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There are few sights in Israel as magnificent as the sweep of the Haifa Bay as viewed from the Carmel ridge, looking out to the coastline as it curls around the city and unfurls up to the hills of Lebanon on the northern border.
It's a panorama so breathtaking that, when the experience of gazing down at it is frequently interrupted by the wails of air-raid sirens, the booms of Hizbullah missiles coming to earth and, worst of all, the plumes of smoke rising from the landscape, one's appreciation of the view cannot be entirely undermined even by concern over the possibility of serious casualties.
For a Jerusalemite who has rarely spent time in Israel's third-largest city, Haifa's sheer beauty - accentuated by the unnatural quiet in the streets, as those of its residents who haven't fled hunker down in their homes and shelters - leaves an indelible impression even after a week spent in a town under an aerial siege that has left eight of its inhabitants dead and dozens more injured.
Although that's the highest number of fatalities of any locality in Israel, one can't argue that Haifa has suffered worse than elsewhere since the war with Hizbullah began last week. Surely Nahariya and Kiryat Shmona, smaller places where the missiles have struck more frequently, have proportionately absorbed harder and steadier blows.
But those towns have to some degree been hardened by long, bitter experience with attacks from Lebanon that stretch back decades. Not so Haifa. True, the city is not entirely unfamiliar to the ravages of war; it was hit by a few of Saddam Hussein's Scuds during the first Gulf War, although nothing like the number Tel Aviv experienced. And yes, it was the site of some horrific terror attacks during the second intifada, but still far fewer than cities such as Jerusalem and Netanya.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav stressed during a press conference this week, "Haifa is a city of peace," proudly adding with perhaps a touch of hyperbole, "This is the only place on earth with full peace between Jews and Arabs."
In recent years, the city has embraced this image as a multi-cultural oasis of coexistence, perhaps to some degree out of necessity. Haifa has long seemed to have something of an identity problem, in contrast to its bigger and far-better-known-internationally sister cities. Its image as a blue-collar socialist stronghold, the "Red Haifa" of legendary long-time Labor Mayor Abba Houshy, bears little resemblance to the lively nightlife and hi-tech industries that far better characterize it today.
A metropolis whose best-known monument, the Baha'i World Center, is a shrine to an obscure religion with few adherents in Israel itself; whose major renewal project in recent years was the restoration of a neighborhood first built by the Templars, a German evangelical Protestant sect; and which boasts sizable Arab and Druse minorities was well-positioned to make as its major municipal festival the "Holiday of Holidays," an event that combines celebration of Christmas, Hanukka and Id al-Fitr.
But for Haifa residents, the past week's events have been a harsh and shocking reminder that, at just beyond the very limit of that magnificent northern view from the Carmel hills, sits an enemy indifferent to both the city's charms and its well-deserved reputation for coexistence. Though largely cut off geographically from the rest of the country by the Carmel range, those verdant hills are no more than an illusory barrier to the conflicts afflicting the surrounding region, to say nothing of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's Iranian-supplied engines of destruction.
Thanks to the latter, some of the most memorable images that remain after this week spent in Haifa do severe disservice to everything that best characterize - and characterize the best of - this city.
I will not soon forget the apartment house on Nahalal Street with its front wall shorn off by a single rocket that seriously injured several people, yet eerily left the furniture of one room almost completely untouched and unmoved (except for a wall clock with its hands frozen at the time of the strike), as if one were looking at the stage set for a domestic drama just set to begin.
Nor the sight of the Israel Railways maintenance depot - a large, hangar-like structure with one massive hole in the roof left behind by the missile that on Sunday crashed into the structure and killed eight people; a second, smaller fissure only meters away created by another projectile that incredibly struck at almost the same spot a day later; and railway cars pitted by hundreds of small holes made by the ball-bearings Hizbullah had loaded into warheads to rip apart as much human flesh as possible.
And though far less dramatic than those examples, most haunting was the crowd of gurneys outside the emergency room of Rambam Hospital, even spilling into the edge of the parking lot, waiting expectantly for the rush of wounded that could come at any minute.
These are not the landmarks of a city of peace, of brotherhood, of natural beauty and reborn neighborhoods that symbolize the Haifa of today. Yet neither can these abominations ruin the breathtaking view from the Carmel ridge down to the Haifa Bay, a breathtaking sight that will remain long after the sirens die down, the missiles are destroyed, the damage is repaired, the dead are buried, the wounded heal, and peace - a genuine peace, not a meaningless cease-fire until the next conflagration in the north - truly reigns in Israel's glittering urban jewel by the sea.
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