August 25, 2010 at 10:09 AM

Jonathan Spyer is not your typical Israeli journalist and political analyst. He has a PhD in International Relations, he fought in Lebanon during the summer war of 2006, then went back to Lebanon as a civilian on a second passport.

I can’t say I felt particularly brave venturing into Hezbollah’s territory along the Lebanese-Israeli border, but it takes guts for Israelis to go there. If Hezbollah caught him and figured out who he was, he would have been in serious trouble.

No one he met in Lebanon knew where he was from. Everyone thought he was British. And no one in Israel but his friends and colleagues knew he went back to Lebanon on his own. He decided, though, that he may as well “out” himself on my blog. His secret journey will soon be revealed anyway when his book comes out in November called The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

We met in Jerusalem this month and discussed his two trips to Lebanon—with and without a passport—and the perfect Iranian storm brewing on the horizon.

MJT: So why did you go back to Lebanon?

Jonathan Spyer: Lebanon is a fascinating place, and I wanted to visit for all sorts of reasons. I especially wanted to get back to where we were during the war. There is a green valley, which I imagine you know very well, between the towns of Khiam and Marjayoun.

Jonathan Spyer

MJT: Yes, I know where you’re talking about.

Jonathan Spyer: We were down there in that valley during the war, and our tanks got shot up. I wanted to get back there and look at it from Khiam. I hired some guides in Beirut and asked them to take me. We took the coast road down, then drove all the way across southern Lebanon to the eastern sector. And I stood in Khiam and looked down into that valley.

We got stuck there because of a cock-up. The infantry in our division were supposed to capture Khiam. There were 300 Hezbollah men there. We were operating at night. After a series of screw-ups, our column of tanks ended up heading through that valley toward Israel with 300 Hezbollah men looking down on us in the morning. So you can imagine what happened.

And to make it even more ludicrous, we weren’t even moving at the right speed. The steering mechanism on one of our tanks was broken, so we had to drag it with reinforced cables. We were going about five kilometers an hour. We were hardly moving at all. And we got blown to bits by Hezbollah’s missiles. Our armor is pretty good, though, so only one of our guys was killed.

An Associated Press photographer was also in Khiam at the same time, so the AP has a photograph of our tanks in flames. [Laughs.] I’m laughing because I found that photograph on a pro-Hezbollah Web site, and this tough revolutionary guy was on there boasting and saying “the people in those tanks died horrible deaths!”

Jonathan Spyer: I wrote back and said, “Listen. With the exception of one person who was killed, the people in those tanks all got out, hid in the fields for over an hour, and got back across the Israeli border. All of them were operational again within 48 hours.”

Anyway, we were stuck in this field beneath Khiam for about an hour. We hid in an irrigation ditch. They were growing tomatoes and, I think, corn down there. We had the body of our friend with us on a stretcher.

Hezbollah was firing mortars at us. And a ten-man Hezbollah squad came down out of Khiam to take a look. Every tank in the area laid down a carpet of fire, and they turned around and went back. It wasn’t worth it for them to try to go down there, and it saved us from getting into a fire fight.

After an hour or so, we got picked up by an armored vehicle which just happened to be passing by. At first I thought, “Great, they’ve finally sent someone to come get us,” but no. They hadn’t. A group of armored engineers just happened to be in the vicinity. We stood up like guys on a desert island and yelled help help! [Laughs.]

Our friend’s funeral was the next day. We had the night off. I came down to Jerusalem and got drunk. And the next day I was back in the war.

So I was very interested when the chance came along to go back to Lebanon. My professional interest in Lebanon— which has become one of the most important professional aspects of my life —dates from then.