The Magazine

The Siege of Haifa

Missiles, ball bearings, and summer camp underground.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Haifa, Israel

HAIFA IS STRONG," reads the placard attached to several of the city's street signs. It needs to be. This city of a quarter million, the third largest in Israel after Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, has been pummeled almost daily since the Hezbollah rocket assault on Israel began on July 13, the day after hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah broke out. The number of rocket landings here is around 100, among a total of at least 3,500 on northern Israel, and the impact of the war on this city has been devastating.

Traffic is light to nonexistent in the city center, and the port, Israel's most important nexus of imports and exports, is completely dead. Not a ship is in the harbor. Importers have been forced to divert their cargoes to Cyprus, where storage fees will have to be paid during the war and additional shipping transfer fees when hostilities eventually come to an end. Tourism has stopped, and the hotels cope only with a vulture-like crew of foreign reporters who make their base here for coverage of the rocket strikes in northern Israel.

Compared with the northern part of Israel as a whole, where some one million people have lived in shelters since the rockets started falling, Haifa's suffering might not, at first sight, seem very onerous. But the scenes of destruction, bloodshed, and chaos at the explosion sites of Katyushas, as the Hezbollah rockets are called, are terrifying. One half of a three-story building in the city's Bat Galim district was totally demolished when it was struck by a 220 mm. caliber rocket--the preferred Hezbollah ordnance for Haifa, because it can travel further and carry more explosives. An amateur video grapher a few houses away caught the devastation a few seconds after impact as a corpse hung crumpled over in a chair teetering on the blown-out edge of the second floor. The façades of houses across the street and street signs 50 yards away were peppered with clean holes from the warhead's 30,000 ball-bearings, which fan out on impact and can blast clean through thick steel, the better to kill as many civilians as possible.

Children would normally be frolicking on the beach or at outdoor venues around this leafy, pleasant city. Those whose parents dare to take them out of their houses at all are enjoying "camp," arranged by the municipality, in underground parking garages in the center of town. There, safe from the noise and threat of rockets, they play on air-inflated jungle gyms, watch movies and entertainment shows put on by volunteers and specially trained soldiers, and hope, somehow, that things will return to normal.

"The children are nervous and frightened," says Shiran Levy, 21, a soldier in a special army unit called Nahal, which is trained to deal with civilians. "They don't know what has happened. We teach them the difference between terror against armies and against civilians. The Arab children are very confused. What we try to do here is make them realize that we are all one."

Haifa, whose left-wing political history gave it the nickname "Red Haifa," is famous among Israeli cities for its generally good relations between Arabs and Jews. One Arab municipal worker in an underground "camp" said that the vast majority of the city's Arabs didn't support Hezbollah at all. The mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, even quipped to American visitors, "We are lucky that three celebrities never visited Haifa: Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad."

But there is disturbing evidence that some of Haifa's Arabs are rooting for Hezbollah. A freelance photographer who speaks Arabic said that he heard a Haifan Arab tell an Al Jazeera camera crew that he hoped Hezbollah would persist in its attacks. A Haifa Jewish resident who placed an Israeli flag on the ruins of a house destroyed by Katyushas watched as local Arabs came up, broke the flag's stick mount in two, and stomped on it. Outside a badly damaged house in an Arab section of the city where three people died in a recent rocket landing, some of the residents complained that the government shelters were insufficient. Others muttered that they didn't mind the Jews, but they thought the trouble was the fault of the "government"--presumably the one in Jerusalem.

The city is protected, in theory, from really big rockets--Scuds, say, or the very large Iranian rocket in the Hezbollah arsenal, the Zelzal--by a Patriot missile battery on a bluff high above the city. At $1.5 million a throw, Patriots are unlikely to be launched against anything smaller than a Zelzal. But the Patriot battery's tracking radar is extremely useful. It sees every projectile coming in from Lebanon, tracks the starting point and the likely trajectory, and alerts the city to activate the siren alarm system. After this sounds, citizens have between 45 seconds and a minute to dash into a shelter. "It is nervewracking," said Tammy, a 21-year-old second lieutenant at the missile battery, "but after a while you get used to it."

Tammy, a career officer, may, but few other people in Haifa are likely to. The city prides itself not only on its measurably better Jewish-Arab relations than other Israeli cities but also on its hitherto peaceful history. Though it suffered a few suicide bombings during the intifada, it was never as much on eggshells about these things as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. That sense of well-being may be gone forever. Hezbollah's smiley-faced leader Nasrallah warned leeringly this week, "I have a special message to the Arabs of Haifa, to your martyrs and your wounded. I call on you to leave the city."

A possible translation: The Zelzals are coming. If so, the Patriots may indeed be called on to prove their stuff.

David Aikman is a former bureau chief for Time magazine in Jerusalem and author, among others, of Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power.