When Batya Gottlieb first began standing at road junctions to demand that the Israeli government withdraw its troops from Lebanon, she and her fellow protesters were called lots of names. But the best of all, angry passersby would yell that she should go live in Kiryat Shmona.
"I do!" she relished telling them. The insinuation is that anyone who lives here - a place where residential streets are pocked from shrapnel, and children know the sound of artillery better than thunder - has suffered enough to know how important it is for Israel to protect its northern communities from attacks launched from south Lebanon.
But the ends, she argues, don't justify the means. The nine-mile-wide swath of Lebanon that Israel occupies just north of here is supposed to shield families, like hers, from harm. But like many others who have amassed into an increasingly influential grass-roots movement known as the Four Mothers, she doesn't buy the Army's logic for grinding on in a long war of attrition against Lebanese guerrillas, and wants out now.
This plucky little city tucked beneath a hillside, worn around the edges by a weak economy and Katyusha rocket damage, is often used as a prime example of why Israel needs to maintain a military zone on its neighbor's soil. Yet even here, voices question what was once the unquestionable.
"It's not the most popular position in town," says Mrs. Gottlieb, a psychologist who for more than 20 years has been helping the community cope with the stress of living on the edge of Israel's last active war front. "I've had some nasty reactions. People feel very threatened, and I can understand that. We've been brainwashed to think that the Army is there to protect us."
They started out as four moms with sons serving in Lebanon - angered to action in 1997 when the nation lost 73 soldiers in a helicopter accident in south Lebanon. But the name they chose also had a deeper resonance. The Four Mothers evokes Judaism's four matriarchs - Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel - whose names carry with them a certain call for respect.
But the Four Mothers haven't always received respect. They were dismissed as everything from naive pacifists to "Arafat's girlfriends" - a reference to the Palestinian leader.
But the latest slur embarrassed the government and the Army and elevated the group to a sort of maternal high ground. Giving a pep talk, an Israeli brigade commander told his troops not to be influenced by the "four rags" - a comment that sparked a public uproar and reminded Prime Minister Ehud Barak that this was about far more than a few aggrieved mothers.
The four were soon joined by many mothers who lost their sons, and those who feared they might. Men, youth, and people of all political persuasions were attracted by the Four's refusal to align themselves with any party, sticking only to the issue of withdrawing from Lebanon. Mr. Barak recognized the sea change they represented - and pledged to "bring the boys home" by July.
With his own deadline creeping closer, public expectations have increased that Barak will soon find a solution. But his blueprint for making peace encompasses a much broader picture. Syria, which exercises de facto control over Lebanon and has the power to rein in the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, has said it will talk peace only if Israel agrees to a return the Golan Heights, the strategic highlands Israel seized in 1967. The talks, which began in January, are now in limbo.
Most of the Four Mothers aren't against a peace deal with Syria - they just don't think Israel should keep on waiting, perhaps indefinitely, while soldiers' lives fill the void in peacemaking.
Gottlieb's son Noam, for example, will turn 16 this weekend, the age when the Army starts its process of recruiting the best and brightest. An articulate student and towering basketball player, Noam, like other boys his age, wants to have the all-important stamp of male success on his rsum: a position in an elite combat unit. What mother and child agree on is the hope that by the time he turns 18, Israel will no longer be fighting a war in Lebanon. Where they differ is whether she should give her signature to let her only child volunteer to serve in a combat position, from which he could be excused.
But that isn't the main issue, she says. "What I think has changed is that there is more and more open debate on the feasibility of pulling out, a realization that it's not the egotistical thinking of a few mothers who don't want to sacrifice our sons," says Gottlieb. "The sacred cow of not criticizing the Army is no longer sacred, and that is something fairly new."
Indeed, there has been hard-hitting coverage in the press of the situation in Lebanon. Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at Hebrew University, compares the situation to the media's role in bringing the horrors of the Vietnam War to the American people. Similarly, many of those speaking out here are men who served in Lebanon.
Gadi Yaakov, who lives just up the road in Metulla - also a frequent target of attack from the north - says that Israel can be defended from within its own borders. A former Army commander in Lebanon, he lives within earshot of the war zone.
But he doesn't want the country to feel it must sacrifice its sons for his safety - and he worries about sending his eldest off to military service next month. "It's easier to hear it from me than someone who lives in Tel Aviv, because it's our families that will be at risk if we withdraw," says Yaakov, a nephew of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "The people who brought this message home were the Four Mothers, because it's the simple people, not the ones in power, whom the nation is listening to."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society