The Telegraph
Sunday , February 13 , 2011
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Changes in neighbourhood for bomb-shelter land Israel

If you are building a new house in Haifa, you start with constructing a concrete bomb shelter before you begin work on the actual home. For Israelis, that is the equivalent of bhoomi puja for Indians who ceremonially break ground for new construction.

The reinforced shelters, some of which now scar Haifa’s picture postcard architecture, have acquired a new importance after the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 when the Islamic militia rained nearly 4,000 rockets on northern Israel.

Incredibly, because of the sturdy bomb shelters, only 16 people died in Haifa from those rocket attacks. According to my hosts in the city, four of these, aged between 75 and 87, died not from rocket hits but from heart attacks suffered as the Hezbollah was showering their crude and unsophisticated arsenal on northern Israel.

Since that war, Israel has tightened the shelter requirement. Every building in the country must now have a bomb shelter to protect residents in the event of war.

Haifa is home to the largest number of Indians in Israel: not Indian Jews who have migrated, but Indian citizens who manage the world-famous Bahai hanging gardens and the world headquarters of the Bahai faith. Haifa is also home to a World War I memorial for 900 Indian soldiers who laid down their lives for the liberation of the port city.

The new mood sweeping West Asia, from Tunis to Cairo, from Sanaa to Amman, may mean, however, that residents of Haifa can no longer be so complacent the next time there is fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah.

Not only because the Hezbollah has reinforced its arsenal and now has in excess of 50,000 rockets, some of them with a bigger range, according to western strategic analysts. But, because for decades now, no state along Israel’s contiguous borders — the Hezbollah militia and the ranks of the Hamas are not state actors — has plotted or encouraged a real war against Israel.

That is set to change, first with the militant Hezbollah tightening its grip over the Lebanese state last month, then with the possibility of a government in Cairo which weighs Arab pride over the narrow self-interest of Egyptian generals and the country’s corrupt oligarchy.

There is no reason to assume that a new Egyptian government, even one in which the biggest constituent may be the Muslim Brotherhood, will abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, simply because it is obvious to everyone that the treaty has worked in Cairo’s favour, though maybe not helped its self-esteem.

But any popular government that assumes power after Hosni Mubarak can be expected to open the border with Gaza, making Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory null and void.

The Palestinian Authority has announced local council elections in July in the West Bank: if the elections are free and fair, there are indications that the moderate Fatah, which is seen on the Arab streets as colluding with Israel, will be swept out of office in favour of more radical candidates.

That does not leave much choice for anyone trying to move forward any solution for the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

In Sderot, Israel’s western-most town in the Negev desert, every bus station also doubles as a bomb shelter. Houses, shops, restaurants, all have such concrete shelters. In the US, there are pro-Jewish organisations that are dedicated to gifting bomb shelters to the population of this city of 20,700 residents.

Sderot’s population has declined by about 25 per cent in recent years because 771 rockets and 857 mortar bombs landed on this small town from the time Hamas assumed power in the Gaza Strip in mid-2007 until early 2008, according to official figures provided by the town. Three years ago, Israel’s strong-arm methods brought about a pause in the attacks.

From a hilltop in Sderot, I can almost lean over Gaza. If it were not for the controversial security fence that Israel has constructed between itself and Palestinian territories, I could walk over and meet those who have been firing these rockets and mortars.

I am accompanied to that hilltop by Eric Yellin and Roni Keidar of Other Voice, “a grassroots group interested in finding creative ways of hearing a new voice from the region and for promoting hope and non-violent actions for the benefit of the locals who live in Sderot and in the Gaza Strip”.

Keidar, an elderly Jewish woman, is a living example of someone who fell from the frying pan into the fire. She was born in England, but moved to the Sinai when it was under Israeli occupation.

When Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David peace accords she was evacuated, along with a number of other Jewish families. Keidar chose Netiv Haasara in the north western-most part of the Negev desert because she wanted to be nearest to Sinai, which she pines for.

Hamas rockets have fallen almost on her backyard, terrifying her grandchildren. Being with Keidar reinforces faith in the inner good in human beings because she works to advance co-existence, understanding and respect between Israelis and the people of Gaza, sentiments which the majority of Israelis turn their back on.

Yellin is a bit of a dreamer. Born into a Jewish family in the US, he studied music and has collaborated, unpopularly here, with a Palestinian from Gaza to write a book, Life Must Go On in Gaza And Sderot.

He is the Israeli co-ordinator for a US-based group, The Center for Emerging Futures, dedicated to building grassroots partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians. He founded Other Voice in the belief that the spiral of violence in Gaza and Sderot has no military solution.

Standing on the hilltop, Keidar and Yellin insisted the wall that Israel built separating them from the Palestinians had done nothing but further divide the Holy Land.

But it is clear that Keidar’s and Yellin’s views are not shared widely in Israel.

A young man and woman from The Israel Project, a non-profit organisation set up to provide “accurate information” to journalists about the region, are in a rage about what I was told on the hilltop as they drive me back to the helicopter which will fly me back to Tel Aviv.

But when the two realise that I do not share their warmongering views or their hatred for the Palestinians, they quickly change tack and tell me how Palestinians wounded in violence are cared for in Israeli hospitals, how Israeli power plants supply electricity to Palestinian territories and similar spin.

During the last fortnight, as I watched reactions evolve in Jerusalem and within the Israeli lobbies in the US, I realised that the remarkable capacity of the Jewish state to adapt and change is what will probably keep it on top, notwithstanding any changes in the Arab world.

Arab states and societies are hamstrung by a cultural, ethnic and religious incapacity to be adequately flexible and adaptive.

The history of Israel, on the other hand, has shown that it is not so. And so it will be as change overtakes its adversaries in the neighbourhood.

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