Latter-day Wandering Jews

"I remember Beit Haarava," carols the hugely popular singer Arik Einstein, referring to a tiny settlement by the Dead Sea. Back in the War of Independence, in 1948, its residents were ordered to abandon Beit Haarava, against their will. For years the argument raged over whether the Hagana Command's order had been legitimate, and whether the retreat had been a betrayal of Zionism.

Nearly sixty years later, the Beit Haarava myth has new proportions. Dozens of towns by the northern border have been abandoned by their residents, but it was at their own will, and nobody ordered them to leave. They retreated from their homes, if you will; one could say they have become de facto refugees in their own country.

About half a million Israelis are believed to be wandering the land for a month, with no official recognition of their status. They fled homes in a region being attacked by more than 100 missiles a day. Each found a temporary solution: one is holed up with cousins, another with friends, another in a hotel or some other transient housing solution. Some are being helped by the generous: Gaidamak, Tshuva, sometimes the state itself.

These northerners are prevented, or feel prevented, from going home because they are afraid of being hit by missiles, and in a few cases, because their homes were destroyed by missiles. The ones whose homes were hit are being housed by the state, but that's it: the others receive no official aid at all.

The state is not calling them by name: war refugees. Lebanon is full of refugees that fled the south under the Israel Air Force bombardment, and the southern two-thirds of Israel are full of refugees too. Both sets of refugees have nothing.

It is  no coincidence that Israel hasn't acknowledged their status. In Israel, in thrall as it is to the Beit Haarava story, one Does. Not. Retreat. From. Towns.  At least, one does not declare a policy of abandoning towns. The perception is that Hizbullah would view that as a moral victory, and that's probably true. Therefore, no declaration, and no contingency plan to say rent 25,000 hotel rooms to shelter the thousands and thousands of wandering northerners.

To some degree, the state is helping the ungrateful northerners: it is helping to pay their wages even though they aren't at work. But it is not financing their roaming, nor will it, even though some are paying thousands of shekels for accommodation.

There is a precedent: during the first Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of people abandoned central Tel Aviv during the night for fear of the Iraqi Scud missiles. Nobody defined them as refugees, or considered compensating them. Nor has there been any thought of compensating any other Israelis inconvenienced by any of the many wars, or of calling them refugees.

The refusal to recognize them as refugees is based of financial logic, but mainly, on national pride. But that pride is now being tested.

Israel has never been in a situation where hundreds of thousands of its people are homeless for more than a month. It cannot continue to ignore their plight if the war continues, especially if it eats into the start of the new school year.

Solutions will have to be found, organized ones, for the children who have to temporarily attend at "foreign" schools and kindergartens. The government will have to find that missing contingency plan to hire 25,000 hotel rooms, too.

The government could always, in the spirit of  Beit Haarava, decide that there are no refugees, that the northerners must go home and the schools there will open, whether or not the war goes on. Maybe it will simply delay starting the school year up north.

"You cannot, practically speaking, declare hundreds of thousands of northern residents to be refugees," explained a top official yesterday. "Israel must not do it, either. We have to continue supporting the ones who chose to stay there, and it's still a major part of the population in the north, and to all do our part to help the ones in the rest of the country." There is no other solution, said the official: but for the first time in Israeli history since Beit Haarava, that opinion is being tested.