Alon Elgrably looks at the devastated building across from his Haifa café. A Hizbullah rocket fired from Lebanon punched a hole in its roof while shrapnel from the blast shattered windows in offices and flats on the other side of Shabtai Levi Street.
“Everybody says they are not going to get hit, but then the rockets just get closer and closer,” he said.
Since Israel began its attacks into southern Lebanon on 12 July, Hizbullah has subjected northern Israel to a barrage of rockets. According to Israeli’s Foreign Ministry, 17 civilian Israelis have been killed. Israel’s Defence Forces say 101 rockets hit Haifa between 12 and 25 July, killing ten people.
Haifa usually has a population of about 270,000 inhabitants, but the bombardment has prompted swathes of residents to flee south, with some estimates claiming more than half the population has left, although Haifa Municipality disputes this.
“We don’t have exact figures but it’s not too many,” says Roni Grossman, a spokesman for the municipality. “Overall, more of the religious Jewish people in the city have left than secular Jews, because the religious ones tend to have more children and they have to take that into consideration.”
What is certain is that Haifa is now a ghost town. Its downtown area, normally thronging with crowds on a weekday, is deserted. Shops and businesses are closed.
Alon’s Café Nitza might have escaped the devastation by a whisker, but the emptiness means his livelihood is hanging in the balance. “My takings are down 70 percent from usual. I have to pay rent and taxes…another month like this and it could be the end.”
As air raid sirens sound across Haifa, drivers have about half a minute to get out of their cars and stand by the nearest wall for protection in case a rocket lands nearby.
Those in buildings move to a designated safe area, and those in apartments to public bomb shelters or “safe rooms” built into all new apartments after the first Gulf War in 1991, when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein aimed Scud missiles at Israel. They wait for two minutes after the siren finish before emerging.
“It’s such a feeling of uncertainty knowing you could get hit any minute,” says David Moshenberg, a 28 year-old security guard. Moshenberg’s family has fled to Jerusalem, leaving him the sole family member earning a wage. “My money is supporting them, that’s why I’m still here.”
David Seletzky, a carpenter and father of two, says he phones home from his shop every time the sirens are set-off. “We decided to stay in the end because Haifa is our home,” he said. “We have been invited to stay with friends and relatives in Ashkelon, but we can’t burden them with the expense.”
“The business is very bad, no one is coming to see me and I don’t want to travel to clients because it’s dangerous to be on the roads.”
However, tourist office employee Natalya Kirichenko is working harder than ever before. “I’m doing ten urgent Russian visa requests a day. Normally I only do two a month.” More than 66,000 of Haifa’s residents immigrated to Israel relatively recently. Many are of Russian origin and want to leave for Russia temporarily.
Further up the steep slope between the port and the top of the cliff, the winding souks of Wadi Nisnas are home to a sizable chunk of Haifa’s Arab population, a mixture of Christians and Muslims making up about 10 percent of the city’s residents. There, some of Haifa’s 27,000 Israeli Arabs find themselves in Hizbullah’s firing line.
Mike, a 19 year-old Christian Arab, narrowly escaped with his life when a rocket exploded on the beach when he was swimming. “Hizbullah started this,” says Mike. “We want peace but Hizbullah doesn’t want peace. So we support Israel.”
Other Israeli Arabs sympathise with Lebanon though, and many, like their Jewish neighbours, are worried about making ends meet. “I am scared and no one comes here to eat,” says Aboudeh, a Muslim café owner. “In the last 12 days, I haven’t given one shekel to my family.”
David Ratner, a hospital spokesman, says where as Tel Aviv is a party town and Jerusalem is religious, Haifa is relaxed and laid-back. "Everyone gets along well here – Jews, Christians and Muslims. No-one was prepared for this kind of an attack.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions