In normal times, the hills of northern Galilee fill with tourists, some of them pilgrims seeking out the places where Jesus walked 2,000 years ago. Today those hills are burning. It is in Galilee that the rockets fired by Hizballah militants in Lebanon typically fall, occasionally scoring a direct hit on someone vulnerable, more often forcing inhabitants to move into bomb shelters. In the escarpment hamlet of Shomera, Israelis like Gabriel Peretz, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast, can do little more than brace for the next attack. "The situation is very bad," he says, his sentences punctuated by the sound of Israeli artillery fire, a crack-boom followed by a lingering zing of the outgoing shell, as loudspeakers in the village instruct residents to take cover in hardened shelters. "We've had six years of peace," he says, "but everything has come back to us."
Around the world, people could be excused for feeling that they too are witnessing something numbingly familiar in the Middle East, like a recurring nightmare that many would rather keep stored in the recesses of memory. But the conflagration involving Israel and its neighbors has erupted once more--and no one knows how bad and destabilizing it may get. Israel's ferocious response to Hizballah's kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, which came a little more than two weeks after Palestinian militants from Hamas seized an Israeli corporal and smuggled him into the Gaza Strip, has produced the worst Arab-Israeli cross-border conflict since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The great bulk of the pain last week was felt in Lebanon, as Israel bombarded the country, including sites in Beirut, killing more than 100 Lebanese by Saturday evening, almost all civilians. Hizballah, an Islamist Shi'ite group that operates freely in southern Lebanon, killed eight Israeli soldiers in its initial raid July 12 and has since flung hundreds of rockets into Israel, killing four civilians.
For all the mayhem and destruction, the crisis hasn't yet escalated into the kind of full-scale, multicountry war that rocked the Middle East in 1948 or 1956 or 1967 or 1973. But that's not exactly cause for comfort. The lethal exchange of firepower between Israel and Hizballah will likely not let up until someone--the U.N., nervous Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia or possibly the U.S.--intervenes and persuades one or both sides to stop. A British official told TIME that Prime Minister Tony Blair is personally pressing President George W. Bush to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region to engage in Henry Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy. But it's not clear that anyone has the ability to get the belligerents to calm down. And the longer Israel and Hizballah keep up their skirmish, the greater the chances it will spread out of control.