First person account: War Report from Northern Israel

By Michael Reagan
DSJV Columnist

Editor’s Note: Michael Reagan grew up in Birmingham, and made aliyah a couple of years ago. This is the latest in a series of columns about his transition to life in Israel, from the beginning of the current situation last Thursday through sitting in a bomb shelter this morning. He resides at Kibbutz Yagur.

The 12th started out as normal as my days have been of late. I had worked double shifts the day before and had the day off to complete a few errands. I owed the kibbutz some money for my driver’s license and so my first order of the day was to go to the bank in Haifa.

Banks in Israel move so fast that I decided to catch up with some old friends on the phone; one in particular, an American who was in my unit in the army. Zach answered the phone on the second ring. It was quite a short conversation. “Hello,” “how are you” and then “I think we’re being shot at. I’ll call you back later.”

I know it sounds terrible, but my unit is stationed in the Golan Heights, and it’s not so uncommon to exchange some light fire with Hezbollah, a terrorist army operating out of Syria and Lebanon, up in those parts. We hear about it on the news, but very little ever comes of it.
In a lot of places, there are small shooting skirmishes, but the bases are set up so that the enemy can’t get a proper angle to hit anything. If they can, it’s well enough protected that no bullets get through. This is what I thought was going on. It was nine o’clock in the morning, and there hadn’t been anything out of the ordinary in the north.

Of course there was plenty going on in Gaza. We had just moved into central Gaza after two weeks in the north and south of the strip. Little did I know that the situation on the northern border of Israel was much more serious than I thought.

Finishing up at the bank, I made my way to the bus stop and headed back to the kibbutz. I paid my bill and was killing time until lunch… it was only about an hour away. It was just enough time to sit down at the computer. Curious about the incident up in the Golan Heights, I checked my usual sources on the net to see the result.

I froze. I had been released from the army, but knew that I would have to go back in times of war. I had only been released two weeks ago, and now was a time of war.

That little skirmish included a raid across the border where two more soldiers were kidnapped. We had now had four kidnappings in three weeks and three of them, all soldiers, were being held for ransom. Hezbollah was saying that it was their right to kidnap soldiers until Israel releases all the terrorists they have in prison.

I could see the result in my mind. I could picture all the top brass in Jerusalem saying, “If we don’t do something drastic here, they will keep coming into our country and kidnapping our soldiers.” They would be right. It was tantamount to coming into our homes and taking our babies, and no father would stand for that.

Our Prime Minister, Olmert, called it an act of war, not terror. He personally held the Lebanese government responsible for action. Just like in Gaza, where the Palestinian government wouldn’t take responsibility, the Lebanese government had the same position.

It all boils down to policing yourself. Part of being a government is taking responsibility for the actions of your people. Olmert was going to act upon this.

I went to lunch and sat with Mike. The topic of conversation all over the dining hall was the kidnapping. Everyone knew it was going to be bad. You could feel it in the air. Everyone in that dining room older than me had been in this position before.

Mike had a look on his face that told me his mind was elsewhere. We were going north in the afternoon, to visit his mother in the hospital in Naharia. Mike had gone the last two days after work and it was taking its toll, so I agreed to drive him, so he wouldn’t fall asleep behind the wheel. It was a somber meal and I decided to relax afterward. I specifically didn’t surf the net or watch television for the three hours after lunch. Instead, I just relaxed in the sun.

At four I went to meet Mike and we left. It was an hour drive north and we were talking along the way. Usually his sister would be at the hospital as well, but she had had an awful day. She works in Qiryat Shemonah, a town in northern Israel, and her office building, along with the whole town, had been on lock down all day. When Mike spoke to her on the phone, he could hear Israeli artillery being fired in the background. This situation is not so pleasant for a big brother, especially one who has already lost a sibling to war in Israel.

As he is telling me this, war was the only thought going on in my mind. The radio told us that there were already ground troops in Lebanon and the Navy had moved off the coast near Beirut. It was one thing in Gaza, but to attack Lebanon like this… what were the other nations around us going to do? Dozens of different scenarios floated through my mind, and they all ended in war.

Then reality kicks in. War is something you read about in history books. War is something that happens overseas. We may have acts of terrorism over here, but all-out war… those days are over. And that is the reality my mind assured me of.

Eight soldiers had been killed already, just seven hours after the first shots. Who knew how many were injured, but they were all being taken to the same hospital we were driving to. My mind kept me in denial until I heard, “Reservists are being called up as Israel is now fighting on two fronts.”

I thought of all the history I read, and realized that now I was living it. We really were going to war and not in some far off place, in our own back yard.

After arriving at the hospital, we rounded the emergency room and passed two EMTs unloading a body from the back of an ambulance. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. It’s just a heart attack victim… that’s got to be it.

We continued on to the building Mike’s mother was in. His sister called. She wouldn’t be coming. It had taken her an hour and a half to drive the 20 minutes home from work and she was exhausted. She said that a helicopter came and hovered over her building. It turned and fired a rocket. When the rocket exploded in the distance, all the shooting from across the border ceased, and they were allowed to leave.

It was a lot for Mike to take while sitting with his mother in the hospital. I couldn’t help but worry about all my friends stationed just north of there along the border. They were now the front line.

By the time we left, all the worrying in my mind had exhausted me and I was ready for bed. But after getting home, I found it difficult to fall asleep. This made the 3:30 a.m. alarm feel a lot earlier than usual, and that’s saying something.

I went to work at 4 in the morning, but by the time we had milked all the cows, it was 7:30 and the news was bad. Naharia, the city I had been in just a few short hours previous, had been hit by rockets in the early morning. A woman was dead and more were injured. Israel had retaliated by bombing the Lebanese international airport, and starting a sea and air blockade of the country. All the patients in the hospital that I had visited had been moved underground.

But the news couldn’t just focus on that. Israel had also bombed the Palestinian Foreign Ministry building in Gaza. An all-out war had started on two fronts, and it was only going to get worse from here. At breakfast, Mike told me that his sister couldn’t even go to work, that the town of Qiryat Shemonah was still locked down.

It was all anyone was talking about, but I was amazed at how nonchalant everyone seemed. Almost everyone I work with is in the reserves, and all of us could get that call at any minute and be heading off to war. But life on the kibbutz seems unaffected. Everyone is just going about their business. Now the weather is no longer the topic of conversation, but outside of that, it all just seems so far away, not just an hour’s drive.

We don’t hear any shooting. We don’t see any fighting. There are no planes or helicopters or smoke in the sky. It’s just another beautiful day in paradise on kibbutz Yagur. Unfortunately, though, just to the north, people, friends, family, they are dying.

Too close for comfort

I walked into work on Thursday night. At least once a week I’m required to work at night, but I have no problem with it, seeing that I get the whole next day off. Thursday is a good night to work, because it’s pub night. I can go to the pub when I get off around midnight, and not have to worry about getting up at 3:30 for work.

When I got to the dairy, the girl I was working with, Hen, told me that she heard that Qiryat Motzkin was hit by a Ketusha (the rockets that Hezbollah is using) right before she left the house. That was close, and no one had any idea that they could reach this far south. My feeling of safety dropped about 10 levels at that moment. I could be in Qiryat Motzkin in less than 10 minutes.

We worked hard that night. The cows were all acting funny and just being pains in the tuchus for the three-hour milking. If ever I needed an easy night, this was it, and I wasn’t getting it. When it was over, I was ready to take a shower and head to the pub.

The pub on the kibbutz is a converted bomb shelter that only opens on Thursdays and for special sporting events. Tonight, half the people were outside. They weren’t allowed to smoke in the pub tonight because if we were called to be down there for the whole night, it wouldn’t be nice for some people to be stuck underground in a smoke-filled concrete box. As a non-smoker I had no problem with this and continued on inside.

Once there I found out that Haifa had been hit by two more ketushas while we were milking. People were slightly edgier, but if you didn’t know them, you’d never know there was anything out of the ordinary going on. I knew at this point that my cousins in Jerusalem were not coming up here to visit me for the weekend now. Here I had two days off and three little rockets were going to ruin them.

I’m now skipping to Friday afternoon. Let’s just say it was a late night at the pub and Friday morning didn’t exactly occur in my world.

I woke up and called my cousin Seth. It was confirmed that he and Heidi would not be coming. His cousin had been up in Tzfat, in a café, when a rocket landed very close by. There’s a memory for your vacation in Israel.

She wasn’t hurt, but now back in Jerusalem, she wouldn’t come out of her hotel. I don’t blame her, an event like that can be very traumatizing. What I can’t for the life of me figure out was how she got up there. The roads in the north had been closed for a couple of days. When there are warnings and road closings, it is not such a good idea to find a way around them. But I guess she had a tour guide that could pull strings. It’s a mistake I don’t think she’ll make again.

I needed something to do for the evening, so I checked the Internet for the news I’d been waiting for. The new “Pirates Of the Caribbean” movie was playing at a mall close to the kibbutz. I ordered a car and called some friends. It would take our minds off the situation. We had been waiting for months for this movie to be released and our moods were improving.
The plans were for the 10 p.m. show. I strolled down to the pool to soak up some sun. People were all over, swimming, drinking and playing volleyball. It was a normal Friday afternoon.
The rockets last night didn’t even cross anyone’s mind. That was yesterday’s news.

I called my friend Hilah and found out that one of the ketushas had hit just around the corner from her father’s house, but everyone was okay. The night before she had gone crazy trying to reach the family, but today she was going to the beach.

The time came in the evening to go to the movie, but when we got there, the mall was closed. There were people trying to get in. The parking lot was full, but the mall was closed and so was every pub and dance club in Haifa. The city was a ghost town full of people looking for something to do. There was nothing to do but go back to the kibbutz. At least the anticipation of going to see the movie had cheered us up for a while.

All day Saturday, I just sat in front of the television. Sometimes over at my adopted family’s home and sometimes at mine, I did nothing all day but watch movies and the news.

The news didn’t really have anything new to tell. Friday night a ship had been hit by an unmanned Hezbollah drone in the blockade of Beirut. The ship was towed back to Haifa and of four missing soldiers from the boat, the navy had found only one of their bodies.

Other than that the news had been the same; Israel bombing the Beirut airport for the thousandth time and rockets raining down all over the north of Israel. But we weren’t seeing or hearing anything and the news was being vague in order to keep the enemy from being able to hone in on targets.

It felt like a repeat of Sept. 11 as far as the news was concerned. That’s why we switched to watching movies. You can only watch the same thing over and over again so many times before you commit it to memory and then you don’t need to see it anymore. “That’s incredible!” “No, that’s Eastwood Ford!” “Two miles east of Eastwood mall on highway 78!” See what I mean. I’ll die with that in my head and most people in Birmingham don’t even remember when Eastwood Ford was open.

Watching Israeli television is different; that is, local stations here and not CNN or Sky News. They give an update of the situation every half hour to an hour. It lasts for five minutes and then they continue on with their regular programming, which isn’t worth watching. But if they interview anyone in Arabic, the subtitles in Hebrew go by too fast for me to have any clue as to what they say… so I just translate out loud what it is that I think they are saying. “Israel gave us the Gaza Strip and pulled out of Lebanon. For this they must pay.” Things like that, which I’m pretty sure is close to what’s really going on.

I did watch George Bush speak. (I didn’t need the subtitles for that one.) I wanted to hug him. He was the only leader I heard speak that said exactly my thoughts. We have to remember how this all started. Hezbollah invaded Israel, killed eight soldiers and kidnapped two more. The only way for this to stop is for Hezbollah to return the soldiers and lay down its arms.

The news really can drive you crazy. Hezbollah says it’s their right to take our soldiers. In the same 10-minute broadcast, the Prime Minister of Lebanon says that he wants peace and a cease fire and the Israel must stop what it’s doing, and the head of Hezbollah says that they are escalating to an all-out war.

I keep hearing that Hezbollah is militant group acting outside the government of Lebanon, and that Israel must distinguish between the two. Israel is doing exactly that, but something seems to be overlooked. Over one sixth of the seats in the Lebanese parliament are held by Hezbollah. If you are just scanning this, I think that bears repeating. Over one sixth of the seats in the Lebanese parliament are held by Hezbollah. A similar percentage of the Knesset is held by the Kadima party.

This isn’t like the U.S. where two parties rule, there are dozens of parties and to hold 23 seats puts a particular group in power. You may not be the ruling party, but you definitely have sway in the government and a lot of the population voted for you.

But the one thing that is definitely going on, people are dying on both sides of this war. The totals are climbing, and I don’t see an end in sight.

That evening, my uncle Lewis called. I can say one thing about this conflict; it sure is urging my family to keep in touch with me. I am always getting calls from the U.S. now. It is nice.

Lewis was head of the Patriot project at Lockheed Martin. For those of you who weren’t paying attention during the first Gulf War, the Patriot is an anti-missile missile. He asked if I had heard of any of them being used. No. These rockets that are falling are not accurately fired missiles; they are simply big fire works. Hezbollah just aims them southward and they fall where they fall. There is no guidance system on them and no defense and it’s about as accurate as a bottle rocket. The weapon is so primitive that the only true defense against it is to occupy enough of southern Lebanon so that the rockets have to be fired from out of range.

Sunday morning, I didn’t have to be at work until 8:30 a.m. I arrived and began doing my chores; moving groups of cows for cleaning and cooling, and cleaning their water troughs. It was a normal day.

The early crew was just returning from breakfast and there was a couple of guys with a weird truck that was used to pick the cows up off the ground on their sides. The cows were less than thrilled about this, but it was used so the men could clean the cows’ feet. I watched for a few minutes because I just couldn’t understand. The ground is covered in… dung; not a little, you sink into it half way up your calf. They were cleaning the cows’ feet and then putting them right back down in… well, let’s just say I didn’t quite understand the point.

Other than that, it was a normal day. Aaron, an Ulpanist (a person in the Hebrew learning program here on the kibbutz) spent the weekend with family in Jerusalem, and couldn’t return because the roads were closed to Haifa, so he wasn’t coming to work today. And the morning was cool, which was odd. The sun actually didn’t start baking us until after 9:30, which was about two hours too late to be normal.

But before that, we all heard it. THUMP…THUMP…THUMP THUMP THUMP. It sounded like a car stereo bumpin’ to the music from far away. Everyone gathered together by the office and stared to the north to see if we could see anything. People were arguing over where they thought it hit. But everyone knew that it was close. The radios were immediately turned up so that we could hear. They just seemed to keep coming… THUMP. Then they stopped, and a few minutes after they stopped, we all went back to work.

I worked for about 10 minutes and then we were ordered to report to the nearest bomb shelter. The whole kibbutz left work and spent the morning in bomb shelters.

I was at the one next to the General Store on the kibbutz, so the workers had brought coffee and cake and cookies and popsicles. I can’t say that with the way we smelled, coming from the dairy, that they were exactly happy to see us, but no one complained too much.

It was nice and relaxing. People were talking as if it was Friday night and they were just hanging out. Most remembered spending months like this back in 1991, when scud missiles from Iraq were falling on Israel. But even if they had been here before, there was a tension in the air. It could be felt and sensed but not seen. I guess it’s that thick Israeli skin.

At 11:30 a.m., the dining room opened for lunch, and that alone got people out of their shelters. As for me, it doesn’t matter what’s going on; if there is a milking scheduled, the cows must be milked. So I ran to grab some lunch and headed back for the 12:30 milking.

Now the reports were coming in. They had hit Qiryat Haim, Nesher and the checkpost. They had also hit the closest train station to us. But it was the Qiryat Haim and Nesher that worried me.

Qiryat Haim is only a 15-minute walk from the kibbutz. I could be there in five minutes without sprinting and even less in a car. Nesher is also adjacent to the kibbutz, just on the north side.

Eight people had been killed and dozens injured. I called Hilah to be sure she was okay and then sat down to eat a quick lunch with Sara and Afik, and we went about the normal afternoon of milking the cows. Once again they were acting up. I guess their skin isn’t as thick as the kibbutzniks. They know when something is wrong and that translates into a tough day at the office for me.

Now I’ve had a shower and am sitting at my computer. I hear planes flying overhead. I can’t figure out why they are flying over here, except maybe to be sure that no enemy planes attack, but then again, how many times can we destroy their airport. I hear the occasional thump, but it’s so far off that I assume we don’t need to be in bunkers. There is a siren on the kibbutz, and when it goes off, we all have assigned bunkers nearby to run to.

I know that Hezbollah is trying to hit the oil refinery in the Haifa bay, and because of the primitiveness of their weapons, they might accidentally hit us. But from the outside it just looks like the kibbutz is saying, “here we go again” with no emotion in its voice. It’s as if this is completely normal. But underneath, people are nervous; some want to be called up to go fight and others just want it to be over.

Everyone, however, is worried that someone they know will get hurt, or worse. I do have to say that the outward calm of the kibbutz is also somewhat soothing. It keeps people from going crazy and is allowing me to go about my daily routine. But I tell you, milking cows in the middle of all this is just a pain in the tuchus.