Dispatch From Northern Israel

Dodging the missiles that rain down on an almost empty city.

Tzfat, Israel. Click image to expand.
A wounded Israeli in Tzfat

TZFAT, Israel—You only have to worry if you hear a whistle, Keren explained calmly between swigs of beer. That means the missile’s close enough to hit you or reach you with a spray of shrapnel or ball bearings. For the sixth time in less than an hour yesterday, air-raid sirens were sounding in the city of Tzfat in Israel’s far north. The two of us were crouched behind a stone wall on the edge of the old city. My view was limited to our gray Peugeot, idling where we’d left it in a small clearing, and the rest of the car’s occupants—Yossi, 23-year-old Hadassah, and her friend from Jerusalem—plastered against the edge of a crumbling stone staircase about a dozen yards away. I already knew, without be able to see it, that the other side of the wall offered some of the most breathtaking scenery for miles around. Just below lay the deep blue waters of the Galilee, the lake the Israelis call the Kinneret; beyond that, the mountains of Lebanon. It made for a stunningly beautiful battlefield.

A few moments or minutes later, in the near distance, we heard a dull thud. The sirens faded soon after. “OK, I think we can probably go soon,” said Keren, straightening a bit and handing me her beer bottle. “Here, you have the rest.” She insisted, so I took a gulp of her Goldstar. It was warm and tasteless. I drank most of it anyway.

It had been slow going through Tzfat so far, but the culprit wasn’t traffic; the only cars we encountered were ambulances or army vehicles. Pedestrians appeared only sporadically, surfacing long enough to scurry through town in the silence between sirens. Many homes in the city, the mystical home of Kabbalah, now lie empty. Some of the others are filled with sick or elderly residents, abandoned when their caretakers fled the fighting. Keren and her team, volunteers from the Jewish charity Livnot, were making the rounds to visit these shut-ins; their progress halted every three or four blocks by air-raid sirens.

About five minutes after I polished off the beer, as we drove down a quiet residential street, the warning blared again—louder now. Then, just moments after that—maybe 100 feet away from us, just on the other side of a row of crumbling old homes—we heard a roar like thunder on the ground. The windows of the car vibrated slightly; Keren went pale, and Yossi’s hands jerked on the steering wheel. We sped down a side street and careened to a sudden stop. As we peeled out of the car and clambered into a darkened apartment stairwell for shelter, I caught a glimpse of the plumes of smoke and dust billowing behind us. Much later, I realized that I didn’t remember hearing a whistle after all.

That missile was one of about 160 to hit northern Israel yesterday, falling in and around the towns of Kiryat Shemona, Nahariya, Ma’alot, and Tzfat; a month into the conflict, that number seems to be about average for a single day. The actual damage inside Israel’s borders was relatively minimal: Few structures were hit or destroyed, and most injuries were relatively minor. But the psychological toll, from Hezbollah’s perspective, was much bigger. As I headed out of the city that night, I asked Ziv, a Haifa resident, how he thought Israel was doing against the militant group. “I don’t know,” he cracked, as our car rounded a curve in the road where a Katyusha had just blasted a chunk out of the hillside and blackened the surrounding shrubs. “Does this look like we’re winning to you?”

Even Israelis who make their homes south of the current missile range are starting to share Ziv’s pessimism. Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that Tel Aviv’s garbage men were straining under a war-related trash surge. Apparently, after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s latest threat to attack the city, residents began clearing out the safe rooms that are standard in every Israeli apartment—transforming them from junk repositories back into bomb shelters, just in case. Like their Lebanese counterparts, every Israeli seems to know someone who’s been called up for military service, wounded, or killed. “I think both sides are losing,” said security guard Chen Amnon, a veteran of the 1982 Lebanon war. “We need results, something we can hold on to. Right now, we don’t have any results.”

Many experts agree. “So far, the IDF has been unsuccessful in the most important respect: Hezbollah’s ability to strike the north hasn’t been altered,” says Yoni Fighel of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. “Here is our problem: In Israel, we have a ‘Lebanon syndrome,’ like you in America had the ‘Vietnam syndrome.’ ” It’s been only six years since Israel dragged itself from what commentators call “the Lebanese swamp,” and politicians still seem queasy about wading back in. Airstrikes alone won’t do the trick against Hezbollah’s missile caches, but for weeks, Israeli leadership held off on ordering a major infantry assault into Lebanon, asking generals to keep coming up with more tactical options that might result in fewer military casualties. So, the ground raids were limited operations, where Israeli troops were at a tactical disadvantage against well-trained Hezbollah fighters with a lifetime of experience navigating the local terrain. If the IDF has been able to make any headway on the ground this way so far it hasn’t improved the situation on the Israeli side of the border; some towns in the northern part of the country are emptying almost as fast as villages in southern Lebanon. “For weeks, we have been in a state of strategic stagnation,” a frustrated Fighel told me today. “We aren’t thinking from the operational point of view; we are thinking politically. We cannot continue like this.” (The counterterrorism researcher may soon get a closer view of the fight; just two days ago, he was told to stand by for military reserve duty.)

At the ICT offices on the campus of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya this morning, Fighel traced his fingers across a map in an arc from the Bekaa Valley to Kiryat Shemona and back. If the IDF wanted to end the missile threat from Hezbollah completely, he said, ground forces would need to deploy north all the way to Beirut to deal with medium- and long-range Katyushas. “This is, as you can probably guess, a bit unrealistic in the long-term,” he said dryly. If troops could somehow reach the southern banks of the Litani River, which slices across Lebanon, and hold that ground until cease-fire details were worked out to Israel’s advantage, they could probably eliminate most of the short-range missiles raining down on the northern part of the country (more than 3,000 during the four weeks of the conflict). If the infantry campaign ends much farther south than that, “Israel is worse off than when we started, because in Hezbollah’s mind—and to everyone else in the region—we will have lost.”

“We cannot afford a cease-fire in the current reality,” he said bluntly. “Israeli civilian infrastructure is like a strategic brick. If you hit it just right, the whole wall collapses.” It seems the structure is already crumbling. Earlier this week, Israeli officials decided to evacuate most of the few remaining residents of Kiryat Shemona. Other cities are dying more quietly; Livnot’s Tzfat routes are slowly depopulating, as even the most helpless find ways out of town. Last week, one elderly couple left to attend their grandson’s funeral after he was killed in fighting just a few miles over the border; they haven’t been back. Another woman made frantic plans to flee after a piece of shrapnel tore through a bedroom—flying over her husband’s head as he idled on the bed—and wedged itself into a suitcase in the back of a closet.

As in Lebanon, nobody knows how many of these refugees will ultimately return, mostly because nobody thinks the end of the fighting means the fighting has ended. Many residents seem increasingly reluctant to sign on to a future that may always feature some version of Keren’s Katyusha-dodging routine. “Every few years, we have to go clear things out in Lebanon,” Chen Amnon told me resignedly this morning, as more missiles rained down on Tzfat. “It never stops. In five or six years, we’ll be back.”