In North, little fear of a ‘weakened’ Assad

Iron Dome batteries in Haifa, Safed leave residents unfazed.

Iron Dome battery 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Iron Dome battery 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
The morning after Israeli jets bombed sites inside Syria, according to foreign media reports, people in the Haifa area said they didn’t feel they were on the verge of returning to the 2006 Second Lebanon War. At that time the area was bombarded with rockets for 34 days, forcing residents of the North to live inside safe rooms and bomb shelters.
The fact that the army announced on Sunday that Iron Dome batteries had been moved to the Haifa and Safed areas in recent days didn’t appear to be cause for concern either. The reports came as a surprise to some residents.
At the site of the Iron Dome battery in the Haifa area – the exact location cannot be printed for security reasons – a small crew of soldiers milled around. The site didn’t appear to have become a local attraction for bystanders, as the Tel Aviv and southern Israel batteries had, during Operation Pillar of Defense.
“People are not worried up here. They [the Assad regime] are more worried about the rebels and too worried to go to war with Israel. It’s not time for us to clean out the bomb shelters,” said Dror Elmakayes, 38, an employee of a shwarma restaurant in downtown Kiryat Ata, north of Haifa. />
Elmakayes related how seven years earlier he and his wife and two kids lived out the Second Lebanon War in the safe room of their apartment in Kiryat Yam, as rockets battered the area. He said it was a difficult time for his family, but also a bit of recent history he doesn’t picture repeating itself.
“They aren’t capable of attacking us,” Elmakayes said, adding that he believes that the Israeli leadership is counting on this weakness in the Assad regime and the Syrian military, in order to carry out the strikes.
A dominant theme in the comments made by residents of the North was that the Assad regime is weakened and in no position to respond, fully aware that striking back would invite an Israeli attack that would end its rule in Syria.
“They can shoot a missile or two at us, but if they do, they know it will be the end of them.
Maybe he [Assad] will try to put the pressure on Israel to get the world off his back, but I don’t think people are worried about this happening,” said Itah Yitzhak, 58, a father of four working at a photo shop nearby in downtown Kiryat Ata.
Yitzhak added that most of the people in the Krayot (Haifa’s bayside suburbs) are more prepared than they have previously been, but that Assad “is not ready for another war.”
The working-class towns of the Krayot are not far from the Haifa Bay industrial zone, which includes oil refineries and chemical and metals plants, as well as an ammonia depository.
(Doomsday scenarios can be conjured up where a Hezbollah or Iranian missile makes a direct hit and unleashes environmental ruin on northern Israel.) The plants are also near the green paths of Ramat Yohanan, a pleasant and well-off kibbutz next to Kiryat Ata.
At Ramat Yohanan on Sunday afternoon, Yuval Cohen, head of the kibbutz’s manpower department, said that while memories of 2006 are still fresh in the minds of residents, he doesn’t believe that anyone on the kibbutz is in any sort of war-readiness mode, or deja vu-induced panic.
“The memories are still fresh for us, and while the fact that they put the Iron Dome out [in the North] brings a feeling back, I don’t see any worries or preparations up here.”
Though the kibbutz was relatively fortunate during the 2006 war, when no rockets landed within its gates, the air raid sirens and the fear took a toll on its residents, children and parents alike.
As Cohen told it, standing just meters away from young couples pushing their babies in strollers on a freshly mown grass path outside the kibbutz mini-market, things always sound worse to those who live far away from areas that are supposedly within the cross-hairs.
“My parents live in Ashkelon and they ask me about what’s going on up there, and I ask them about what’s happening there. It’s always people who are far away who feel the danger more.”
Beyond the dismissals of Assad or Hezbollah’s stomach for a new round of hostilities with Israel, another factor may have been at play in the North – Israeli apathy in the face of the possibility of renewed conflict.
“No one’s scared or worried about it, it’s a sort of apathy at play,” said Sa’ariya Yehil, a young resident of Nesher sitting outside the entrance to an underground station in the Carmel Center neighborhood of Haifa in the early evening.
The strip was humming at an everyday pace, cafes were full, a saxophonist played a Stevie Wonder song, and the scene was worlds away from the fear that had gripped the North during the Second Lebanon War.
When asked if the lack of concern in the North derived from the fact that people are more prepared today than they were in 2006, or from the recent placement of an Iron Dome battery in the area, she said, “I think they’re [the army] preparing more, they’re just trying to show that they’re doing something, to give people a feeling of safety, but I don’t think it makes a difference.”