TOURISM MINISTRY director-general Oren Drori told The Jerusalem Post Sunday it was still too early to tell what impact the war in the Gaza Strip was having on incoming tourism. On Monday, Eilat Hotel Association director-generalShabtai Shai said January and February are always difficult months for incoming tourism, but that occupancy rates for hotels were somewhere between 40 percent to 50%. While Russia has issued a travel advisory against visiting Israel, he said, tourism from Poland, Finland and France remained unaffected, and there had been a large group of visitors from Poland over the weekend. Shai said there had been a general falloff in incoming tourism since November, which he attributed to the downturn in the global economy. "But when you have two crises simultaneously, it is difficult to pinpoint which of the two has a greater impact on tourism," he added. However, a Monday press release from the Israel Hotel Association paints a somewhat more pessimistic picture than Drori and Shai do. According to IHA president Eli Gonen, hotels are reporting group cancellations and a halt in reservations for the months ahead, including Pessah and the summer. As far as tourism is concerned, he sees a great a similarity between the situation today and that during the Second Lebanon War. Although the battle was in the North at that time, there were cancellations throughout the whole country in all segments of tourism. That is what is happening now, he said, citing vacation, pilgrim and business tourism, which are all impacted by news reports of the war. According to Gonen, tourists cannot differentiate between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Tiberias, and Ashdod and Ashkelon; that means it's just that much easier to cancel and not come to Israel. But he agrees with Drori that it is important to mount a more aggressive tourism campaign while the war continues, to be ready for the day after it ends. WHEN THE chips are down in Israel, rivalries are moved to the back burner, the ugly Israeli more or less disappears, and the finer side of the Israeli character surges to the surface as individuals, business firms, organizations and institutions put their shoulder to the wheel to make life more bearable for people living in the most vulnerable part of the country. Since the start of Operation Cast Lead and the intense retaliatory action from Gaza, dozens of volunteers have converged on Sderot, Ashkelon, Netivot and neighboring areas to help deal with trauma or simply to provide moral support. In addition, hundreds of people from the center and north of the country have offered to take in children and even whole families for periods ranging from a few days to an indefinite time span, depending on the restoration of quiet. Only a few days before the launch of Operation Cast Lead, President Shimon Peres was in Sderot, not only to light Hanukka candles with some of the residents, but also to participate in the inauguration ceremony of a new production line at the Osem sauce factory, which will provide employment for more than 80 new workers. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Peres lauded Osem for its decision to open a new production line in the city. He told the workers he was proud of their determination and courage, as well as their contribution to the strengthening of Israel's industry and economy. He also gave them the good news that Osem chairman Dan Propper had promised him that no worker from Sderot or the Gaza periphery would be laid off, regardless of the economic crisis. OSEM IS not alone in identifying with the predicament and the needs of the population in the South, particularly Sderot. For people living in the Gaza periphery and wanting to get away from it all in some luxury hotel, where they can temporarily forget the threat and the fear, Ophir Tours has organized significant discounts with major hotels; they have made their prices much more affordable to people from the South and are reducing their rates by 20%-35%. LIKEWISE, CELLCOM, aware of the psychological importance of maintaining contact, decided to reduce the cost of air time for people in the area by 50%, and Supersol introduced significant discounts on basic products. Regarding Cellcom, while employees of other companies are worrying about whether they will be included in plans to downsize staff, Cellcom last week held a "convention of appreciation" for 310 employees celebrating their 10th anniversary on the Cellcom payroll. BECAUSE SO many stores in the South are closed, merchants have had to resort to organizing market fairs beyond the confrontation line. Interviewed on Israel Radio, they repeatedly have said they are not looking for handouts or charity of any kind. All they want is that people come to buy what they have to sell so that they can continue to provide for their families in an honorable manner. In addition, the National Federation of Labor is providing a nationwide delivery service of nonperishable goods that can be ordered from Sderot merchants. TO ENSURE that new blood has a chance to flow into its executive divisions, the Manufacturers Association of Israel has a rule limiting the number of consecutive terms that a chairman of any division can serve. Anyone who has proved his or her mettle can be reelected after a two-year hiatus, during which someone else is given a chance to prove his or her leadership capabilities. Thus, two years after completing his term as chairman of the textile and fashion division of the IMA, Ramzi Gabbai, CEO of Office Textile, was reelected to the chairmanship of the division. The position also gives him a seat on the executive of the IMA. He replaces Yosef Shiran. SUPERSOL STORES have been selling magazines and newspapers for a long time. Occasionally they sell books, especially at holiday times such as Pessah, when they sell appropriate recipe books. But now they may include a lot more books on their shelves if negotiations with the Markstone Capital Partners Group, which owns Steimatzky, work out satisfactorily. Reports indicate that Supersol was willing to pay $13 million for a 20% stake in the chain, which operates 150 stores throughout the country.