Kiryat Shmona’s new battle

The northern border has been quiet since the end of the Second Lebanon War, but Kiryat Shmona residents are still worried about security. ‘Jerusalem has forgotten that Israelis who live in the North are like soldiers protecting the border,’ says Mevo’ot Hermon council head Benny Ben-Muvchar.

Syria-Israel border 370 (photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
Syria-Israel border 370
(photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
Israel’s northern border has enjoyed relative quiet these past seven years, but has recently come under threat.
During this largely calm period, there have only been a handful of incidents, and daily life has continued almost uninterrupted. The rivers are gushing and many visitors come to enjoy the tourist sites in the area. Farmers work their lands happily knowing that the nearby borders are secure, and the chirping of birds are the only sounds that can be heard.
Damage wrought by Katyusha rockets that landed in the Galilee during the Second Lebanon War is no longer noticeable. Houses have been renovated and roads widened. There are no longer aboveground signs that a war had taken place here.
Over the past seven years, a new, younger generation has grown up in Kiryat Shmona that has not experienced war firsthand and doesn’t remember the Katyusha rockets and sirens. And yet, despite the pastoral atmosphere, beneath the surface there are reminders that the situation could deteriorate at any moment.
Although everyone has been focusing on Syria of late, Lebanon remains the main concern for local residents. The border crossing that used to be known as “The Good Fence,” which Lebanese workers passed through daily on their way to work in Israel, has been abandoned and replaced with a fortified wall.
Beneath the bucolic atmosphere hides a different reality. IDF soldiers secure one side of the border and Lebanese soldiers the other. Hezbollah flags that were taken down following the war can once again be seen flapping outside people’s homes.
But Kiryat Shmona residents are worried more than anyone else, since over the years they suffered from the Katyusha rockets the most.
A survey last month by the Tel Hai Academic College Research Center and the PReparED Center for Emergency Response Research at Ben-Gurion University examined the attitudes and feelings of 400 Kiryat Shmona residents on the security situation. The survey revealed that despite the lack of recent incidents near the border, more than half of respondents said that to a certain extent, they feel that their lives – as well as the lives of their families and loved ones – are in danger. Two-thirds even said that they believe that the State of Israel is in danger of being completely destroyed.
Residents were also asked how they have been feeling lately. More than 40 percent reported feeling fearful, 50% were stressed, and more than 60% were concerned.
Thirty percent of respondents said they feel overwhelmingly distressed. Despite these statistics, 80% of respondents said that they personally – and the community in general – are capable of recovering and returning to normal life soon after an attack ends.
“To me, it doesn’t seem like anything has changed,” says resident Itzik Marciano. “I feel the same way I did in the 1990s with respect to the lack of security. I built a strongly reinforced safe room, and I make sure that there is always sufficient water in it. You never know when something is going to happen.”
Although Golan Heights residents have for the most part been able to continue with their daily routines despite the war close by in Syria, residents of the Upper Galilee, who have experienced numerous wars, are quite concerned about the recent cooperation between Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad. “We already know what [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is capable of,” Marciano says. “I spent my entire childhood hiding from Katyusha rockets in the 1990s. And I still live with the feeling that at any moment war could break out, that within a split second our seemingly peaceful and safe lives could disappear again. When I heard that rockets had fallen on the Golan Heights, I immediately ran to the municipality to get the key for the bomb shelter. I carry this fear around with me every day.”
PROF. MOOLI Lahad, president of the Tel Hai Academic College Resource Center, is a well-known specialist who for years has been dealing with people who have gone through traumatic events such as war.
Despite his vast experience, he did not expect the survey results to be so extreme.
“I was quite surprised by the numbers. I had hoped that the work we have doing in Kiryat Shmona for many years would have had a longer-lasting effect.”
Kiryat Shmona’s Hosen Center was established in the wake of the recommendations of an investigative committee. The center’s goal was to equip local municipality officials and residents to handle emergency situations, which it did through training sessions for citizens and professionals and emergency preparedness plans. “The Hosen Center was functioning beautifully,” Kiryat Shmona Mayor Nissim Malka says. “The mere existence of the center helped create a feeling of security in the city.
It helped the security departments prepare for emergencies and also offered psychological assistance and training.”
It cost tens of thousands of shekels a year to operate the center, which was funded by private contributions as well as nonprofit organizations, but in 2009 it was shut down due to lack of funding.
A Hosen Center is operating in Nahariya, but Malka says that it is not capable of providing services for his city’s residents.
“It’s been quite a while since residents engaged in personal preparations for times of emergency,” Lahad says. Kiryat Shmona is unique, he says, since as opposed to other communities in the Upper Galilee, its residents have suffered from ongoing trauma due to 30 continuous years of fighting, during which there were many casualties in the city.
“Kiryat Shmona residents have lived through attacks for many years. It is very difficult to remain strong when a community has suffered from such bitter experiences. I’m sure that if this survey had been commissioned in another town, such as Rosh Pina, the results would be quite different. Kiryat Shmona has a unique history with respect to trauma. We have a very different opinion of Hezbollah. The fact that Hezbollah fighters have joined Assad in Syria has certainly got residents worried.”
Lahad echoes the sentiment that the shuttering of the Hosen Center was felt right away. “People are not stupid. We are not scared of imaginary threats – we are concerned because unfortunately, we have had a lot of experience with these matters. People watch the news. They see what’s happening on the ground. They see the situation changing right before their eyes. They know that when they hear jets flying right over them on a Saturday, it is not a drill. This type of behavior raises many questions and people are more aware of slight changes in the situation and worried about the future.”
Lahad explains how Golan Heights residents have managed to continue with their day-to-day activities despite the changing reality. “Very few people living on the Golan Heights remember the 1973 [Yom Kippur] War. They have lived here now for 40 years, which have been relatively quiet. Residents of Kiryat Shmona, on the other hand, have had a completely different experience.
Moreover, the municipalities in the Golan have taken tremendous steps to constantly be training residents, including offering refresher courses, conferences and coordination with emergency teams. People feel much more in control when they know that their community is prepared and ready to deal with an emergency at any moment.
Residents need to know exactly what they are supposed to do when they hear a siren.”
The survey did come out with one positive statistic, though: Despite the fact that most Kiryat Shmona residents expressed real concerns about the situation, 80% of them believe they would be up to the challenge. “Kiryat Shmona has been fortified,” Lahad says, “but safe rooms, supplies and training must be constantly maintained and upgraded.
After the Second Lebanon War, people lost faith in the country, the government, the army and the local municipalities.
That’s the situation as it stands today.
Attitudes have improved slightly recently, but this is partly due to the quiet that has reigned here nearly uninterrupted for seven years, as well as the deterrence that has been in place since the war – which has forced Nasrallah to remain in an underground bomb shelter.
“Unfortunately, not enough has been done to prepare the area for the next emergency. Preparations have begun, but it is not enough. The Arab sector, for example, has almost no infrastructure ready.”
OVER THE last few years, a number of holiday resorts and promenades have been built on the Lebanese side of the border, and Israeli mayors have looked on anxiously, and perhaps with a little envy, too.
“While Lebanon has busy developing and building vacation homes that overlook Metulla, everyone here on the Israeli side has been dragging their feet. There has been a lot of talk about buffering the periphery, but these words have not been transformed into action,” says Metulla Local Council head Herzl Boker. “We have the feeling that since the last war ended, the state has forgotten about us. For example, Metulla was hit hard when it was taken off the national priority list, which means it no longer receives national grants that fund transportation for students, cultural events and other institutions from which the city benefited greatly.
“The important people in Jerusalem forgot that the Israelis who live in the North are like soldiers who live day in, day out on the battlefield and who protect the Israeli border,” explains Ben-Muvchar. “During the war, they made sure that we received special funds earmarked for security issues. But today, we don’t get anything. It’s gotten to the point where our bomb shelters and safety rooms are not ready for the next war.
Instead of encouraging Israelis to move to the North by offering grants and opening factories in the region, as they promised they would during the war, now we need to deal with all of these issues on our own. The state has forgotten to invest in the front line of the next war front.”
Malka notes: “In 2008, a NIS 2.5 million grant was cut – money that would have been used to maintain 534 bomb shelters in Kiryat Shmona. The moment this grant was canceled, the responsibility for them fell on the shoulders of the municipality.
So now I need to cut other important services for Kiryat Shmona residents so that I can make sure the bomb shelters are up to standard.”
BUT THESE cuts have affected more than just security infrastructure – local factories have also suffered. “In the past, factory owners received grants – such as discounted property tax rates – in an effort to encourage people to move to Kiryat Shmona,” Malka recalls. “Local factories were also given priority in government tenders. But this is not the case anymore and now factory owners have no incentive to open businesses here.”
Earlier this month, the local security industry workers’ union held a protest against the delay in orders from the Defense Ministry – which is causing cash-flow issues that could cause the factories to shut their doors. More than 150 people blocked Road 90 in Kiryat Shmona, shouting, “We want to work!” “We won’t let anyone destroy what we have worked so hard to build all these years,” says Simat Industries production manager Moshe Cohen.
“If factories don’t receive orders for products in the near future, they will need to fire workers, which will directly hurt hundreds of Kiryat Shmona families.”
Six factories in the city have already been hurt by delayed orders for parts and were forced to send employees on unpaid vacation, but now the danger is becoming even more widespread.
“I’m extremely concerned. We haven’t received any orders, there’s no work, the factory is barely operating and I can’t sleep at night,” Cohen says with moist eyes.
Most of Simat’s revenue comes from manufacturing the Merkava tank, but this project has been put on hold following cuts in the Defense Ministry budget. Ten years ago, after two of his sons left the North to work in central Israel, Cohen persuaded his third son to come work with him at Simat. “I told him this factory has a future, that it’s a project with national backing. I raised him to be a proud Zionist, but apparently this national pride exists only in the periphery,” he says sadly.
Says Tzahi Cohen: “Unfortunately, I have been forced to leave Kiryat Shmona. I have two children to support, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.” The senior Cohen adds, “We’re not talking about needy people who don’t know how to take care of themselves, but successful employees who’ve invested their best years and endless energy into these factories. It is the government’s duty to help us.”
Other factories that have also been affected by the delay in work orders are the Saina Brothers Industries, Bluvstein Steel Works and Avimor Metal Works, as well as small businesses which provide services for these factories. “We cannot continue like this,” says Victor Ben-Shimol, a father of five children.
We shouldn’t have to wait for a war to break out in order to get work.
“We’ve been forgotten.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.