My Trip to the North
July 24, 2006Dear Friends,
Very early yesterday morning, four of us left Jerusalem and spent eighteen hours up North. We went to a number of cities distributing food to people in bomb-shelters. It was awe-inspiring! It all began a few days after the war started. I called a friend who has a list of wealthy philanthropists, primarily in America, and asked whether it would be possible for me to contact some of them in an effort to raise money and DO something to help the people in the North, as well as the soldiers who day by day fight terrorists so that we may continue to live in our country. Since then we have managed to send truckloads of food and packages in an effort to help in some small way.
While driving to the North, we heard reports of Katyusha rockets landing in the Galil. About an hour later it was reported that Kassam rockets were fired from Gaza (the same Gaza we just gave the Arabs a year ago) into the Negev. We later heard that terrorists had attacked the area with seven Kassam rockets. It is reports such as these that set the tone for us daily here in Israel. Being in the North yesterday and receiving news of rocket attacks close by to where we were gave me a different perspective.
I had heard reports about the situation in the North and what people were having to cope with, but no amount of news can replace seeing it yourself.
More than a million people have been forced out of their homes – either because their building suffered a direct hit in a rocket attack or because it is too dangerous to remain in their homes and they have had to move to bomb-shelters. Many have left the North altogether and there are reports that families have set up home all along the beach in Eilat and in other parts of the country. What we saw seems unbelievable to me even now. Virtual ghost towns. In some cities we saw no people walking the streets, in some we saw just a handful. Shops and businesses, banks and post offices are closed everywhere and there are very few cars on the roads. It is incredibly eerie. The media is full of stories about the bad conditions in Lebanon. Where is the true and even-handed reporting? What about the terrible conditions of over a million Israeli’s who are not able to live in their homes right now?
Our first stop was the city of Kiryat Shmona, which for years has endured rocket attacks and its citizens are no strangers to air raid sirens and bomb-shelters. Before we reached the city we saw smoke from areas that had been rocketed. People there are simply not leaving the bomb-shelters. We saw no one walking around. Many of the children I spoke to said that all they want is to beable to play outside. The bomb-shelters are boiling hot and many don’t have fans or T.V.’s or reception for T.V.’s.
At around 11:00a.m. there were Katyusha rocket attacks on many northern cities, including Haifa in which two people were murdered and fourteen injured. Also, a rocket hit a building in Nesher causing a huge blaze which took hours to put out. Other missiles hit Carmiel and Tzfat injuring children. A house was damaged by a direct hit. One Katyusha rocket struck a car, causing the car to swerve into the opposite lane. The driver was killed. Another man was killed when a rocket hit his shop. Others were injured.
We drove from Kiryat Shmona to Nahariya. It was overwhelming to see the destruction of homes and buildings all over the city. There too, the shelters were overcrowded and boiling hot. We are in the middle of summer now and Israeli summers are boiling hot. The next heatwave is expected on Wednesday. Thousands of the cities residents have left the North and many of those who remain are sick, elderly or new immigrants. They do not have money or food. It is that simple. It is very difficult to describe the conditions we witnessed there. Whatever you can think of, they are lacking. More overwhelming was their sheer gratitude for the food and packages and for our efforts in coming to sit and talk with them.
We were in Nahariya when we heard that residents of Northern cities had been warned by officials to stay in their bomb shelters and that they could only go to work if there are bomb shelters at their place of employment. At the same time, someone from Nahariya, who was helping us carry boxes into the bomb-shelter told me that a short while before was the first time the air raid siren was sounded in Zichron Ya’akov since the war began. It was later confirmed that Zichron Ya’akov and Binyamina were T.G. not hit by rockets and that a technical error caused the sirens to go off in those cities.
We then travelled to Tzfat. When we got there, the army refused to allow us to distribute food. They explained that it was just too dangerous and the amount of time between sirens was too short to make it feasible. So we arranged to leave all the food in one location so that local volunteers could distribute the food later on. Hours later, while in Haifa, I received a phone call and learned that the food had successfully been distributed.
All through the day we stopped off at various places and distributed food and packages to groups of soldiers who are all extremely tired and who ensure our safety here every single minute of the day and night.
Our next stop was the city of Carmiel. It has a population of approximately 50 000 people. This city has suffered direct Katyusha rocket attacks since this war began. There too we saw homes and buildings destroyed by missiles. Carmiel and nearby cities have been pounded by constant barrages of missiles and many of the cities residents have been injured. At all the bomb-shelters we visited there, the one theme that we heard repeated time and again was that they were staying in Carmiel because they would not allow the Arabs of the world to drive them from their city.
Later we arrived in Haifa and minutes later we heard the siren. We were standing a few meters from a bomb-shelter preparing to distribute food and packages. We were ushered into the bomb-shelter. The first thing I noticed was how hot it was in the bomb-shelter. This one had no fans and there were far too many people inside. Everyone was sweating profusely and appeared to be very tired. I had no idea how long we would have to be inside the bomb-shelter and I sat down next to two kids who were filling in the solutions to a Sudoku puzzle. When I noticed them struggling with the solutions, I offered help and a conversation ensued. These kids are fantastic. They told me all about living in the bomb-shelter, about what their plans had been for their school holidays (July & August in Israel) and how those have been replaced by the new reality of living in this bomb-shelter with little ventilation and no fans in the middle of a boiling hot Israeli summer in an effort to save their lives from rockets that rain down on their city. I promised to send them new Sudoku puzzle books to keep them busy and they promised to call me when they receive them. I should be hearing from them tomorrow.
At one point I moved to a back corner of the bomb-shelter where a few people were listening to a radio. The news report said sirens were being sounded in the Galil, Rosh Pina, Tzfat and Chatzor Haglilit too. We heard that rockets had exploded in Kiryat Shmona. A few minutes later it was reported that dozens of people had been injured, one person seriously, by a Katyusha rocket attack on Acco, not far from where we were in Haifa. It was then that we exited the bomb-shelter and continued to distribute food. We were about half way through our work at that particular bomb-shelter when we heard the sirens again. So it was back into the bomb-shelter again. A woman sitting next to me told me that it was the third siren in one hour! This woman, Hila, spoke to me in great detail about what the past 12 days has been like for her and her family. She is the mother of four young children and her husband is in remission from cancer. They spend all their time in the bomb-shelter. Last week, the building next door to their own was destroyed in a direct hit in a rocket attack. The windows of their apartment shattered as a result of the blast. As she cannot leave her children unaccompanied she cannot go to work and so they have no income.
As we drove from place to place, I commented that wherever we went we saw Israeli flags on homes and cars. There are large signs all over the North with slogans such as: “Israel is strong!” and “We will win!” Throughout the day, the whole time we were working we heard either from people around us or on the news, of more and more attacks all over Northern Israel. I kept thinking: They are murdering our people! They are murdering our nation!
We spent many hours in Haifa going from bomb-shelter to bomb-shelter. From time to time sirens would go off and we would all run into the nearest bomb-shelter. Shortly after 5:00pm we arrived at a bomb-shelter and took a break to daven Mincha. Afterwards I heard a huge blaze had been ignited in Tiveria (Tiberias) by rockets. I also heard that as of that time yesterday, two people had been killed, more than sixty injured, some severely. Another two rockets hit Haifa while we were in that bomb-shelter. One of them hit an apartment building causing a massive fire and the other landed literally around the corner from where we were. I realised then that I was beginning to get used to watching the faces of the people around me, seeing their anxiety and then later their incredible relief, each time a rocket did not land near them ... and then watching it all over again the next time the siren sounded.
At around 6:10pm sirens went off in Haifa again warning everyone to enter bomb-shelters. We were in the car driving to our next drop-off point. The streets were completely empty and we were anxious to get to safety. When we found the bomb-shelter we entered quickly and the first thing that hit me was how hot it was inside. I began to feel very light-headed and was sure I was hearing things when I thought I heard someone calling my name. What were the odds that anybody in this bomb-shelter would know me?
I heard someone call my name a third time and when I looked in the direction of where I thought the voice was coming from, I instantly recognised a family. It was their 14-year-old daughter who had been calling out my name.
A year ago when they were thrown out of their home in Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif, they were sent to the Gold Hotel in Jerusalem and as I visited the Gush Katif families often, I got to know them. They were since evicted from that hotel, along with all the other Gush Katif residents and then again from a second hotel. The last I heard they were moving to the Negev, so I was very surprised to see them in the bomb-shelter in Haifa. I sat for a while and spoke to this family. They explained that they were supposed to move to a temporary home for the next two years but the government had not yet done what they were supposed to do to prepare those buildings for people to live in. The husband told me that they have yet to receive compensation for their home or the business they lost!!! We discussed how this time last year, they were thrown out of their home and the wife said to me “Do you realise we’ve known each other for a year now? We met when we arrived at the hotel in Jerusalem.” Then she smiled and while gesturing at the bomb-shelter said to me “Welcome to our new home!”
Before moving onto the next bomb-shelter, an army official approached me and asked whether we had enough time to see something he wanted to show us. I said “sure”. We followed him by car into a neighbourhood that had clearly been damaged by rocket attacks. This officer showed us a block with a row of three houses on it. The middle house was still being built and the two on either side have families living in them. Earlier in the day, the middle building had been severely damaged in a rocket attack and the two buildings on either side, both with people inside them at the time of the attack were completely untouched. He said to us “I am not a religious man but this is a miracle.” Miracles abound! Yad Hashem can be seen everywhere!
By the time we reached the last bomb-shelter for the day we were utterly exhausted. The people expressed great appreciation for our efforts and I sat talking to some people for over an hour. We heard on the news that Arab terrorists had fired eleven Kassam rockets at Sderot and surrounding areas just that day. An elderly man came to sit next to me and we had a lively conversation. More and more people joined in and at one point there was a large circle of people sitting with me. It was a therapy session of a kind, with everyone openly expressing their feelings and having an opportunity to feel heard. The same elderly man said “ You know I supported Ariel Sharon. I wanted an end to all the violence and if ending the occupation was going to bring peace, I was all for that. Last year I was in full support of giving Gaza to the Arabs and removing Jews from their homes. I’m not young anymore. I’ve been around long enough to know that nothing is coincidental. We kicked Jews out of their homes and now we are not living in our homes.”
Driving back to Jerusalem late last night, my head was swarming with the experiences of the day. The shelters, sirens, excessive heat, great lack of amenities for so many but more than anything the faces of the people.
Wherever we went we heard the same thing. People spoke in one voice. The country is united behind the government and the army. This is not a time for politics. It is extremely rare for all factions within Israeli government and society to be in agreement on any issue. The unity and agreement on this issue is overwhelming for all of us. We are simply not used to feeling united.
The whole day I was enveloped with feelings and thoughts of Gush Katif and the Northern Shomron. Exactly a year ago, 10,000 Jews were thrown out of their homes. A year later we are at war! Those of you who know me, know my views and know that I said all along that this would be inevitable. In the update I emailed last week, I mentioned that I had written a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in which I stated that I did not vote for him and do not agree with his politics or policies. However, all of us, despite our political views stand behind the government and army as they battle the terrorists. I implored him not to give into international pressure and pull our troops out too soon. I pray that they be allowed to do their job and complete their task. If not, Israel will continue to be attacked and we will have to re-enter Lebanon again at a later stage. I wrote that a year ago the government and army were throwing Jews out of their homes. I asked what will happen if he goes ahead with his “Realignment Plan” which calls for the removal of anywhere between 70,000 to 100,000 Jews from their homes?
I feel incredibly grateful to Hashem for helping me with this project and for my experiences yesterday. I feel greatly indebted to our generous donours who have allowed me to be a shaliach mitzva and helped us do something very practical to ease the lives of many in some small way. I pray that we may be blessed to continue our efforts and that Am Yisrael will soon merit Geula Shleima. Please continue to daven for all of us and our country!