Druse town suffers from rocket fire

"As far as Nasrallah is concerned, we are all Israelis," residents say.

Katyusha fire 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Katyusha fire 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
On Friday, the residents of the mainly Druse town of Peki'in were getting ready to celebrate the marriage of one of their sons to a young woman from nearby Beit Jann. The wedding was to be held in a hall in a neighborhood located three kilometers from the Old Town, where men who had served in the army had been given plots of land to build their homes. Three hours before the feast, two Katyusha rockets fell on the neighborhood as the guests began to gather. One rocket scored a direct hit on the roof of the home where Salman and Dina Ali live with their children Hussein, Rana and Sari. The rocket exploded on the roof, boring a large hole and landing in a bathroom on the top floor of the two-story house, where it created another large hole in the floor. The warhead released tiny metal balls that ripped through everything in their path, destroying a water tank, an air conditioner and a pergola of vines. The explosion also blew out the wall of a staircase leading from the second floor to the roof. A few minutes earlier, another rocket had exploded immediately in front of a neighbor's house a few meters away. Altogether, seven houses sustained damage from the two blasts. According to Ali's nephews, Anan and Alan Kheir, their aunt and uncle had been lucky. A few minutes before the rocket hit their home, they had debated whether to eat upstairs or downstairs. In the end, they chose downstairs, a decision which may have saved their lives. Galib Kheir, head of the town's tourism department, wanted to know why no members of the media had came to see the damage that Peki'in had suffered over the past six days. It is a question also asked by town engineer Halim Muhana. Underlying the question, which is asked with obvious resentment or hurt, is the unspoken accusation that no one cares about Peki'in because it isn't Jewish. The leaders of Peki'in stress that Hizbullah does not distinguish between Jews and Druse. "As far as Nasrallah is concerned, we are all Israelis," said Galib Kheir. "He doesn't care who he hits just as long as he hits." Local council head Muhammad Kheir also rejected the notion that Peki'in has been hit by mistake. "I think Nasrallah is deliberately aiming at us. After all, he has made so many 'mistakes.' A person makes a mistake once and then he corrects it." All things considered, the lack of attention that Peki'in is receiving in these difficult times is a minor problem in the grand scheme of things. For the moment, Muhammad Kheir has other things on his mind. One of them is the inexplicable lack of bomb shelters in the town. About 70 percent of the town's population of 5,200 lives in the Old Town, clustered on the slopes of a hill. For these 3,500 people, there is one public bomb shelter of about 130 square meters. A much smaller shelter is located in a school building far from the residential area. Thus, the overwhelming majority of the population is unprotected. Another 1,000 residents live in Al Majr, otherwise known as "the western neighborhood," about two-and-a-half kilometers from the Old Town. In 1992, after the Gulf War, the Knesset passed a law requiring anyone building a new home or adding on to an existing one to include a safe room. Less than 15% of the population lives in homes built since the law was passed. The lack of bomb shelters also means there is nowhere for the town's children to get together. According to directives from the Home Front Command, groups of people may only congregate in safe areas, such as safe rooms or rooms without external walls. Since there are only two small shelters in Peki'in, there is no place for the children to gather, many of whom are suffering from fear and trauma as a result of the Katyushas. "I wanted to bring a magician to entertain the children," said Kheir. "But we had nowhere to assemble them." Meanwhile, the local council employees, who are playing a key role in the emergency situation, have not been paid for five months. Those employed by the community center have not been paid in 17 months. "Here we are in the middle of a war and we have to fight for a scrap of bread," said Galib Kheir. "We have to make sure we have emergency food supplies at home, but I can't afford to pay for them. Our children are suffering, but I can't take them anywhere or even buy them a computer game to keep them busy." Tourism has been hard hit, as it has been everywhere in the North. According to Galib Kheir, some 60,000 tourists visit Peki'in each year. The tourist trade supports local restaurants and specialty shops. The town also has a hotel and a youth hostel. Needless to say, all are empty. Muhammad Kheir has a long list of additional grievances which he has been fighting to resolve ever since being elected head of the local council two and a half years ago. These grievances will have to wait for quieter times, which, he hopes, will arrive "in a few days." Meanwhile, he and other local and regional council heads belonging to the Forum of Communities along the Confrontation Line are already preparing for the day after. The forum was established during the period when communities within 10 kilometers of the Lebanese border were under constant Katyusha attacks. Until the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon six years ago, the government gave special benefits to these communities, such as funding for a long school day. After the withdrawal, the government stopped the programs. On Sunday, the moribund forum reconvened for the first time in several years. This time, said Muhammad Kheir, they have vowed to stick together and not to take the government's word for it when it says the threat from the north is over.