Friday, February 23, 2007

A Visit to Kiryat Shmona

Kiryat Shmona, just three miles from the Lebanese border, officially has 24,000 thousand residents. Some say the real number is closer to 18,000. Kiryat Shmona, was founded in 1953, mostly by immigrants from Morocco. Today nearly 5,000 immigrants from the Former Soviet Union also live in the city.

During the last war 1,000 katyusha rockets fell on Kiryat Shmona, out of the 4,000 fired at Israel by Hezbollah. While sixty percent of Kiryat Shmona’s residents left during the war for safer cities, 6,000 residents, among them 2.000 children, stayed.

According to Prof. Mooli Lahat, of the Stress Prevention Center, nearly 30 percent of the population suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome caused by the recent War in Lebanon II.

Professor Lahat, a world expert in stress and trauma therapy, had only two therapists, treating about ten clients a week. at the Kiryat Shmona center when the war broke out. Today the center has twenty-four therapists treating nearly three hundred people.

Dr. Lahat, who is also a stress and trauma advisor to the Israel Ministry of Defense, said that new treatments have helped over 80 per cent of those who came for treatment return to normal. According to Dr. Lahat, who has been running a stress center in the north for over 25-years, the recent war was so traumatic to the population that many people were suffering from problems that arose because old emotional wounds were reopened,

Nira Kapansky, a second generation Holocaust survivor, originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, is one of the therapists at the center. She relates the story of one woman, also a second generation Holocaust survivor, who came for treatment because running to the bomb shelters brought about a hallucination that she was her mother fleeing the Nazis.

Children still suffering from the after effects of the war also come for treatment. Some experience nocturnal incontinence; others can’t be alone, or in a dark room. Nava Kaplan sees this reaching out for help a symbol of the reliency of the Kiryat Shmona residents. “The fact they sought help proves they want to get better.”

Three of the rockets that rained down on Kiryat Shmona landed in the Dancinger High School. Luckily the school was closed for summer break. Still some of the students suffered during the war. 12th grader Timor Biran told of sleepless nights caused by the constant bombardment not only from the Katuysha rockets, but also the ceaseless firing of Israeli canon at Hezbollah.

Both the Kiryat Shmona municipality and the Israeli government were criticized for not rising to the challenges presented by the war. There were accusations that the leadership broke down.. Many of those that sought safety in the bomb shelters,found themselves out of food and water, stuck in the shelters with nothing to do while the rockets landed over their heads.

Those that had the means or places to go, left Kiryat Shmona. Frequently it was only the poor who stayed. The poor and the brave. Young people who stepped up to fill the leadership void.

Ariah Eldad, 17, stayed during the war and helped in the situation room, answering phones, carrying packages. He said he learned this from his father, who runs a Kiryat Shmona community center. Ariah said that it was incumbent on the youth to lend a hand. “We are the future of the city. It is our responsibility.”

Russian born Alexi Baransky, 18, spent the war shuffling between the situation room to the bomb shelters. “We risked our lilves. Once a Katyusha fell just thirty feet away from me. I was lucky, I hid behind a low wall, and it saved me.”

Alexi told of taking packages to people. “They were in the shelters for thirty days. Everything was closed. No food. Nothing to buy. I felt that I saved lives bringing them these packages.”

Alexi thought that volunteering was important. “It is a way of life. If we can help, not change the world, but just the city, that is good.”

Gili Pardes, 18, was born and raised in Kiryat Shmona. During the she also volunteered. “We are the future, if we don’t help, who will.”

Worse still were the conditions in the 150 bomb shelters. Some hadn’t been used in years except as playground for mischievous children who had bonfires in them, used them as garbage dumps, or toilets. Suddenly the population had to go into the shelters, the first time in years.

Some of the shelters were unusable. No electricity, no running water, no mattresses. A heavy-set barefoot woman stood near one of the bomb shelters and explained how she and her husband hand to hide under their beds, since they had no where else to go during the Katyusha attacks. Another middle-aged religious woman, the mother of triplets, said she could only go as far as the garbage-ridden stairs of her local shelter, because of the filth and smell.

Some members of the Kiryat Shmona municipality are currently under investigation for misappropriation of funds raised, or provided by the government, for the upkeep of the bomb shelters. During and after the war it was the Jewish philanthropic organizations that stepped in to fill the void left by the government. Jewish groups from around the world donated money to renovate the shelters, provide food and water, send boxes of games for children to play with during the long days and nights in the shelters.

Some organizations even donated money to support a group of volunteers and professionals who were providing free business plans and consulting to local small and medium-sized businesses. The idea was to send MBAs into the community to help businesses not only get back on their feet but also launch a more appropriate business model which would energize the economy of the north of Israel.

Kiryat Shmona is no stranger to violence. According to the Kiryat Shmona municipality, nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen on the town since it was founded. The first terrorist attacks came in 1970 when a band of PLO terrorists infiltrated from Lebanon and killed and wounded residents of a Kiryat Shmona apartment building. In 1978 after katyusha rockets fell on Kiryat Shmona, the Israeli Government launched operation Litani, to drive the PLO back 25 kilometers beyond the Lebanese border. In 1981 100 Katyushas again fell on Kiyriat Shmona, precipitating the first Lebanon War, which took place in 1981.That war took the Israeli army to Beirut, and saw the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon.

The common feeling among residents of Kiryat Shmona is that the bomb shelters must be livable, because another war is just around the corner. But in Kiryat Shmona another war always seems to be just around the corner.

Thinking of entire families living in a dormitory setting, thirty, fifty, a hundred to a shelter, is difficult to imagine. People sleeping on metal shelves covered by a thin foam mattress, two toilets for an entire building, no cooking facilities, fans instead of air-conditioners, one cramped space used as living room, dining room, kitchen and play room for dozens of people. This is something that is nearly impossible to imagine for those who live a comfortable suburban existence with ample living space and extra bedrooms.

Touring Kiryat Shmona one is reminded of wealthy Jewish businessmen who lived in German mansions, owned a department stores that occupied several square blocks of Berlin, and had homes in the country, only to wind up in a train stations, holding suitcases, boarding trains for Auschwitz.

Take a wealthy person and stuff them in a bomb shelter for a month with dozens of people all sharing one room and one gets the idea how difficult it would be to adjust to tragedy. The fact that many of the residents of Kiryat Shmona stuck in the shelters were poor doesn’t make their hardship any easier, it only makes the transition from a cramped apartment to a cramped shelter less a leap of imagination.

Today Kiryat Shmona is getting help to fix what was busted by the last war, but the problems that have existed for decades, unemployment,, poor education, not even one movie theater, haven’t been touched. The world looked at Kiryat Shomna on the evening news, got excited, started programs, sent in help, but then forgot about the town. That has been the plight of Kiryat Shmona for years. Perhaps the next generation of kids will really step up and lead places like Kiryat Shmona out of the wilderness.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Rudderless Ship

The exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese troops lasted all Wednesday night and well into Thursday morning, a resident of Moshav Avivim, on the Lebanese border, told on Israel’s Army radio.

But according to him, this is nothing new. The resident said that as far as he’s concerned the Second War in Lebanon never ended. “There is firing every night. And we still have tanks here. The lights knocked down during the war are still out, six months later. And the fence around the kibbutz knocked down by tanks in six or seven places during the war is still down.”

The resident, Avivim’s head of security, told the Army Radio that he hadn’t slept all night, but neither had his five children. “I’m not sending them to school today,” he said.

During the flare-up on Wednesday night the resident said that he wasn’t told by the Army to go into the shelters, or to stay out. “We weren’t told anything. At first we thought that the war had started again. All night we heard the firing. We didn’t know what was going on.”

A news cameraman for AP said he was in Avivim a week ago and the place still looked like an armed camp. “The roads are torn up. The fences are down. And there’s firing all the time.” He agreed that for Avivim the war has still not ended. This fact has not filtered down to the rest of Israel, nor out to the world, except in brief bursts of obvious activity like the one Wednesday night.

According to media reports an Israeli Army bulldozer crossed the border fence into disputed Lebanese territory to clear mines. The Army was careful to stay within the “Blue Line”, which marks the official Israeli border decided upon by the UN, but which Hezbollah claims is a mistake. According to the UN Israel was still within Israeli territory clearing the mines.

Lebanese forces opened fire on the Israeli troops. Israel returned fire. Tanks began shelling. Many Avivim residents took to the bomb shelters The fighting finally died down toward dawn.

Earlier in the week Israeli troops discovered a Hezbollah arms cache in the same zone. An exchange of fire was also reported during that incident, but not as long or involved.

Israel has reportedly decided upon a new tactic, which is to counter any Hezbollah or Lebanese infraction of the cease-fire with a rapid response. This comes as Iran has admitted it supplied Hezbollah with rockets sent through Syria. And with Syria saying they support both Hezbollah and Hamas.

However, Defense Minister Amir Peretz has said that Israel is not trying to escalate tensions on the border but will respond when Israeli soldiers are fired upon.

In the south of Israel more Kassam rockets fell on the negev, striking homes and fields near Sderot. Israel has responded with aerial attacks. The cycle of violence continues with no end in site.

The current talks in Saudi Arabia between Hamas leader Mashal and Palestinian Authority leader Abbas has resulted in an agreement on the formation of a new government. Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert has said that if the PA leader Abbas bends too far in Hamas’ direction Israel will stop supporting Abbas.

Israel has a new Minister of Justice. Prof. Daniel Friedman, 71, long a critic of the Israeli court system, was appointed to replace Haim Ramon, recently convicted of sexual misconduct. Prof. Friedman came out against the Ramon conviction.

Friedman reportedly believes that the Israeli court system has seized too much power, going beyond judicial matters and making government policy. Friedman is against this type of behavior by the courts. He reportedly also believes that both the courts and the press have been too aggressive in prosecuting politicians.

Friedman is reportedly a close friend of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but the media believes that his academic credentials put him above any suspicion that he would look the other way in prosecuting Olmert. The Prime Minister is currently under investigation for cronyism, misuse of public office, and other matters.

A recent poll states that 75 per cent of the Israeli population has no faith in the current government. The elected politicians commitment to the betterment of the state is also in question.According to political analysts no one wants to take the unpopular Ministry of Social Welfare cabinet post, and the Ministry of Tourism is also one to be avoided. Neither of these portfolios have a budget, prestige, nor enough jobs to pass out to gain loyalty.

The fact that the poor are still poor, and still in need of help, goes ignored. Poor people don’t have political clout. The political question most people ask is will Defense Minister Amir Peretz step down from his job, which pundits feel he is unsuited for, in favor of another position. Peretz is fighting for his political life, trying to keep the prestigious cabinet post as leverage to keeping his job as head of the labor party.

Most pundits believe Peretz’ shelf life is short for both of these roles.
Many analysts also question PM Olmert’s long-term efficacy as head of the country. His ratings in the polls slip lower each day. His Kadima party would barely make up nine seats in the Knesset if elections were held today. Change is needed, but the inertia seems to be ruling these days.

Jimmy Carter slid into the Presidency back in the 70’s as an outsider who wasn’t tainted by corrupt Washington politics, and Nixon's dirty tricks. The risk in Israel is that a Jimmy Carter type may appeal to the population as an alternative to the immorality seemingly rampant in the corridors of power in Israel.

The problem is can a replacement for Olmert do any better, or will he simply be a well-meaning, upstanding, morally incorrupt individual without a clue how to run a country. Carter may have brokered a cold peace between Egypt and Israel, but he allowed Ayatollah Khoumani to rise to power, the Iranians to take over the US Embassy, and botched up nearly everything else he touched.

If anyone can step up and take over the helm of Israel’s rudderless ship and bring it safely to port, he, or she, hasn’t appeared yet on the horizon.