Israeli soldiers on front line say they want to finish in one piece

JERUSALEM — "From where I'm standing," said Col. Zion, perched atop a rampart in an Israeli army position in southern Lebanon, "we can see where the Hezbollah terrorists are moving."

The brigade commander, whose last name cannot be revealed for security reasons, pointed to a hazy ridge some 2,500 meters to the northwest and said a squad of gunmen carrying a Sagger missile had been spotted. Flanked by his radiomen, he ordered an Israeli-built Merkava tank onto its firing ramp.

"Describe the target to me," he said in his clipped army tone. "Roger. Fire."

The tank shot off four rounds, which seconds later slammed into the far hillside and exploded.

"Direct hit," he said as he climbed back down. "They are trying their best to shell Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya, and we are doing our best to stop them."

The Merkava retreated to cover behind a screen of gray smoke. Overhead, a pair of Israeli Air Force U.S.-built Apache attack helicopters paced across the sky in search of Hezbollah targets.

Artillery from surrounding positions pounded away at houses and other Hezbollah targets north of Israel's southern Lebanon security zone. The dull thud of the hits echoed back across the rugged hills. Then a large explosion echoes from the direction of the gate, where another Merkava was stationed. Incoming or outgoing?

An enlisted man named Lior smiled, cocked his head to the side and said: "Naw, that was one of ours. You should have been here this morning. We were hit by mortars and even a Katyusha."

That round missed the position, hitting the ruins of a 2,300-year-old Hellenistic temple just beside the ramparts instead, knocking over a column which had stood for over two millennia.

The soldiers, on what is called position Karkum, live in a constant state of alert. Since it overlooks the villages of Yatar, Kafra and Majdel Zun — Hezbollah bases and Katyusha launching sites — the position has been a favorite Hezbollah target. Over the past nine months three soldiers have died there — the latest last week, when a Hezbollah mortar round burst on the trenches, killing Sgt. Uri Friedman, 20, of Ramat Hasharon.

Since Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath began, the Lebanese inhabitants of these villages have fled northward and the Israeli army says anyone seen there is considered Hezbollah and thus a target.

"Whoever moves there is for us the enemy," said Col. Zion, the brigade commander.

Cpl. Golan, the platoon sniper, said he is proud to be serving in a combat unit and feels like he is defending Israel.

"I'm not looking for a medal. My motto is: Wherever you can contribute you should. I'm combat fit, so I am here," he said.

The soldiers, most aged about 19, have only been here for roughly six weeks — enough time to turn them into combat veterans.

"I was here last week when Uri was killed. This is fearsome stuff. Suddenly people are running around with blood on their faces and you are not used to it. You see it in the movies and on TV, but now it's for real. It makes us more paranoid and we start thinking about life," said Cpl. Iran.

The battalion commander, Lt.-Col. Dror, 32, said he is glad the army had decided to act after months of restraint. His troops have carried out ambushes and reconnaissance patrols, and are now allowed to open fire on Hezbollah terrorists without the encumbrance of getting higher approval, he said.

"There is relief. We have trained for this for a long time," Dror said.

Position commander Lt. Ran, 22, of Kfar Tavor, is both master and protector of his soldiers.

"I'm always on them to keep their flak vests on, to wear their helmets," Ran said.

"I've got six months left before I go back to my moshav. But I don't have time to count the days till then. I just want to get to tomorrow with all my men in one piece."