Sami Raz has a metal pellet in his heart. The doctors won’t remove it, for fear of damaging his heart in the process. The foreign object will lodge there for the rest of his life.
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I saw hundreds of those fiendish pellets scattered on the oil- and blood-stained floor of this train shed, shortly after a Katyusha rocket smashed through the roof, sowing a swath of death and destruction. This week we returned here, to the Israel Railways site in Haifa. Ten years have passed, 10 years in which Raz, now 48, has been living with that pellet in his heart. He still works in the locomotive garage, but he must not exert himself. He’s lost none of his vigor, but sometimes suffers from pain. If there are scars left from that war, here is one of them, a walking scar, in the Haifa train yard.
It was a terribly awe-inspiring location for a killing field. When we got there, pieces of human flesh were still floating in rivulets of motor oil. Railway car No. 7017, parked on Track No. 2, had been ripped apart. A blood-drenched newspaper lying on the floor declared: “We won’t let Hezbollah near the northern border.”
Eight workers were killed and are now memorialized in a monument, made of parts of Katyusha rockets and train cars, and festooned with verses from Psalms and Israeli flags, at the entrance to the depot. Employees of a French firm are now working on the premises, but are not allowed to mix with the local personnel. A huge wall, which cost half a million shekels (about $125,000), separates the two wings, the French and the Israeli, at the demand of the Israel Railways workers’ union.
The Katyusha landed next to the second jack, we are told by Doron Lahav, the head of the maintenance unit, who wasn’t working here ten years ago. Today’s assignments are listed on the blackboard: replacement of air pipe and replacement of coupler valve. Team Shlomi includes Bahajat Saad and Yevgeny Mikhlof. Other than the outsourcing, nothing seems to have changed here.
In the summer of 2006, photographer Miki Kratsman and I roamed communities in Israel’s north, in the wake of the Katyushas. This week I returned to the same places, on the 10th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War.
At 14 Balfour Street in Nahariya, a high-rise with a two-story penthouse now stands on the site of the house that was hit. Ten years ago, two Arab guards from Acre, working for the Mishmeret security company, were sitting in front of the house to deter looters, minimum-wage Starsky and Hutch. Now it’s a luxury residence with an intercom.
The pit created by a rocket on Palmach Street in Safed has long since been filled in. On Aliyah Bet Street, where another rocket landed, there is now a branch of the Coffix cut-rate cafe chain, which didn’t exist in 2006. The schnitzel joint is still here. The city’s racist chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliahu, is also still in office. We met him then, at the site of a rocket hit. “If there’s a locality from which they’re firing at us – it should be wiped off the face of the earth,” the rabbi intoned most morally, outside the empty Tzlil Mall. In the interim, his city has become even more ultra-Orthodox; it’s rare now to see secular people in the street.
The house at 7 Shvil Iyar Street in Carmiel, which took a direct hit, has also been renovated; no trace of the damage remains. There’s no one home. The laundry is hanging in the backyard, where toys of children who weren’t yet born in the summer of 2006 are scattered. Sophie Beigeltrot was living in the house next door when the rocket struck. She told us then that she was certain she had become a widow, because her husband, Mikhail, was on the first floor when the missile slammed into the house of the neighbors, Leonid and Larissa, whose last name she didn’t know then. Like most of the street’s residents, they weren’t home. “We were lucky,” Sophie told us back then.
It was a ghost street back then; most local residents had fled south, as they did across Galilee. This week the street was deserted again: Everyone was at work.
Fate was crueler to the Itzkovich family in Moshav Meron.
“There are images that are frozen for all eternity,” I wrote in this column on July 21, 2006. “Like the image of the Shabbat table at the home of the Itzkovich family in Moshav Meron, with the challah on the table and the wine glasses shattered on the floor, a ‘Shabbat Shalom’ drawing in a childish hand lying among the rubble, the smashed remote-control of the TV, and the two dust-covered weekend newspapers with their blaring headlines lying on the coffee table in the wrecked living room.”
The grandmother, Yehudit Itzkovich, and her grandson, Omer Pesachov – whose parents had sent him to the moshav from Nahariya, which was under rocket fire, to spend a peaceful Shabbat with his grandparents – were killed in that devastated house. The boy was 7 years old.
A Land Cruiser parked next to the house has a half-torn sticker on it: “We miss you and love you, Omer.” A sticker on another car on the street reads: “The lives of our soldiers take precedence over the lives of the enemy’s civilians.” A reminder of the new Israeli doctrine since that war.
The house has been renovated, the palm tree still stands out front and there’s a drooping Israeli flag in the window. There are B&Bs here now, as there were then and as there are at almost every home in Meron.
Naftali Itzkovich, who was widowed and lost his grandson in 2006, has since put his life back together, but this week he didn’t want to talk about it. A frightening silence shrouded the house then, punctuated occasionally by equally frightening booms. The guard who was watching over the gaping house hoped that we were insurance assessors or from the Defense Ministry, at least. This week, as we evoked memories next to the Itzkovich home, the owner was far away, in Rehovot. “I’ve been through a lot since then,” Itzkovich told me on the phone. “There is the present and there is the past, and let’s leave it like that.” He had no more to say.
Moshav Meron, too, has become more ultra-Orthodox since then, judging by the panoply of colorful placards and equally colorful characters who walked its paths this week on the way to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. “The building that will bring redemption is being erected here,” one huge poster promises. “A kitchen for showing hospitality to guests will be here, and the temple of the kabbalists’ yeshivas, the temple of King David’s Psalms and a mikveh [ritual bath].”
The so-called “national organization for family purity” – as the Jewish laws governing sexual relations between married couples are called in Hebrew – has also plastered the entrance to the village with large posters: “I too observe family purity.” Everything here is biblical, even the mobile-home rental business, which is called “And they journeyed and encamped.” The rail line to Carmiel is being built, and neighboring Syria is being destroyed.
The Einat restaurant in Ma’alot, which was also hit a decade ago, has been supplanted by Lola – Israeli Bar, with a slew of peculiar jokes posted on its fence.
The man who was prime minister in 2006, Ehud Olmert, is now in jail. The defense minister, Amir Peretz, is starting over. Yossi Sarid – whom we met in Moshav Margaliyot, to which he returned during the war in a show of solidarity with the few people who were still there – was no longer waiting for us on the road, next to his temporary home, as he was then, with artillery thundering in the background and fires raging all around. Sarid is no longer here. He is no longer with us at all, and the heart is very saddened by that thought, as we leave the drowsy village in the midday heat.
“Miracle in the town,” I wrote in the summer of 2006. “In the afternoon a rocket struck Hageulah Street corner of Hadas Street in Acre’s Chelouche neighborhood, seriously wounding an elderly man, destroying half a house and hurling a car into a fence, causing it to burst into flames. Only the bookshelf holding the sacred texts remained intact.” Acre’s chief rabbi, Yosef Yashar, said it was “a house of holiness.”
Holiness or not, the destruction was extensive. The residents milled around behind the barricade tape put up by the police, next to the playground opposite the wrecked house and the burning car, their faces etched with fear. The elderly man who was wounded and whose home was hit has since died. Other children now cavort in the playground, which has been refurbished – they too were not yet born in that war.
Arbel, too, wasn’t yet born at that time. Now her grandmother, Clara Cohen, is pushing her stroller on the way home from the swings. Cohen has lived here for years. When a rocket landed next to her house, she was on a tour in America. Her children lied to her and told her everything was fine. “We were in la-la land,” she said this week, outside her house. Nor did the children tell her that her youngest son, who was then 18, had remained at home alone, in Acre. When the parents took off for the United States they heard about the kidnapping of the two soldiers by Hezbollah, and by the time they landed the war had already begun.
Cohen has worked for Bank Hapoalim for many years. She says she was always a Likud supporter, like her husband, but in the last two elections she voted for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. She believes in him and will vote for him next time, too. Her husband, though, has remained a Likudnik. One of her sons is “extreme left,” she says; he votes Meretz. Life is good. There are more tax benefits in Acre than there were 10 years ago. She isn’t bothered by the fact that Arabs live in the city. They live peacefully together.
Not much has changed since then, Cohen says. In Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 she had two sons serving in Gaza. It gave her a “heart attack,” she says. She hopes the hostilities won’t return, even though there have recently been “whisperings” about another war in the north. Nasrallah likes wars, she says, referring to Hezbollah’s leader, but he’s busy now in Syria. If only that will keep going on. Still, Clara Cohen from Acre wants change, so she votes Yesh Atid, which means “we have a future.”