Never Mind the Peace: Missing the Missiles in Northern Israel

The calm is shattered by the realization that the north's biggest problem was not Katyushas.

It's 9 PM at HaArazim, a restaurant in Jish, an Israeli Arab town near the Lebanese border. Hadad Wiam's workday isn't even near being done.

Wiam is the owner of the rural Eastern restaurant - its specialty: Lebanese cuisine. He's also the chef. Everything on the menu, he proudly proclaims, is cooked by him: his workday will only end at 2 AM. Within five hours, by 7 AM, he'll be back on the job. That's okay. Wiam dislikes holidays and works throughout the year.

Wiam studied accounting, but his dream was always to cook. Now that he's living it, he sees no cause to complain. But surveying his eatery on a slow Sunday evening, he concedes that the place had seen better days.

"Luckily, people make an effort to come here but business is slower than it was before the Second Lebanon War," he says.

Out of the windows, surrounded by darkness, are the green slopes of Mount Meron. It's all very quaint and very, very quiet.

Too quiet, perhaps.

"Make peace, or war, anything in the middle isn't good for us," says Wiam, speaking of the rumbling rumors – since debunked – that the Americans were about to attack Syria.

Wiam is 35 and was born nearby. He's lived through good times and bad, and seven years of calm on the northern front don't necessarily count as "good."

"In a way, peace here is a little less good than war, because at least in war the government funnels money here. Some people miss the rockets a little bit ," he says bluntly.

Northern Israel who?

"Missing" the Katyushas. Didn't expect that, did you. But it's a sentiment you hear quite a lot in the picturesque-but-secluded far north of Israel.

No one, of course, actually misses rockets flying above their heads or landing in the yard. But there's definitely nostalgia of some sort, a bitter sort, to the days when the government and the rest of Israel actually paid attention to the northern border towns.

These were supposed to be the Galilee's good seven years, but if the last seven years proved anything, it's that the North's problem was never the Katyushas, but neglect.

The data is conclusive: the north is not seen as an integral part of Israel. Life expectancy is lower by almost two years, the average wage is much lower, unemployment is higher (yet only 10% of jobseekers are college-educated).

The region has a negative migration rate of 4.5%, which means more people are moving out than are moving in. Some 10,000 residents left between 2007-2011. Many, if not most, were young people unable to find work in the region. What work there is, is blue-collar factory jobs.

There's no movie theater anywhere in the north of Israel (the nearest is in the Krayot, which is near Haifa). There hasn't been one for more than ten years. Luckily the local tourism industry is thriving, but that's not enough.

"Welcome to the true periphery of Israel," says Aharon Valency, until recently the head of the region's local council, a role he has fulfilled for 21 years. "Politically, this region is not attractive enough, so we're behind on basically every factor: education, health, employment. I have five children and all of them left, and not because they don't love the Galilee. They'd come back tomorrow if they say any possibility of making something of themselves here."

No rockets, no donations

"You hear it sometimes, people feeling nostalgic about the rockets," says prof. Yona Chen, president of Tel Hai Academic College. "We too had problems. Donations cooled off. Nowadays we are fighting to preserve scholarships. Sometimes we joke that I should launch some rockets towards an empty field near Kiryat Shemona, because no one will die and we'll get donations. I can't blame the donors for acting emotionally, but the government is not supposed to act emotionally, especially not when it comes to a region so strategically important."

Aharon Valency doesn't miss the Katyushas, but concedes that yes, the attacks meant bigger government investments. "Obviously, when there were rockets the government funneled millions to keep us calm. But that's not what leads to development. Fact: we had countless Katyushas thrown our way and we still haven't developed." In Valency's and Chen's view, the best way to develop the north is to turn it into an academic research hub, a northern Silicon Wadi.

It's an ambitious goal, held back – both agree – by the fact that the region, weakened by defeatism and infighting, has never had unified leadership.

"You think the government cares if I cry to the newspapers? They don't," says Valency. "The only way is to build a strong political lobby. But that's easier said than done."

All this said, there are some small, stuttering signs that the north is changing. Slowly but surely, some young people are moving there, notably students for the rapidly-growing Tel Hai College. Many stay, replacing some of those who leave.

Some of them because they see the north for what it is: virgin soil, a place cheap and remote enough for them to create something of their own.

That's what Stephanie Sharvit (30) and Yuval Matalon (28), newlywed chefs, had in mind when they opened a gourmet patisserie in Kefar Giladi, a small kibbutz in Upper Galilee, in July. They studied in Le Cordon Bleu, interned in upscale restaurants in France and worked in two of the most esteemed restaurants in Tel Aviv. Then Matalon went to study food sciences in Tel Hai, and they moved up north.

There, they found an opportunity to do something they couldn't even conceive of in top-dollar, cutthroat Tel Aviv: start their own business.

"This couldn't have happened in Tel Aviv," says Matalon. "There you need investors, and they hold you to strict conditions. We didn't want someone to say 'Here's money, now live my dream'. We wanted our dream to be our own."

Yaron Kaminsky