Reporter's Notebook: The Cease-Fire Countdown

August 14, 2006
Kiryat Shmona

The countdown to a cease fire is underway. BOOM. It’s 7:30 a.m. BOOM! The truce becomes official at 8:00 a.m., but BOOM, Israeli Howitzers continue to fire unabated. BOOM!!!

Tick. Tick. Tick. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Tick. Tick Tick.

A mere half-hour ago, our driver Amachai, a 34-year-old former combat engineer with the Israeli Army, insisted on wearing his flak jacket upon picking us up at the hotel for our trip to the workspace. Just yesterday, he wouldn’t drive without a Kevlar helmet. “It ain’t over until it’s over,” he stresses, borrowing one of the best known of all aphorisms of Hall of Fame, former New York Yankee’s catcher Yogi Berra. Coincidentally, Amachai looked like a catcher himself some days, the way he suited up. At least, today, he felt comfortable enough to lose the helmet. It was a start.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

8:00 a.m. arrives without fanfare. There aren’t any white doves let loose. You didn’t see any olive branches waved in the air. And there certainly wasn’t a falling crystal ball, reminiscent of a New York City New Year’s Eve. If anything, it might have been more appropriate, in this twisted setting, to sound the air raid siren one time for good measure.

At 10 a.m., we did the unprecedented for this assignment: a leisurely, uninterrupted daytime meal. No sirens. No rockets. No brushes with death. Just a decent, sit-down breakfast with friends. I even had time to digest afterwards. For weeks, my environment has been defined by so much restive tumult, that I had almost forgotten how to truly rest.

Around noon, I crossed paths again with Amachai. No flak jacket this time. “I’m enjoying the quiet,” he said, smiling in a way I had not seen in days. He liked my jokes. They made him smile, but the freedom he enjoyed today seemed to bring a deeper sense of happiness. “I feel relaxed. This is good. I’m going to have a beer tonight.”

By the afternoon, another small sign of progress: A videotape was handed to me, showing that the traffic lights had started to function once again in Kiryat Shmona. After two weeks here, I had become inured to the blinking amber in town — its tacit warning similar to its utilitarian, everyday purpose: “Slow down. Proceed with caution.”

And yet, it’s not like life was back full-throttle because of a mere tick of a clock from one minute to the next. In fact, Israeli soldiers today shot and killed six suspected members of Hezbollah, who Israel claims had approached their military positions and refused to put down their weapons. And late at night, Hezbollah launched 10 rockets — or possibly mortars — which landed in Southern Lebanon. No one was hurt. And Israel opted not to respond.

Undoubtedly there will be hiccups over the next few days and the quiet may only be temporary. But at least for one day, not a single, terrorizing air raid siren sounded in Northern Israel, while on the other side, Lebanese refugees started to return to their border villages, where seemingly few have much of anything left.