For Many Israelis, a Bitter Homecoming
Border Areas Reflect National Sentiment Over Failure to Eliminate Hezbollah

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 17, 2006

METULA, Israel, Aug. 16 -- From her dining room window, Zvia Drori looks into Lebanon, less than a mile away from this border town, and sees the yellow flags of Hezbollah stirring slightly in the hot sun. For Drori and her neighbors, the banners seem to taunt Israel for its failure to wipe out the Shiite militia.

"I don't want to stay here anymore," said Drori, 60, who came home Tuesday after fleeing for a month to Tel Aviv. "You see my beautiful view. But you still see Hezbollah."

Thousands of Israelis are returning now to their homes near the Lebanese border. They are bitter and angry about what many call a futile war, and what others call an outright loss.

"Israel lost big-time," said Ravit Ben-Simon, 25, glumly reopening her cellphone store on Wednesday in nearby Kiryat Shemona. "It wasn't a worthwhile war at all. It all started because of the kidnapped soldiers. Where are they now? Still kidnapped. It was all for nothing."

That view was reflected in a national poll released Wednesday, showing that public support for the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has plummeted. The poll by the Maariv newspaper showed that Olmert's support had dropped from 78 percent on July 19, shortly after the war began, to 40 percent.

Here in what Israelis call the "frontline towns" -- the kibbutz farming communities of the settlers who arrived decades ago and the hardscrabble towns that became home to immigrants -- the view is harsh. The rain of Hezbollah rockets emptied these places, sending most residents fleeing to the south and forcing the remainder into grim bomb shelters in their basements.

They emerged with Monday's cease-fire to sweep up the broken window glass, haul away the burned cars and -- in Kiryat Shemona on Wednesday -- bury the dead. Hundreds of residents watched in the cemetery as uniformed soldiers fired a formal salute for Sgt. 1st Class David Amar, 24, a local who had been called up for the reserves. He was killed in Lebanon by an antitank missile Sunday, the day before the fighting stopped.

"He was always smiling. So happy," said a red-eyed soldier who would not give her name. "Was the war worth this? No. We don't think so."

Israel Television on Wednesday aired interviews with returning reservists offering scathing criticisms of the army, complaining that supplies and armaments were missing, orders were confused, and food and water were in short supply.

During the war, 118 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians were killed. More than 5,000 were injured, and at least 12,000 homes were damaged. Estimates of the civilian death toll in Lebanon range from about 700 to more than 1,000, and Israeli bombardment left a path of destruction in southern Lebanon that is unmatched here.

But for Israel, accustomed to military domination of its Arab foes, the failure of its army to crush Hezbollah, or even to reduce the shelling, was a bitter pill.

"Our government was unprepared. They didn't know what they were getting into," said Gital Lahyani, 36, as she reopened her cafe in Kiryat Shemona. "The situation is even worse now. Now the Lebanese, and the Syrians and the Iranians, perceive us as weak. It just set the ground for the next war."

Lahyani, who had left Kiryat Shemona with her three children during the fighting, said her Mon Cheri cafe lost its crucial summer business, when thousands of tourists typically come to the cooler hills of northern Israel.

"Usually, at this time, you have to wait a week for a table" at her restaurant, she said. The government will reimburse her about $2,500 for her losses; she figures she lost closer to $25,000. "For businesses like us, the war is just beginning," she said. "I don't think we can survive."

Across town, in a bleak stand of block-style apartments normally filled with immigrants sent here by the government, David Biton, 44, drew hard on a cigarette as he waited for the government assessors to look at the damage to his place. The tobacco smoke fought the foul odor of rotting trash. Outside his apartment, a chunk of asphalt was missing and the burned hulk of a car offered testimony of a Katyusha rocket's fall.

All but an estimated 3,000 of Kiryat Shemona's 24,000 residents had left. Biton had stayed. It was "like a Warsaw ghetto. It was a catastrophe," he said. Beneath his building, a few residents had huddled in the claustrophobia-inducing concrete shelter until the tension drove them out. A child's painted handprints were the only sign of cheer left in the place. Affixed to the shelter's steel door was a sticker, handed out early in the conflict by a newspaper company: "We will win," it boasted in patriotic blue.

"This war didn't do anything," Biton said, waving the cigarette in disgust. "We lost over 100 soldiers. . . . What did we do? We failed."

More civilians were killed in Lebanon, he acknowledged, but he noted that Israel had dropped leaflets in Lebanon, telling residents to leave before the attacks.

"I didn't get any leaflet from Hasan Nasrallah," he said, referring to Hezbollah's leader.

In Metula, Yitzak Ben-Nun, a 42-year-old factory worker, watched much of the fighting from his manicured and watered lawn overlooking a valley into Lebanon. "It was like a war movie," he said, but one with a bad ending.

"Hezbollah is like a cancer in Lebanon," he said. "We didn't get rid of it. We just pushed it around a bit."

Others tried to assess the conflict in a more positive way. "We didn't lose. But we didn't win, like we did in 1967," said an army major who gave his name only as Chi. He stood on a hilltop in Metula and looked toward the rocky hills of Lebanon, now devoid of Israeli soldiers in this area.

"We thought when we withdrew from Lebanon six years ago, everything would be fine. It wasn't," he said. "Was it worth the price? I don't know." He shrugged. "Time will tell."

Haim Barbibay, the mayor of Kiryat Shemona, said more than 30 percent of the buildings in town had been damaged by more than 1,000 Hezbollah shells. But he said that if Israel had not responded to Hezbollah's seizing of two soldiers on July 12, the consequences would have increased.

"We had no choice but to do this war," the mayor said in the city cemetery, his voice low under the mourners' wailing that continued after Amar's funeral. "We should have done it three years ago. If not now, it would have been even worse later."

Special correspondent Tal Zipper contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company