Living under fire

Shaul Camisa. (Photo: Bethsabée Süssmann)
By Roland S. Süssmann
The region is magnificent, even pastoral. Usually tourists flood in on excursions to the northern Galilee, the Golan, the banks of the Jordan and the River Hazbani, to visit the tombs of ancient rabbis, some of whom were masters of the Talmud, or simply to escape the stress and pollution of the big cities. Hatzor Haglilit, a small town of ten thousand inhabitants, is the name of this magical spot.
However, at the end of July 2006 there are no tourists, no one making outings, no pilgrims and no inhabitants in the desperately empty streets. The Second Lebanon war is raging, and as everywhere else in northern Israel, the Katyushas of the Arab terrorist organization Hizbullah are raining down on the town. Nevertheless, it has not become a ghost town. Hunkered down in their shelters, most of the inhabitants of this charming place have not left. Under the prudent direction of its mayor, Shaul Camisa, life has been reorganized. But before asking Mr. Camisa to talk to us about how they got through the war in Hatzor Haglilit, let’s make the introductions. Shaul Camisa was born in this village of which has been mayor for two and a half years. Previously he had a 30-year career in the army, from which he retired with the rank of colonel. He was in southern Lebanon for 20 years as Head of the Civil Administration and deputy commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon. Because of his experience, Shaul Camisa knows the population of southern Lebanon very well and the way in which Hizbullah operates. After he left the army, he held for two years the post of military attaché at the Israel embassy in Bucharest.

How did Hatzor Haglilit get into the war?

Since we are located just 22 km from the Lebanese border our town is a prime target. To our east is the small airport of Mahanayim, which serves Galilee tourism, with flying time from Tel-Aviv just 23 minutes. However, since our departure from Lebanon in 2000, this airport has also served as an Apache helicopter base. Our town is surrounded by very important strategic points, military bases, antennas, every type of bunker, as well as the Northern Command. Since Katyushas are not an accurate weapon but work on statistics, about 30% of the launches at military targets fell on Hatzor Haglilit. You should be aware that since the end of the Six Days War, which put an end to Syrian rocket fire from the Golan and the border 5.5 km away, we have not experienced any violence. We were never attacked, not by terrorists or by Katyushas.
But before answering your question in detail, I want to explain why we were ready for this war. When I took over my job, I realized that the individual and municipal shelters were not in very good shape, not to say neglected. Now because of my military experience, I knew that when the IDF left Lebanon in 2000 the infrastructure we had set up there was already very weak and that Hizbullah was getting a serious foothold. It was not a secret for anyone that this organization, which was not merely fanatic and extremist, without any concern for human life in general and that of Israelis in particular, was arming heavily. So we could easily assess what would happen if war broke out, and the attacks on Haifa and Nahariya were as predictable as those on Hatzor Haglilit. I therefore organized regular civil defense exercises and urged the population to prepare their shelters. The financing of this operation depended on the Interior Ministry, whom we got to understand that there was no budget for it. Despite everything I managed to obtain financing for a central, disused bunker, in which I installed the entire infrastructure required so that when the day arrived we would be able to centralize there all the support services (police, fire brigade, nurses, psychologists etc). We finished the work on this fortified position a week and a half before the outbreak of the war. It was clear to me that following the kidnapping in Gaza, the kidnapping of the two soldiers in the north and the killing of eight others, the State of Israel had no choice but to go to war. So I asked all the heads of municipal departments to check the shelters and that they should be available at all times. In addition I ordered the daytime summer camps cancelled, so that groups of children should not be exposed to Katyusha fire.

How did the first day of the war pass?

I had convened all heads of municipal departments for a working meeting at 10am the next day. But at 8:30am the Katyushas started to rain down on Hatzor Haglilit. Using megaphones, we called on the populace to take cover in the 300 shelters around the town, and we decided to transfer all our activities to that famous bunker. From there we responded to the many calls from the population. To illustrate what I am saying, I will provide a couple of examples. There were power cuts in several shelters. When were advised that there was a let up in the bombardments, we sent out a team of electricians to repair the damage. In another shelter, children and adults were in shock. We sent them a team of psychologists, who if they found a serious case called in an ambulance to convey the person in question to the nearest hospital. Please understand that we are just a small town with limited means, and that an operation like this required very tight, almost military organization Further, we implemented regular rest trips for our inhabitants. Thanks to help from the Joint and the Jewish Agency, we were able to send away 3,500 people for five days in a hotel or guesthouse in the center or south of the country, so they could recover from the stress caused by the attacks and life in the shelters. We also organized outings for the elderly. We made a special effort to look after the children. And in this I must thank all those who gave us toys, and all those who came to perform in the shelters. Solidarity was fantastic, and here I will only quote the example of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, whose director, Evi Amitai, sent us ten trucks with performers and singers, as well as animals so that the children could pet them and be entertained while learning about them. My son, who is an actor in the theater in Tel-Aviv, came along with five friends who had been called up to put on a small show for our inhabitants.

So Hatzor Haglilit was particularly well prepared for the war. Was that the case in the towns round about, Safed, Kiryat Shemoneh, Rosh Pina etc?

In terms of everyday life, these places in general were not organized like we were. Together with the “Meir Panim” soup kitchen we set up a homes meals service for the elderly. In normal times, these kitchens prepare about 250 meals a day. During the crisis they were preparing 1,500 meals, and we distributed them in the nearby towns you just mentioned, and in may other villages, up on the Golan Heights and even in an Arab village close to Hatzor Haglilit. Here too there was marvelous solidarity. You can easily imagine that so much preparation and distribution of food requires an enormous amount of work. We received dozens of volunteers who came to help us, not just locals but also people from the center of the country. they came from every professional background, mathematicians, private bankers etc. When I was in the army I had served in the Golani Brigade; former generals, brigade commanders, came here in solidarity, telling me, “We are here to peel potatoes and wash the lettuce in the Meir Panim kitchens. No need to look for beds for us, we’ve brought our own sleeping bags”. What’s more, they never arrived empty handed, each visit they brought presents for the children and adults, often essential items. There are may examples, but I would like to mention a hitech company in Yavne, which sent as twenty fully equipped employees to help us improve the shelters and get them ready for possible renewed attacks. For a month our local coordination bunker operated every day from seven in the morning until midnight. The population displayed an enormous amount of courage and determination. Of course, nobody was psychologically prepared to live through such a long, difficult period of war. We are used to short wars, and in everyone’s memory the longest was the Yom Kippur War. We learnt how to settle in, live and react in this new situation. Hatzor Haglilit was hit by 130 rockets but the damage was not too great: about fifty buildings hit, of which two were destroyed, five vehicles were burnt, and lastly, since the inhabitants followed our instructions, we only had a few light injuries and no one was so shocked as to have long-term consequences.

You have spoken about the solidarity of the Israeli population. What about that of the Diaspora?

It is with a heavy heart that I am going to answer you. As you know, we suffered many victims, and every young soldier killed or wounded affects us very deeply. The price exacted by this war was very high. At the same time we lived through a moment of intense brotherly-feeling, solidarity and understanding between the different parts of Israeli society, where in a flash the differences between left and right, religious and non-religious, and ethnic differences were entirely erased, including those between the Jews of the Diaspora and the inhabitants of Israel. Everyone understood the importance of helping the north of the country, the importance of a strong, properly equipped north, the strategic importance of the north and its key role in ultimate victory.

You have given 32 years of your life to service in the army, including 26 of them in military intelligence. There are few in Israel who know Lebanon, especially the south, as well as you: you served there from 1977 and were directly involved not only in all the military operations that took place there, but also in the civilian projects that the Israeli army carried out there. How do you see the war that has just finished?

Before answering, a quick historical recap is called for. As far as Lebanon goes, Israel has just a one, single interest, the maintenance of a quiet, safe life for the inhabitants of the region, namely the Lebanese Christians and Shiites who live in south Lebanon, and of course the Israeli population of the Galilee in general, and the villages along the northern border in particular. We know well the history and situation of Lebanon, which does not enjoy strong state structures. I do not want to repeat here the long and extremely complex history of that country, which was invaded by the Palestinians who had been chased out in turn by Jordan’s King Hussein during the notorious Black September, and which has ended up for the time being with the establishment of Hizbullah. I will simply say that over the years many terrorist organizations have seen the light of day in Lebanon, including Fatah. Quite a number of attacks on Israel, of varying degrees of seriousness, have emanated from South Lebanon. Between 14 – 21 March 1978 we mounted the Litani Operation, during which we wiped out, most of the terrorist bases. We then gradually withdrew and created a security zone effectively controlled by the Christian militias that we had set up. In 1982 we were obliged to undertake Operation “Peace in Galilee”, a difficult war that we won. It is important to know that in South Lebanon we built roads, hospitals, drinking water and electricity infrastructure, which had not existed in this agricultural region. We even trained their police and their fire brigade. Under my control we provided assistance to over 120,000 people. This assistance also helped ensure the cooperation of the Christian South Lebanese Army. We hoped in that way Hizbullah would be unable to get a foothold and that northern Israel could live in peace. But Iran and Hizbullah did not like this one bit, and they gradually started injecting large sums of money and obtaining a foothold. Moreover, since coming to power Ehud Barak had announced that he wanted to withdraw our forces from Lebanon; members of the Christian SLA, fearful of being considered traitors after our withdrawal, were gradually going over to Hizbullah. Having said which, I believe the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was justified, though not the way in which we left that place. Our enemies interpreted that precipitous haste as weakness on our part. Everything we had done, built or set up in Lebanon had been with but a single objective, to ensure quiet in northern Israel. We had slunk out, which heartened Hizbullah’s morale and encouraged the PLO to launch the second Intifada.
In respect of the war that has just ended, I think we have destroyed the Iranian strategy that sought to establish on Israel’s doorstep, in particular in South Lebanon and in Gaza, but also in due course in Judea-Samaria, a fanatical, Islamic force ready to attack us simultaneously from every direction. The masterminds of this strategy, directed by our region’s axis of evil, namely Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, did not expect us to violently put a stop to their plans. This does not mean we have got rid of these plans, but they received a severe blow against their immediate implementation. Had we waited another two years before acting, I believe the Katyushas, perhaps even with chemical warheads, would have been fired from Hamas controlled territory and from south Lebanon, and we would have found ourselves in an extremely precarious position. Militarily, I think that first and foremost we must acknowledge the magnificent work carried out by our Airforce. As to our infantry and the men who took part in the land invasion, they achieved in very short time, in the 48 hours preceding the ceasefire, everything they could, inflicting definite defeat on Hizbullah. Unfortunately, for many reasons that depended directly upon the political leadership and also on the army high command, this offensive that was so important was not launched earlier. Today we are already drawing the lessons of some of the mistakes that were made. In conclusion I would say that politically and militarily we certainly won on points, but did not achieve a knock-out. Today the “second State”, Hizbullah, that was established in southern Lebanon has disappeared and the Lebanese government has taken responsibility for the region on our northern border, I hope that with our own determination and the help of international forces, this will remain quiet for a long time to come.