KFAR GILADI, Israel—When the air raid warnings went off for the umpteenth time around noon Sunday, Lt. Yaron Nili didn't pay much attention. After a week with his Israeli artillery unit near the Lebanon border, the warnings had gone off so many times that soldiers rarely took cover.
But then came a low whistle, a huge blast, a shock wave. This was no near-miss.
The advanced Katyusha rocket landed in the middle of a group of Israeli soldiers resting on foam mattresses outside Kfar Giladi's hillside cemetery wall, killing 12 reservists who had been issued their uniforms the day before they died.
In more than 3,000 strikes by Hezbollah since the clash began July 12, Sunday's attack was the most deadly for Israel, and brought the country's overall death toll to 59 soldiers and 33 civilians.
"It was pretty indescribable," said Nili, a 27-year-old reservist as he recovered from smoke inhalation in a nearby hospital. "Like nothing you can imagine in the worst nightmare of nightmares."
While Kfar Giladi sits on a small hill overlooking the valley hardest-hit by Hezbollah's aerial assault, until Sunday it had escaped unscathed.
In Israeli history, the hilltop was known as the home of Joseph Trumpeldor, a legendary pioneer who helped organize an armed unit to defend Jewish farming communities in the 1920s before the nation was founded. According to Israeli legend, Trumpeldor's last words after being mortally wounded defending the community were: "Never mind, it is good to die for our country."
On Sunday, the small kibbutz sealed its place in a new chapter of Israeli history.
"We've seen a lot of things, but never something like this," said 61-year-old kibbutz member Gideon Giladi as he stood near the blast site wearing his army issue helmet and flak jacket.
A quarter-world away, diplomats at the United Nations were working to bring this conflict to an end. But neither side appears ready to stop just yet. After hitting Kfar Giladi, a volley of more sophisticated Hezbollah rockets hit Haifa on Sunday night, killing three and injuring dozens more.
If there is to be a cease-fire any time soon, it came too late for the Israeli soldiers gathered at Kfar Giladi. Witnesses described a gruesome scene of charred bodies in smoldering cars, bloody foam mattresses, severed arms and legs spread across the parking lot.
Throughout Sunday, the hilltop was hit by at least four separate Hezbollah rocket barrages that set valleys ablaze, destroyed one empty Kfar Giladi home and sent residents scrambling for safety well into the evening.
The fatal strike came just after noon. Helicopters rushed to the valley to evacuate seven wounded soldiers, but doctors could save only five.
While members of the kibbutz said that they urged those resting near the cemetery to seek shelter, Nili said such concerns usually matter little to soldiers.
"We've been there for a week and if we went to seek shelter every time there was an alarm we wouldn't be able to do our job as soldiers," Nili said from his hospital bed.
As a young soldier, Nili spent a few months in Lebanon before Israel ended its 18-year occupation in 2000. As one who spent time inside Israel's northern neighbor, Nili said he wasn't surprised to be called back to battle Hezbollah once again.
"Sadly, for us, there is no happy end to this story," said Nili, who was called up for duty last week after spending a month in Thailand celebrating his graduation from law school. "We put our head in the sand, we chose to ignore what was happening."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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