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Perched on the Israel-Lebanon border

NBC’s Mark Potter reports from Metula,in northern Israel near the Lebanese border, on Israel’s outgoing attacks on Lebanon and the incoming Hezbollah rockets.
/ Source: NBC News

Mark Potter reports from Metula,in northern Israel near the Lebanese border, on Israel’s outgoing attacks on Lebanon and the incoming Hezbollah rockets.

You’ve been up in Metula, in northern Israel near the Lebanese border, for close to a week now. How does the daily pattern of airstrikes play out?

Usually there is a rhythm to the day. It starts off quietly. Then by mid- to late morning the air raid sirens begin and we hear the “thump” of incoming Hezbollah rockets. That will be accompanied by the very loud return of Israeli artillery and tank fire. That usually will go until about midafternoon.

Then it will taper off for a while. Usually we’ll get one more rocket strike by the end of the day. Then around dinnertime it gets quiet again. Then sometimes all night long the Israeli artillery will light up the sky and keep people awake as they pound areas to the north of us in Lebanon.

We are literally just a few hundred yards from the Lebanese border. So the fighting that’s going along in this area is something we hear, and sometimes witness ourselves. But there is usually a rhythm to the day. There are variances, but it follows a pretty predictable pattern.

Who is actually left in the Metula area? Is it just the Israeli military and reporters? Are any civilians left there?

There are a few civilians left in town, although many of them have left. This is a tourist area, but there are no tourists here. So the businesses are hurting. Most of them are closed, but a few of the hotels and restaurants are open and servicing the journalists and a few others.

There are some military people here. There were a lot military people here last week when they were using this as a place to push into Lebanon, but there aren’t so many people here now. They are all spread around the area.

In many ways, this seems like a quiet little Alpine village up in the hills, except for all the noise from the incoming rockets and the outgoing artillery.

There is just a strange mix of senses here. You can sit here under a tree in a courtyard at a hotel with the wind gently blowing through, the sounds of Louis Armstrong are wafting through the hotel speakers and it’s a very pleasant scene.

Then all of a sudden you hear an air raid siren and a warning comes over a loudspeaker telling you to go into a bomb shelter. Then you hear a boom, you hear artillery fire for a while, and then it stops and Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald pick back up again. That to me is very weird.

How close have the rockets come to you guys?

The closest incoming rocket struck today about 500 yards from where we were standing. We were just getting ready to do a live report for MSNBC. We could hear a “woosh” and then a loud bang.

We basically just had time to duck. Although, that was just an instinctive reaction, we didn’t really need to because there was no real danger. But it was a startling noise. It was very loud, and then it started a fire that now is still burning, two hours later.

The irony of this is that the rocket actually hit on the Lebanese side of the border — it never actually made its way into Israel.

As for the Israeli artillery, that’s very close. Some of the pieces are very near our hotel. When they start letting go at night, it’s very, very loud.

It’s funny how you almost get used to it. You’ll be eating dinner and you’re serenaded by the sound of this artillery, and you do get used to it. But every so often one goes off when you aren’t expecting it, and it really makes you jump.

We had a real show the other night when there was a lot of outgoing artillery. There is a hill less than a quarter mile from where we are, and they were hitting that.

The biggest event was a week ago Saturday when the Israeli troops went into Lebanon covered by artillery tanks and gunfire. That was like the Fourth of July times a hundred.

What did the Israeli soldiers have to say about the offensive?

We talked to the soldiers who were still in town and patrolling the area. They talked a lot about the earlier days of the conflict when they were taking a lot of pot shots from Hezbollah snipers up on the hill. They were glad to see those areas cleaned out because they are not taking those kinds of attacks anymore.

But the rockets are continuing to come in from points farther north in Lebanon. The Israeli military, despite all its efforts with all its air power and its ground troops, they still have not been able to stop the Hezbollah rocket attacks. They were more than 200 rocket attacks on Thursday and 260 on Wednesday.

What did the soldiers have to say about the goals of the offensive?

To a person that we have talked to, their goal is to destroy as much of the Hezbollah organization as they can; to kill as many fighters as they can; to dismantle as much of the infrastructure as they can; and more than anything to stop the rocket attacks against Israel. On top of that, they want to get back the two Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped on July 12 by Hezbollah — the event which started this entire conflict in the first place.

What they say they never want to go back to is the way things were before that incident on July 12. That’s the mantra we hear all the time. They do not want Hezbollah on their border anymore — with its rockets, its military and its intent to do harm to Israel.

They want them moved very far away, under the control of the Lebanese government and with an international peacekeeping force in between. They don’t want them anywhere nearby. And that is their goal: to push them back and weaken them as much as they can before a cease-fire is called.

Do the Israeli soldiers have any response to the civilian casualties on the Lebanese side?

From the Israeli side, you hear people say that they are sorry to hear that civilians have been killed. But they also put the blame squarely on Hezbollah for putting their rockets among the civilian population and for firing at Israel from these heavily populated areas — leaving the Israeli military no choice but to go after them and kill civilians in the way.

The Israelis are sympathetic, but they blame Hezbollah for hiding themselves among the population causing the great number of civilian casualties. That is the Israeli point of view.

Mark Potter is an NBC News c orrespondent on assignment in Metula, Israel.