A week before the ceasefire

A week before the ceasefire

We have become refugees in our own country, an angered Israeli woman said to me, days before this week’s ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah was implemented. In the coming weeks, Israelis will be debating why their ground forces were not sent into Lebanon sooner, why Hezbollah’s military capabilities were underrated, whether the current cease fire is even in Israel’s interest.

The conflict began in earnest after Hezbollah fighters crossed into Israel on July 1′, killed several Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others. A month later, by the time the U.N.-sponsored ceasefire was ordered, 1,000 Lebanese lay dead. Hezbollah strongholds had been battered, and roads and bridges were in ruins. Still, Hezbollah forces had fought fiercely, unleashed 4,000 missiles at Israel, and had gained the sympathy of much of the world.

Ruth and Leonard Cole, on left, were among 63 people on Hadassah’s solidarity mission to Israel last week. Here they meet evacuees from the North at Gaydamak’s Tent City in Nitzanim. photo courtesy of Hadassah

But if my experience in Israel last week is any indication, Israelis will not tolerate a repetition of the hardship imposed on them by Hezbollah rockets. In June, three years after UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey joined in partnership with Nahariya, members of both communities sang and danced there in solidarity. But a month later signs of life in that city had nearly vanished. Half the 50,000 residents had temporarily moved south, beyond the range of Hezbollah’s missiles. The other half were making do in underground bunkers.

Last week I gazed west from the center of Nahariya down empty thoroughfares that abutted against beautiful though vacant beaches. My wife, Ruth, and I had temporarily left a Hadassah mission in Haifa to travel north and visit with local officials and friends in Nahariya.

Below the first floor of city hall, ‘0 municipal workers were conducting their duties in the cramped shelter. Gila Kreigsfeld, a community social worker, greeted us between phone conversations with local residents trying to cope. We asked how she was doing. "Fine, under the circumstances," she shrugged. No self-pity, no despair. And, we wondered, her three children? "Okay," she answered. They are ages 4, 8, and 1’, and had not seen daylight in a month. Her husband was with them in the underground bunker beneath their home. "I’ll be going there soon to give him some relief," she said with a grin.

A 10-minute drive to Nahariya’s modern Western Galilee Hospital offered a stunning sight. A large gash was prominent on the northern outside wall around the fourth floor level. A missile had hit there a week earlier and destroyed the ophthalmology department. Inside, twisted metal and shards of glass still remained strewn. Yet no one had been injured because the hospital had already undergone a remarkable transformation. In previous visits, I had seen the five aboveground levels engaged in the usual rhythms of a busy hospital. Only its large underground area seemed out of sync. There, long rows of beds and IV setups were lined up, empty and idle. The hospital director, Dr. Shaul Shasha, who had prepared for the worst, turned out to be prescient. Now, it was the upper floors that were empty, and the large underground area an active 450-bed hospital. Makeshift dividers separated the departments — pediatrics, intensive care, surgery. A half-dozen corneal transplants from soldiers killed in battle had already been performed in the underground unit. Space between the beds was narrow and privacy somewhat curbed. But none of the doctors, patients, or visiting relatives seemed fazed.

Dr. Fabio Zweibel, head of intensive care, worked like all the others, in a compressed subterranean network. In June, he was laughing and dancing with the rest of us. Now, he told how a missile had crashed into the ground 50 yards from his house. Thousands of ball bearings packed into the missile sprayed outward like bullets. One of them smashed through a window of his house and passed just above the chair in which he usually sits. "If I was in the chair at that moment, I would have been killed," he said. He smiled, thanked us warmly for visiting, and went off to see his patients.

These Nahariyans were among the million Israelis in the north whose lives were turned upside down. While we were in the area, sirens went off every ‘0 minutes, their wailing sounds more mournful than alarming. They signaled the launching of more missiles by Hezbollah, aimed at no one in particular, just with the hope that wherever they landed, they would kill Jews. Most missiles landed in the Mediterranean or in unpopulated fields, but not all. By the time the fighting gave way to the U.N.-ordered cease-fire, a handful of Nahariya residents had been killed and scores of the city’s buildings damaged.

But the community’s resolve remained firm. Everyone I spoke to was resolute. The people of Nahariya, Kiryat Shmona, Haifa, and the rest of Israel were as one in their determination that the threat posed by an armed Hezbollah must be stopped. My impression is that, ceasefire or not, the citizenry will not permit Israel’s political and military leaders to settle for anything less.

Leonard A. Cole, a former president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and an expert on bioterrorism, is the author of "Terror: How Israel Has Coped and What America Can Learn," which will be published in ‘007. He lives in Ridgewood.