While other reporters awaited permission to follow Israeli troops into the battle area in Lebanon, Richard Ben Cramer flew through Athens to Beirut, then rode by taxi to the front, and finally walked across no-man's land to meet the Israelis. His daring made his editors uneasy, but enabled him to produce this remarkable account.
RASEL BAYADA, Occupied Lebanon – It is eerily still in no-man's land, a two-mile testament to the lesson that people are as much a part of the landscape as houses and fences and fields.
Here, eight miles from Lebanon's southern border, between the last Fatah commando checkpoint and the spearhead of the advancing Israelis, the chickens come out to meet you on the road. It has been 48 hours since grain was scattered for them in their yards.
Here, everything is frozen in time, like a Pompeii without the lava. Crates of oranges are stacked, unattended, next to empty houses. Telephone wires dangle broken and useless from their poles. An open spigot pours an endless stream of water onto a swamp that once was a garden.
Here, the mere whoosh of a breeze through the leaves can make you sprint for cover, scanning the sky for warplanes until you dive into the orange groves ... only to emerge a moment later feeling foolish and shaky from the rush of adrenalin.
To be sure, there is noise and plenty of it. There are real planes and anti-aircraft guns nearby. Artillery blasts thudding on the hillsides make the sheep bleat as they scatter and the frogs wail in the ditches.
But it takes man's noise to break the stillness – a child's cry, an engine or a laugh. And without man, the eeriness is unrelieved in this world between two worlds.
Behind the last Fatah checkpoint, the teenagers bearing Kalashnikov submachine guns and wearing jaunty red berets talk quietly among themselves for long, nervous hours.
The fear of the Israelis is palpable. The sky is constantly watched. For 48 hours, on the streets and in the fields, the little bands have shifted.
They move constantly – occasionally fighting, more often just moving, farther and farther back.
The latest news is passed by word of mouth, from the children who seem to be everywhere, or from Passing Jeeps or cabs full of commandos.
Transport is arranged on an ad-hoc basis. A Peugeot with no muffler stops. A Lebanese is driving. A Palestinian sits by his side. The back seat is stacked with 16 captured Israeli machine guns.
This is Fatahland, as the Israelis call it, where everyone might be a commando and children of 10 know how to handle the Kalashnikov.
Fatahland has been shoved north from the border, helter-skelter, so that now it is near the ancient Mediterranean port of Tyre. Still, the welter of movement and talk is quite organized.
There are few radios and no walkie-talkies. But the movements of an outsider – every step he takes – are watched and reported.
For two days, in the face of Israel's massive assault, the Palestinian forces have had to shoot and run away.
"There is no way for us to face such heavy weapons," said a commando officer in Tyre. "It would be useless. It would be foolish."
Still, on the village streets and in the camps along the coast, the spirit among the commandos is broodingly vengeful.
"With every step, they will pay," the officer said. "They will pay a price such as Israel never has had to pay."
The Fatah command posts have been moved and re-moved to avoid the threat of Israeli artillery and bombs. Yesterday's location was unknown to 12 of 13 commandos near the front. Yet, somehow, the orders get through. The communications network is the whole population.
Everywhere, but nowhere in particular, stand the young men with the light machine guns. When the first rumble of planes is heard, they silently slip away. After the last Israeli bomb has dropped, they are suddenly, miraculously everywhere again.
Close to the last Fatah checkpoint, the fear shows on every face. No one knows whether the Israelis will push forward again.
The civilians have begun to disappear. Cars and trucks full of refugees have been leaving for the last two days. One Mercedes heading north last night was filled with 16 people – three in the front, four children between the seats, five on the back seat and four sitting in the open trunk.
In the streets and fields, there is constant movement.
"You had better go away now," said a commando at a headquarters near Tyre. "It not good to stay too long in one place."
As the last checkpoint approaches, the taxi driver bows out. For once, it is not a matter of money.
"I am Arab," he says, and he draws a finger across his throat to indicate his late on the other side of the line.
The commandos at the barrier are startled by footsteps. "It is impossible, don't go," they say. "The Israelis are very near. They kill for nothing."
And then, all is past, and the stillness sets in.
On the lone walk, there are monuments to the violence of 48 feral hours.
A BMW sedan with a flat tire is pulled to one side of the road. Except for the tire, the car is intact. There is no explanation for its presence, until a door is opened to reveal upholstery spattered with blood.
Farther along, five cars are burning. Their stink testifies to the accuracy of the Israeli aerial assault. The blistered hulks sit on bare wheels, tires burned off in the explosions that halted the cars.
In the back of a Mazda, a burnt skeleton of a machine gun lies in the open trunk. When the machine gun is moved, two lizards dart out of their new home for the bushes at the side of the road.
There are daisies growing in the bushes, and the air holds the scent of honeysuckle. Birds sing in the intervals between explosions on a hillside to the east.
Suddenly, around a bend, the squawk of a shortwave radio cuts through the air.
Ahead, two giant Israeli tanks stand on either side of the road, their snouts pointed toward Fatahland.
The tanks form a gate, of sorts, to a new world, one of pure geometry and punctilious organization. To the left and right, fields have been cleared of their crops and American- built personnel carriers scuttle over the raw earth on rubber treads.
There are halftracks and Jeeps, supply vehicles and trucks busy here and there.
The Israelis are settling in, bringing a new order.
A visitor causes some consternation. There is nothing in the manual.
"Go there," says a private atop one of the tanks. He points to a spot on the road, cutting off further questions.
"They don't let us talk," he says.
The Israeli equipment almost gleams. It is huge and new, as American as a baseball bat.
Communication here is by radio. There is no shouting, only the roar of machinery on the earth.
About 50 soldiers surround the machines. They pass without words. A couple of them gawk. One smiles.
In the middle of the field, a group on foot is listening to rock music on Israeli radio.
But there is worry on their faces, matching the fear on the Palestinian faces up the road.
"They are all around here," a freckled private says.
He looks west to an orange grove and the Mediterranean, only 150 yards away.
"I cannot tell you that there are not terrorists behind those trees right now."
Another complains that the personnel carriers are not armored.
"They are only aluminum," he says. "Even a regular bullet passes right through."
A third soldier cuts him off.
"Don't talk," he says.
A major pulls up in a Jeep. He has a printed itinerary taped to a band on his arm.
There is a discussion about whether the visitor should be forced to leave. No one can seem to imagine walking through the orange groves in Fatahland.
The major says the Israeli forces are going nowhere this day.
"If you ask me, I'm not the prime minister," he says, "but I'd say this is it."
Hebrew barks over the radio of his Jeep. He answers with a monosyllable and climbs back in.
"You will go back?" he asks, incredulous, with a look up the road. "You are crazy."