Rockets on the Galilee

by Oakland Ross

Tiberias, Israel -- If you can't make money, then you might as well go for a swim in the Sea of Galilee.
That was what Michel Malul elected to do yesterday - a decision he won't soon forget.
Normally, the middle-aged Israeli entrepreneur operates a speed boat that he hires out to the national and foreign tourists who should now be thronging the streets and promenades of this sun-baked town perched upon the shores of the very sea where it's said Jesus once walked on water.
But there's a war on now, the tourists have gone, and all the hotels here have been forced to shut down.
Time, then, for an afternoon dip.
Malul had not been in the blue-green waters of the Galilee for very long before he heard the now familiar howl of the local air-raid sirens, warning of another salvo of deadly rockets streaking down from the Lebanese border, just 40 kilometres away.
"I am swimming," Malul said just minutes later, speaking in his imperfect but energetic English. "I hear the siren. I wait one minute. Then boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!"
One after another, as many as eight Katyusha rockets - all launched by Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon - plummeted into the water around him, sending plumes of spray shooting skyward, while the basso-profundo thud of their impact reverberated through the mostly deserted streets of Tiberias and beyond.
Immediately, Malul swam for shore.
Minutes later, he was back on dry land, dripping wet and trembling with excitement, relief, or fear - or maybe all of them together.
Wearing just a gold necklace, a waterproof wristwatch, and a pair of navy-blue swimming trunks, he danced about, slapped his face, waved his arms, and muttered to himself in amazement about his narrow deliverance from a watery grave.
"This was something special today," he exulted.
Maybe so - and no one would begrudge Malul his euphoria at still being alive after yesterday's water-bound salvo - but the crashing reports of lethal missiles have lately become all too familiar here, just as they have all across the northern region of Israel.
By late yesterday, according to official Israeli figures, a total of 1,453 Hezbollah rockets had hit the country in a little more than two weeks, injuring 1,270 people and killing 19.
About 100 of those projectiles have smashed into Tiberias, causing no deaths but wounding 162 people and flattening a once vibrant tourist-based economy during what ought to be the busiest time of the year.
The economic carnage wrought by the war has been disastrous across the north of Israel, where tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, thousands of businesses have closed, and services have been reduced to a bare minimum.
But nowhere has the financial effect been more severe than here in Tiberias, an ancient town that dates from Biblical times and that nowadays depends on tourists for its survival - but all the tourists have gone.
"They just stopped coming," said Itamar Benzeer, a Tiberias lawyer. "Now people can't work."
It was on July 15 that the first volley of rockets hit Tiberias, a town famous for its beaches, its antique tombs, its 12th-century Crusader castle, and its modern-day discotheques.
By July 16, the hotels were empty, and now they are shut tight - the Golden Tulip, the Sheraton, the Holiday Inn, and all the rest.
"Tiberias is a tourist city," Mayor Zohar Oved said in an interview yesterday. "We have thousands of small businesses. The basis of their existence is tourism."
He figures that the town, whose permanent population is about 45,000 - though currently a good deal lower - is losing several million dollars U.S. in foregone revenue per day.
Speaking in a fortified bunker called the War Office, located in the basement of the Tiberias city hall, Oved might have been expected to seem somewhat downcast at the collapsing fortunes of his town, but in fact he was jubilant.
He had just received some very encouraging news.
Israeli Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson was appearing live on television that very moment to announce that the national government had finally agreed to underwrite a financial compensation package for the north, something it resisted doing since the war began earlier this month.
The decision means that all Israeli towns in the north of the country, from Tiberias and Haifa to the border with Lebanon, will receive compensation for their financial losses directly or indirectly attributable to the war.
"It's billions of dollars," said Oved, referring to the economic damage so far suffered in the entire northern region, although a government statement put the estimated cost of the package much lower - at around $200 million (U.S.).
Still, it's reassuring news for everyone who dwells in this part of the country, even though it won't do much to reduce the toll in psychological stress or physical pain exacted by the eerie wail of air-raid warnings or the ensuing volleys of rockets that now haunt the north daily.
"It is a state of war," said Benzeer, the Tiberias lawyer, who spoke with a reporter while both huddled in the entrance to an underground parking garage during the second of three air-raid scares here yesterday. "It is a disaster."
So it is, and for Tiberias the disaster won't be ending any time soon, because tourism, especially international tourism, is a notoriously skittish beast.
Even when the current war in the Middle East ends, it is unlikely that foreigner travellers will soon come flocking back to the shores of the Galilee, where they normally represent about half of this town's tourist traffic.
Oved estimates that it could take as long as a year to coax the foreign trade back, but Benzeer believes the wait could last considerably longer, perhaps four years or even more.
That is how long it has taken in the past, he said, to regain the confidence of foreign travellers following major outbreaks of violence in the Middle East.
In the meantime, Tiberias will have to console itself with the financial rescue program announced in Jerusalem yesterday - that and the uncustomary emptiness of its beaches.
Yesterday, a half-dozen local windsurfers had the Tiberias shoreline and the Sea of Galilee all to themselves - or they did until that terrifying volley of Katyushas hit the drink.
"I saw the splashes," said a young windsurfing enthusiast who would give only his first name, Shahar. "I heard the boom." He shook his head with its longish blond mane. "That's not nice."

The Toronto Star, 28 July, 2006