For over a month, the traffic lights in Kiryat Shmona have been disabled. On Monday they were turned back on and cars began piling up on the city's main drag. Children were seen once again strolling down the streets of Rosh Pina and Safed. Troops were lying on patches of grass along the shores of the Kinneret laughing after emerging from battles in Lebanon.
Life began to get back to normal. The only question left was: for how long?
Israel's war in Lebanon, launched 35 days ago, changed the face of northern Israel. Rockets landed incessantly in cities such as Haifa and Nahariya on the coast and Kiryat Shmona and Safed in the Galilee.
Thousands of IDF soldiers fought in fierce battles in Lebanon. Over 7,000 targets were struck by IAF aircraft which carried out an outstanding 15,500 sorties over Lebanon. A total of 118 soldiers lost their lives in the fighting, some in clashes in villages like Bint Jbail, Maroun a-Ras and Ayta Shab and others in Katyusha attacks like the one last week in Kfar Giladi, which killed 12 reservists.
On Monday, northern Israel stepped into a new reality, for now tense and complicated. But it is a reality that could in the long-term change the face of the entire Middle East.
As residents of northern Israel flocked back to their homes on Monday, the IDF laid down its arms, held its fire and suspended airstrikes and artillery shelling of Hizbullah targets in Lebanon. Soldiers on the ground in Lebanon went from offense to defense and were instructed to only engage Hizbullah gunmen if their lives were in immediate danger. Trucks carrying Katyushas or Hizbullah gunmen would be allowed to flee southern Lebanon and would not be bombed as they would have during the past 35 days of fighting.
Touring the border with Lebanon on Monday, senior officers expressed a hesitant optimism regarding the UN-brokered cease-fire that went into effect early Monday morning and regarding its potential to last. OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam said the cease-fire agreement had "many holes" but added that it's obtainment was a success for Israel, militarily and diplomatically. Other officers went even further and said that the cease-fire agreement had the potential of eliminating Hizbullah once and for all.
But no matter how one looks at the situation, the success of the cease-fire cannot be judged today but only in a year from now or even longer.
In the short-term, the IDF's detractors are right, senior officers admitted Monday. Hizbullah is still functioning; Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is still alive and he still is in full control of his thousands of guerillas and rockets. The military, these officers claim, knew from the outset that Hizbullah could not be destroyed militarily and that ultimately only a diplomatic resolution would do the work.
By the end of the week, the IDF hopes to have begun withdrawing its troops from Lebanon. On Wednesday or Thursday, the newly-upgraded UNIFIL force will begin deploying in southern Lebanon together with the Lebanese army. Reservists will begin to be released to their homes and families by the weekend, a process that will, if the cease-fire holds, continue into next week.
So while the cease-fire was met with optimism it was, officers stressed, still fragile and capable of falling apart at any minute. Will the new multinational force succeed in preventing Hizbullah from returning to southern Lebanon? Will the Lebanese government succeed in disarming Hizbullah? These important questions can only be answered months or even years from now, but in the meantime, the residents of the North can return to their homes, this time, however, with hope for a better future.