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,
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
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."
(Inter Press Service)