Travels in Israel

Gabriel Piterberg

On the road to Qiryat Shemona in northern Israel, on Sunday, 13 August, just before the ceasefire is declared, my mobile phone buzzes incessantly: my mother would just like to know if I think that either Jews or Arabs are worth dying for. Woody Allen’s line about being brought up by a castrating Zionist mother comes to mind. My own was an active Communist as a medical student in Buenos Aires in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and recalls that era somewhat righteously to justify her failure to take part in any similar activity in Israel (‘I have already done my share of trying to make this a better world’). Her politics is normally more than reasonable, but this recent war has played havoc with her judgment. She is not alone.

As I get close to the town, military radio lists a host of northern locations and instructs their inhabitants to make for shelters and safe places, an announcement whose wisdom is confirmed by the heavy sound of explosions. I am just a couple of kilometres south of Qiryat Shemona and keep on going. The blasts get louder the closer I get, but from the car I can’t spot any points of impact or even a column of smoke. At the southern edge of the town, however, the Katyusha shelling seems truly threatening so I pull over at a petrol station which has a sort of open-air shelter where drivers and employees are huddling. This is an ideal site, for it indemnifies me from my mother’s accusation of recklessness, enables me to see what’s going on and doesn’t have the heat or stench of the proper public shelters I will soon get to know. Within minutes the station employees have taught me how to distinguish between ‘the motherfuckers’ rockets’ and ‘our artillery’, whose rough location one can judge after a few minutes. Listening to the fury of our ordnance blasting into Lebanon I think of the chutzpah of Israeli allegations that Hizbullah places fighters and weapons among the civilian population. The clouds of smoke rising from Katyusha impacts seem to be mainly on the mountain above the town. In the shelter, we decide that the targets were probably Manara (a kibbutz) and Margaliot (a moshav).

In the mid-1970s I used to pass through here quite often: part of my military service was spent on Mount Hermon. Qiryat Shemona was a place where one waited apathetically to hitch a ride back to base, or more impatiently, to get a ride home at the start of a longish leave in the hope that one would get there early enough to pick up a date. There was a bus station – it’s still there, where it was – but only losers travelled on public transport. Although I notice a few changes – a new shopping mall, for example – the city remains familiar and just as unattractive as it was then.

Qiryat Shemona was founded in 1950, named after the eight men who died defending Tel Hai against an Arab attack in 1920. (The most famous was Joseph Trumpeldor, whose last words are supposed to have been: ‘Never mind, it is good to die for our country.’) One of the ways the state dealt with the massive immigration from North Africa and the Middle East after the founding of Israel was to move people into places that became known as ‘development towns’. Some have been more successful than others, but there are no boom-towns. A sociological rule of thumb: if a given development town was located in an area of thriving co-operative agricultural settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim), its own ‘development’ would be arrested. Qiryat Shemona could never be described as a success story. To its population of predominantly North African and Middle Eastern Jews have been added, in the last two decades or so, immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In socio-economic terms, it is a weak community, and the fact that it’s the site most heavily targeted by Hizbullah’s Katyushas and other rockets may not be coincidental. Raining missiles on Israel’s deprived communities is intended as a frightening piece of consciousness raising.

My first appointment with the municipality is at the emergency headquarters or ‘war-room’ (the male occupants of these offices tend to prefer the latter designation). Policemen guard the doors to the switchboard and the main meeting room. The ‘threat’ soon becomes clear: raging inhabitants, who have lost their wits and patience, congregate here after each volley of Katyushas. A woman in a nightdress (it is nearly noon) is screaming and gesticulating wildly. She’s had it, she says, with Katyushas, sirens and public shelters stinking of urine; the other day a cat gave birth in the shelter and the aggressive mother was making it impossible for anyone to get inside; in conclusion, she’d like to stick a few Katyushas up the mayor’s arse (my impression is that the poor man is doing the best he can). I am squeezed through the crowd to talk to the municipality spokesman, Doron Shanfer. He treats me to a hard-line racist speech, denouncing Arabs, Muslims, Hizbullah, insisting on the pointlessness of any agreement or ceasefire that might pre-empt the destruction of Hizbullah.

Some information is nonetheless forthcoming. Of 24,000 inhabitants, between seven and nine thousand had stayed put; the rest had gone to central or southern Israel. Three or four thousand more have recently been evacuated by the authorities. My spokesman then cites the fantastic figure of more than 1600 homes destroyed, a brazen exaggeration, it seems to me, unless ‘destroyed’ is run through some strenuous hermeneutics. Of 11 schools, four were hit; sports facilities, playgrounds, a handful of industrial sites and the main shopping mall have also sustained damage. By chance, I learn that unemployment in Qiryat Shemona is much higher than the official 8.5 per cent. My interest catches the spokesman offguard, or so it seems to me. The figure seems likely to rise, he says, regardless of the war.

I decide modestly to emulate the Almighty, and to drive through the city ‘and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18.21). After almost two hours of touring the city, which is not that large, it’s clear to me that talk about physical destruction caused by Hizbullah shelling is a grotesque puff for the rhetoric of reciprocity. It is true that buildings and roads have been hit, and there have been casualties, but even to begin to compare this to the devastation in the south of Lebanon and Beirut under Israeli air force ‘surgical’ bombardment is disgraceful.

What I do see as I go up and down the streets of Qiryat Shemona, between intermittent bursts of Hizbullah fire, is an order of social despair to which the war may have given added poignancy, but which is not, in itself, a result of the war. The people I run into and converse with are clearly unable to leave. They are disoriented and depressed by weeks of scrambling into and out of shelters without much else to do. The two public shelters I go into confirm the comic-strip description of the angry woman at the municipal offices. I see a few people reluctantly leaving their apartments to collect the food that the municipality distributes. Their clothing betrays their bewilderment. They have lost track of whether it’s day or night, whether they’re in the private or the public sphere. Those who have remained are the poorer inhabitants, veteran Mizrahis or relatively recent immigrants. A man from St Petersburg tells me that his wife and granddaughters are in Bat Yam, just south of Jaffa, lodging with acquaintances. (In popular Israeli culture, Bat Yam is the equivalent of Milton Keynes.) He had gone with them, but then decided to return. ‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Are you not from this country?’ he replies.

‘Of course I am,’ I say. ‘But I no longer live here.’

He smiles. ‘So how come you’re asking why I prefer Qiryat Shemona with Katyushas to Bat Yam without?’

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[*] Lara Deeb has written about this in Middle East Report, 31 July.