John Davison, AFP
Last updated: 6 May, 2013

Israelis in Haifa vigilant of attack from Lebanon

Israel’s weekend strikes on Syria may have sent regional tensions soaring, but life in Haifa was carrying on as normal on Monday, with locals adamant they are ready for any counterattack from Lebanon.

On the streets of this northern port city, where Israel on Sunday deployed a battery of its vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system, the effect of the bombings was far from palpable, with people sipping cool drinks in outdoor cafes.

But the newspapers they read warned of a spillover from the Syrian civil war, particularly via the Damascus regime’s powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah, situated within missile range across the border some 50 kilometres (30 miles) away.

The two pre-dawn air raids by Israel on Friday and Sunday destroyed missiles destined for Hezbollah, sparking fears that the Shiite movement could hit back.

Israel fears that Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal could fall into the hands of its Lebanese archfoe.

No less threatening is the Shiite group’s arsenal of what Israel says is some 60,000 rockets and missiles, some of which are capable of reaching every inch of the Jewish state.

“War is on the horizon,” said a 70-year-old retiree called Nahum who did not give his last name.

“War with Syria, Lebanon, everyone. Our shelter is ready,” he said of his family’s underground bunker, which residents keep prepared in the event of an attack.

“I have a gas mask… I’m scared, because during the last war with Lebanon (in 2006), a rocket landed next to my house.”

In July 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a bloody 34-day war, during which 261 rockets struck the city, killing 12 people and wounding hundreds more.

Half of the residents fled the city, while those that stayed behind spent long hours huddled in the safety of the bomb shelters.

Nahum’s friend Arik, 64, said he agreed with Israel’s air strikes inside Syria to prevent weapons getting into the hands of Hezbollah.

“If weapons go to this group of terrorists, it could be a problem,” he told AFP.

“We’re very close to Lebanon. Yesterday my neighbour got out his gas mask to be ready,” he said, admitting: “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

Alegra, a grandmother of seven, agreed whole-heartedly with Israel’s decision to strike inside Syria, but said she was relieved to be going back to England where she lives for half the year.

Israel “can’t sit by and watch the armies over there get ready to destroy it. As soon as there are signs that is happening, the (army) does need to go in,” she said.

“If I hadn’t planned to leave the country, I would.”

With the air force on high alert and the defence establishment watching Israel’s northern border very carefully, city officials said they were always prepared for a possible cross-border attack.

“There are drills the whole year” to prepare for a scenario in which residents have to go ground and shut down normal means of communication, explained municipal spokesman Ido Minkovsky as he walked through the tunnels of the city’s centrally-run shelter.

The modern-looking bunker features computers, telephones and a semi-circular array of tables for local officials to sit at and communicate with the outside world, including the army, should the city be locked down.

The shelter “is 100 percent proofed against chemical weapons,” Minkovsky added.

So far, there has been “no order from the government” to prepare for an attack, the municipality’s managing director Shmuel Gantz told AFP.

“But we are responsible for the population and are always ready,” he said, adding that most ordinary citizens had their own state-provided gas masks.

The Israel Postal Service, which runs distribution centres for gas masks, confirmed a “very significant rise” in calls to its information hotline since the weekend, although a spokeswoman said it had not translated into a rush on the ground.

Hussein Abdel Hamid, an Arab Israeli construction worker in his 20s, said he felt safe with all the security measures.

“We’re not scared of Hezbollah. Some people have gas masks for their kids’ sake. But Israel has a strong army and is a safe, secure country,” he said.

Nitza Argov, sitting in a nearby restaurant, said Haifa existed in a perpetual state of fear, particularly since the 2006 war with Hezbollah.

“But I know the army — I was a paratrooper — and I trust it,” she said.