ZIPPOREN BORDER POST, North Israel - On Sunday afternoons, for a family outing, people in Beirut sometimes load the kids into the car and drive an hour or so south to throw stones across the border at Israeli soldiers. In this way the children can enjoy themselves while vividly expressing their patriotism, which in this case takes the form of hating Israel. It's a pastime that combines real-life horror and Middle East politics with unsettling elements of Disneyland.
On this border region in the Galilee, the struggle of Israel with its neighbours stops being rhetorical and turns highly graphic. Everything gets visually spelled out, the tension and the loathing, the weird comedy, and the authority exercised by freelance armies, in this case Hezbollah, the Party of God, radical proxy of Iran and Syria. Intensely complicated political relationships spread themselves before a visitor's startled eyes.
Aside from providing amusement on otherwise sleepy Sundays, the frontier divides southern Lebanon from northern Israel. But an ignorant visitor wouldn't even know that Lebanon exists -- there are no Lebanese flags, no Lebanese border guards. To the annoyance of Lebanon (now sometimes daringly expressed in the Beirut press), Hezbollah controls outright the strip of land that runs 5 or 10 km north from Israel. The soldiers peering across at Israel are identifiably Hezbollah (army pants, army boots, T-shirt choice optional), proudly standing beneath fluttering Hezbollah flags (automatic rifle, rampant on a field of green).
A despicably provocative billboard also stares across at Israel. It shows huge photographs of three dead Israeli soldiers, one with his bleeding head ripped from his body and held aloft by his hair. A sign reads: "Sharon -- don't forget your soldiers are still in Lebanon." As Israelis are only too well aware, Hezbollah won't return bodies of soldiers they've killed, keeping them either as trophies or possible trading chips.
The stone-throwers, who very rarely hit anyone, recently included a platoon of Lebanese Boy Scouts on a field trip. "The children have nothing to do," an Israeli sergeant indulgently explained to me, "so they come here and throw rocks and they make signs, like running their fingers across their throat to say they want to kill me." Stone-tossing has become so popular among young and old that they've stripped the ground near the fence of all conceivable projectiles, so that on several occasions fresh stones have had to be trucked in to keep the game alive.
This is where, three summers ago, Edward Said, the distinguished Columbia University professor and Palestinian publicist, was so caught up in the happy spirit of the crowd that he couldn't resist hurling a rock of his own into Israel. He didn't know (so he claimed later) that the clump of picture-taking tourists on the Israeli side included someone from Agence-France-Presse, whose photograph swiftly went around the world and mortified Said (if we can believe him). An English professor to the end, he explained that his pitch was purely symbolic and expressive, not intended to hurt anyone, which in fact it didn't.
From the positions they occupy, Hezbollah could fire rockets that would produce many deaths in populated regions of Israel. They don't, because Israel would reply in kind. So for now Hezbollah just makes trouble. Last year they shelled rural areas near the border, avoiding retribution by targeting uninhabited buildings or fields. It was an example of artillery as public relations, and for a while they regularly commenced firing at 5 p.m., to catch the evening news on al-Jazeera. Nowadays they do nothing but shoot anti-aircraft guns, once or twice a week, at Israeli planes. The planes are far out of range but the shooting reminds everyone that Hezbollah hasn't gone away.
They have their little rituals. From time to time, at night, one of their soldiers slips up to the wire fence that runs for 50 km along the border. He grasps it firmly, knowing that electric sensors will send a signal to an Israeli command post. He then darts back into the bushes, stopwatch in hand, to determine how long it will take the Israelis to respond. Soon a squad of soldiers arrives and discovers, once more, that no one has crossed over.
That's the way Israel wants it. There's enough to worry about elsewhere, and no news from the Lebanon border is always good news. The soldiers' orders are simple: Shoot anyone who crosses the line but otherwise do nothing. The security system covering the border includes night-vision photography and a balloon, shaped like the Goodyear blimp, that hangs in the air 200 or so metres back from the border, its camera scanning the fence and transmitting images to Israeli intelligence staff.
Along the border regions, and in many parts of the disputed territories that fell to Israel in the Six Days War of 1967, the government has developed increasingly sophisticated surveillance systems, using aircraft, satellites, and something I've never even heard described before, moveable long-range cameras permanently installed on hilltops. When the army goes after terrorists it's usually guided from a control room where an intelligence officer, studying TV monitors, issues instructions to soldiers on the ground. The same technique directs missiles to hit human "ticking bombs" before they reach their targets. In remote high-tech studios Israeli technicians monitor cellphone and e-mail traffic from Syria, sometimes catching terrorist bosses in Syria as they give permission for a bombing. They also have long-term agents in place, watching for instructions at the source, following the Cold War style so elaborately described by John Le Carre. Even so, individual human agents, inserted into the daily life of Palestinians, remain the richest source of data.
The other day a recently retired officer of Shin Beit explained to me, in one sentence, how pervasive its agents have become in the Palestinian territories: "If there's an Arab village that doesn't contain a couple of agents, Shin Beit isn't doing its job." The best agents penetrate terrorist cells, and when we see a photo of a few dozen terrorists arrested by the Israeli army, the chances are that two or three of them are Shin Beit agents. A few will actually go into jail with the other prisoners, to do more spying. Others will vanish into Shin Beit's equivalent of the witness protection program. Some, along with other agents who are no longer usable, will end up as immigrants to Canada. An agent's shelf life lasts anywhere from a few months to a few years.
During the 33 months that the current terror has lasted, Shin Beit and the army have not always agreed on tactics. Shin Beit disapproves of killing terrorist leaders, even if they've been identified long ago and sought for years; it would rather have them alive. With the terrorist alive and potentially talking, Shin Beit tries, as its agents say, "to roll the carpet," on a terrorist unit, learning the details of an entire cell that can then be isolated and closed down.
An agent who penetrates Hamas or Islamic Jihad will end up with two men dominating his life, the leader of his terrorist unit (with whom he's in intimate contact) and his handler back in Israel. This three-sided relationship produces emotional confusion and conflicting alliances; in the worst case, the agent will confess all to his terrorist leader and become a double agent. At the beginning a handler of agents will spend long months forming an emotional bond with his agent, knowing it will have to be strong enough to withstand the appeal of the terrorist leader. Sometimes the bonding doesn't take. A few years ago a Shin Beit agent assassinated his handler. Shin Beit quietly revealed his status as an Israeli spy, and he was promptly executed by Palestinians. But shouldn't the Palestinians have decorated him instead, as a rebel against Israel rather than Israel's spy? Apparently the terrorist cells aren't integrated and organized enough to make that kind of distinction.
What makes young men, often Israeli Arabs, serve as Shin Beit agents? Few do it for reasons of politics or patriotism. Some like the money (though there's not a lot), some want to win favours (get a relative out of prison, for instance), and others seem to yearn for adventure. When recruited, many have spent years adopting Israeli-like habits, suspiciously Western ways. They go to a secret finishing school that reminds them how to be convincing Arabs: Sit this way and not that, drink tea this way and not that; address your superiors in this tone and not that. Never wear shorts. Learn when and how to kiss a colleague. The school also works on their accents, training (for instance) an Egyptian Arab to sound like the Palestinian villager he's impersonating.
It could be, of course, that all of these elaborate and imaginative procedures are now about to be rendered obsolete because Hamas and the other sworn enemies of Israel will be convinced by the road map system to lay down their arms and bomb no more. It could be. But at the moment no Israelis, least of all the army or Shin Beit, are counting on it.