Metulla Residents Have Front-Row Seat on War

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Metulla, Israel ( - For years, Haim Hod has watched from the balcony of his home in the Israeli border community of Metulla while Hizballah dug a "quarry" out of the Lebanese hillside facing his home. The "quarry" turned out to be an underground bunker.

The Israeli army is now trying to find and destroy hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar bunkers to eliminate Hizballah strongholds in southern Lebanon.

Metulla, surrounded by Lebanon on three sides, is a mountain community where orchards extend to a border fence. Until the fighting began three weeks ago, workers in Metulla picked fruit and tended crops in full view of the enemy.

In the six years since Israel pulled out of a buffer zone in Lebanon, Metulla residents have watched as Hizballah built outposts and infrastructure all along the border - in some cases, next to the border fence. Now the people of Metulla have a front row seat to the fighting in Lebanon.

Earlier this week, the army blew up a Hizballah structure on the edge of the town. Explosions were seen on the nearby hillsides as Israeli Air Force jets targeted other Hizballah positions.

The sound of outgoing artillery rattles the town. Tanks and soldiers line the road on a hill that serves as the gateway to Lebanon. Air raid sirens and announcements over the public address system regularly warn residents to stay inside.

Mayor Jacob Katz moved his office and that of the entire municipality into the bomb shelter of city hall nearly three weeks ago. But this is not the first time. Since 1976, the municipality has had to transfer operations underground at least six times.

In the air-conditioned, underground office, there are multiple phone lines, cable television, and floor-to-ceiling marker boards for keeping track of information, including a record of all the Katyusha rockets that have fallen in the city over the last three weeks.

At least 25 Katyusha rockets have fallen in Metulla and another 65 in the surrounding orchards since the war began.

"We are used to this situation because of many operations [in Lebanon] that happened before," said Katz. "This is a very strong community."

As many as half of Metulla's 2,000 residents are currently "on vacation," said Katz. But some of those remaining include children.

Many people in the community have walkie-talkies that they carry with them so they can communicate with city officials and with each other during emergencies.

Volunteers from the town work two-hour shifts in the bomb shelter office. Services include filling prescriptions in nearby Kiryat Shmona, one of the cities hardest hit by Hizballah rockets.

Katz, who has a son serving in the military, said he believes Israel should end its military operation only after Hizballah has no more weapons, leaves the area and sends Israel's two abducted soldiers home alive.

Just journalists

This summer, Metulla's tourist trade has been decimated and much of the fruit crop is rotting in the orchards because it is too dangerous for the workers to harvest it.

Hod, a third generation resident of Metulla, owns a 10-room guesthouse there. Although he was fully booked for the summer, his only guests now are journalists who are vying for space.

The courtyard of the guesthouse - called the House of Peace - is full of trees, green grass, and giant pots overflowing with brightly colored flowers. Hod plays World War II vintage music over the sound system, but even so, artillery fire echoes in the background.

Hod has sent his wife Miriam to stay with her father in Tel Aviv. A Holocaust survivor, he told his daughter he couldn't face losing his family a second time.

Hod said he's losing 10,000 shekels (more than $2,000) a day because of the fighting.
He also owns some 30 acres of orchards and hasn't even started to calculate the loss from his crops. Besides damage from incoming rockets, the army has driven tanks through his orchards, damaging the watering system, he said.

Although the government has promised compensation, it's not clear how much he will receive, he said.

Nevertheless, Hod said, he supports the Israeli offensive. But he also says Israel should have attacked Hizballah years ago - before the terrorist group became so well armed and well prepared to fight.

Hizballah has had six years to prepare for this war, with Syrian and Iranian help.

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