"Will my gas mask from the last war do any good if they start sending over biological weapons?" inquires Rachel from Kiryat Tivon, a Haifa suburb, on a special Sunday afternoon call-in radio show on the Army Radio channel.
"Where's the best place in the building to survive a direct hit?" asks Moshe in Karmiel in the upper Galilee. "Nothing defends against a direct hit," intones the calm voice of the Home Front Command officer fielding calls on the radio show designed to reassure an edgy public. And, "no, your gas mask from 2003 won't help in this case."
On this, the deadliest day yet of the new, as yet unnamed war, Israelis braced themselves for more bad news and adjusted to the new reality that left almost half the country under threat of either Kassam, katyusha or the new Hezbollah missiles with a 70 km. range. On Sunday night, more than 1.8 million Israelis were sleeping in bomb shelters or protected rooms.
After ten Israeli civilians were killed in the north over the past two days, more than a million Israelis north of Tel Aviv were told not to go to work today and stay close to home, while tens of thousands more in the long-suffering southern part of the country endured yet another day of Kassam rockets fired from Gaza.
Indeed, irony of ironies, it's the Jews in Judea and Samaria, the so-called "settlements," the "obstacles to peace," who are being left alone by the enemy today.
Together with a few friends, I spent a peaceful Shabbat in another disputed part of the country--the Golan Heights, just a few miles east of Tiberias, Hatzor and Tsfat, where rockets rained down all weekend.
Yes, we heard the constant thud of the missiles launched from Lebanon, but in Alonei Habashan, the Israeli community closest to the Syrian border, all was quiet and Shabbat was observed as normal in the pretty, small village.
It's hard to recall that just six years ago, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, responsible for Israel's disastrous pullout from Lebanon, was also considering trading the Golan Heights for a peace treaty with Syria. The prospect of such an action precipitated one of the most successful grassroots movements in Israeli political history. Ha Am Im Hagolan (The People are with the Golan) proclaimed bumper stickers, flyers, ads and balloons all over Israel. The idea of giving away one of the country's most strategic border areas and the largest, most beautiful open space filled with 18,000 residents and dozens of productive small communities was quietly dropped after Barak resigned in December 2000.
Today, the Golan Heights, which shares a border with Syria and Lebanon, has not yet been targeted by Hezbollah. Most likely explanation is that there's nothing of strategic value up on the vast plain that makes up the Heights, plus there are a number of Druse villages scattered among the Jewish communities. Someone at Alonei Habashan even speculated that perhaps the terrorists didn't have such great control over their missiles, and were afraid that if they shot a few eastward in the direction of the Golan, one might actually overshoot its mark and land in Syria.
In any event, all was quiet as we drove up the Jordan Valley on Friday, making a right at the southern end of the Kinneret. A stop at Kibbutz Ein Gev, on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee provided a welcome refreshment break, as well as an opportunity to gaze across the beautiful blue waters at the resort town of Tiberias across the lake.
A mere 24 hours later, Tiberias was hit by at least 12 rockets, causing extensive damage to apartments in the upper part of the city. Tourists fled south in droves, as residents were left to pick up the pieces and the mayor in a TV interview, begged Israelis to return to the tourist-dependent town, "after all this is over."
Up at Alonei Habashan, a busload of American 11th graders taking part in a Summer Israel Program sponsored by the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement, were our companions for Shabbat. It was their first Shabbat in Israel and they celebrated it with gusto, singing and dancing and socializing as they got to know their Israeli youth leaders and each other.
Late Saturday night, the group was given orders to move out of the north of Israel, and the subdued teenagers quickly packed up and piled onto their bus for the long drive down to Eilat.
Walking around Alonei Habashan, a community of about 65 Torah observant families, it's hard to miss the bomb shelters that stick up every few hundred yards amidst the manicured lawns and lush flora. Close inspection reveals, however, that as in many northern communities, apart from those closest to the border with Lebanon, the concrete shelters are in a serious state of neglect. They haven't been used for years.
On the drive back down to Jerusalem we learn of the latest missile hit. Eight workers killed at the main garage of the train terminus in Haifa. A few hours later, Defense Minister Amir Peretz tells the country: "None of the families of the victims should think that their loved ones died in vain..." Then he intones the now cliched and standard response: "Those that perpetrated this deadly attack will pay a very heavy price."
At a rest stop not too far outside Jericho, I run into an acquaintance stepping out of a van into the overwhelming heat of the Jordan Valley. Mike works for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. He and his colleagues are heading up north into the missile zone to check up on the communities they support with funds raised primarily from American Christians who support Israel.
Meantime, many people in the shrinking "safe" areas of the country, like Jerusalem and Beersheva, are offering to put up families from the north for the duration of the war.
"It sounds like you were born here," the Army radio anchor says to Rachel from Kiryat Tivon, who called about the gas masks. "So you know we've gone through all this so many times before. We even overcame Pharoah--we'll overcome this time, too."
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