Despite Olmert’s Offensive, Israelis Running From Rockets

JERUSALEM – Avner Pomeranetz does not sound particularly concerned by the barrage of 26 Katyusha rockets that slammed into his home town of Kiryat Shmona on Israel’s northern border over the weekend. Nor by the fact that he has to remain in town by order of the army, and cannot travel south out of range of the rockets, because as a pharmacist he is considered to be providing an essential service.

"This is nothing new," he told IPS, pointing out that ever since he arrived in the border town after immigrating from Argentina to Israel in the mid-1970s, it has been a target of rockets from Lebanon. But most residents of northern Israel are far less sanguine than the 73-year-old Pomeranetz. Unlike this Katyusha veteran, residents in places like Haifa, Safed, Carmiel, Acre, and Tiberias are experiencing life under Hezbollah rockets for the first time. Tens of thousands have traveled south, out of rocket range, to family, friends, and hotels.

The Israeli military estimates that between a third and a half of the residents in northern Israel have left their homes and their work.

Those who have remained in Haifa and other towns in northern Israel have spent much of the last two weeks in bomb shelters and security rooms, or in close proximity to them, ears peeled for the sirens that warn of incoming rockets. But not everyone has found shelter in time from the rockets: a 15-year-old Arab girl was killed Tuesday when a rocket fired by Hezbollah directly struck a home in a Muslim section of the village of Maghar in northern Israel.

In Israel’s third-largest city of Haifa, a man was killed Sunday when his car was mangled by a rocket as he drove along a main road in the northern port city. The same day, another man was killed when a rocket slammed into the factory where he was working in a Haifa suburb.

So far, 17 Israelis have been killed – eight in the single most deadly attack, in Haifa last week – and hundreds injured in the rocket attacks.

Along with the human cost, the economic damage is also mounting. Already the rockets have snuffed out the tourism industry in the north, which was hoping for another profitable season after six years of relative security calm following Israel’s mid-2000 withdrawal from south Lebanon.

Farmers are incurring damage as orchards stand empty with workers unable to harvest the fruit. The many bed and breakfast outlets across northern Israel are empty, and small businesses are shut.

"People aren’t leaving their homes, everything is dead," Shiri Gelbart, owner of a small business in Haifa told Channel 10 television. "At the end of the day, the cash register is empty."

More than half of the factories in northern Israel have either been shuttered or are operating on only partial capacity. The estimated damage to industry in northern Israel since the fighting erupted two weeks ago is said to be in the region of 2 billion shekels ($450 million).

Despite the cost, the broad domestic and political support for Israel’s military offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon is still strong.

"Olmert’s response was correct," says Avner. "We had no choice. We withdrew to the last centimeter. South Lebanon is no longer occupied territory. It’s a pity this type of response did not come earlier," he says, referring to the fact that during the six years since Israel left Lebanon, Hezbollah has built up an arsenal of some 12,000 short and medium-range missiles that it deployed in the south of the country facing Israel.

Asked about the devastation in Lebanon and the ever rising number of civilian casualties as a result of Israel’s aerial raids, Avner’s wife Chani says it is "very painful" to watch, but that Hezbollah’s missiles are a "direct threat" to Israel and could not be ignored.

"We are trying our best not to harm civilians," adds Avner. "But Hezbollah places its rocket launchers amongst the [Lebanese] civilian population. And unlike us, they shoot directly at civilians."

Like a growing number of ex-military staff, who have been vocally expressing their views on radio and television, Chani believes that Israel cannot subdue Hezbollah by means of an aerial assault alone. But some commentators have warned against a ground incursion, saying Hezbollah wants to lure Israel into south Lebanon where it believes the conventional Israeli military will be vulnerable.

Chani says there is no choice but to carry out ground operations in order to "clear the area near the border" of Hezbollah fighters. And she fully comprehends the price of a ground operation: her son was killed four years ago when the elite unit of which he was a member was involved in a military operation in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Opinion polls show over 80 percent of Israelis support Olmert’s decision to launch a military offensive after Hezbollah militants attacked an Israeli border patrol on July 12, killed three soldiers and snatched two others that they are holding captive.

But that support for Olmert could change if the military operation ends and Olmert does not achieve the goals he has outlined: the release of the captured soldiers, the deployment of the Lebanese army or an international peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, and the removal of Hezbollah far from the border area.

"Hezbollah cannot be wiped out," says Avner. "It is an integral part of Lebanon. But it has to be kept far from the border, and the soldiers have to be released."

Israel’s leaders believe the war will not be decided on the battlefield alone, but that the outcome will also depend on the ability of the civilian rear to endure the rocket attacks and the mounting military casualties – 12 soldiers have been killed since Israel launched its offensive.

This is one reason why the military views the battle being waged around the town of Bint Jbail, a Hezbollah stronghold in south Lebanon, as particularly significant. After Israel withdrew from Lebanon six years ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a triumphant speech in the village, declaring that Israeli society was as weak as a "spider’s web."

Avner thinks the Israeli response has sent a very different message to Nasrallah. "Hezbollah didn’t expect these two civilians to react the way they did," he said, referring to Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, neither of whom rose up through the ranks of the military before entering political office, like many former Israeli leaders.

"They thought that Israel would fire a few missiles and then begin negotiations over the release of the soldiers. Now Nasrallah is finding out that things aren’t quite as he thought."