Metulla and the marks of war

Despite its beauty, it is impossible to ignore the psychological and financial scars that wars have left on the inhabitants of this northern city

metulla metr0 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
metulla metr0 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The tree-lined main street stands quiet again - a shimmering heat haze covers the hillsides and enfolds stretches of the verdant orchards. The hubbub and excitement imported by the participants and supporters of the first World Jewish Ice Hockey Tournament at Canada Center have melted away; hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and cafes await, clean and orderly, for the next weekend's traffic. One cannot ignore the beauty of this small town and its position: Eastward towers the Hermon, the fertile fields of the Hula Valley stretch below and Lebanon's villages and mountain ranges extend to the west and north. It is understandable why families were tempted to settle here in days gone by - days when relationships with neighboring Lebanese were cordial. But today it is impossible to ignore the psychological and financial scars that wars have left on the inhabitants. The municipal offices of Metulla are housed in one of the beautiful stone buildings of the past. Local council head Kobi Katz talks of how Metulla has been affected by the events of 2000, the interim period and the Second Lebanon War. Metulla understood what life on the border was, and maintained relationships with the villages of southern Lebanon via the Good Fence (see box). However, the threat and tragedies of last year's war have changed that. War was on their doorstep, they lived with the soldiers as they went out to and returned from battle; they had to deal with the emotions of this as well as caring for residents and their safety. The noise of war, the fear and worry were with them day and night. Katz believes that a way to peace must be found and more investment made in this part of the country. "Metulla lives from two things - fruit farming and tourism," he says. "Twenty five kilometers of our orchards stretch along the border. If we are to survive into the future there have to be ways to create and ensure income, to keep what we have and to find alternatives. Otherwise how can we attract younger generations to stay? We try our best but need backup." Just across the road from the municipal building stands the Alaska Inn, which is on the site of Metulla's first hotel built in 1911, the Snow of the Lebanon. The Alaska Inn, as it is now called, was purchased in 1964 by the parents of Reuben Weinberg who came to Metulla in 1948. There was a note of despondency in Weinberg's voice when discussing the present situation, the drop-off of overseas tourism to the area and the need for organized promotion of all there is to offer. "We have to put Metulla on the map again," he says, gesturing to the deserted lobby. "We have a lot to offer." Weinberg smiles wryly and shrugs his shoulders. Indeed, all the natural basics exist but they must be improved by correct investment. Further down the street is the homely, convivial HaMavri Hotel which is still run by Galia, widow of the former local council head, the late Yossi Goldberg. The Canada Center, which was the result of Goldberg's vision and determination together with the generosity of the United Israel Appeal (UIA), gave Metulla something unique. Its Olympic-size ice rink and the training programs set up and run by a devoted team has put Israel on the ice sports world map. The other excellent facilities it offers attract both young and old, not only from the area but further afield. Metulla has become as much a part of Galia as it was of Yossi, and her devotion to its future is mirrored in the warmth of welcome at the hotel. Turning left toward the site of the Good Fence stands the attractive home of fruit producers Zvi and Rachel Weinberg. Zvi's family came to Metulla some 60 years ago, purchased their land and initially farmed wheat crops and produced olive oil before extending into fruit production. Most of their land lies adjacent to the border. "Our roots are in the earth," Rachel smiles when asked how she sees the future. She recalls the pain of the past, remembering the closing of the Good Fence and the breakdown of years of neighborly relations with the Lebanese who came to work and share sorrows and joy with them. When talking of last year's war, she praises those who opened their homes to older residents and young families who left, and recalls the pleasure of being able to send baskets of apples from their orchards to the families for Rosh Hashanah. Another couple, residents of Metulla for the past 14 years, George and Judy Javor expressed their thoughts. George is originally from New Jersey and Judy from London. The Galilee has played an important part in their lives, having found romance in Neve Ativ in the late 60s where they each played a part in the birth of skiing on the Hermon. Life continued abroad but eventually they chose retirement in Israel and decided to build their home overlooking the panoramic beauty of Metulla. However, they did not foresee the scenes they have witnessed. Speaking more of pain and the surrealism of war than of the present, they recall the grouping of soldiers and tanks against a background of fruit packing. "Withdrawal was a backward step," George declares. "I don't believe last year was the end - but I still want to go to Damascus." It seems that for many residents, recollections of the withdrawal from Lebanon and the closing of the Good Fence remain vivid - the long queues of refugees who left all behind when they fled from their homes into Israel. "I could see those people in all their pain just over the fence from me," sighs George. So what is there in Metulla one year after the Second Lebanon War? Many painful memories, a hope for but not a belief in a peace settlement, the realization that steps must be taken for investment in industry that will provide jobs for the future, improve year round tourism and an upgrading of rail, road and air connections with central Israel. Hopefully, the 100-or-so visiting ice hockey players and their supporters will spread the message that Metulla is indeed a special place to visit. How goodly was thy fence ntil 1970, Israel's northern border with Lebanon was quiet and farmers from Metulla farmed their lands in the Ayoun Valley inside Lebanon. But following the PLO's expulsion from Jordan during "Black September," Palestinians began taking control over southern Lebanon and breaking the tranquility. Lebanon's civil war broke out in 1976, and from 1977 Israel allowed hundreds of mainly Maronite Christian Lebanese to cross over daily to work in Israel via a series of border crossings known as "The Good Fence" - notably the "Fatma Gate" opposite Metulla. During this period southern Lebanon was controlled by Maronite Christians and the South Lebanon Army, which were friendly to Israel. The Good Fence ceased to exist following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.