Haifa residents quietly persevere

Israelis who are suddenly in range of Hizbullah rockets have remained calm, supporting Israel's offensive in Lebanon.

Miriam Levy was at her apartment in the bayside neighborhood of Bat Galim Monday when she heard sirens wailing to warn of an incoming Katyusha rocket.

"I heard the boom and the building shook. I said to myself, 'That must have fallen on Bat Galim,' " she recalled.

Tuesday, Ms. Levy finally emerged from her home to survey the damage around the corner. The facade of an apartment had been blown away to expose living room chairs, an Oriental rug, and what was once the third floor hanging precariously by metal rods.

"It's scary. You see this in other places, but not here in Bat Galim," says Levy. "We're not used to this in Haifa."

From Tiberias to Nazareth, communities throughout northern Israel have been exposed to attacks after Israeli planes, artillery, and gunboats bombarded Hizbullah targets in Lebanon in retaliation for the capture of two soldiers last week.

At least 50 Hizbullah rockets struck northern Israel Tuesday and at least four hit Haifa. At least one Israeli was killed in Tuesday's attacks. So far the militant Lebanese Shiites have fired some 750 rockets into northern Israel since the Israeli offensive began July 12.

But with a naval base, a shipping port, and oil refineries, the vulnerability of Israel's third-largest city to Hizbullah rocket attacks has taken residents and the country off guard.

After nearly a week of Katyusha strikes that claimed eight fatalities, Haifa locals are staying home, shuttering businesses, and resigning themselves to ducking into shelters or stairwells at a moment's notice.

That's good news for Israel, because with civilians in the line of fire in this war, home-front morale will directly impact Israel's ability to prolong its effort to weaken Hizbullah.

"It's the first times time since the 1948 [Arab-Israeli] war that the Israeli home front has been so exposed to attack and by an outside party," says Sami Michael, an Israeli author who lives in Haifa. "The population is showing maturity in dealing with the situation."

On Tuesday, UN envoy Terje Larsen was in Israel for talks with Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni on a cease-fire deal that aimed at ending the fighting threatening to boil over into a regional war.

Ms. Livni hinted for the first time that Israel would consider agreeing to the deployment of a multinational force in southern Lebanon to ensure that Hizbullah can't threaten Israel with cross-border attacks or rocket strikes, Haaretz reported.

Haifa resident Levy said a range of opinions exist on whether or not the offensive to rout Hizbullah justifies interruption of business as usual across northern Israel, a region that attracts thousands of tourists each year to vacation cabins in the Galilee mountains.

"We've already started and we should continue to the end," she says. "My hope is that there won't be any more Katyusha rockets. That's what this is all about."

Public opinion polls suggest that Levy is not alone. A survey published in Tuesday's Yediot Ahronot newspaper said that 81 percent of Israelis support continuing the Lebanon offensive until Hizbullah is neutralized.

"We will win," read the banner headline in the same newspaper, quoting from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's address to the nation Monday night.

But that promise was greeted with skepticism by Geda Young, a member of the Bat Galim neighborhood council. "There won't be a complete victory," he predicts. "What is complete victory? It's a long process. This is a country controlled by three forces – Lebanon, Iran, and Syria – making it more difficult to reach a cease fire agreement."

Meanwhile, sirens continued to sound throughout northern Israel. As a signal sounded through the city in the morning a shopkeeper explained, "Sometimes it's two minutes long, other times it's only a couple of seconds."

An eerie calm has fallen over the streets of Haifa in recent days as many residents remained at home to be close to relatives. There are rumors among neighbors that others have left the city, moving southward with friends and family. Others have hunkered down in public bomb shelters with infants and children in tow.

A row of mattresses was spread across the floor of an underground shelter that's next to Bat Galim's elementary school. Bookshelf stereo speakers were perched on a small shelf closed off by an iron door labeled "emergency exit."

One extended family of Russian immigrants was seated around some couches.

Vadim Raisen said his wife and children had spent the night in the shelter. "We hope the [Israeli Defense Forces] will do the work and we'll be out of here in one or two days. We understand that we need to defeat terror," he said.

Then he relented. "It's hard for us to be here. Our 5-year old-cried yesterday when he heard the boom, so we came here for him. I don't know how to help."

Nathalie Maiorva counted four days in the shelter with her 6-year-old son, with breaks to return to their apartment to gather groceries and shower. But with banks closed, ATMs out of order, and supermarkets shuttered, she was concerned that her food might soon run out.

"We'll break into the supermarket for our children. People could be driven to extreme things," she said. "Where this will end we don't know."

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