Under fire

A look at the Lebanese quagmire from the Galilee town of Hatzor Haglilit.

rocket hatzor 298.88 (photo credit: Erica Danielle Chernofsky)
rocket hatzor 298.88
(photo credit: Erica Danielle Chernofsky)
The small town was eerily quiet. The streets were empty, the shops were closed, but if you looked hard, a few brave souls could be spotted standing outside in front of their houses. Though this was no ghost town, most of the residents of Hatzor Haglilit weren't in their homes. After driving around for a few minutes, I understood why. Out of the bright blue summer sky came a horrifying sound - a wailing siren, signifying the imminent barrage of Katyusha rockets fired by Hizbullah from southern Lebanon. Immediately, we spun the car around and headed for the nearest shelter. There, we found where the residents of Hatzor had been hiding. All across the town of less than 10,000, families ate, slept and lived in underground shelters, protected from the hundreds of rockets that have bombarded northern Israel in the last two weeks. With the Mahanayim airport directly to the east and army bases to the west, the Hatzor area is a prime target for Hizbullah. We ended up in the shelter under Magen David Adom. A few moments after arriving and running down the stairs to the bunker, we heard loud booms in the distance. Safe inside the shelter, food was passed around, and a group of kids played a board game on the floor. After a short period of time, the booms subsided. We heard reports that this time, no Katyushas landed in Hatzor, situated a mere 22 kilometers from the border. When we emerged, quiet had returned to the town, yet most residents preferred to stay inside their homes or shelters rather than risk being stuck outside when the warning siren began to blare again. "We weren't surprised they had such long-range weapons and we weren't surprised when they hit places they never hit before like Haifa. We were prepared," says Hatzor Mayor Shaul Kamisa from the shelter known as the "war room." Kamisa was born and raised in Hatzor, and hasn't seen fire on his community since the 1960s, he says, when Syria attacked from the Golan Heights. Sitting at a table with papers spread out in front of him, Kamisa, who has served as mayor for two years, appears confident and not at all frazzled despite the tense situation. Behind him are maps of the community and surrounding areas. One is covered with dozens of bright red "x's" - each one signifying a Katyusha that landed in or near Hatzor. "When Israel decided to leave Lebanon [in 2000] we realized there were a lot of cracks in the infrastructure we had built there," says Kamisa, who served in southern Lebanon for more than 20 years as head of the Civil Administration and as Deputy Commander of the IDF forces. "[In southern Lebanon] we built hospitals, schools and an army for the residents, to make life easier, so they would keep out Hizbullah," says Kamisa. Under his control, the Civil Administration provided aid to more than 120,000 Lebanese civilians. "Our only interest was peace, but Hizbullah and Iran didn't like that, so they kept sending money and aid, hoping to influence the southern cities and slowly take control. "When we left [six years ago], Lebanese citizens started getting scared, South Lebanese army soldiers began deserting and the rest either ran away or gave in to Hizbullah." Labeled a terror organization by Israel, the US and the UK, among other countries, Hizbullah is dangerous, complicated and fanatical, says Kamisa. He describes it's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, whose son was killed by Israeli forces in Lebanon in 1997, as an "evil, crazy and inhumane extremist who doesn't care about hurting civilians." Israel's only option, he says, is "to remove him from the scene." "I know Lebanon and I know Hizbullah - very few people know them as intimately as I do," says the colonel, whose arrogant-seeming rhetoric belies his matter-of-fact tone. "Thirty-five to forty percent of people have already left Hatzor because of the Katyushas," says Gershon Harris, a member of the emergency team of the Hatzor municipality. He and his wife made aliya from the US in 1979. "We sent our kids to stay further south, where it's safer." While Harris was working on his computer at home in Hatzor one day last week, he heard a series of loud explosions that left his ears ringing. "A Katyusha had fallen on my neighbors' house, but thank God they were already out of the house and on their way to their shelter when it fell," Harris says. While all essential services are supposed to remain open, food stores are only open in the mornings and the post office remains closed most days, says Harris, who adds that he didn't even receive his morning paper on days that followed particularly fierce attacks. In the shelter with Kamisa, Harris and other members of the municipality who make up the emergency team, which is on call 24 hours a day, deal with situations from incoming rockets to families without running water in their shelters. Residents call constantly with complaints, and the emergency team's psychologist visits those who are traumatized, including the increasing numbers of children too scared to sleep or eat. In one shelter, underneath an apartment building, the walls are painted in bright colors. Mattresses are scattered around the room, in a corner is a sink and one woman sits with her children huddled close to her. "We are all sleeping down here, we're here all the time," she says. "But there's no air-conditioning inside, so it's so hot, and it smells, and though we clean it every few hours, the smell doesn't go away." As the piercing sounds of another siren fill the air, residents standing outside the shelter make their way back in. Sitting on chairs or on the floor, they talk among themselves, shaking their heads and wiping the sweat from their faces as the rockets begin to fall. A child begins to cry. "Every 10 minutes it's in, out, in out," complains another woman. "We can't live like this." Members of the municipality visit shelters around the community to bring ice cream and juice to residents and their children and check on their well-being. Harris says organizations throughout the country have sent toys, clowns and entertainers for the children, stuck with nothing to do for days on end. But the worst part of it all, one man says, is not knowing when it will end. "It will only end when Israel achieves victory," says Kamisa. "It's more important than ever that we win this war, because if we don't take this window of opportunity to finish the job we'll just continue to deal with this terrorism and it will only get worse, whether in Lebanon or Gaza or all over the world." When asked to elaborate on how Israel must "finish the job," Kamisa explains that at this point, neither Hizbullah nor the government of Lebanon can be trusted, so the area of southern Lebanon must be cleaned. "It's like a swamp filled with mosquitoes - we're doing the tactical action and killing the mosquitos, but even if we kill a few there will still be another 100,000 left," he says, "so we need to take strategic actions and not just get rid of mosquitoes, but get rid of the swamp." The swamp, he continues, is Iran and Syria, who provide financial, verbal and even military support for Hizbullah and preach the destruction of the "Zionist entity." The alliance between these countries must be dissolved, he says, and the time is now, while Israel has support from the international community. "We must persevere and not give up until we achieve a total and absolute victory and bring about a change that will benefit the whole world," Kamisa states. "The world understands what will happen if Hizbullah wins." Our interview is interrupted as Channel 2 arrives on the scene to interview Kamisa for the news. He repeats the sentiment that the government and the army must not give up. "What we have to do is clear two to three kilometers into Lebanon, distance any threat from the border and absolutely destroy Hizbullah as a military force," Kamisa elaborates when the television crews leave. "Then, a capable military force must ensure the area stays clear of terrorist activity." In the long term, Kamisa emphasizes that Lebanon must be disconnected from its dependence on Syria, and its connections with the West and moderate Arab countries must be strengthened. Then, he says, we can achieve peace with Lebanon. In the meantime, though, Israel is at war. Throughout that day, sirens wailed without fail almost every hour, and residents who left their shelters for a few moments to shower or retrieve food could be seen running the moment the alarm began to blare. Sitting outside with a few locals as the sun began to set, a thunderous explosion reverberated on the hill beside Hatzor. "What was that?" a boy of five asked his father. The siren hadn't even gone off yet, and we began to hear several deafening booms way too close for comfort. For the fourth time that day, we ran for shelter, this time back to the apartment building. Most of the same people were there, looking antsier and more anxious than they had that morning. One 11-year-old girl begged her mother to leave the North and move further south. "We won't leave our homes," her 16-year-old sister scolded her. "This is our country, we aren't going to run away." Surfacing 20 minutes later, Israeli firefighter planes were visible overhead, pouring water on the immense cloud of smoke erupting from the hill where the last Katyusha landed, within just meters of Hatzor's houses. "My hope is that we won't have to invade Lebanon again as an army, but can instead visit as tourists," the mayor says, pausing for a moment. "We're in this for the long haul. We can live with Lebanon. It is possible."