You have 45 seconds to run for your life. That's the amount of time it takes for a missile launched from southern Lebanon to reach a housing development in Akko a few miles north of Haifa on Israel's Mediterranean coast.
Yesterday, as the wail of the warning siren blared through city streets in northern Israel, I made that run several times, either into a bomb shelter, if we happened to be near one, or into the stairwell of a building, if that's all we could find.
After four weeks of war, many residents of Israel's northern cities have given up running in and out of the shelters. Those with resources or relatives have fled south, out of missile range. Those who are left have become resigned to spending their days underground to escape the continuous rocket barrage.
A military information officer hands out a stark information sheet: Katyusha missiles: 122 mm., Range 12 miles; Fajr 3 missiles: 240mm., range 28 miles; Zilzal missiles: 882lb warhead, range 62-125 miles.
It's difficult for the non-military mind to absorb the statistics of the barrage of missiles directed against Israeli citizens. But for anyone who spends time in northern Israel today there's no need for any understanding of ballistics to appreciate the effects of Hezbollah's cowardly war against civilians, houses and hospitals.
It's as if someone has drawn an imaginary line across the country between the port town of Haifa and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, about 40 miles to the east. Everything north of this line appears eerily deserted and lies in the twilight zone of communities that have come under attack from more than three thousand missiles over the past month.
A few years ago, UNESCO designated the Old City of Acco a World Heritage Site because of its magnificent archaeological and historic treasures, which include a 13th century fortress and an ancient port. Tourism began to flourish as Israelis and foreigners alike discovered the unique atmosphere of the bazaars and alleyways of the city and its mix of mosques and synagogues close to the sea.
Tourism proved to be a boon to the 50,000 citizens of Acco, one of Israel's most mixed cities. But today, thanks to Nasrallah's rockets, the streets of Acco are virtually deserted. Deputy Mayor Zev Neuman estimates that his city is made up of 30 percent new immigrants; 30 percent Arabs and the remainder are longtime residents. Neuman says that 80 percent of Acco's residents remain in the town. To date, fifteen homes have been destroyed and sixty-five are damaged.
On a quiet street lined with modest two-family homes, we see one of Nasrallah's targets. A crater has replaced the patio, which is still strewn with children's playthings and a mangled barbecue grill. Baseball-size holes decorate the walls of the house, the remains of the powerful ball bearings that Hezbollah packs into the Katyushas to ensure maximum carnage.
A little further down the street, the public bomb shelter is filled with lithe, noisy teenagers engaged in a ping-pong tournament and younger kids sitting down to lunch on their mattresses that line the walls. The airline-style meals are delivered by city workers and volunteers: No one wants to risk standing in their kitchen to cook, and there's nothing to buy since most stores aren't open anyway. It's not safe to be in the open away from a bomb shelter for any length of time.
By now, many of the shelters, which hadn't been used in years, have been supplied with air conditioning units, TVs, fans and toys thanks to donations from well-wishers abroad. Tami Raviv, a municipal social worker, is on her daily rounds of the shelters. She tells visitors that she feels for the innocent Lebanese citizens who are suffering from Israeli retaliation to Nasrallah's assault, but her major concern is the after effects of the war on Israel's northern population.
The tension of the past weeks is etched on the face of Zahava, a slim, blond woman in her late thirties who feels tethered to the bomb shelter. "We're scared all the time," she says quietly. "But we can take it, we just want the army to do what's needed. Let them take how much time they want," she asserts.
A few minutes on the road out of Acco, the warning siren sounds. With no shelter in sight, we make a run for the stairwell of a three-storey apartment building and hope for the best. We're told that if we hear a siren while driving on the open road, the only thing to do is jump out of the car and hit the ground. That way the danger from flying shrapnel and ball bearings is minimized. After each rocket warning, we're supposed to wait for 15 minutes or the all-clear signal before venturing out. Three curious people were killed in Acco last Thursday when they left their protected area to look at a Katyusha that had just fallen. A second hit killed them.
Apart from a few emergency vehicles and army trucks, the roads are completely empty as we drive on up the coast to through Nahariya and turn east toward Maalot-Tarshiha. It's eerie in the midst of a beautiful day in the middle of the summer vacation season to see deserted playgrounds, empty swimming pools, and closed shopping areas. The only people about are army reservists waiting for rides north at the junctions. The north is one of Israel's most beautiful regions. Lush rolling hills, quiet forests and stunning vistas draw vacationing Israelis by the thousands in normal times. Today, however, the only visitors are journalists, volunteers and the army.
A unit of older army reservists is unloading boxes of food into the lobby of the municipality building in Maalot. For the 7-8,000 people who have stayed in the town that has taken 450 Katyusha hits in 28 days, the delivery is a lifeline. We're already on our way down to the municipal bomb shelter that serves as the mayor's war room when the siren sounds for the umpteenth time that day. One house is still burning from the previous direct hit that happened as we were driving up to the picturesque town in the hills overlooking Wadi Koren.
A tense Mayor Shlomo Buhbut is briefing Minister of Infrastructure Binyamin Ben Eliezer who has come to assess the damage. Buhbut was a Labor Knesset Member during the Oslo years, between 1992-1996. Today he tells Ben Eliezer to go back to Jerusalem and tell Prime Minister Olmert that the Forum of Mayors of Northern Cities demands that there be no cessation of the campaign to rid the area of Hezbollah. "We need to eradicate them. They're an obstacle to peace," Buhbut asserts.
Ben Eliezer responds with fighting words. "We're not going to let Nasrallah play games with us any more. If anyone will dare touch our people on this side of the border we'll destroy them, and they'll be responsible. There's no moderation," the minister asserts. "Nasrallah thinks he can control the life of people in the Middle East. No more." Ben Eliezer tells us that there's interaction between Hezbollah and every terrorist group in the world, and leaves no doubt that he has little hope of anything positive coming from the idea of leaving the Lebanese Army in control of southern Lebanon. "They're under the control of Hezbollah. They're Hezbollah in uniform," he concludes.
The beleaguered mayor points out that since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Maalot has turned itself into a thriving town focused on absorbing immigrants and developing the B & B cottage tourism industry. "But look what they've done in those same years," he asks rhetorically of his northern neighbors across the border.
Still, Buhbut expresses residual echoes of his peacenik roots as he says wistfully, "They should see the benefits of peace and quiet..." Apparently the idea that Islamic fundamentalism doesn't hold peace and quiet as a core value hasn't yet got through to Buhbut.
Maalot resident Yaakov Marks takes a more sanguine view. Marks, who has lived in Maalot since immigrating from New York in the late 1970s, and who served for 20 years as a medic in the IDF reserves, says simply: "We want it taken care of once and for all." He and his wife Rina raised six kids in the upper Galilee town. One of their sons who completed his Israeli army service in the elite Givati brigade is now serving with the U.S Army in Iraq.
Across town in Tarshiha, Israeli Arabs sit out the war in the same kind of shelters as their Jewish neighbors. Katyusha shrapnel killed three Arab farmers here just last week. The Maalot-Tarshiha municipality delivers the same TV dinners to Arabs and Jews and the same cheery murals even grace the walls of the Tarshiha shelter as we saw in Acco.
The road from Maalot-Tarshiha to Tsfat winds along hilly roads lined with forests and valleys. All along the way, we see evidence of the Katyushas that have evidently missed their human mark and landed in open wooded areas. Scorched earth and blackened trees scar the landscape. Smoke rises from the latest hit and a firefighting airplane drops its load of pink flame retardant in an attempt to limit the damage.
The holy city of Tsfat, with its kabbalistic leanings, historic synagogues and ancient burial places is another virtual ghost town. As the home of the northern command of the IDF, Tsfat has become a frequent Hezbollah target.
Here too, there are Israelis who are both scared and defiant. As the prospect of an intensified ground offensive gathers momentum and Israel sustains more civilian and military casualties, it's the resolve and steel will of the people that will make or break this war.
Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times. www.jerusalemdiaries.com
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