Friday, August 11, 2006

ISRAEL AT WAR: VIEW FROM THE NORTH


Even in Israel, where there is saturation coverage by the media of the "home front" - the border cities and towns that have been under direct attack - there is still a disconnect between life in the northern region and the rest of the country. So, I left early yesterday to visit Haifa and Akko, two cities where the war is very much a day-to-day reality.

The Train

Israel's rennovated train system has made commuting quite comfortable. But this morning, almost all those heading north were soldiers, mobilized to fight in Lebanon. Israel's public transportation is always the preferred means for soldiers to get from their bases to home. Even more so during a war. The soldiers are young, mostly in their 20s or 30s, now in reserve duty. The same youths who, just a few days ago, were playing volleyball on the beach, holding summer jobs while in university, or just beginning their careers. I know it is a cliche about how diversified the army is, but it's true. They were religious and secular, Russians and Ethiopians, men and women. Some were sleeping. Others, chatting quietly to each other. A few, just staring out the window quietly. Not the noisy chatter you usually hear when so many Israelis are in one place. They didn't seem fearful of what lay in store for them. But their faces were somber and their quiet manner transmitted the gravity of the situation.

The Bus

I boarded a bus in Haifa that took me through the commercial district, in between the seaport and Carmel Mountain Ridge. It was crammed and sweaty, mainly with soldiers and elderly people. The route is usually one of the busiest in the city, often with long traffic jams. Not today. One missile had already landed in Haifa before I got there. Few vehicles were on the streets other than buses and taxis. Most of the storefronts were closed, and very few pedestrians were on the sidewalks. And this is Haifa. Israel's third largest city!

Many of the residents had left Haifa, mostly for safer parts of the country. Others, staying at home until the attacks stop. A prosperous and beautiful city spead along the mountainside, it is often called the San Francisco of Israel. With petrochemical industres, high tech parks, and a large port, Haifa afforded its residents a good quality of life and standard of living. It is not like the border, or "development towns" which have never taken off as self-sustaining (see below, about Akko). This made the scene in Haifa so out of character.

I rode up to the top of The Carmel. Near the top, where the famed Bahai gardens are situated, a number of TV networks had their vans with satellite dishes. This is the preferred broadcast site for anchors and newspeople. Going down the hill, I passed a small apartment building which almost took a direct rocket hit, knocking out the windows and scorching the small lawn. There was a policeman standing in front. The street was almost deserted.

The Shopping Center

Back on the seaside, I went into a new shopping center for a light lunch. The complex, sizeable by Israeli standards and housing about 30 stores, was almost devoid of customers. I ordered a tuna salad at the only restaurant open. Two young waitresses seemed surprised to see me. What would I, a visitor from New York, be doing there when there were no shortage of shops in the US or in Tel Aviv? For my part, I wondered why they bothered to keep the restaurant open. Just as they served me the salad, a siren sounded, along with a voice on loudspeaker calling on people to go to the bomb shelter in the undergrouund parking garage. I went down, and found only about ten people in the reinforced room, a large space without any furnishings. Others decided to wait it out in the garage, which made sense since it was well beneath ground level. After about 10 minutes, I decided to leave (there is no second siren, indicating all clear). When I returned to the restaurant, I noticed that the two waitresses never left. Why not? "We have done it too many times, and it is getting boring", said one. I tried a lame response but felt like a parent lecturing to his kids . As I left the restaurant, a second siren went off. Again to the basement, this time the garage and not the shelter. I was getting a little complacent myself.

The Arab

I walked out of the shopping center and got into a taxi, a clunky Renault whose driver was an Israeli Arab, named Ibrahim. Now this is getting interesting. We started talking about "the situation", and within a few minutes decided to go to Akko, a town near the Lebanon border that had been heavily shelled during the past month.

About 20 percent of Haifa's population is Arab. The city has a reputation of peaceful coexistence. Much different than what is expressed by Arab leaders in the Knesset, and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab towns. That morning, the media carried a story, "Hizbollah Leader warns Arabs to leave Haifa", so he could step up attacks without shedding Moslem blood. It made big headlines, in Haifa, despite the fact that the Katyusha rockets are unguided weapons and firing them is like shooting dice. No idea where they will land. In fact, several Arabs in the Galilee have already been killed or injured. Just this morning , a mother and 5-year old child in an Arab village in the Galilee were killed by a missle.

I asked Ibrahim for his response to Nasrullah, the Hizbollah leader. He cursed Nasrullah and his mother, and said that Israel should have killed him a long time ago. Ibrahim, 52, spoke perfect Hebrew, with a slight Arab accent. He is difficult to typecast in Israel's Arab community. He was born and lived here all his life, but complains bitterly that Arabs have always had to live with a ceiling on their opportunities, while for Jews the potential is wide open. He considers himself to be a moderate, but voted with the Communist party, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish slate in the Knesset and a radical agenda.

When I ask Ibrahim if he could live anywhere else, he scoffed at the idea, saying he prefers life with its limits for Arabs in democratic Israel to that of any Arab dictatorship. I asked him what he thinks of the prospects of the survival of the Jewish state in this region. His answer was quick and blunt: it depends on how this war ends. And then says, unless Israel destroys Hizbollah, it would send a signal of weakness to the Arab world. And this from a Communist-voting Arab.

Akko

This coastal city of some 50,000 people is a dreary place even in the best of times. It is one of Israel's poorest- 25 percent Arabs, 25 percent new immigrants. Neighborhoods of the standard Israeli shikun, four-story apartment blocks built on stilts. The white concrete is faded and cracked, few trees to shade the intense summer heat, and hardly any greenery to be found.


Akko, about 30 miles south of the Lebanese border, has absorbed over 65 missile attacks. Five people were killed in one salvo early in the war. Around 8000 people have left. Most, however, have nowhere to go, and remain in their homes, leaving to buy groceries and other staples or going into the bomb shelters when the sirens go off, which can be several times a day.

The streets of this city were deserted. No traffic, no pedestrians, few shops open. The few merchants who do open their stores, close them by the first siren, or early afternoon - whichever comes first.

I went to the municipality buiding, where a truck was off-loading food and necessities sent by volunteer organizations. I introduced myself, and asked to see the mayor. He was away, but I was received by the deputy mayor. He gave me an overview of the situation. When I asked what could be done to improve the lives of the locals, he said many more would like to leave. Or, at least, to support the outings for children to daycamps and nature reserves well south of the danger zone. These trips are being funded by the Jewish Agency, with help of American contributions. The outings had to be reduced to one or two per week, because of insufficient funds for buses (about $400 per day per bus)

Here, it is timely to note that the government has almost been completely non-existent in the face of massive dislocation of its northern residents. Only two days ago did it decide to evacuate the residents of Kiryat Shmona, which has been pulverized by missiles. It is reminiscent of the collapse of the US government in the face of Hurricane Katrina, only this has extended for one month. The municipal governments, never known for much more than inefficiency and bloated payrolls, have responded better than expected. The real heroes, beside the soldiers, are the tens of thousands of volunteers and their organizations which have sprouted and taken remarkable initiatives since the war began. But it is never enough.

Those left behind in Akko are the poor, aged and the unconnected. I later visited with a family that had moved here from Azerbijan in 1993. They were three generations of women, sitting under a balcony of their building, the only shade and cooling available. I went down to their bomb shelter. It smelled badly (there are no bathrooms), was oppressively hot, and had just a few chairs, a table with a water pitcher, and two cots. I went upstairs to speak to the residents.

It was not clear how this family was able to hang on. There is no work, and with grocery stores closed, food and other provisions not readily available. The mother works as a cleaning woman, but the offices she cleans are closed. The daughter, 15, is a bright, if not outstanding student and musician. When I asked if she had gone on a day trip, she said no, that she registered but no one invited her. I called the mayor's office, gave the girl's name and phone number, and asked that she be listed for the next day trip. Now she, too, falls under the system of protectsia, the Israeli term for clout or influence.

The Missile Attack

On the way back to Haifa with Ibrahim, he told me that the situation is even worse in the Arab towns and villages. There are few bomb shelters, and locals are left to fend for themselves. The Arab population, which has long been trapped in a politcal netherland, is now also in the firing line. It does not have the Jews in America to support them, nor are Israelis rushing to open their homes in the Tel Aviv area to them.

We were driving through the Kiryat Motzkin, about halfway to Haifa, when a siren blasted, sounding an impending missle attack. We were in an industrial area, stuck behind a truck. We looked around for someplace to take cover. Nothing in sight. We just sat in the car. It was a totally defenseless feeling. We neither heard nor saw a missile. But about 10 minutes later, the radio reported that one had dropped in a field, not far from where we were stuck., with no casualties. Good luck for us, and everyone else in the town at that moment.

The Return Trip

The train going south to Tel Aviv was full, this time with residents of Haifa and other northern cities who could get away for the week-end. I am glad they could get away. I just felt badly for those, like the Akko family, who hadn't left since the war began. And there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands like them. They live with the missiles, the heat, the fear, the fetid bomb shelters, the trauma, and the hope that this will end soon, and that they will have some peace in their lives. Who could ask for less?