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(photo credit: Courtesy)
After years of being off limits, Haifa is enjoying once again being a port of call for the US Navy.
Hailing from Norfolk, Virginia, the USS Vella Gulf Aegis guided missile cruiser, commanded by Capt. Mark Genung, docked in Haifa port on Sunday to provide five days rest and relaxation for its 400 crew members.
The ship has been enthusiastically received by the city of Haifa, which views the visit as a return to normalcy.
In the past, US Navy vessels regularly visited the port. According to the municipality's deputy spokesman, Roni Grossman, starting in 1979 the American Sixth Fleet began sending five to 10 ships a year, which increased to 40 to 50 ships a year by the mid-1980s.
"It was magnificent for the city's economy; they visited restaurants and pubs and restocked ship supplies," Grossman said.
In the early 1990s, the Sixth Fleet stopped its frequent visits because of deployments elsewhere, such as in Yugoslavia and in the Gulf War.
In 2000, things took a turn for the worse; in September the second intifada began, and on October 12, the USS Cole was damaged and 17 of its sailors were killed by an al-Qaida suicide bombing in the port of Aden, Yemen.
According to Jonathan Friedland, the American consul in Haifa, these events compelled the US Navy to step up scrutiny, and it ceased its visits to the region, though he noted that the safety of Haifa's port was still deemed adequate by the US.
The mayors of Haifa and the US Embassy convinced the US Navy to make Haifa a port of call for the Sixth Fleet once again, starting about a year ago.
"The US Navy has always had an excellent working relationship with the municipality," Friedland said.
"Not only is there a huge economic impact for Haifa, but hosting the sailors is a great tradition of the city. Their visit has been absolutely positive."
Although the number of sailors pales in comparison to the thousands Haifa used to host, Grossman said, "it's significant that there is a renewed connection between Israel and the American navy."
"Now we're doing everything we can to show the sailors a good time."
The ship, which is 173 meters in length, is named for the Battle of Vella Gulf in August 1943, part of the American campaign in the Solomon Islands against Japan. The ship itself has seen its share of action, including the encirclement of the MV Faina, a munitions ship seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia last year, and the detainment of a skiff with seven pirates in the Gulf of Aden last month.
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