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Shells and tennis on a truce line

By Abraham RabinovichSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 1981



Upper Galilee, Israel

A dog swims across the Jordan River and scrambles onto the far bank. It is quiet enough to hear him shake the water off before he trots downstream to join some kibbutz youngsters in an orchard.

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The only other sounds are those of sprinklers in a cotton field and a tennis ball being hit somewhere nearby.

In the last hour of daylight, the upper Galilee seems at peace -- a magnificent valley carpeted with picture-book fields.

But for nine days a 50-mile swath of Israel's northern border from here to the coastal resort of Nahariya was given a nightly pummeling by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) rockets and shells. And the nine-day exchange, which ended with the July 24 cease-fire, was a landmark in the long-running battle between Israel and the PLO.

For the first time the Palestinians had stood up alone against the ISraeli military, albeit at artillery range. Employing long-range 130-mm artillery and multiple-barrel Katyushas firing 40 rockets simultaneously, the Palestinians significantly altered the strategic situation in Israel's north.

Along the border region life virtually came to a halt. Much of the population of Nahariya (35,000) and Qiryat Shemona (15,000) moved out for the duration to family or friends deeper inside the country. Factories, some of them with hundreds of employees, ceased operation.

Agricultural settlements suffered extensive losses from direct hits on orchards and were unable to pick crops. The entire population in the area descended into the ground every evening to spend the nights in uncomfortable shelters.

Unlike previous "terrorist" incursions, which were painful but of no strategic significance, the use of these heavy weapons from across the border effectively held the country's entire northern tier hostage to Palestinian intentions.

The use of heavy Soviet-bloc weapons by the Palestinians acquired from Libya confronted Israel with an unwelcome choice: Either take over southern Lebanon to push the Palestinians out of range of Israel's settlements or accept some kind of political settlement.

Limited retaliation, even air strikes, was clearly no answer, since the Palestinians managed to resume their bombardment every evening.

The cease-fire is regarded by many Israeli observers as a victory on points for the PLO, which can regard it as indirect recognition of their legitimacy by the Israelis. Today, although the population in Israel's north has emerged from the shelters and families are returning to their homes, the feeling in Israel is widespread that the drama is not yet played out.

During the period of the artillery and rocket exchanges, this correspondent visited the border area. In the town of Qiryat Shemona those residents who had still not fled after a week of shelling sat close to their shelters looking out at the seemingly tranquil valley. In one of the kibbutzim in the valley, children were being permitted their final romp on the lawn before being shooed below ground.

As one looked up at the hills, the phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" came to mind. The valley was like an enormous barrel . . . and we were the fish.

The sky had darkened but there was still a faint purple haze to the west. Then the earth began to rumble and the windows to shake. The nightly "concert" had begun. A grandmother at the kibbutz called it "the unfinished symphony" as she headed for the bomb shelter.

From across the valley the Palestinian Katyusha rockets striking from the darkness looked like yellow footlights flicking, in quick succession, on an enormous stage. They sounded like a sheet of tin being shaken louder and louder , dozens of shells coming in so close together as to make a continuing and mounting roar.

To two kibbutz members on night patrol, a sound like distant fire crackers had served notice that the volley was on its way; seconds later the first shell exploded in a nearby field. With the rapidity of machine-gun fire, the shells raced toward them. As a whine louder than the rest closed in on them, the men threw themselves into a fold in the ground. The shell exploded 10 meters from them, leaving them unharmed.

Television sets had been set up outside the shelters of the Galilee kibbutz two nights before the cease-fire was announced. It was hot down below and the kibbutz members were close enough to dive inside if they heard the whistle of the Katyushas.

A French couple who had shown up at the kibbutz guest-house -- otherwise empty except for a journalist -- sat bewildered outside one of the shelters in the cool night air. Apparently on their honeymoon, they had not heard about the artillery battles raging in the normally tranquil Galilee.

They asked a French-speaking kibbutz member what the shooting was about. "Two peoples fighting over the same land," he replied.

The shelling ceases and someone comes in to report that a road has been cratered and is impassable. One of the team members shows a visitor a back road that will take him where he is going.

A massive fire is burning on the hills in an oblong shape, the imprint of a Katyusha barrage. Orange glowings in other directions silhouette the hilltops. There are angry noises in the distance. Everyone in this part of the world seems to be underground. The valley is beautiful in the moonlight but a driver hurries to get across it as fast as possible.