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Pinning hope on economic security

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ZARIT, Israel, May 30 (JTA) — Rafi Cohen did what many young Israelis from the northern hinterlands have done after high school: He served in the army, then explored a bit of the world.

However, unlike most of his peers — who headed for the better school, work and nightlife opportunities in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem — Cohen actually returned home.

At 26, he is taking over the family cow and chicken farm from his ailing father, Yossi.

While the farm offers Cohen a spectacular panorama of the Hula Valley and its apple orchards, it also promises him a life of economic hardship and grueling labor, the sort that has afflicted Yossi with chronic back pain.

Add to this the fact that this tiny moshav, Zarit, lies smack on the dreaded line of potential confrontation with Lebanon.

Now, thanks to Israel’s rapid withdrawal from southern Lebanon on May 24, says Cohen, Hezbollah fighters are camped out just over the ridge from his 50-family moshav.

Which makes everyone around here nervous.

They recall that 27 years ago, someone infiltrated the border and murdered a Zarit couple coming home from a wedding. It was one of many terrorist atrocities committed in the early 1970s, and ultimately led to Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon.

Cohen now packs a pistol when he escorts his cows for a graze in nearby pastures.

“You know what it means — hope?” asks Cohen, a handsome Moroccan Jew who wears a bushy beard and oversized white knit yarmulke.

“I have hope for myself. I want to live a normal life, like you. I can live with a little and not complain. But I don’t want to live in fear.”

Indeed, in Kiryat Shmona, the largest town in northern Israel and a frequent target of Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rockets, three out of every four children suffer some sort of anxiety.

And as Israel pulled out from Lebanon, the mere presence of the Muslim fighters just beyond their front doors spurred three-quarters of Kiryat Shmona’s 35,000 residents to temporarily flee southward.

So if Hezbollah, supported and financed by Syria and Iran, were to launch a fresh offensive against Israel, all bets may be off for Cohen and others living “on the fence.”

According to a poll published here Tuesday, despite strong Zionist ideals that attracted many to the Israeli frontier and will keep most rooted, 28 percent of Kiryat Shmona residents were seriously considering moving southward.

The consequences of such an exodus would be enormous.

With the withdrawal from Lebanon, the military presence in northern Israel is already beefed up. If the population were to dwindle dramatically because of fear and a low quality of life, it might create a new buffer zone — this time in Israel itself, said Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“Then where does it stop?” Meridor told JTA said in an interview Tuesday. “We can only draw the line if the population in the North is strong.”

With this in mind, Israel is searching for ways to keep the northerners where they are.

After years of talk and pushing the issue on to the back burner, the Israeli government has unveiled a plan to invest in the socio-economic life of the 170,000 Israelis who inhabit the 70 communities in the northern border region.

The wide-ranging $381 million program would expand the infrastructure — focusing on roads, water and sewage — build schools, boost tourism and provide assistance to the neediest residents.

“They have sacrificed a lot, they have suffered a lot. We owe them a lot,” said Yossi Kuchik, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“It’s tough to look into their eyes,” he said. “I feel personally obliged to show them we mean business. It is important for them to see that they are not alone, suffering, while others in Tel Aviv are going out to restaurants and shows.”

For its part, JAFI followed up by announcing Monday that it will erase $38 million worth of debts that had financed housing and basic infrastructure in 40 or so rural communities in the region.

Global Jewry is also being called upon to focus on the needs of northern Israel.

It swung into action this week when Meridor led a blue-ribbon task force, including Jewish leaders from the United States, Canada, Italy, Mexico and Australia, on a tour of the north.

About half the 30-member delegation was North American, including Charles Bronfman, chairman of the board of United Jewish Communities, the federation system’s umbrella fund-raising and social service agency.

The purpose, said participants, was primarily to express solidarity and assess the region’s long-term needs.

Various mayors and residents were reassuring in the commitment to remain in the region. But they said that to keep the younger generation, the North needs top-notch teachers and schools, small-business loans and high-tech jobs, and all sorts of culture and entertainment.

“This is no light bulb going off for me,” said Eve Bernstein, incoming chairwoman of the Israel and Overseas Committee of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

The federation has had a 20-year relationship with Kiryat Shmona, including support for a local college, and last year sponsored a summer camp for kids.

“We’ve known about the North’s problems and economic crisis. But now others realize that only with the North being safe and strong can the rest of the country be protected from its enemies.”

The UJC, a major funder of JAFI, will convene a special meeting in June to discuss the findings and recommendations of the mission, according to UJC officials.

UJC officials said there would not be any special campaign for these needs, but that they would likely recommend targeting some of the overseas allocations to the northern Galilee region.

Participants came away inspired by their two-day visit with the northern settlers.

“Their strength, resolve and determination, by extension, strengthens us anywhere Jews are in the world,” said Carole Solomon, chairwoman of the campaign/financial resource development pillar of the UJC.

The settlers “need to know that,” she added. “But it’s also a two-way street. American Jewry needs to appreciate their commitment, and support them not just with promises, but with the action.”

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