Video: Close Call

August 11, 2006

We spent the past two days with our live truck parked next to a group of Israeli combat engineers, with their tanks and armored personnel carriers, very close to the Lebanese border. They'd been staging, waiting for orders to roll into Lebanon.

Today, we moved to a different location with even more armor and soldiers — maybe a mile down the road but still in view of the first location.

At 2:40 p.m. local time, I heard the crash and thud of incoming rockets. There were two or three of them, falling right next to our old spot. I looked up at the sound to see smoke rising from the scene, so I grabbed Dudi (photographer) and Kathleen (producer) and we raced up the hill in Dudi's car.

When we got there, a patch of dry brush between the tanks and the road was in flames. We ran through the smoke to get video of the scene — soldiers yelling at each other, grabbing fire extinguishers and big containers of water, trying to put out the fire.

A Merkava tank was parked too close, so its crew fired it up and rumbled it out of harm's way.

Then a small plane roared in, circled overhead and came in very low, dropping orange flame retardant on the blaze. The plane made two more passes, putting out most of the fire and spraying us and Dudi's car.

Less than 10 minutes later, we raced the tape back to the truck, fed it in to New York, and another 10 minutes after that, I used it for a live shot on "FOX & Friends."

An IDF spokesman was just telling me this morning they'd never stage their armor and men so close together if Hezbollah had an air force. But Hezbollah has plenty of rockets, and they're clearly a threat to soldiers and citizens alike.

Video: Push into Lebanon

August 9, 2006

You know those giant metal-shipping containers that are about the size of a railroad car? Imagine a crane dropping a fully loaded one about 30 or 40 feet into your back yard, and then shaking your house.

Now, one drops in your neighbor's yard, and then another one in yours.

Now, one lands down the block.

And then another right outside your door.

Every few seconds this happens — all night long.

That's what it was like here last night, along the border, with the outgoing artillery fire. It was relentless, earth-shaking pounding. It's easy enough to fall asleep from sheer exhaustion, but impossible to stay asleep for any length of time. It's just so darn loud.

Actually, it's been like this almost every day. But when I was working the primetime shift, I'd go to bed around 8 or 9 in the morning, so the booms of the cannons where interspersed with the occasional wails of sirens and slams of incoming rockets landing nearby.

Then, last night on a kibbutz in a northeast border town, it was just the howitzers. Now, at dawn, I've given up trying to get any more sleep. The IDF has fired more than 100,000 shells in 28 days of fighting, and I feel like I've heard and felt most of them.

We're probably spending the day in the same dusty field we were in yesterday — surrounded by Merkava tanks, Puma armored personnel carriers, and massive D9 bulldozers — watching Israeli reservist soldiers prepare for missions across the border.

We got permission to park our satellite truck in a corner of the field right next to a single tree providing some shade. We fire our camera up every 30 minutes or so from morning until dusk, doing walk and talks around the giant tracked vehicles either sitting still or rumbling out past us onto the road to Lebanon.

The soldiers usually won't speak on camera, but off camera they have plenty to say. They chat with the crew in Hebrew, but most speak English pretty well, too. They are also happy to answer questions, provided they're not mission-specific. The guys I talked to yesterday hadn't been across the border yet. They were motivated and wanted me to know they weren't scared. They were combat engineers — guys who fix broken tanks or clear mines or other obstacles. They weren't the big, tough army soldiers or Marines I'm used to seeing in war zones. Most of these guys were slightly built, but not tall and not imposing. However, they were thoughtful, smart, and focused. Their hair is longer than you'd expect, and one had some of his curls dyed blonde. Some wear religious skullcaps, others the desert floppys with their loose-fitting dark green overalls.

They seem relaxed until they get the order to move out — then they're all business.

"This is our country, we will defend it," one told me.

Yes, he has a wife and kid back home. Yes, he knows other soldiers are dying every day.

"I didn't think twice about coming here. It's my duty. I will protect Israel."

He puts on his flak, helmet, gloves, and goggles, and climbs into a Merkava with his crew — they roll past us, in a cloud of dust and smoky exhaust — into the fight.

August 8, 2006

Since I've been working the night shift, I haven't seen as many Katyusha rockets. Hezbollah only seems to fire them during daylight hours. When I drive in to our live location, I see the fires burning in the hills — sometimes right up alongside the road — and the valley is usually full of smoke.

Sometimes there will be an incoming just as my shift begins, just as the sun sets.

I'm not sure why the guerillas don't fire at night. My guess is they're worried it'd be too easy for the Israelis to spot their position — either from the activity involved in the setup, or the heat and flame signature during launch.

In any case, it makes for a very different environment. The dayshift reporter deals with constant incoming rockets, focusing on the fire, the damage, and the aftermath. At night, we spend more time on the news of the day, and instead of ducking Katyushas, we talk over the deafening outgoing cannon fire of the Howitzers that surround us.

Because we're seven hours ahead, the sun is rising by the time I finish with Greta's show. Soon after I get back to the hotel, the barrage of a new day begins.

UPDATE: Of course, it's Murphy's law. The first night after I write about no Katyushas after dark, we get three or four incoming, just after 8 p.m., local time. I was on the roof with Hollywood, one of our New York photographers, talking about our coverage plans for tomorrow when we heard the streak overhead and felt the booming impact. We grabbed our flaks and helmets, and Mark, Eli, Jennifer Griffin, and Mal James ran up. Jen handled the live shot, but the volley was brief, as there were no major damages visible from our position.

The longer this conflict goes on, the more unpredictable it gets.

August 2, 2006

I got sent to Jerusalem for a few days, and while I was gone, my buddy Ian Rafferty wrote me an e-mail. Ian is one of our producers and we travel together a lot, but this trip he's been working with Shep and now with Trace Gallagher up at the border.

I'm heading up there again Thursday.

Here's Ian's e-mail:

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Missed a loud one here last night.

Kiryat Shmona has air raid sirens now that it's using to warn its citizens of incoming rockets. Very eerie. Reminiscent of WWII movies when the German Luftwaffe used to bomb London.

Shortly after the sirens, the Israelis put out a ton of artillery. They fired for about an hour straight — most of them going right over our live shot position and over the ridge behind us. They've also started firing at a lower trajectory. So instead of just hearing the ripping of the shell through the air, you could now hear the shell whistling as it passed. For the first time, I actually started to the think we may not be in the safest spot.

FOX Report broke in live and took both Trace Gallagher and Jennifer Griffin for the remaining 20 minutes of the show to describe the situation.

I guess Hezbollah decided to start firing katyushas at night again. That's a first since I've gotten here. (11 days now?). Cubrillo e-mailed me at the workspace to tell me that they were hitting close to the hotel in Metula. He could feel the building shake a couple times from near-impacts.

By the time our shift was over, a few hours had passed. It was dawn and all was quiet. We drove back to Metula, went to our rooms and got ready for bed. Then, when I was in the shower, another katyusha came in. It felt as if it landed right outside our hotel. I hit the deck in the shower and waited. The building wobbled and I could hear crashing outside. I thought to myself, "Great. I'm going to die naked. (I've always imagined myself dying naked - but under much different circumstances.)

After a few moments – I decided there were no more rockets coming in, turned off the shower and ventured out of the bathroom. I was half-expecting to see the windows blown in and glass strewn throughout the room. But nothing. Room was fine. Windows intact.

I walked out to the balcony to see where the rocket landed. Off in the distance on a neighboring ridge, I could see a huge pseudo-mushroom cloud rising and dispersing in the wind. The rocket landed about half a mile away. The base of the cloud was easily 100 yards across at the bottom – it was a big rocket. Especially if it could shake our hotel from that far away. I thought, "glad that one didn't get closer."

I looked around to see if anyone else had ventured out to their balcony to take a look, and saw Cubrillo below me on the 3rd floor. (I'm on the fourth floor and the top floor of the hotel - lucky me.)

I yelled down to him, "Felt that too?" He looked up at me like I was an idiot: "Yeah! Shook the whole building!"

Both of us watched the billowing smoke for a moment as the wind continued to blow it away. Then Cubrillo yelled back up to me, "Hey, can I borrow your blackberry charger? Typical — crisis averted. Time to get back to work, or in this case sleep. We had another busy day ahead of us tomorrow.

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Ian later told me he found out the incoming wasn't a big rocket. In fact, it wasn't incoming at all. The IDF destroyed a house on the hill, creating the massive explosion.

July 31, 2006

I didn't need an alarm clock Sunday morning. A Katyusha rocket hit close enough to shake the hotel. Then another hit, and another; I think five hit in all, right at 7 a.m.

Later, at our live location in Kiryat Shmona — more rockets came flying in. One after another, booming into the hillside, occasionally hitting the town.

There were 25 in a single hour, and dozens more in the afternoon.

Early evening, back at the hotel and very close to the border, there were more incoming rockets. None of them hit the building, or even hit the block, but it's still a bit freaky. I keep waiting for the direct shot, wondering if the ceiling will collapse on my head.

Video: Covering Bint Jbail

July 26, 2006

We're spending the day as close to the Israeli-Lebanese border as anyone could possibly get, at an unused guard post featuring communications, lookout towers, and a thickly-fortified concrete bunker.

The fence separating Israel from Lebanon is right in front of us, on the other side of a single-lane road. Beyond the fence is a scorched field about a mile wide and the town of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold where eight soldiers were killed and almost two dozen wounded in an ambush yesterday.

Our Israeli crew talked their way past several military checkpoints to reach this spot, using back roads and the help of Rotem, a local guy who's working with us and knows the area very well.

Almost as soon as Yuri, the engineer, established our live signal and Yaniv hooked up his camera, the howitzers nearby opened fire. They were shelling over our heads and hitting targets with claps of thunder right in front of us, trying to kill off Hezbollah guerrillas who might still be hiding out in town.

The attack didn't last long, and while we've heard sporadic gunfire, fighter jets, and more artillery fire, we haven't seen any more strikes on Bint Jbail since this morning.

In the meantime, the bunker's been a blessing. It feels about 20 degrees cooler inside than out in the bright sun, so we've been using it as a refuge between every live shot. It also makes us feel a bit safer when the rounds are flying by.

Lunch arrived very late because Mark, our Jerusalem bureau manager, got stuck at a checkpoint. The soldiers wouldn't let him through with our food, so Rotem left and met him at the checkpoint and brought back the sacks of grub and sodas. By the time we sat down to eat, the fries were cold and the meat lukewarm, but none of us complained. The bunker burgers definitely beat power bars or MREs.