METULLA, Israel—It's the first Jewish Sabbath of the cease-fire in Israel's war with Hezbollah, and what's a secular Israeli to do? Go sightseeing.
For hours Saturday, motorists, motorcycles and mini vans filled with Israelis snaked through this hilltop Lebanese border town, weaving around army jeeps and armor, surveying the war damage wrought by the Shiite Muslim militia's 3,700-plus Hezbollah rockets.
They snapped souvenir photos or made home videos. They picnicked on scenic sites overlooking Lebanese villages. Some popped into cafes in the first real burst of business since the war left Metulla a virtual ghost town.
The month-long katyusha rocket volley sent Israel's northern citizens into underground shelters or south to friends' and family's sofas, Mediterranean seaside tent camps and hotels left barren by the cancellations of tourism and pilgrimages.
Now, the exodus has ended. And like coastal residents surveying hard-hit neighborhoods after a hurricane, Israelis from south of the strike zone have been cruising the border to see scorched fields and rocket-pocked roads and buildings, before the insurers inspect and contractors clean up the damage.
"It's solidarity. I came to take pictures, to smell it," said Lior Hamami, 50, from Eilat, Israel's southernmost tip, who for six hours cruised the length of the country on the back of her husband Yehiel's Harley Davidson motorcycle to "see all what's happened in the north."
The Hamami's impromptu itinerary seemed to trace the greatest hits of a month of news bulletins: They went to Haifa, to see where long-range missiles crashed near the beach, further south than ever before for a rocket from Lebanon; breakfasted in Nahariya, at a restaurant near where news crews were rattled, live on television, by a near-miss incoming rocket; stopped at a friend's house in Ma'alot to see the remnants of a Hezbollah rocket in their garden; then on to Metulla, Kiryat Shemona and a grim salute to 12 Israeli soldiers who were killed napping near a cemetery at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi.
As they did, the news broke from Lebanon that helicopter-borne Israeli commandos had swept 60 miles north of the border overnight, striking what Israel said was an Iranian-Syrian re-supply route of arms for fighters loyal to the Hezbollah Party of God's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. An Israeli officer was killed and two others were wounded, as well as an undisclosed number of Hezbollah gunmen.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora labeled the raid a "naked violation" of a United Nations truce, just days after Lebanese Army troops moved into south ostensibly to separate the two sides until the U.N. assembles a 15,000-strong foreign force to stand between Israel and Hezbollah.
Throughout the day, Israelis on tour were dissecting the monthlong war, which ended in a draw, not the decisive victory it claimed in earlier more fabled campaigns. "We talked to the people," explained Hamami. "What will be with Nasrallah? Will there be another war? Will it be in a long time?"
Israel radio reported that the "war tourists" increased Galilee hotel and guesthouse occupancy to 30 percent from virtually zero before the weekend, when scattered reserve soldiers and foreign journalists decamped for the Sabbath because the cease-fire seemed to hold.
Older Israelis remarked that the bumper-to-bumper destruction voyeurism was as old as the nation—a country so small you can day-trip to its furthest reaches. After 1967 Arab-Israeli War, some went south to see Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, others went north to see Syria's Golan Heights, which was seized in a lightning six days, setting expectations that were dashed in this recent month-long offensive.
And everyone, it seemed, went on victorious pilgrimages to Jerusalem to see the Old City, seized from Jordan.
The mood was more bittersweet this weekend as Israelis gawked not at newly conquered territory but old Israel, where volleys of Katyusha rockets set kibbutz date fields ablaze and damaged hundreds of buildings in Kiryat Shemona. The mood turned brooding as the tourists streamed through the military cemetery at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, near the spot where a katyusha rocket Aug. 6 triggered a huge explosion inside three cars where 12 reserve soldiers were snoozing ahead of deployment into Lebanon.
"Mom, what are we doing here? I'm bored," wailed a two-foot-tall boy, Gil, just after lunchtime.
"Let's just take a look," replied the mother, pointing to a scorched patch of earth. "See where the katyusha burned?"
Just up the way, Israelis with cell phone cameras crowded around a pile of twisted charred metal and spent rocket fragments that had been turned into a shrine of sorts_a car bumper here, shards there, 12 assault rifle muzzles sticking out of the site where the reservists died.
By Saturday, the visitors had left traditional Jewish memorial candles, bunches of flowers and handwritten notes. "Israel will live," said one on notepaper in Hebrew.
The child turned stern, squatted by the wreck, touched the tip of a rifle muzzle, then headed back to the car with his mother.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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