September 15, 2000

Mission Impossible: 'Normal Life' Along the Israel-Lebanon Border


Until three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped on the Lebanon-Israel border in an intricately planned Hizbollah ambush last October, many Israelis thought their country had rid itself of the problems that had come with fighting a guerilla war in southern Lebanon.

After all, since June the Israel Defense Forces was no longer engaged in the kind of borderless, bush-to-bush combat that had characterized Israel's 18-year foray into southern Lebanon, and many Israelis believed that the moral high ground their nation had forfeited when it invaded Lebanon in 1982 was theirs again for the taking. Road bombs, sniper fire, and dangerous nighttime convoys were a thing of the past; now UN peacekeepers were deployed along the border to prevent the two belligerents from coming to direct blows.

But with the boundary between the two countries suddenly redrawn, intensely hostile neighbors have been brought closer than ever before, and the battle lines in this decades-long conflict have been blurred in a dangerous and sometimes confusing way.

"Our mission here is to sustain normal life," Itamar Goldfisch, spokesman for the Israel Defense forces, said during a recent tour of the northern border. "But between the new borders the United Nations has set and the reality of the Israeli cities here in the north, this kind of a border is very tough to defend."

Nowhere are the challenges of this new border more obvious than at a disputed gravesite that sits on a hilltop near Tziporen, Israel.

In many ways, this contested holy site, where Jews say the Talmudic scholar Rav Ashi is buried and where Arabs say a Muslim prophet lies, goes to the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And like Jerusalem, itself a contested holy site, the state of affairs atop this picturesque hill defies the would-be peacemakers of the world to find a solution to this seemingly intractable conflict.

At this disputed gravesite, there is no common ground.

Until the UN determined two months ago that the border crossed this particular hilltop, the site was comprised of a modest memorial to Rav Ashi, built in part with American Jewish donations. But when the line of the border was amended in June following the IDF's withdrawal, the boundary between the two hostile states became the tombstone itself, with neither the Lebanese nor the Israelis willing to give an inch.

Today there is no fence between the two countries at this particular spot.

Armed Israeli soldiers face off against Lebanese militiamen separated by a tombstone no more than eighteen inches wide. Both sides have dug in their heels. Sandbags run the length of the platform that comprises the memorial, behind which Israeli soldiers stand, their hands on their weapons, their faces as hard as the stones around them.

On the other side, armed Hizbollah men taunt the Israelis, flashing the weapons stuffed into their pants and reminding the soldiers of their hasty retreat from Lebanon. Lebanese fathers bring their wives and children to see the Israelis, and the curses that fly across the border need no translation.

"There are some unspoken rules here," says IDF Commander Itai Russo, standing a few yards behind the tombstone that marks the new international border, arm on his weapon, dressed in a flak jacket and bulletproof vest. He points to the half-yard area that is the width of the tombstone, the no-man's land into which neither the Lebanese nor the Israelis set foot. "Last week a man stepped into the half-meter area nobody goes into. The UN wasn't here. I aimed and cocked my weapon and was ready to shoot."

The man quickly stepped back.

UN peacekeepers have been dispatched to the site to keep simmering tensions from exploding into a full-scale incident, but when things get really tense they take their leave, preferring to step aside and make themselves scarce rather than risk getting caught between the two adversaries when things at the border heat up.

And at Rav Ashi's grave, as along the entire border, pure reason is the only deterrent to violence.

"It's a very problematic situation here," said Morag Amsalem, an IDF paratrooper standing guard at the grave border. "They make fun at us. They curse us. They spit at us. We're here and we can't respond."

As Amsalem talks, a Lebanese man on the other side of the tombstone hears another Israeli soldier calling his friend by his Russian-sounding last name.

"You should go back to Russia," the man shouts at the Israeli soldier. "What did you come here for?"

The Israelis do not respond.

"What hurts most is that they bring their kids here and teach them hatred," Russo says. "You see the hatred in their eyes."

"There is no solution," he says, nodding in the direction beyond the gravesite, where a group of Hizbollah militiamen stand talking. It's not clear whether Russo is talking about the contested gravesite or the Arab-Israeli conflict.

During Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, years of a fluid border obscured the actual boundary between the two countries. As a consequence, Israeli towns grew northward and Lebanese villages southward, both edging closer to the international line.

Several weeks after the IDF withdrew, UN inspectors came to determine where exactly between the two countries lay the international border, established in the Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and the British in 1916. But their conclusions contradicted the memories of many local Israelis, who say the UN reinterpreted the boundary to give Lebanon more land. The Lebanese, for their part, contend that the boundary has been reinterpreted in favor of the Israelis.

In some places, the border is marked only by a pole, an olive tree, or a dirt road lined with bulldozers and earth-moving equipment. During the daytime, Romanian workers labor under the hot autumn sun to build an electronic border fence Israel hopes will allay some of the fears and problems wrought by the open border.

Israeli civilian roads run right along the redrawn border, and children from Israeli homes play in backyards that are within shouting distance of Hizbollah militiamen.

At Fatima Gate, which used to be known as the "Good Fence," Israel's Lebanese allies used to cross the border on their way to do their shopping in Israel, and Israeli soldiers went through Fatima on their way to positions in their security zone in southern Lebanon. Since May, however, the kiosks and gift shop at Fatima have been closed. Hastily erected concrete barriers have divided a road that once ran through this border crossing. Buildings are empty; what was once a waiting room has been turned into an armed outpost.

Nobody goes through Fatima anymore.

Instead, Israeli soldiers sit in a perch monitoring Hizbollah activity across the fence, which has been fortified with concrete blocks and extra-high screens to block incoming Lebanese stones and Molotov cocktails. On the Israeli side, no one comes here anymore except for the occasionally curious visitor, who quickly realizes there isn't much to see.

On the Lebanese side, busses come carrying men, women, and children, followed by trucks carrying rocks for them to throw at the Israelis. Inside their fortified positions, the Israelis sit and watch.

"The hope is that there eventually will be a free crossing here, commerce, and more," Goldfisch says. "That's the IDF's hope. But right now that's very far away."