Bomb shelter is hive of activity as Ma'alot-Tarshiha copes with war

Jewish-Arab town well-organized to handle emergency and its aftermath.

Shlomo Buhbut, the mayor of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, is already looking beyond the current fighting in northern Israel to the day after the guns go silent. Meanwhile, he and his council have been preparing for the current emergency for so long, that they seem to know what to do almost by rote. On Wednesday, the morning after the town was hit by three Katyusha rockets, town employees were out mowing the beautifully maintained lawns and palm-lined boulevard leading into the town. The town hall is closed to the public except for the welfare department, which is open to deal with the special problems that the emergency situation has created for the elderly and other residents who find it difficult to fend for themselves. But the most intensive activity takes place in the building's bomb shelter, where the mayor has set up his quarters along with the security staff that is responsible for handling the emergency. Altogether, about 150 people are involved in looking after the needs of the population during these times. Ma'alot-Tarshiha has a population of 23,000, including 4,000 Arabs. Unlike most of the Jewish communities in the North, almost no one has left town so far, including the children. "The people here are experienced in war," said Buhbut's spokeswoman, Isfahan Bahaloul. "It is not part of their experience to run away. There is solidarity here. It's a small community and the families are very tied to the place." In fact, only now, a week after the fighting started, have town authorities developed an initiative to send the children out of town for a few days for rest and recuperation. Buhbut pointed to a computer screen which contained data on each of the bomb shelters in the town: 78 public shelters, and 110 private shelters located in residential buildings. Town authorities know what is happening at all times in each one. The town is divided into quarters and a local authority employee is responsible for each one. These days, their main job is to make sure the shelters are in order at all times. For the moment, the shelters are the main point of reference. Women soldiers have been assigned to each one to keep the children busy. The town received a shipment of toys from businessman Nohi Dankner and distributed them to the shelters. Tnuva has supplied the town with milk and chocolate drinks, which are also delivered straight to the shelters. Buhbut said he was also buoyed by the support that northern residents are receiving from Israelis in Tel Aviv and other parts of the country which have not directly suffered from the fighting. "We know that even when Tel Avivians sip coffee in their coffee shops, they are thinking of us," he said. Buhbut may be satisfied with the state of affairs in Ma'alot-Tarshiha for the time being, but he is already in a fighting mood regarding the future. Government ministers and senior officials had come to Ma'alot-Tarshiha, asked what they can to do help and made promises, he said. But he added that he did not intend to sit by and wait for the promises to be fulfilled. "We in the north are like a bereaved family," said Bahaloul. "Right now, everyone comes to visit us and tell us how much they love us. But afterwards, we are all alone again." One of the first things that Buhbut did after the fighting started was to resurrect the Forum of Communities of the Confrontation Line. The forum is composed of 12 Jewish, Arab and Druse local authorities and several regional councils. They include Kiryat Shmona, Nahariya, Ma'alot-Tarshiha, Khorfeish, Kfar Vradim, Me'ilya, Mizra, Fassuta, Shlomi, Metulla, Gush Halav (Jish), and Peki'in and the regional councils of Merom Hagalil, Mevo'ot Hermon, Ma'aleh Yosef, Mate Asher and Galil Elyon. In the days before the "false peace" that began with the withdrawal of IDF forces from southern Lebanon in 2000, the forum received special benefits including grants and city tax deductions to attract outside investors, special Interior Ministry grants, and income tax reductions. After the withdrawal, many of the benefits were withdrawn and the forum itself more or less disbanded. But the fighting has revived it with a vengeance, and Buhbut, who is its chairman, declares publicly that he intends to exploit the new situation for all its worth. The members of the forum convened in Nahariya earlier this week and issued a set of demands including that the government declare a state of emergency from the first day of the fighting, that the government establish a civilian staff headquarters in the Prime Minister's Office to cut through red tape and solve the communities' immediate problems (a step which has already been done), that the government set up summer camps for the children of the North so that they can get away from the tensions for a few days, and that the Interior Ministry provide funding to the local authorities for the special expenses incurred by the state of emergency. In the longer run, the forum is demanding that the benefits that were removed after 2000 be restored. One new problem that the forum faces is that Hizbullah has expanded the confrontation line far beyond the original range of 10 kilometers from the Lebanese border, thanks to its arsenal of Syrian and Iranian-supplied rockets and missiles. But this does not faze Buhbut. The problems of the small, northern settlements are not the same as those of larger cities such as Haifa, Tiberias and Karmiel, he argues. Haifa, for example, is in the center of the country and is wealthy and highly developed. The forum is meant to represent smaller and economically weaker communities close to the northern border. If anything, he said, he would add Safed, Rosh Pina, Hatzor and Yesod Hama'leh to the current forum list.