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A day after the old Al-Ittihad newspaper building in Haifa was struck by a Hezbollah rocket, veteran journalist Anton Shalhat is finding it hard to recover.

"It is absurd that an Arab rocket hit a newspaper that serves as a symbol for the city as well as for the Palestinian minority in Israel," says Shalhat, the paper's former deputy editor. "It only goes to show how absurd this war is. All through the years, the paper always took the anti-war stance. It is very sad what happened, very frustrating."

Al-Ittihad was founded in 1944 as the journal of the Arab faction of the Israeli Communist Party. The founders were writer Emil Habibi, who served as the newspaper's chief editor until 1989, and party activists Emil Touma and Fuad Nasser. After the State of Israel was established, the paper became the official voice of the party. At first it was a weekly, then it became a bi-weekly, and since 1983 it has been a daily paper. In 1948 the paper moved into the building on Haifa's Al-Hariri Road, which was struck two days ago.

Due to financial problems in recent years, the paper moved first to Beit Hayedidut in Nazareth - the headquarters of the Hadash party - and later to a building on Haifa's Hamaronitim Road, but the editorial staff and reporters were planning to return to Al-Hariri road in a few months, following the building's renovation. Their homecoming has now been postponed by the rocket strike.

Distinguished history

For many years Al-Ittihad was considered the most important media outlet of the Arab population in Israel. Twice the paper was shut down by court orders. In 1952 it was closed for a month after criticizing the government's position on the Korea war, and in 1988 it was closed again because of articles it published. Throughout the years all the prominent politicians, writers, poets and journalists of the Arab sector have been published in the paper. Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Ziad, Tawfik Toubi, Taha Mohammad Ali, Salim Jubran, Samih al-Kassem and Salman Natur are only some of the people who passed through the building's doors on Al-Hariri Road.

"It was a pleasure walking into the building and hearing the voices of Habibi, Touma and Jubran standing and arguing on the correct spelling of a word," recalls Ahmad Saad, the paper's current editor. "As a young reporter, Al-Ittihad was the best journalism school I could have attended."

Salman Natur, who edited the culture section for many years, also has fond memories of the paper's atmosphere.

"In the 1980s, it was a very effervescent place," he recounts. "The paper was frequented by intellectuals from Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Israel and abroad. If an Arab intellectual came to the north, Al-Ittihad would have been a sure stop en route. I remember we set up the cafeteria on the first floor for them.

"The attack on Al-Ittihad is no worse than any other fatal attack, and to our regret it happens every day both here, in Lebanon and in the occupied territories. Everyone who ever worked at the paper knew the woman who lived next to the building and who was killed by the rocket. The strike on the building perhaps carries something symbolic, something that transfers death from people to dreams and ideas. The rocket hit the spirit, the history, the struggle for peace and against the war."

The editors' primary concern after the strike was that the archives there might have been burnt. "Since the newspaper is so old," says Saad, "it holds the most extensive archive in the country on the history of the Arab population in all fields - political, social and cultural. But fortunately the archive was not harmed, and [Haifa] Mayor Yona Yahav promised me no work would be done on the building until we remove all the documents."

Partisan paper

True to its duty as an Arab partisan paper, Al-Attihad is completely against the war in the north. The main headline in Sunday's paper told of an "Arab-Jewish joint demonstration for peace and against the war," and the editorial yesterday dismissed the American-French cease-fire proposal, claiming it would not be able to silence the cannons.

As would be expected, the strike on the building did not cause the chief editor and the paper's veterans to have a change of heart.

"I blame only the Israeli government," says Saad, "we are all, Jews and Arabs alike, victims of a criminal American-Israeli war that does nothing to serve the interest of the Israeli people."

Do you wholly exonerate Hezbollah from responsibility for the situation?

"I am a communist, not a fundamentalist, and certainly not a supporter of Hassan Nasrallah's organization. But I am a citizen of the State of Israel, and my struggle is here."

Anton Shalhat is also sure Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not leave Nasrallah with many options: "You're steering me into issues I don't even want to get into. In a war rockets are fired, and people could get hurt at any given moment. As an Acre resident I myself am at risk. But in my personal opinion, Israel took a gamble, and the rockets are being fired only in response to the Israel Defense Forces activity across the border."

Apart for the anti-war tone, people like Shalhat and Natur stopped liking what they read in Al-Ittihad long ago. In recent years the paper went through a difficult financial crisis, and most of the senior reporters left. Most of the deserters said the paper had abandoned its pluralistic guideline, which had been its trademark throughout the years despite the connection with Hadash, and became a dull partisan journal. Saad says most of the paper's articles are not written by party members, but Natur and Shalhat are not much impressed by this.

"Al-Ittihad used to be an avant garde paper that expressed anti-occupation views and gathered cultural stories from Israel and the world," says Natur. "Today it is a content-poor partisan journal. I still have a subscription, but to my regret it is a pitiful paper you can read in several minutes and then put down."

Shalhat, who quit the paper because of partisan disagreements, also continues to read it, mainly for sentimental reasons.

"All through the years we argued whether Al-Ittihad should be a partisan journal or a paper that reflects the whole of the Arab population," he says, "but despite the fact that the partisan approach is winning today, I hope the paper will survive in the long term. Al-Ittihad is a memorial to the Arab culture and media that existed here before 1948, and to this day it is still a hallmark of this history."