News Analysis: Northern Israelis Angry, Fearful After Rocket Attacks by Hezbollah
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News Analysis: Northern Israelis Angry, Fearful After Rocket Attacks by Hezbollah

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Residents of Israel’s northern communities are living with an unsettling mix of anger, frustration and fear.

These emotions roiled to the surface after the most deadly Katyusha rocket attack in more than four years was launched by Hezbollah from across the Lebanese border.

What makes the assault particularly galling for them is that it came amid growing hints that Syrian President Hafez Assad, who according to most accounts controls Hezbollah’s every move, is ready to resume peace talks with Israel.

The northern residents may hope that such talks will lead to quiet along the Lebanese border, but past experience has taught them otherwise.

More likely, they believe, Israeli and Syrian officials may discuss peace in the coming months — while Hezbollah wages war.

This week those who are optimistic regarding the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks were heartened when word surfaced that Syria has agreed to a visit next month by a group of Jewish and Arab mayors from Israel.

The visit, which is being coordinated through a European mediator, would be the first official trip to Damascus by Israeli Jews.

But, even amid such hopeful signs, Assad has always made a point of drawing a dividing line between events in Syria and Lebanon. While the Israeli-Syrian border has been quiet for decades, Assad has repeatedly used Hezbollah operations to pressure Israel on the Lebanese front.

Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak got a taste of Assad’s inscrutability last week, when the Syrian leader made favorable comments about Barak during an interview with British journalist Patrick Seale.

In his first public comments about Israel’s new leadership, Assad described Barak as “strong and honest.”

In a separate interview with Seale, Barak responded in kind, saying that Assad’s legacy is a “strong, independent, self-confident Syria.”

Two days after Assad complimented the new Israeli leader, Hezbollah launched a massive rocket attack on northern Israel, killing two Israelis — Tony Zanna, 38, and Shimon Elimelech, 45 — and wounding five others.

Some 500 structures and 100 vehicles were also hit, and property damage was estimated at millions of dollars — excluding related economic losses, such as the negative impact on local tourism.

Echoing the often-repeated accusation of Israeli officials, Defense Minister Moshe Arens said Syria is using Hezbollah to pressure Israel.

“There is no doubt that nothing happens in Lebanon unless the Syrians want it,” Arens told reporters Sunday.

Indeed, it was only after Israel retaliated last week with air attacks on power stations and bridges near Beirut, killing eight Lebanese and wounding dozens of others, that Syria signaled to Hezbollah that enough was enough.

At least for now.

This is the real dilemma facing the residents of Israel’s northern border. They realize that whatever political negotiations with Syria take place, their peace and quiet is far from guaranteed.

“Residents of the north have become hostages in the hands of Hezbollah,” said Jackie Sabbag, the mayor of the summer resort town of Nahariya, after residents there — as elsewhere in the north — were ordered last week to go to bomb shelters.

This sense of helplessness has generated considerable anger.

“If there is no peace and quiet to allow children of the northern communities to go to summer camps, the IDF should act so that the children of Beirut will not go to summer camps either,” said Shlomo Bouhbout, mayor of the northern town of Ma’alot.

When President Ezer Weizman visited the family of one of the Katyusha victims, the relatives of the deceased could not hold back their anger.

“I have lived in Kiryat Shmona since 1950, and I will not leave the town,” said Tikva, Elimelech’s sister. “But I am asking for only one thing: security.”

The frustration of the northern front residents is compounded by their belief that no one in Jerusalem really cares about their economic losses.

On Sunday, Kiryat Shmona and the other northern communities blocked roads and called a strike to protest what they view as government neglect.

Area leaders also met that day with outgoing Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that promised aid would be forthcoming.

But such promises did not hold much weight with some northern residents, many of whom feel alienated from their government.

“Don’t believe any politician,” Charlie Peretz, a veteran Kiryat Shmona resident, said this week. “We have suffered for 30 years, received promises from politicians, but those promises have no substance.”

It was ironic that they vented their frustrations at Netanyahu, who drew the lion’s share of northern support in last month’s election for prime minister.

In Kiryat Shmona, for example, some 62 percent of the electorate voted for Netanyahu over Barak.

Eager to make their needs known to Israel’s incoming premier, the community leaders also met with Barak, who promised to make the economic needs of the northern communities a top priority in his new government.

This promise, which will in the short run be measured in terms of shekels, has long-term strategic implications.

Both before and after the election campaign, Barak has committed himself to pull the Israeli forces out of Lebanon within a year.

If negotiations with the Syrians resume, Barak’s first priority will be to convince the Syrians to restrain Hezbollah while the negotiations go on.

Assad may agree, but then he may not.

In the meantime, life in northern Israel returned to normal after the thousands who had fled the region last week returned home this week.

But “normal” includes a great deal of uncertainty.

And for many of the residents there, they question how much longer they can live with that uncertainty.

How, they ask, can parents send their children to school knowing that a Katyusha rocket may fall on the school without any prior warning?

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