KIBBUTZ MISGAV AM, Israel — Bilha Gat steps the 200 or so paces from the front door of her home to the barbed-wire fence marking Israel's border with Lebanon.
"You see?" she says. "How long does it take to walk from there to here? Just minutes!"
Pushing past verdant pines and brilliant redbuds, Gat points to the spot where terrorists once breached the fence and to the hills on the horizon where Katyusha rocket fire is often heard. "I don't even know how afraid to be," says the teacher and mother of four.
Gat and her neighbors in northern Israel's Galilee communities along this hilly, forested border are bracing for the Jewish state's expected withdrawal of troops from Lebanon within the coming weeks.
Ending a 22-year occupation, Israel's unilateral retreat and its aftermath may be a violent, messy affair. Thousands of Israelis who live in the kibbutzim, collective farms and towns that dot the country's northernmost territory worry that they will become sitting ducks for what military officials warn could be a surge in terrorism and cross-border mortar attacks.
They are demanding that the Israeli government give them weapons, bomb shelters, army guards and other protection against Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite militants who, they fear, will take up ground as quickly as the Israeli army leaves it.
The government, while keeping many details of the pullback under wraps, is promising to deploy the army in greater force along the border and to retaliate deep into Lebanon if a northern community is harmed. In southern Lebanon, guerrillas of the Islamic Hezbollah movement and Palestinian militias are refusing to swear off armed operations.
For some residents, such as Gat, the withdrawal evokes very dark memories.
It was 20 years ago this month that her toddler son was seized by Lebanese-based Palestinian commandos who stole into the kibbutz under cover of darkness. They took over a nursery where six babies and young children were sleeping, held them hostage and killed an adult caretaker. One child and an Israeli soldier died in an initial, bungled rescue attempt. Ten hours later, troops stormed the building and killed all five Palestinians.
Gat's 4-year-old son, Yoav, was wounded but survived.
The attack and similar cross-border terrorism were used by the Israelis to justify the occupation of southern Lebanon, where the Israeli army in 1985 carved out a 9-mile-deep "security zone" meant as a buffer. This is the area that is about to be evacuated. Although fighting through the years exacted a higher death toll on the Lebanese side, attacks on people regarded by Israel as the Jewish state's northern pioneers had a devastating psychological impact.
Gat, 49 and petite with sharp blue eyes, recalls that the kibbutz back then was armed and well organized. When the Palestinians invaded that night 20 years ago, she grabbed the Uzi under her bed, and everyone in the settlement mobilized, putting into practice the defensive tactics they had drilled time and again.
Today, she said, Israelis in the northern communities have grown complacent.
"We were like an army in those days," she said. "We knew what to do. But in the last years, we've been living relatively quietly. Now the kibbutz is more of a home than an army base. People got used to living normal lives, and we want that to continue. We cannot go back to the way it used to be."
A Panoramic View at 'Confrontation Line'
Founded in 1945 and almost idyllic in its isolation and neatly manicured lawns, the kibbutz is abutted by Lebanon on three sides. Each stucco home in Misgav Am is built on slopes, with a terrace that offers a panoramic view of the Golan Heights to the east.
Elsewhere along the northern "confrontation line," as it is called here, the residents of Margaliyot and Avivim were burning tires and blocking roads early this month to demand that the government protect them. The residents claim that they have suffered from decades of neglect and that this is the last straw. Many speak of abandoning their dairy farms and orchards.
At Margaliyot, a moshav, or collective farm, mortar shells have landed three times this year. One shell two weeks ago destroyed a chicken coop, and last month another hit the yard outside a kindergarten minutes before children were scheduled to arrive. Last week, a Hezbollah bomb at the border cut electricity to the moshav.
Like Avivim, Margaliyot was established in the late '50s and settled by immigrants from Iraq and Morocco. As Sephardic Jews with no clout at the time, these immigrants were essentially forced onto the remote farms, exploited by the government to populate a northern bulwark against Arab aggression. The angst of these communities now comes atop layers of resentment and anger at what they feel is historic slight.