My AP Blog on the Lebanon War

Tuesday, Aug. 15, 7 p.m. local

METULLA, Israel – The route from Kiryat Shemona to Metulla is a 5-mile stretch of winding, uphill road. I’ve driven it dozens of times in the past three weeks. Today, for the first time, I drove it without fear.

This war ended just as suddenly as it began, and at no place is the transition as striking as at the northern tip of Israel. The tanks, bulldozers and heavy military vehicles that lined the road leading to the border are all gone now. The smoke that normally filled the air has evaporated. The sounds of explosions, both outgoing artillery and incoming Katyusha rockets, have been silenced.

Atop the ridge overlooking southern Lebanon and northern Israel, it’s hard to believe that just two days ago, war raged wildly beneath. It looks just like it did only a month ago. But as the sun sets you realize that you are surrounded not by the beauty of nature, but by the remnants of death and destruction.

You wonder why it had to happen and what could have been done differently. You remember everything you’ve seen and heard – the bodies of dead soldiers, the look in the eyes of a young man who has lost his best friend, the whimper of a baby holed up for weeks in a bomb shelter. You think of those you knew who died, who lost limbs and who lost their innocence. You know that those closest to you could have easily been in their places. And you want to go home.

-Aron Heller.


Tuesday, Aug. 15, 12 p.m. local

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel – After hesitating for a day, following the cease-fire, this city is finally coming back to life. The sudden silencing of explosions left an eerie quiet yesterday, as residents stayed largely close to home. But today some natural noise returned, with the sounds of human chatter and honking horns replacing the wailing sirens and exploding rockets that had plagued Kiryat Shemona for more than a month.

It’s all still fresh, though. Shop owners returned to their businesses to survey the damage, sweeping away the shattered glass on the floor. Soldiers filled the main bus station, their weary faces almost begging to get home. Outside a nearby kibbutz, a few reserve soldiers are roaming with a beautiful golden retriever in the front seat, her head poking out the window. The soldiers said they found her two weeks ago, wandering around aimlessly. They adopted her during the war, assuming her owners had fled south. Though she was scared of the explosions, they said she was generally a happy camper. Now they are looking for her owners, and a home for another refugee of this war.

-Aron Heller.

Monday, Aug. 7, noon local


Driving into Kiryat Shemona to report about life in the bomb shelters, I was forced to dive into one myself.

I was on the main highway when the siren wailed, so I quickly sped off to a side road, located a shelter and dashed inside. It was empty and it smelled of urine. The sound of loud explosions, however, convinced me to stay there for 15 minutes before speeding off to a larger shelter, where I stayed for nearly three hours to report my story.

During this time I heard at least a dozen more sirens and felt the shaking impact of rockets landing outside.

The 40 or so people inside were desperate, agitated and generally fed up from four weeks of living underground. But they were safe, and I was too.

Yet, for the first time since I got here two weeks ago, I’ve started to feel increasingly unsafe. A colleague who has reported extensively from Iraq told me he fears this place more since there is no rhyme or reason to anything, just random, indiscriminate rockets raining in from the sky.

For the past week, there has been a sense of steady increase in the amount and proximity of the rockets. Police confirm that the number has doubled. And while it may only be my imagination, it seems like they are getting closer and closer, too.

When you are in a situation you have little control over, you tend to play mind games with yourself. For example, I’ve convinced myself that as long as I stay in my hotel room in a kibbutz near the border I will be safe. It doesn’t really make any sense, but it eases my mind when I sit down to write at the end of the day.

-Aron Heller

Sunday, Aug. 6, noon local


Standing under a tree, after a Katyusha rocket had landed just meters away from me, I noticed a lone black crow cawing in the shade. Its cries echoed, as the bodies of ten people were being loaded into ambulances, adjacent to a cemetery, while the thick, heavy smoke filled the air.

I found the image beyond surreal even for the insane reality I have witnessed in northern Israel in recent weeks.

Waking up this morning, I was struck that this was the first day in nearly two weeks where I didn’t have a specific story to cover. So I decided to catch up on the e-mails I had neglected for too long.

The Katyushas put an end to that plan.

Around noon, I started hearing them falling all around. I’d become accustomed to the sounds of explosions in recent weeks, but these were stronger and more frequent than anything I had heard before. My gut already warned me that I was in for something different today.

I pinned myself against a stone wall, which is what authorities say you should do if you can’t get to a shelter in time, and waited out the 15-minute barrage, which felt a lot longer than that.

When it finally ended I hopped in the car and went looking to see what it had done. The smoke from the forest overlooking the northern Galilee was thicker than any other I had seen. It rose high in the air, turning the blue skies into gray.

I arrived at the entrance to Kfar Giladi, sight of one of the landings. Police had shut the entrance to town, which is very unusual in Israel. After failing to negotiate my way in, I parked my car and started making the 1.25-mile hike up the adjacent hill, bypassing the blockade. I arrived at the scene, saw the two smoldering cars that were hit and was informed that 10 people had been killed, the deadliest attack yet in three and half weeks of fighting. The toll later rose to 11.

Modern media is capable of transmitting almost every sensation to the world within seconds. Video, audio, still images and text can give you all the information, let you know how it feels on the ground, what it looks like, what is sounds like. The one thing it can’t convey is what it smells like. Anyone who has been to a suicide bombing will tell you the worst thing about it is the smell of burnt bodies.

Today, I was struck by the same sensation. The smoke from the burning hills around filled your lungs, the ash floating in the air made your eyes water, and the stench from the vehicles left no doubt that people had been burned inside.

But this was no regular bomb scene. Within minutes a siren wailed warning of another attack. I followed Gideon Giladi, a local resident and grandson of the founder of the kibbutz, and ducked into an old military trench nearby, interviewing him as another round of rockets rained in from the sky.

After I emerged, I tried to get a better glimpse of the cars that had been hit, but another siren sounded and this time I saw the Katyusha land in a field, maybe 165 feet away.

Soon after, the army expelled journalists from the scene.

-Aron Heller.

Saturday, Aug. 5, 2 p.m. local


Three times today I heard the wailing siren indicating an incoming rocket. Each time I slammed on the brakes, hopped out of the car, and scurried in search of shelter. Once I was taken in by a Jew, once by a Christian and once by a Muslim.

The theme of my story today was how all everyone in this mixed Israeli-Arab town is equal in the eyes of Hezbollah rockets. I couldn’t have found a better indication of this than my own personal experience.

The first time I ran for cover, Yousef Yaroni, a Christian, and his wife Ahlam, guided me into a bomb shelter next to their fruit and vegetable stand. The shelter smelled of wine, as its owner apparently used it as a wine cellar in quieter times. The Yaronis informed me that they were leaving town for a while. They’ve simply had enough of the rockets.

The second time, a group of Muslim men took me into their home. I stayed long after the threat passed, to listen to Hamoodie Sweetan, Kassem Mussa and Mahmoud Sammy tell me about their three friends who were killed by rockets on Thursday.

The final time, I rolled into the fire station where Meir Nagar told me about his work, and how the violence has done nothing to affect the warm relations he has with his Arab neighbors.

He also introduced me to the station mascot, a stray dog he adopted and named Nasrallah, after Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. As the dog snuggled on a mattress and licked himself, Nagar started laughing. “Nasrallah’s already licking his wounds,” he said.

-Aron Heller

Friday, Aug. 4, 1 p.m. local


An assortment of rocket remains lays neatly on a table. Alongside it, on the ground, an example of what they can do – heaps of metal that used to be cars. Police invited the media to a display of the multitude of rockets that have struck Israel in recent weeks in the city that has been hit the hardest. Of the 2,286 rockets that have hit Israel up till now, 485 have struck Kiryat Shemona.

Bomb squad officers explained the difference between the 122-mm long rocket, with its 12 mile range, and the Syrian-made 302 millimeter missiles with a range of over 62 miles.

And of course there were the 240 millimeter Iranian-made Fajr-3 missiles, with a range of 28 miles, that have repeatedly hit Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.

But the informative display was cut short. After a half an hour, police asked the journalists to leave – there were alerts of an imminent rocket attack.

Less than an hour later, dozens of rockets poured on Kiryat Shemona yet again.

-Aron Heller

Wednesday, August 2, noon local


Under the blistering sun, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, Israel’s army chief, stands at a podium at this army base in northern Israel, briefing the media and explaining the army’s brazen overnight raid deep into Lebanon.

Instead of the usual maps and graphs, Hezbollah has unintentionally provided Halutz with a graphic backdrop.

Behind him, a hill is ablaze after a strike by a Katyusha rocket. Some 150 have already hit Israel this morning, an all-time high. I count at least eight smoking fields in front of me.

As Halutz concludes, the journalists disperse, driving off to the safer confines of their hotels.

I slump on a green army mattress in the shade outside the barracks and call my quotes into the office. Behind me, just a few yards away, a TV is broadcasting Halutz’s remarks of moments ago.

“How do they put it on TV so fast?” one of the soldiers asks me, as I dictate my own story over the phone.

-Aron Heller

Tuesday, Aug. 1, 5 p.m. local


Children scurry inside shelter 318, grabbing at the prize: a Terminator t-shirt.

A group of American Jews, led by Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, has arrived on a mission of solidarity. They’ve brought some souvenirs from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. They hand out three “Governator” T-shirts: one of Arnie as bodybuilder, one as actor, and one as governor. The Terminator shirts go fastest, and a young man slips it over his head proudly.

“Now we’ll get Nasrallah for sure,” one of those present yells out, referring to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

-Aron Heller

Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2 p.m. local

JISH, Israel

This Arab town, about 2 miles from the Lebanese border, is known for having perhaps the best hummus in all of Israel. Fuad’s Middle Eastern restaurant, next to the Paz gas station, is still dishing out its scrumptious specialty, but less so than usual.

The Katyusha rockets have not spared this community either, with several landing close by. A young waiter says they closed shop for the first few days of fighting but have since reopened for business. The frequent patrons have stopped coming though, and these days the restaurant depends mostly on the soldiers posted nearby, who stop in for a quick bite to eat on their way to the front lines.

-Aron Heller

Tuesday, Aug. 1, 10 p.m. local


The Israeli army is not only a mighty military, it also the country’s largest bureaucratic body.

On the way to a briefing by Defense Minister Amir Peretz at an army base on the border, I am stopped by a military police roadblock. There is no troop movement in the area, no “closed military zone” order and no glaring reason to shut down the road, Israel’s most northern major route. But the young ponytailed officer has her orders and she says she needs individual authorization to let me pass. The fact that I have been invited by Peretz’ office makes little impression on her.

Taking the bypass route would put me back at least an hour, so I call my contact at the defense ministry, asking her to spring me free. She tells me to speak to the army, and when I do they tell me to speak to the defense ministry.

After 45 minutes of back and forth of unsuccessful diplomacy, I am joined by several other journalists at the roadblock. Eventually one gets the OK to go through, so I decide to do the Israeli thing and just follow him through.

I fly down the road, arriving at the base just in time to hear Peretz speak.

-Aron Heller

Monday, July 31, 5 p.m. local


“Grove of the fallen” is an enclosed patch of land containing 73 trees. It marks the place where two helicopters carrying soldiers to Lebanon collided and crashed on Feb. 4, 1997, killing all 73 on board, in Israel’s worst military air disaster.

The accident also marked the beginning of the end of Israel’s previous presence in south Lebanon. The mounting casualties sparked several protest groups, most notably “Four Mothers,” igniting a sea change in Israeli public opinion calling for a unilateral withdrawal. Israel ultimately pulled back in May 2000.

Nearly 10 years later, with Israeli troops once again dying in Lebanon, there is an eerie feeling standing in front of the locked gates of the grove. The trees have grown, but there is no one today to tend to them. The caretakers are probably locked up at home or in shelters.

– Aron Heller

Monday, July 31, 4 p.m. local

UPPER GALILEE, Northern Israel

Route 918 is one of the prettiest stretches of road in all of Israel. Snaking along the Hula Valley and crossing over the Jordan River it is, at times, almost engulfed by the towering trees lining its shoulders.

It’s also one of the last places in northern Israel where you can get away from the constant reminders of war. Beneath the shade of the trees, beside the gentle pools of water, you can drive north and imagine you are off the beaten path in California’s Bay Area or Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains.

But every road comes to an end, and once you emerge from the cocoon the familiar sounds and images return – an artillery battery, a field set ablaze, the sounds of cannons booming.

The 15-minute drive has been a nice diversion.

-Aron Heller

Monday, July 31, Noon local


Svetlana Umansky, 68, nibbles on a biscuit as she sits on a thin bed. In the corner, her dog Lady, 14, is tied to a pole, her hind legs tangled in a leash. Umansky said she doesn’t want Lady bothering the others in the cramped shelter.

Both have been here for nearly three weeks. Umansky normally has hired help for her physical ailments, which she would not specify, but is now left to fend for herself in the shelter.

A couple of times a day she takes Lady just outside the shelter. Lady relieves herself and Umansky washes it away with a bucket of water. She said a longer walk was not necessary.

“She’s old,” she says. “She can’t walk very far.”

It’s hard to tell which one of them she is referring to, or for whom to feel more sorry.

-Aron Heller

Sunday, July 30, 2 p.m. local


This is definitely the most surreal picnic I’ve ever been to.

Outside one of the many artillery batteries lining the border, a chef with a flak jacket is flipping burgers and handing them out to dozens of hungry soldiers as a constant wave of rockets lands all around. Next to the delivery truck, packed with meat, salads and soft drinks, is a large smoldering crater. It’s hard to tell where the smoke of the barbecue ends and that of the burning fields nearby begins.

Tuly Bibi, who owns the catering company, said he moved his operations north for the day to boost the morale of the troops, feeding some 2000 solders.

“You do what you can, and this is what I do,” he said plainly.

He’s picked a heck of a day to throw a party. Some 100 Katyusha rockets have already landed here today, and coupled with the ever-increasing rate of the deafening blasts of Israeli fire, there’s a sense that this is the heaviest exchange of fire in the past week on the eastern part of the border.

Up on the adjacent ridge, a panoramic vantage point of both Israel and Lebanon is revealed. It’s insane. A Katyusha whistles overhead, landing on the slope of an Israeli hill, setting the field ablaze. Seconds later, the sound of an Israel cannon roars to life and a puff a smoke jumps up from a Lebanese village. My head swings back and forth, as if I’m watching a tennis match.

A group of soldiers sit on a bench, eating their lunch (courtesy of the chef) and watch the rockets landing. They hardly flinch.

A surreal picnic, indeed.

– Aron Heller

Sunday, July 30, 9 a.m. local


On a bright sunny morning, a 10-year-old girl with long, blond hair walks on the grass with her father and her little brown dog. They proceed quietly for several moments before she begins a conversation.

“So, I heard it landed between Nahariya and Acre this morning,” she says casually.

She’s referring to Katyusha rockets, and two Israeli cities by the Mediterranean Sea.

The father shakes his head and smiles. “She knows all about that already,” he said. “You can’t get away from it.”

– Aron Heller

Saturday, July 29, 6 p.m. local

HAMETZUDOT JUNCTION, Kiryat Shemona, Israel

At first sight, it seems like just another traffic accident, part of a national epidemic that has killed far more Israelis than all its wars, suicide bombings and rocket attacks combined.

A blue Volkswagen and a gray Honda are mangled after a devastating crash at the last main traffic junction in northern Israel before the Lebanese border. The air bags of both vehicles are slung over the steering wheels and glass and debris are spilled across the street. Police on the scene say three people were injured in the crash, two seriously.

Given the circumstances, it reminds me of the old, somewhat morbid, joke about Israel being such a crazy country that when someone dies as a result of crime, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. (Translation: Well, at least it’s not terrorism).

But this is not your typical open-and-shut case of bad driving. The traffic light above the junction has been deactivated for security reasons, to allow drivers to fly through in case of emergency. Moments earlier, a Katyusha rocket landed in nearby Kiryat Shemona, sending people scurrying back into shelters. The streets, as usual, were almost completely empty. Each of the drivers apparently didn’t even see the other as they sped through a flashing yellow light.

“People see empty streets and forget to slow down at junctions,” the police officer on the scene said, before driving off.

Next to the junction is the largest shopping mall in the region. It too is shut down, save for a pharmacy operating in emergency form.

“This is an essential service,” explains pharmacist Fareh Farhat, adding that in the early days he prescribed more Valium than usual, for those suffering from the constant rocket landings nearby.

– Aron Heller

Saturday, July 29, 2 p.m. local


Huddled in the corner of Public Shelter 110, 81-year-old Adriana Yanishevsky, an immigrant from Chile, knits a red sweater on a thin mattress shoved between two cold, concrete walls.

She’s been here for more than two weeks, since the rockets began falling near her home, where she lives alone. She says she couldn’t stand the noise of the rockets, and sleeps better underground.

Inside the shelter, she keeps mostly to herself, away from the noisy families who occupy the adjacent room. She said she likes it that way.

She can’t read, because the light above is dim. So she spends most of her time sleeping and knitting. It looks so sad, but she said she’s not complaining.

“At least I’m healthy,” she says. “This isn’t hard, my whole life has been hard.”

– Aron Heller

Friday, July 28, 10 p.m. local


Local residents, weary from more than two weeks spent in bomb shelters, trickle out to the main drag in town to do some weekend grocery shopping. The main supermarket is shut but the kiosk and green grocer are open, as a handful of shoppers buy wine, meat and vegetables for the traditional Friday night Sabbath meal.

Guy Peretz, 25, emerges with a bag full of cucumbers and tomatoes. His family has fled south, but he stayed behind, living in the shelter at home with his girlfriend. A lifeguard, he’s had no work since the fighting began. “It’s hard to be at home like this, it feels like a cage,” he said.

So he spent some time in Tel Aviv, and in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, but eventually came back.

“I figured I’d take a trip until it all ended,” he said, as he shrugged off an explosion heard in the background. “But it didn’t, so I came back. How long can you stay away? You miss home. There’s no place like home.”

– Aron Heller

Friday, July 28, 2 p.m. local


Next to the hotel housing most of the foreign journalists covering the fighting on the Israel-Lebanon border is a quiet kibbutz, one of the oldest in the region. Hagoshrim was established around the same time Israel was born, in 1948, and its veteran members have seen their share of wars, rockets and skirmishes along the troublesome border.

Uri Dimand, 65, has lived here since 1953. The gray-haired, ponytailed, tour guide says the barrages are nothing new to him.

“Except for the rockets that keep me from sleeping at night, I can handle everything,” he says.

But having dealt with nature his entire life, he admits the most troubling thing to him to witness is the forest fires sparked by Katyushas landing in open fields.

“Houses you can fix, but 30-, 40-year-old trees? It’ll take another generation for them to grow back. That’s what really hurts,” he said.

– Aron Heller

Friday, July 28, 10 p.m. local


Local residents, weary from more than two weeks spent in bomb shelters, trickle out to the main drag in town to do some weekend grocery shopping. The main supermarket is shut but the kiosk and green grocer are open, as a handful of shoppers buy wine, meat and vegetables for the traditional Friday night Sabbath meal.

Guy Peretz, 25, emerges with a bag full of cucumbers and tomatoes. His family has fled south, but he stayed behind, living in the shelter at home with his girlfriend. A lifeguard, he’s had no work since the fighting began. “It’s hard to be at home like this, it feels like a cage,” he said.

So he spent some time in Tel Aviv, and in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, but eventually came back.

“I figured I’d take a trip until it all ended,” he said, as he shrugged off an explosion heard in the background. “But it didn’t, so I came back. How long can you stay away? You miss home. There’s no place like home.”

– Aron Heller

Thursday, July 27, 4 p.m. local

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel – As firefighters battle the massive flames bursting from an abandoned warehouse, Ronit Elbaz begs police to let her go inside.

The building has just been struck by a Katyusha rocket, one of 16 in an afternoon barrage, six of which were direct hits on structures in Kiryat Shemona. The roof of the storage room is caved in, the windows completely smashed and the crates inside are ablaze. Smoldering black smoke reaches high into the sky.

But Elbaz wants in to salvage anything she can from her adjacent construction company office. Inside, the office is smoky and the roof shaky. Several minutes later, she emerges with a box full of documents. “Everything essential,” she says.

Her husband, Moti, says they’ve been living in the bomb shelter at home for the past two weeks. Under normal circumstances, his wife would have been leaving work at this exact time of day. He said he wasn’t concerned about the physical damage to her workplace.

“Who thinks about the damage? What’s gone is gone,” he said. “I don’t even want to think what would have happened if she was in there.”

—Aron Heller

Thursday, July 27, 10 a.m. local

ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER – Maj. Guy Markizano, 28, sits with his troops under a dusty tent in an artillery battery, sipping black coffee and smoking cigarettes. It’s a rare break from battle and a short spell of silence. All night long they’ve been firing 155 mm rounds deep into Lebanon. Katyusha rockets often land nearby, with a number of soldiers injured. Quiet moments like these are few and far between.

The battery is located adjacent to a cemetery, a fact not lost to the cynical soldier.

“It’s a short commute,” Markinzano said with a grin. “We like to say that they won’t fire in this direction because everyone here is already dead.”

For Hadar Oshri, 44, this war completes a circle. He was drafted shortly before the 1982 Lebanon war and he’s up for retirement in a month. He said he didn’t want to go out this way.

“If the war continues, I’ll stay on,” he said. “I can’t leave my battalion this way, I’ve spent more than half of my life here.”

—Aron Heller.

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