Open season

Was last week's Katyusha fire on Kiryat Shmona reminders of the summer's war or signs of things to come?

car katyusha 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
car katyusha 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Residents of Kiryat Shmona say the town "emptied out" immediately after two Katyushas fell on Sunday around 5 p.m. But the following evening, the streets, the snack joints and the mall still looked pretty empty. Not from fear; people weren't still stricken with fear a day after the Katyushas. Rather, there's just not much in the way of evening attractions to pull the 24,000 residents out of their homes in this clean, green town that spreads up the base of the mountain on the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon. "It's a miracle no one was killed yesterday. Five minutes before the Katyusha fell in the industrial zone, two buses carrying about 100 tourists passed right by that spot," says Mayor Haim Barbivai. That Katyusha totaled a parked Pontiac. Another rocket fell harmlessly in an empty lot in a residential neighborhood. The third landed outside of Kiryat Shmona in an open field at Kibbutz Kfar Blum. "People were afraid it would go on all night, that it was the start of another war," says Moran Mordechai, owner of a pizza restaurant along the row of fast food shops on Route 90 that cuts through town. "I didn't sleep much that night," says Noy Eliyahu, 13, sitting in the mall with her sister and a friend. "I put my shoes next to my bed in case I had to get up and leave again." By "again," Noy is referring to last summer's 34-day war with Hizbullah, which she spent shuttling with her family between southerly hotels and homes of relatives. She wasn't alone, of course. Except for 5,000 or so residents - mainly the poorest - who remained in Kiryat Shmona, everyone in town lived like a nomad during the war. Afterward, they all came back, just like they did after the wars and waves of Katyushas that have plagued their hometown since the late 1960s. In Kiryat Shmona, there's a concrete bomb shelter in every back yard. The government didn't give the town a shekel to fix them up since last summer's war, so there are still about 140 that need to be readied for human habitation, says Barbivai. Fifty local shelters, however, were newly outfitted with money provided by donors, mainly New York Jews. "A country can't depend on philanthropy during a war," says Ami Zinati, manager of the Fouks Community Center, the focus of local activity. "People here felt awful the way the government abandoned them. It was a disgrace. If it wasn't for a lot of generous people, volunteers, the Jewish Agency, the Joint, we wouldn't have gotten through the war." A day after Sunday's Katyushas, Zinati is wearing a T-shirt that reads: "TRANQUILITY." KIRYAT SHMONA, whose residents are mainly lower-middle-class North African immigrants from the 1950s and 1960s and Russian immigrants from the 1990s, is the ultimate Israeli "confrontation line" settlement. What Sderot has been going through for the last seven years, Kiryat Shmona went through for over 30 years, on and off. In 1981 alone, 2,885 PLO rockets fell on the town. The IDF withdrawal from Lebanon brought six years of near-perfect quiet, but then, after a surprisingly peaceful 10 days or so at the start of last summer's war, some 1,000 Hizbullah rockets fell here - out of 4,000 that landed throughout the North. The first soldier killed in the war, Liran Sa'adiya, was from Kiryat Shmona, as was the last, Dudu Amar. Some 150 locals residents were treated for injuries and shock. Seven of the town's 11 schools were battered by rockets, along with some 200 homes and 170 vehicles. "But when you come here now, it doesn't look like a town where 1,000 missiles landed ten months ago," says city spokesman Doron Shnapper, and he's right. He estimates that about 80% of the damage to infrastructure - mainly streets, sidewalks and water pipes - has been repaired. While the residents took a tremendous economic hit during the war between the income they lost and the expenses they incurred, the Property Tax Authority and Income Tax Authority seem to have reimbursed them fairly. "I lost about NIS 10,000 in business, and it's fair to say they covered my losses," says Shalom Yehezkel, 64, a falafel stand owner here for the last 30 years. "My house was damaged and it got fixed without any problem," adds Zinati. "From what I know, anybody who made a reasonable claim got reimbursed." So the people of Kiryat Shmona haven't completely lost faith in the state's instruments of power since the Second War in Lebanon. Zinati can even cite one major improvement - the replacement of Dan Halutz with Gabi Ashkenazi as the IDF chief. While Halutz was an Air Force man, Ashkenazi made his career in the North - as commander of the Golani Brigade, later as commander of Northern Division. "It gives people here a feeling of security that someone like that is IDF chief of staff," Zinati says. The present government, however, gives them no feeling of security at all. A bumper sticker pasted to the entrance to Barbivai's office makes it clear: "The government of Israel has declared jihad on the North." The sticker was printed by the "Forum of Confrontation-Line Settlements." I assumed it was from last summer, but Barbivai says he put it up only a couple of months ago. "The government now wants to cut out all the economic incentives for residents of the northern border towns - the tax breaks, the mortgage breaks. It won't even pay the cost of maintaining the bomb shelters. They want to treat Kiryat Shmona like they do Tel Aviv. Is Kiryat Shmona in the same situation as Tel Aviv?" he demands. Like Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Barbivai, who has been mayor here since 1997, left the Likud for Kadima. In last year's national election, Kadima finished second in Kiryat Shmona, losing to the Labor Party by four votes, which was strengthened here by Amir Peretz's working-class Mizrahi appeal. Yisrael Beitenu finished third, Shas fourth, Likud fifth. "Today, Likud would win in Kiryat Shmona," Barbivai acknowledges. AFTER A six-year lull during which the residents here began, cautiously, to believe in the possibility of peace, or at least quiet, with the neighbors to the north, last summer's war with Hizbullah brought them back to their hawkish roots. The locals are split over whether Olmert did the right thing by forgoing revenge for Sunday's Katyushas, which the IDF believes were fired by a new Palestinian group in southern Lebanon. "Of course there's been a lot of discussion about this. Kiryat Shmona is a town with 24,000 IDF chiefs of staff who think they know everything," says Zinati with a grin, sitting in his office at the community center. He thinks Israel "should have responded tit-for-tat, so they know there's a price for every attack. I'm not saying we should have gone in with tanks, but by not doing anything, we lose our deterrent power." Yehezkel, standing behind his falafel counter, disagrees, saying an immediate response would have just "heated things up." But there is no disagreement over what to do if the Katyushas land again. "Then they've crossed a red line, and Israel has to strike back very harshly," says Yehezel. Another point of contention is whether Israel should talk peace with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Sitting amid the empty tables in front of his pizza restaurant, Mordechai points northwest and says: "You see the Golan over there? It's hard to see because of the haze. If Syria gets the Golan, they'll be looking down on us from up there, and then we can all pack up and move to America." Barbivai, however, thinks peace with Syria must be pursued as the way to end the threat from Hizbullah that hangs over Kiryat Shmona and the rest of the North. "Syria is the key," he says. "If they cut off the flow of arms to Hizbullah, Hizbullah won't be able to go on fighting us. I definitely think Olmert should talk to Syria, and if Hizbullah wants to talk to us, we should talk to Hizbullah, too. We've had enough war, enough Katyushas." With all their differences over tactics, though, there is one conviction held by both hawks and doves in Kiryat Shmona - that another war is coming their way in the not-too-distant future. "It might be a few days, a week, a month or two, but it's going to come soon. The front is heating up. And it's going to be worse than it was last summer, a lot worse," says Mordechai. Asked where is the front these days, he replies: "Syria, Lebanon and Gaza." Based on what he hears from people, Yehezkel says this is the sense in Kiryat Shmona - that the war is coming this summer. "They believe what they read in the newspapers. And remember, the last war is still fresh in their minds," he says, noting that he doesn't agree that a war will break out this summer, but is convinced that sometime in the coming years, Hizbullah will attack. "They're not rearming for nothing," says Yehezkel. These are the exact same words Barbivai uses, too. Sitting at a table in front of the fast food stands in the mall, Nirit Kabesa, 14, says one of the Katyushas fell about 200 meters from her home. "I saw the smoke and I ran out to see what happened. At first I didn't think it was a Katyusha. A lot of cars came, and fire engines. It was on TV all night." Her friend, Lior Eliyahu, 14, says there was a lot of tension in her house that evening. "Everyone thought the war was starting again." She says she lay awake for hours before she was able to fall asleep. Kabesa says she fell asleep as usual. I ask if they want to stay in Kiryat Shmona when they grow up. "I do," says Lior. "I was born here, I live here, it's my home, and even though there are Katyushas, I like living here." "Who knows?" replies Noy. "Maybe I'll stay in Kiryat Shmona, maybe I'll go to Tel Aviv. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in a week, how do I know what I'll be doing in 10 years?" "I want to go to new places, to Tel Aviv," says Nirit. "I've seen everything in Kiryat Shmona. It's boring." "I just want to be someplace safe, someplace without terror," says Noy, who kept her shoes by her bed the night the Katyushas landed. "I was really looking forward to this summer because the last one was ruined. But now I'm just hoping this summer doesn't get ruined, too." n