When War’s Not That Far Away

By Leonard Fein

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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Abba Houshi was the mayor of Haifa from 1951 until his death in 1969. No Israeli mayor has governed with as much authority and none save Teddy Kollek, who was mayor of Jerusalem for 29 years, governed with greater imagination.

I spent some time with Houshi while he was mayor, not long after the opening of the Carmelit funicular subway that ascends from the base of the city nearly two kilometers up the slopes of the Carmel mountain, a Houshi project that was widely derided as a pointless and wildly costly showcase. (Funicular? Yes, like the San Francisco cable cars, albeit underground in Haifa’s case. And there’s another difference: At the end of every Carmelit car are etched the words of Leviticus 29:32, “Mipnei seyvah takum,” “Stand for an elderly person.”)

We talked about the Labor Party, whose stalwart defender and enforcer he was, and we talked of the Carmelit: “Look,” he said, “the air at the top of the Carmel is so clean that breathing is different there, it is refreshing beyond belief. Why should such air be restricted to people who can afford the high cost of housing in the city’s upper part? I needed to create a way for workers who live at the base of the mountain to get to the top without going bankrupt, without spending half a day on a bus that grinds slowly uphill. I call that democracy.”

I think of Houshi now because Haifa, for reasons that are all too obvious, is much on my mind. We are not accustomed to Israel under this kind of attack.

In 1991, during the 40-day Gulf War, there were 18 Scud attacks on Israel involving an estimated 39 missiles. I write now at the end of the fifth day of the current war — I do not know what else to call it — between Israel and Hezbollah, and more than 700 missiles have already landed in Israel, in cities and in kibbutzim, in villages and in moshavim.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, this week asserted that his forces have very many more missiles at their disposal, and Brigadier General Yuval Helmish, chief intelligence officer of the Israeli military, agrees: “Hezbollah has amassed over 10,000 rockets, some of which have a range of over 70 kilometers, and has dispersed the missiles in towns and villages throughout south Lebanon.”

Who knows how all this will end, or when? Very soon now, the Israelis will have exhausted all reasonable targets. If Hezbollah still has ample missiles, that’s not because Israel has yet to attack its stores, but because they are well-hidden or located in the heart of populated areas.

The best outcome would be the assertion of its authority by the Lebanese government, but that is hardly likely. The Lebanese government is to Hezbollah even less powerful than President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is to Hamas. Accordingly, the most likely scenario is that within a few more days — by month’s end, say — an exchange of prisoners will be negotiated, arranged in such a way as to inhibit Hezbollah’s ability to claim a victory and to insulate Israel from the appearance of defeat.

In the meantime, there are the tragedies of war — very substantial tragedies, on both sides of the border — and also the ironies and anomalies of war. A friend sends me e-mails he has been receiving from his niece, who is in Beirut, helping women start micro-businesses. She has spent much time in Israel, comes from a richly Jewish family and is herself deeply connected to the Jewish homeland. Now Israel’s bombs fall nearby.

“This morning felt incredibly calm,” she writes, “and I went for a run along the coast. Not many people were out — a young couple huddled under a tree looking out at the sea next to their parked car, an old woman standing on her balcony under a massive Lebanese flag, also gazing out at sea, some men sitting on plastic chairs outside of closed shops, looking out at nothing, all seeming to be waiting for a conclusion.

Finally, as I was finishing my run, I passed a construction site, a half finished house — with a team of six men working on building. The sight of construction during such impending destruction was somehow both incredibly uplifting and deeply depressing. The sight almost sums up the Lebanese experience — the cycle of devastation and ingenuity that keeps them going.”

A teenage friend of mine is on a trip in Israel just now, a trip that was to have been headquartered in Haifa, a group of kids from Boston spending three weeks with a group of kids from Haifa, and then all of them coming to Boston for three more weeks. “Teens for Tzedek,” the brilliantly conceived program is called.

After the first missiles landed in Haifa, the program was hastily moved to Jerusalem, now jammed with young people from many dozens of summer programs. All of them have apparently descended on the shops and stalls of the Old City. The war is out of mind here, commerce and tourism are the agenda.

But for my young friend and her compatriots, it turns out the war is not all that far away; the Haifa kids went home last night to spend a day with their families, were home when this morning’s salvo hit, killing eight Israelis. They are due back in Jerusalem tomorrow, where their program, six weeks focusing on social justice, will go forward.

The cycle of sorrow and celebration, of death and life, of destruction and rebuilding, is a destiny shared with the generations that came before — and with the men and women and children on the other side of the border.

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