Eric Silver in Haifa: 'I lost friends, Jews and Arabs who worked together'

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The Independent Online

Yossi Amergi, a 46-year-old mechanic lay in the emergency ward of Haifa's Rambam hospital, tubes sticking out of his arm, raw skin showing through a bandage on his right leg.

A few hours earlier eight of his workmates were killed by a rocket that burst through the corrugated iron roof of their railway maintenance depot, sending arc lights crashing, splintering carriage windows and covering the concrete platforms with gore.

He was one of the 28 people wounded, five of them seriously, in the worst aerial attack on Israel's third largest city since Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles in 1991.

"I heard a boom," he recalled. "My ears were bursting; blood was spurting from my leg. I lost friends, Jews and Arabs who worked together."

Just as we arrived at the hospital, a siren sounded, the promised one-minute warning of another Hizbollah attack. We took cover under concrete steps and waited for the boom which never came. Apparently, that rocket landed in the sea.

When we reached the ward on the ninth floor, the stocky Mr Amergi was on his mobile phone, calmly instructing his wife and children to get into the nearest shelter. Earlier, he'd asked them not to visit him. "I'm more worried about my family than myself," he said. "They're better off staying at home."

Haifa is like that: a phlegmatic Mediterranean port and holiday city of 268,300 people, 90 per cent of them Jewish, 10 per cent Arab, living in what until yesterday had seemed a safe 33km south of the Lebanese border. They comforted themselves that Katyushas, the primitive Russian-designed rockets that Palestinian and Lebanese enemies have launched at border towns and villages for three decades, could not reach that far.

But as the citizens of Haifa and Tiberias, 52km to the east on the Sea of Galilee, discovered this weekend, they can. Shaul Mofaz, the Transport Minister and former army commander who visited the railway workshop, accused Syria of supplying Hizbollah with a more sophisticated, longer-range model. It sounded more like a threat than a statement.

Haifa folks were anxious and wary, but not panicking, although the Government declared a state of emergency throughout the north. By midday, three hours after the bombing of the railway workshop in a rundown industrial zone below the desirable residences of Mount Carmel, cars and trucks were going about their business. Containers were arriving at the port. Some shops and factories were open, perhaps not as many as on a normal Sunday, which is a working day in these parts. People were walking in the streets, though the city's two universities closed.

Adi Goldberg, a 17-year-old high school student, confessed that she was scared when she heard the explosion. "We knew it was possible that a Katyusha would come to Haifa," she said, "but we didn't really think it would happen. We don't know what to expect now." Yesterday, she stayed at home. "We have a shelter," she said. "We'll hear if the siren goes. After that, it depends how things develop. It's very frustrating. It's the summer holidays and I can't even go to the grocer's."

Avi Friedman, a 56-year-old businessman and father of three, urged his family to stay near a shelter, to listen to the news, but not to panic. For himself, he was more philosophical. Like most male Israelis of his generation, he has served in the army. "I know what war is like," he said.

He welcomed the opportunity to settler scores once and for all with Hizbollah. "It's been a long time coming," he argued. "I'm extremely proud that my government has decided not to turn the other cheek. Whatever the price for me and my family, we are ready to pay it."

Not everyone was so gung-ho. Half a dozen Jewish and Arab women stood outside the gates of the wrecked railway depot, holding up placards calling for a ceasefire. "War will not bring peace," read one; "Talk don't fight," another. A burly worker harangued them. "I lost friends in there," he bellowed. "You don't know what it's like." One of the women pointed up the hill. "I live there," she retorted. "I know as well as you do."

Yehezkel Farkash, the side-curled young head of the northern branch of Zaka, the ultra-Orthodox volunteers who retrieve bodies from bomb sites and traffic accidents, knows better than either of them. He was one of the first on the scene after the rocket struck.

"It was one of the worst I've ever witnessed," he said. "I hope I'll never see one like it again. You don't expect a major disaster like this in the city of Haifa. We found great devastation, dozens wounded, screaming and shouting. Blood and body parts were everywhere."

Miri Eisen, a reserve army colonel drafted to serve as government spokeswoman, was on hand to deliver the message. "The Government is determined that at the end of this war that Hizbollah declared on us, Hizbollah will not be a terrorist organisation, Hizbollah will not be deployed on our northern border," she said. "We will not stop until this situation has changed dramatically."

In Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, threatened that the rocket attacks on Haifa would have "far-reaching consequences" for Lebanon. He swore not to surrender to threats from Hizbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. "We know that many tests yet await us. Our enemies are trying to disrupt life in Israel. They will fail."

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