Reporter's Notebook: Nobody is "Playing Nice"

Friday, August 4, 2006
Kiryat Shmona

"Play nice," screams Mal James, directing his verbal fire at both Hezbollah and the Israeli military. It’s a downright comical announcement. He made it a few times yesterday, and now a few times this morning too, after the crushing boom of a 155mm Israeli Howitzer cuts through the air.

Neither side in this war listened to Mal yesterday. No one would today either. Not that Mal expects his order to command any attention.

RRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. RRRRRRRRRRrrrrr. The air raid siren cranked up early on this Friday. Considering what the alarm is supposed to presage, I don’t find the sound as ominous as perhaps I least not yet. There’s no time to dwell upon your surroundings or upon the danger, just time to react.

It’s just three days into this posting, and I am already getting somewhat accustomed to certain routines that <i>should</i> be downright dismaying. I can swing my flak jacket over my body and button up, without breaking stride (my best time is about ten seconds). I can eat a meal <i>al fresco</i> amid a raucous cacophony of war noise. And I can translate the body language of Bureau Chief Eli Fastman as to whether it’s outgoing Israeli or incoming Hezbollah fire:

When Eli repeatedly wags his index forward, with the same sense of deliberateness as a teacher lecturing an elementary school kid, that’s the sign for outgoing. When he raises his index finger in the air, and holds it like a parent about to tell his child something important, that’s the sign to stay alert. And when he twirls his index finger in rapid fashion, with the same motion as a New Year’s Eve reveler, that’s the sign for incoming. The latter is the sign you don’t like to see.

Today, we didn’t even get a sign. The rockets showered Kiryat Shmona so quickly it’s as if the rockets were coming out of an automatic machine gun. BOOM! BOOM! Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. BAM! ZZZZZzzzzzzzzz. BAM! You have no idea when a Katyusha rocket is headed your way, but if you hear their signature echo, you know they are close. Often, it’s too late. Imagine Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader engaged in a light saber fight. That buzzing WHOOSH is kinda how a Katyusha sounds before its violent life ends in an explosion.

As fate would have it, we were getting ready to go live on the air for FOX & Friends, when a barrage of Katyushas started screaming into our world. For about 15 minutes, it was as if the gates of Hell had opened, and we were invited to watch.

BOOM! BAM! ZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. BAM! BAM! BAM! It seems everytime I tried to collect my thoughts, a fresh strike forced me to steer my talking points to a different side of the mountain, or a different side of the city, or a different farm field. The strikes were EVERYWHERE! The action was intense! ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! I caught just the tail end of the rocket as it streaked over the top of our building, coming within 500 yards of nailing our workspace. It’s at this point, that I leaped to the ground to take cover. It’s at this point that this war became acutely real.

Over the course of those 15 minutes, more than 40 rockets would slam the greater Kiryat Shmona area, killing one person. Two others were killed by rocket attacks, raising the Katyusha death toll to 30. Sobering numbers on a sobering day, a day in which you are forced to take stock of your life and how quickly it can all end.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Kiryat Shmona

In recent days, members of the Israeli Cabinet have flatly pronounced that this war has significantly weakened the Hezbollah weapon stockpile. Although they certainly know more than I do about this battle, I question whether they would make such proclamations, if they had been present in Kiryat Shmona on this day.

Watch Jeff Goldblatt's report

It was quite an introduction to the front lines. It was a record day…for all the wrong reasons.

I arrived on location for my day of work at 8:30 a.m. Within an hour, the sky came alive with a personality of anger and hostility, the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! — Outgoing Israeli artillery.

ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzziiiippppp! BANG! POW! — Incoming Hezbollah Katyusha.

It was as if the soundtrack of “Star Wars” had come to life. No, not when Han Solo is flirting with Princess Leia, but the scene at the end when Luke Skywalker is dodging enemy fighters as he and his fellow pilots try to shoot down the Death Star.

In an instant, the air raid siren wailed and wailed. But instead of ducking into the bomb shelter (they are ubiquitous in Northern Israel) of our concrete fortified building, we raced to the roof to try and capture the action.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing! BANG! ZZZZZzzzzzip! BANG! — Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rockets slice through the dry summer air, invisibly screaming across the skyline. The aftermath is all you see. A dark plume of smoke rising from a tree line is the calling card of a strike.

Some of the hits are close — no more than a half mile away. Within a 15-minute stretch, we count at least ten Katyusha strikes on the ridgeline. My heart pounds with such intensity; it’s as if it was trying to jump out of my body. Some of the “BOOMS” are so ferocious that my inners actually seem to shake. The adrenaline valve is open full throttle. I don’t consider myself a cowboy (I DO have two young children), and yet I was never terrified by my surroundings. On edge yes, but certainly in no way petrified. Perhaps, it’s because the action happened too fast, or because I had no baseline of comparison. After all, it was my first day in Kiryat Shmona.

It was only hours later, that my photographer Mal James, who is one of this business’ most intrepid and experienced war journalists, said, “I thought about heading downstairs to the bomb shelter myself.”

Oh, NOW you tell me, MAL!

Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Eastern Israel

"Lord I was born a ramblin' man. Trying to make a livin' and doing the best I can."

The Allman Brothers were belting out one of their finest songs — even my Israeli cab driver knew the beat. He started singing along and drumming his hands in rapid fashion against the steering wheel as if it were a bongo.

But it couldn't have been a more incongruous setting for such an arguably all-American classic, as we raced north along Highway 90. On my right side: the creased, majestic curves of the Jordanian border. On my left: the parched, hulking cliffs of the West Bank. And here we were "ramblin" along at 120 kilometers-per-hour plus, along a sliver of pavement that on the smallest of scales has been a lightning rod for some of world's fiercest fighting. It's weighty, deep stuff.

Up the road, Kiryat Shmona awaits, as well as the chance to get a deeper sense of what this conflict means and why Israel and Hezbollah are shedding blood like that of many of their ancestors.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

He didn’t want me to print his name out of fear.

“I want to put my name,” he stressed with such passion that his arms flailed from his sides. “It’s very sad I can’t use it. I am not scared. But I have children. If I die, they will have no one.”

It’s not like this man possesses a secret — except his opinion.

For the sake of this story, let’s call him, “Joe.” Afterall, “Joe” studied in Europe for 11 years to be a teacher. His English is excellent. He is quite familiar with Western ways. And so, I’ve chosen to give him a name which befits the Western world, as opposed to his own world, in the Middle East.

“In Arab society, they say I am a bad Muslim,” boasted Joe with a warm smile…one of those smiles that’s disarming in such a way that your ears immediately perk and you trust what that person has to say.

“I like to drink my alcohol. I like to smoke my cigarettes... Dance.”

He also likes to talk. And I like to listen. So, tonight was Joe’s turn to tell me what he thought about the Middle East conflict and the quest for peace in the region.

"We are all not happy here, because we are all missing a piece,” said this hulking figure of a man, whose large shape belied his soft heart. “I cry. I love to cry. I cry when I see a child, if he is Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi. He is only starting to walk, but he is cut into pieces.”

A part-time taxi driver, Joe sought me out at my hotel because he says he wants the world to know a couple things: 1) Not every Muslim-Palestinian wants to wipe Israel off the map. 2) Peace is still possible.

Joe could easily be bitter about his life. He tells me about a relative who will never walk again, shot in the back by Israeli police two days before his cousin’s own wedding. “He didn’t hear them. They told him to stop. He didn’t hear them.”

But if Joe harbors any hate, it’s not directed at the Jewish people. He tells me he has Jewish friends. Many of them. “You think if I see Israeli children bleeding, that I want that? No! God doesn’t want that. God doesn’t want that we kill children.” Instead, he reserves his ammunition for politicians: Israeli, Palestinian, American. No one is immune.

“Everyone is responsible about what’s going on here,” he says. “The problem is much bigger than Hezbollah. If Israel and Palestine had peace, the whole world would be at peace.”

As Joe sees it, the U.S. holds a three-of-a-kind in a real life game of Texas Hold 'em poker. It’s a nearly unbeatable hand, but you still have to play your cards right. In his opinion, president after president has blown opportunity after opportunity to achieve peace.

“Please tell Mr. Bush to find people like me,” Joe urges, putting his hand on my forearm for extra emphasis.

He calls Palestinian militant groups, Fatah and Hamas (which won control of the Palestinian “Parliament” in January in an election that was sanctioned by the United Nations), “liars, thieves and criminals.”

“Muslim Arabs worldwide,” he tells me, “aren’t doing themselves any good...You can’t finish Fatah and Hamas with weapons. But with a new ideology. Palestinians want that. Palestinians miss that.”

Before we parted ways, “Joe” told me he wished he had the money to pay for the millions of people in Israel and the Palestinian territories to travel to Europe and live together for awhile outside of the war zone in harmony. There, he said, they would get a taste of democracy, education and employment. “They will be friends.”

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

“I didn't want to be some place looking over my shoulder.”

Julie Jacobs had been reticent to travel to Israel over the years, but the New Jersey mother of two teens, along with her family, finally decided to take the trip, which had long eluded her.

“I had reservations about coming over. It was a close call,” said Jacobs, in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, where she spent the final leg of a ten-day tour, sponsored by United Jewish Communities.

UJC, as it's known in the U.S., is a social and philanthropic advocacy group with the mission of promoting Judaism in America. In addition, it sponsors multiple trips to Israel and coordinates tours that teach about Israeli culture and history — a history with a fresh and possibly defining chapter written at this very moment. Ironically, the war in Lebanon didn't deter Jacobs, but others felt differently.

“They were scared. They thought that with the situation over here, the backdrop was too depressing to have a good time,” said Michelle Cheslow, UJC's mission manager for a group that was suppose to be 113.

Instead, just 54 people made the journey, among them 13-year-old Daniel Kureck from Stockton, California. It was Kurek's first trip to Israel. Holding a wide grin as we chatted, with an iPod in his hands, Kurek characterized the trip, given to him as a bar mitzvah gift by his grandparents, as an adventure of a lifetime. “I got to see a lot of history,” he said. “I learned a lot…I was never scared because we were never close to the action.”

Instead of a two-day swing through Northern Israel, UJC shifted two days of its itinerary to the south because of the war. Instead of the Golan Heights and Galilee, Kurek, Jacobs, and the others spent time in the desert.

“It moved better,” said Cheslow. “It provided them with a window into how Israel responds under crisis.”

In fact, in the middle of the tour, the group's security guard was called away for Army duty.

“People feel proud to be here. It strengthens their commitment…a couple of Katyushas [rockets] aren't going to keep us away,” Cheslow stressed.

Jacobs told me she would like to return to Israel one day.

“It was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. It was comfortable to be surrounded by people as the same faith as you.”

Here's a side note that underscores the tension in this nation. After taking a picture of the UJC's tour bus for this column, an Israeli man followed me down a sidewalk. Upon catching up to me, he sternly questioned, “Why are you taking picture of that bus?”

“What?” I responded, somewhat taken aback by his question.

“The bus? Why are you taking a picture of that bus?”

“It's for the tour!” I emphatically replied and quickly walked away, convinced he was undercover security and wanted to confiscate my camera for security reasons.

Monday, July 24, 2006

"It is two different countries," Nehamma tells me, as she drags on a cigarette a table away in an outdoor Jerusalem café, which brims with business on this afternoon. "Life goes on," she says.

Although Nehamma spoke her mind, she seemed to speak for many Israeli Jews in the southern reaches of this nation of seven million. Unlike the north, where residents have hunkered in bunkers for the greater part of two weeks and villages and towns have witnessed a modern-day diaspora of sorts, Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem breathe with vibrant life.

"I feel guilty," chimes in Shon, Nehamma's daughter, as she pecks away on a text message. With one eye on her cell phone, and another on her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter now climbing chairs and picking at utensils, she adds, "Nothing changes in my life. It's not like I can do something."

Distant yes, but not detached.

"We care about the Lebanese. We think they are suffering, just like we are. But Hezbollah is using them. We are victims. And they are victims of [Hezbollah]."

Nehamma tells me she watches a great deal of television these days. She watches local coverage for the Israeli perspective and Sky News (FOX's sister network in the U.K.) for the international take on this conflict. "We care about people," she stresses with conviction.

Over the course of an hour, Shon's daughter never did sit still. Tom, with her angelic face and braided hair, buzzed from table to table as if she were a bee hopscotching to every flower in the garden. When I ask whether Tom is aware of what is taking place only a few hours away, mom and grandmom shake their heads. "No," says Shon. "Probably better," says Nehamma.

Friday, July 21, 2006

George, Mike, and Nate. Typical American names for three kids whose “game” was anything but typical. More accurately, it was a collectively awful display. The game had the hallmarks of an elementary school free-for all, where fouling and traveling are the keys to victory.

Although Israel has some outstanding basketball players, this didn't seem like the playground where “hoop dreams” were made. Dreams of peace, on the other hand, were certainly more relevant for conversation, yet seemingly just as unrealistic, as Maroun's chance of making the NBA.

“I wish for peace,” Maroun said in broken English. As a Christian Arab who lives in Israel, he says he prays for both Muslims and Jews in this current conflict. Mike, who is Muslim, nodded his head, smiled, and said, “Yes,” when I asked him if he wants peace. The Jewish players did the same.

Why is it that Jewish and Muslim boys can get along on a basketball court in Israel, but want to kill each other when it comes to the broader field of life? Why is it that aggression on this playground comes in the form of fouls, but off the court, the hits are intended to be fatal? Why is it that Jews and Muslims can play basketball together, but on the battlefield, hate each other's guts? These are rhetorical questions, with complicated answers. Regardless, I am thankful for this game. It serves as a slim ray of hope that perhaps peace in the Middle East is not as fleeting as a dream. And it's a great way to work up a sweat!

(On a side note, 2 Israeli-born players were drafted in the NBA's second round this year. However, no Israeli-born player has ever made it to the NBA.)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The bowl of pea soup was scrumptious and fresh. The green hue of liquid beamed radiantly amid the warm golden sun, which marked the final hours of another brilliantly gorgeous, typical summer day.

If you let your mind wander in this nation, you can suspend thought of rockets, suicide attacks, and terrorists. But it's never a clean break. Just as I pause to collect my thoughts, I see a wand cross my field of vision. A security officer is waving that wand across a seemingly harmless, middle-aged couple. Weapon check.

A few spoonfuls of soup remain in the bowl. Mr. Security sits down in his chair. For him, the wand-waving seems route. For me, it's a reminder that Israel is a vulnerable land that cannot afford to not be vigilant.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Tel Aviv

I greeted the immigration agent in Tel Aviv with a smile and said, "Shalom."

I figured entry would be a breeze. It was anything but.

The agent's brow immediately creased as she flipped through my passport. Her nostrils flared. In a sharp, somewhat incredulous tone, she asked, "You've been to Pakistan?" It's not the typical excursion for an American, even for a network journalist. I thought my explanation was certainly sufficient. I have nothing to hide. I'm not a threat.

Her response: a phone call.

I couldn't understand a lick of what she was saying except for the word "Pakistan." She told me to step to the side. I figured her supervisor would be with me shortly.

My time in the waiting area was just long enough to look around and catch a glimpse of the cast-offs in this purgatory of sorts, all quietly wondering whether they would get the green light into Israel. By looks alone, it seemed to me that most of these people were of Arab descent. One man had his shoes off, suggesting his wait had not been a short one.

A few minutes passed before a woman summoned me into her office. "Do you mind if I close the door?" she asked. I've always wondered how an Israeli interrogation was conducted. I was about to find out.

"You've been to Pakistan?" asked the supervisor as her first line of questioning. This time I decided to be somewhat daring, so I pointed to my passport and quipped, "and Afghanistan and Iraq too." She paused to reflect and then the tone shifted. How long was I in Afghanistan? What did I do? How did I get from Afghanistan to Pakistan? Was it an open border? Ummmm. Her last question required deeper concentration. I wasn't sure what answer she wanted. I thought, "What if I get a question wrong?"

Fortunately, unlike the immigration agent, the supervisor could muster a smile. She seemed to catch on quickly that she was stirring the pot for no good reason. But a job is a job, and Pakistan, in her nation's view, is tantamount to a scarlet letter.

My assumption was underscored when a few of her colleagues opened the door to get a sense of what was taking place. They saw my FOX ID strewn across her desk. They knew their colleague was barking up the wrong tree. They went back and forth a bit. She would then defend her position and utter, "Pakistan." Then, she would smile. "You don't need to worry about me," I playfully told the room. "If you want to find me, you can always turn on your TVs."

Before leaving, another supervisor, with a firm handshake and a wide smile said,"I hope you will say something nice about Israel in your reports." I wanted to reply, but he had a gun, and I had been in that room for longer than any I had ever spent with a principal. So, I said nothing. The supervisor then apologized. I thought, "No worries. Thanks for giving me the grit for my first day's log of my trip to Israel."

Monday, July 17, 2006
Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport

It's been four years since my last trip to Israel. With two kids now in the picture, so much has changed in my life. However, four years have not brought change to the Middle East, at least not at the most basic of levels. Today, peace remains ever as elusive and there is blood seemingly spilled every day.

The big picture is another story, seeded with the possibility of colossal change for the region — maybe the world. The stakes seem higher this time around. The tension seems more palpable. The conflict seems to have fewer boundaries. This time, Hezbollah is in the picture. The same goes for Syria and Iran, or at the very least, for their fingerprints. As in the past, Israel's defense is self-defense, but it has come to the battleground this time, with a bounty of weaponry and boundless determination. There are politicians and pundits in the U.S. flatly stating that this fresh round of combat could be the flashpoint of World War III. By watching TV late last week, I had a hunch that the combat would exceed the typical, even for this region. My presumption was affirmed over the weekend, when I got the phone call to head overseas.