Bombs Send Tourists South

By Vita Bekker

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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SAFED, Israel — Since Hezbollah began firing rockets on northern Israel a week ago, no guests have shown up at Aya Peretz’s bed-and-breakfast cabins. It may be the year’s busiest tourism period in the rural north, but Peretz is huddling in a bomb shelter with her husband and three children instead of hosting couples seeking a romantic getaway.

“We hear the booms all the time,” said Peretz, who runs four wooden and stone cabins — popularly known as tzimmerim (Yiddish for “rooms”) — in the community of Manot, about six miles south of the Lebanese border. Peretz spoke by telephone as she took a brief break from the shelter in her basement. She added that “the noise is strong and shakes all the windows in the house.”

The shelling has effectively shut down Manot and the rest of the Israeli north, a green region that’s become a popular vacation spot for many Israelis, particularly in the six years of quiet that followed Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. In the past week, thousands of residents and tourists have fled, while those staying have been ordered into shelters or into windowless, reinforced safe rooms. Most shops and businesses have closed, and trains are no longer running.

Merely to stock up on milk, bread and snacks, Peretz’s husband risked getting caught in rocket fire and drove to a nearby Arab village, where he found an open store. But despite the hardships, Peretz says she’s backing Israel’s battle against the radical Shi’ite group.

“I support what the army is doing,” said Peretz, 37. “I hope they’ll finish it soon and that it’ll go back to being lively and fun around here.”

Like Peretz, many Israelis approve of the army’s activities. The country has entered an on-hold mode, with many events postponed and public attention focused on the conflict. Televisions inside homes or outside at kiosks are constantly turned on, showing 24-hour news coverage of the conflict and images from the battle.

About 81% of Israelis want the offensive to continue, according to a poll published July 18 by Yediot Aharonot, the country’s biggest newspaper. Only 17% want Israel to stop the fighting and start negotiations. This despite the toll: Twenty-five Israelis — half of them civilians — had been killed in the first week after Israel began its largest military offensive in Lebanon since 1982. The fighting started July 12, after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Lebanon border. Israel is pursuing a parallel offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza after a soldier was seized June 25.

Hezbollah launched more than 1,000 rockets in the first week on targets across northern Israel. Communities hit included Haifa, Israel’s third-biggest city, where eight people were killed July 16 when a rocket slammed through the corrugated roof of a railroad repair depot. On the Lebanese side, at least 220 people had been killed, according to news reports.

Despite the public support for the military operation, there is concern that the conflict may scare away tourists, costing Israel’s tourism industry millions of dollars. The government had expected 2.5 million visitors to arrive in Israel this year — the most since 2000, when the so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada started.

Israeli tourism officials insist that there have been few cancellations so far. However, they say, vacationers within Israel are shifting their plans. Instead of visiting northern spots like the Sea of Galilee, they’re opting for Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Eilat, where Israeli media report that some hotels are taking advantage of full bookings to increase prices.

Tourists aren’t the only ones helping boost demand for southern Israeli hotel rooms. Many northern Israeli residents are cramming their kids and belongings into cars and heading southward. While some are staying with relatives, others are opting for the comfort of hotels.

Avi and Tova Elkayam, a young couple from the residential community of Eilon — about six miles south of the Lebanese border — reserved a hotel room in Eilat for a week, hoping the fighting would be over by the time they return.

Together with their restless 2-year-old daughter and their dog, the couple spent several days and nights in their home’s safe room, which has thick walls and a steel door and ceiling. They shared a single-sized bed and kept busy with a television, a radio, books and toys, amid thuds of landing rockets and flying helicopters outside.

“I’m afraid and worried about my family,” said Avi, 31, a teacher. “But this is my home, and we’re not planning to move away. I’m counting on the army to finally do what it needs to in order to protect us.”

But some northerners who have escaped the rockets in recent days don’t plan on returning.

Dror and Alexandra Brami, from the hillside Galilee community of Hatzor Haglilit, packed mattresses, toys, money and diapers and took their three children to stay with Dror’s brother in Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. In a now-crowded apartment filled with 12 people, they sleep on sofas and mattresses in the living room, constantly watch television and enjoy little privacy.

Explaining why he’s now considering moving to central Israel, Dror, 35, said that “the security situation isn’t good in the north, and there aren’t enough jobs.”

But some residents of central Israel aren’t feeling too safe these days, either. “We don’t see an end to this conflict,” said Sarit Brami, Dror’s sister-in-law and host. “I feel like we’re living in an illusion here. We tell ourselves that the rockets are far away, but with every passing day, I feel like they‘re getting closer to us.”

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