeeded in recent years in forcing the Syrian army out of Lebanon and in disarming all other local militias. Sadly, they did not achieve this with Hezbollah or prevent it from stacking and stashing missiles that are now causing Lebanon's destruction. A popular sentiment in both Israel and Lebanon is that Iran and Syria will fight to the last Lebanese person.
"Unfortunately, we are all paying now the price for the weakness of the Lebanese government and there's a need to do something about it to bring peace and stability to the region and prevent Hezbollah from achieving its goal," said Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign affairs minister, last week.
In the last three weeks the Israeli army has destroyed more then 3,600 targets, most of them from the air. Among the targets have been most of Hezbollah's long-range missiles arsenal, its headquarters, and many warehouses storing war materials. The ground forces eventually entered the fight to try to physically push Hezbollah back from Israel's borders. During the ground fighting, Israeli troops found hundreds of civilian homes housing Hezbollah bunkers equipped with weapons. Unfortunately, these intensive bombing raids and house-to-house searches did not prevent rockets striking Israeli cities, including the city of Hedera, half an hour north to Tel Aviv.
Intensive bombing raids and house-to-house searches did not prevent rockets striking Israeli cities, including the city of Hedera, half an hour north to Tel Aviv.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the people that the stand on the home front would determine the length of the fighting. And the people of Israel, contrary to the hopes of Nasrallah, are willing to pay the price to remove him and his fighters from Israel's border.
On the ground, Israelis caught in the conflict remain resolute: "We will continue to produce, we will continue to work," said Yossi Chimi, the owner of a chemical factory in Kiryat Shmona. His business suffered a direct hit a few days ago. "The state of Israel shouldn't get tired, even in these hard times," he said.
Hanna Newman from the nearby kibbutz agreed: "We are OK, we will be OK and we will stay OK," she said, wiping dirt and smoke from her face. Minutes before, a missile had hit one of the kibbutz houses. "We are back here, this is where we live, this is our home," she added.
Those paying the highest price are also backing the decision to fight Hezbollah. "The IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces) needs to go in with the proper force to do the job which they know how to do," said Israel Klauzner who lost his son Ohad, an Israeli solider, during this latest fighting. "If they will not do it, we will lose our country and I will feel that the sacrifice of my son was for nothing," the father said.
The majority of Israelis agree with Klauzner. In a recent poll conducted by Dr. Mina Tzemach for Yedioth Ahronoth, the largest Israeli daily newspaper, 82 percent of those surveyed said the military operation was justified. Seventy-one percent said the IDF should use more force in Lebanon. The same poll numbers were satisfied with Olmert's handling of the situation during the last three weeks. Almost 50 percent said the fighting should continue until Hezbollah is demolished; while only 21 percent thought the next move should be a ceasefire and the start of negotiations.
Shaul Feldman, who lives in the small town of Nesher, east of Haifa, surveys the debris of his home after a rocket struck.
In that minority is Shaul Feldman from Nesher, a small town east of Haifa. Feldman's house was destroyed by a Katyusha rocket in recent weeks. A day before his house was hit, he joined hundreds of Israelis in a demonstration against the fighting in Tel Aviv. Walking through the ruins of his house, he still hadn't changed his mind. "If there is today another demonstration, I'm a bit busy as you can see," he told reporters. "But I would have joined it, even if only in spirit, because these are the results of the fighting, both here and on the other side," he said, pointing to the remnants of his house. "We are planting now the seeds for the next war."
Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol called those demonstrating against military action "pathetic." And Aviv Gefen, a well-known singer who has protested against Israel's occupation of the West Bank has come out and said that Nasrallah has united the Israeli people.
Feldman's voice is a rare one these days. Left-wing Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol called those demonstrating against military action "pathetic." Aviv Gefen, a well-known singer who has protested against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and who has written countless songs over the years calling for peace, came out and said that Nasrallah had united the Israeli people. "The war was being forced on us," he said. "They stopped the lives of people."
Since the offensive began, Olmert has had the support of Israel's political left and right. A three-week rain of rockets and expanding ground force operations has met with little protest. But in one address to the right, Olmert did cause ire. "An achievement in Lebanon would give momentum to the convergence plan in the West Bank," he blundered. Such statements are not his only problem. During the first week of fighting in a speech he made to the Knesset, Olmert said that Israel "will not agree to live in the shadow of the threat of missiles and rockets against its residents." Three weeks on, he has modified his remarks saying now that there is no guarantee that the rockets will be stopped or that the casualties of war won't continue to rise. And his original statement about destroying Hezbollah, its arsenal of weapons and returning the kidnapped soldiers no longer stands. Critics are saying that Israel has set its expectations too high from results on the battlefield -- especially the idea that everything can be solved by air strikes alone.
The question now is what to do next. The rising Lebanese death toll -- in particular the death of 27 civilians in Qana, many of them children -- has placed intense pressure on Israel to call a ceasefire. Both Olmert and the army chiefs have apologized for the tragedy. Israel's leadership has said many times that its only intent is to go after the terrorists but that Hezbollah is deeply planted in the civilian infrastructure of South Lebanon. Qana was targeted after more then 150 rockets were launched from within the town and surrounding area. After dropping flyers days before the attack calling for civilians to evacuate the village, the army thought the village was empty. The images broadcast worldwide proved that wasn't the case.
Israeli families gather at a shelter in the city of Safed.
Israel is now seeking a diplomatic solution that will ensure the use of International force in a security zone until the Lebanese army is strong enough to put its own forces along the border. At the same time the Europeans are calling for a ceasefire before sending forces into the region. Israelis now realize that there will be no knockout victory in this fighting but hopes it will not end with Hezbollah still patrolling the border. The call for distancing Hezbollah from the border and for the return of the kidnapped soldiers remains the key goal in any negotiations. In the meantime, ground operations try to attack as many Hezbollah strongholds and fighters as possible before a ceasefire is declared. The bigger threat to the stability of the region -- and some would argue for the stability of the world -- Iran, remains in the hands of the U.N.
Unlike previous military campaigns, this new war touches every single one of us. My brother, my friends and my coworkers have all been drafted for unlimited time to the army. (The Israeli army is based on reserve units). Almost every Israeli has family or friends suffering from the situation up north. And as time passes, the economic situation takes its toll. This war can end as suddenly as it began or it can drag the entire region into a long and bloody season of suffering. Only a fool would try to predict what option would win out.
Hadas Ragolsky is a senior producer at the Israeli nationwide television station, Channel 10, in Tel Aviv. She is a regular correspondent for FRONTLINE/World, sending reports last year during the Israeli pullout of Gaza and, earlier this year, a dispatch on the eve of the Israeli elections. Ragolsky is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley.