The earth road winds down alongside fruit groves into a clearing perhaps two or three kilometers back from the border with Lebanon.
It's only after I've driven across the clearing that I notice the road has taken us directly past the half-dozen artillery pieces spread out in front of me and that their cannons were pointing in our direction as we drove, although fortunately with somewhat greater elevation. "Don't worry," says my escort from the Army Spokesman's Office (a former Hebrew University buddy), realizing my concern. "They know what they're doing.
In an intense but orderly environment of new and used shells, shouted orders, intermittent blasts and thuds of fire and the faint whiff of cordite, I get talking with Ido, a 20-year-old from Jerusalem, who's been here throughout the past two weeks of war. He directs the fire for his artillery piece, acting on information supplied from a command center, in real time, targeting Katyusha launchers up to 20 kilometers away the moment they fire on Israel.
"Three Katyusha salvoes fell on Haifa two days ago," he tells me. "We hit the launcher before it could fire a fourth time. So, yes, I think what we're doing here is pretty important. And if we're not successful..." He catches himself. "If we're not given enough time to be successful, we or other soldiers will be back here doing it all over again in a few weeks or months or years. I hope that doesn't happen."
The noise of the artillery fire is, if not ear-splitting then certainly ear-numbing. First you see a plume of flame flash from the mouth of the cannon, then comes the crack. You want to duck, even though you know this is outgoing fire. You worry about Ido and his colleagues, targeting the Katyushas; the Hizbullah men with the missiles are plainly, if less accurately, trying to target them, too.
And you worry about the fruit harvesters of the moshav whose groves we've just driven down through. Because in a northern Israel turned into ghost territory by the daily rain of Hizbullah rockets, they're still at work, right here, alongside the artillery unit. They are picking and packing rows and rows of delicious-looking pale green pears, no more than 10 meters from where Ido and I are talking.
It's that kind of resilience that Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz has in mind when he speaks so confidently of the IDF's anti-Hizbullah war enjoying extraordinary support from the people of Israel.
But then, after almost six years of a terror war that has killed hundreds upon hundreds of Israeli civilians all over the country, the public's capacity to withstand relentless efforts at premeditated murder by its Islamic extremist enemies should never have been in doubt.
Israel's military doctrine has been to wage conflicts, wherever possible, on enemy territory, away from our civilians. This time, it is relying on civilians to absorb a degree of enemy fire so as to enable the IDF to proceed in a relatively narrow and focused fashion. A fuller-scale use of force might have halted the Katyushas by now, but at what toll for the soldiers?
The civilians are, uncomplainingly, doing their job. What the critics are increasingly asking members of the IDF top-brass, and more especially the politicians above them who spoke of breaking Hizbullah in a week, is whether, in the overall strategy, planning and dispatch of the men in green, they are doing theirs.
The overall strategy, with its overwhelming reliance on air power, has plainly been far less successful than was hoped. There have clearly been narrow planning and intelligence failures, too: the tank that went over an explosive device just across the border two weeks ago; the missile from which the Hanit was not protected; self-evidently in Bint Jbail on Wednesday.
But no one high in the IDF spoke publicly of routing Hizbullah in a week. The General Staff knew how formidable an enemy it was grappling with, knew Hizbullah had made the most of every day of its six-year hegemony in southern Lebanon. That's precisely why the generals were so adamant about the need to uproot Hizbullah in the first place. And they know, too, that whatever is left undone this time will be all the harder to counter next time.
WHILE THE fighting in Bint Jbail raged just a few minutes drive away, Gantz, the commander of the IDF Ground Forces, gave up an hour of his day to submit to interview by three American TV networks and one British, along with this and one other print journalist.
The questions the TV correspondents posed in their individual interviews were almost identical - essentially, "Why aren't you beating Hizbullah more easily?" And Gantz patiently answered them in much the same language - essentially, "Because it's a well-trained guerrilla-terrorist group and it has had six years to get ready for this."
I don't know how much of this made it onto air, but Gantz also endeavored to stress two underlying aspects of this war that much of the international community has either failed to recognize or doesn't want to: that for those past six years, Israel watched Hizbullah dig in and did nothing, out of the respect for Lebanon's sovereignty that had prompted the dismantling of the security zone; and that while Israel has a clear and vital interest in disarming Hizbullah now, the rest of the world, and most especially the Lebanese, ought to recognize that they share this interest.
Over and again, Gantz stresses that Israel is taking casualties, but that Lebanon is paying the price too - not a price that so much of the international community alleges Israel is charging, but the price of "not lifting a finger" as Hizbullah, "under the protection of Iran and Syria," set itself up in Lebanon as a spearhead for Iranian extremism.
Over and again, the correspondents try to pin Gantz down on how much longer the IDF needs to "do the job," and whether the stated goals - clearing Hizbullah from the border and ensuring, in parallel with a diplomatic effort and the establishment of an international force, that it is dismantled militarily and cannot rehabilitate itself - are attainable. And Gantz, tall, lean and articulate in English, insists each time that "we knew it wouldn't be easy," but that the IDF "is winning," that it is gradually exposing Hizbullah's "bunkers and tunnels and hidden places," that there is "a lot more work for the IDF to do," And that he doesn't feel the clock is ticking down.
In 1982, the IDF swept through southern Lebanon, one of the TV reporters reminds him. But this time it's stuck around Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbail, just across the border. "This isn't 1982," Gantz responds softly, leaving unsaid the elaboration that Israel, this time, is not following a grandiose plan to remake Lebanon's government. "We are targeting the guerrillas in the area, without taking over. If we use our entire forces it will be a different story," he says. "With a different impact."
In his previous IDF post, Gantz was the commander of this region, the head of the army's Northern Command. "I was the last soldier to leave Lebanon six years ago," he sighs. The weaponry that Hizbullah acquired in the years since "is ridiculous," he goes on. "Anti-tank missiles, explosives, guns, radios, surveillance systems, Katyushas and strategic missiles" - all with only one possible target, the Zionist entity to the south. "An organization with strategic capabilities, built up within a sovereign state that did nothing about it," he exclaims again.
But no, he says emphatically, when asked whether the IDF's activities there now can be characterized as an invasion. It is, rather, he says, "a flexible maneuver on the ground. We've used [only] several percent of our forces. An invasion is something else.
"I hope, for Lebanon, that we won't have to do it."
AND STILL the Katyushas fall, dozens and dozens a day. They've emptied the roads of northern Israel and many of the homes, too, closed the shops, silenced many of the tractors. Army vehicles outnumber civilian cars on Route 90 and while they're still stopping for red lights, nobody is keeping to the speed limits.
In the most northerly areas you see implausible numbers of scarred hillsides - trees and shrubs turned black by the fires the Katyushas start when they land.
The scarring is particularly heavy on the road up to Moshav Avivim, its homes nestled heroically in the hillside directly below Maroun al-Ras, scene of heavy fighting earlier this week.
Along from Maroun al-Ras is Bint Jbail, the "symbolic heart" of the border struggle, according to Gantz, although he cautions that there may be other villages with more weapons and more fighters.
Long before the IDF had officially confirmed the deaths of eight soldiers in the battling at Bint Jbail on Wednesday, word of the losses had filtered through to all the army personnel and all the journalists reporting from close to the front.
As troops just minutes away fought for their lives, and ours, against Hizbullah gunmen, another group of soldiers waited below Avivim to be sent into the war zone. One or two were joking around, but most looked hauntingly serious. Some were smoking; others, helmeted, practiced the stances from which they might soon have to open fire - going down on one knee, or flinging themselves to the ground, guns held steady in front of them.
Their red bus to the front had presumably been commandeered from one of the North's canceled summer kids' programs. "Yeladim," said the small sign in the front windscreen to the left of the driver. "Children."
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