In biblical locale, a prayer for peace

July 18, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

TIBERIAS, Israel -- On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the New Testament says Jesus walked on water and multiplied five loaves and two fishes to feed 5,000 men, residents are praying for another miracle: a rapid end to the Middle East crisis and the return of tourists to their city.

Hezbollah has peppered this resort community with a barrage of rockets, causing no deaths or injuries, but clearing out its hotels, restaurants and beach resorts at the height of the tourist season.

Within hours of the first rocket falling on Saturday, tourists packed their bags and checked out, clogging roads as they fled south, out of range of the rockets.

Since then, Tiberias, like most northern Israel communities, has been effectively shut down. Most hotels are closed for business. Restaurants are locked. No water flows down the city's waterslide. Police cars patrol empty streets.

More than 50 rockets landed yesterday in northern Israel, including the towns of Safed and Rosh Pina. In the deepest-yet strike into Israel, several rockets struck the town of Atlit, 35 miles south of the border with Lebanon.

Rockets landing in Haifa destroyed a three-story building, injuring at least three people. Five people were injured in other attacks, Israeli officials reported.

In Tiberias, during the peak summer months, cars and bathers crowd the shore of the Sea of Galilee - which is actually a lake - but yesterday all was quiet. The beaches were abandoned except for a nude swimmer taking long strokes out into the water.

"It's very, very bad for us in Tiberias," said Mayor Zohar Oved, sitting at his desk in the basement of city hall directing emergency operations. "We hope the end to this conflict will be very close."

The sooner it ends, the sooner this city and all of northern Israel can try to return to normal. Tiberias, with 45,000 residents, depends on tourism for 80 percent of its budget but is bracing for a lean year.

Nationwide, Israel was preparing for a full recovery from the years of the Palestinian uprising, anticipating the arrival of 2.5 million tourists from abroad, up from about 860,000 during the worst of the violence of the uprising.

Still, as Oved sees the end of his hopes of attracting a half-million foreign visitors to Tiberias this year, he says he fully supports Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to strike back at Hezbollah, after the militant group's cross-border raid left eight Israeli soldiers dead and two others captured.

If the problem of Hezbollah is not addressed now, it will need to be dealt with in the future, Oved said.

Addressing the Israeli parliament last night, Olmert laid out his conditions for a cease-fire: the release of the two captured soldiers, an end to Hezbollah attacks and the deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon.

"Citizens of Israel, there are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality and say: no more," he said, "And I say to everyone: no more. Israel will not be held hostage - not by terror gangs or by a terrorist authority or by any sovereign state."

Tzach Gross, whose seaside restaurant in Tiberias was severely damaged Saturday by a rocket, worries that Israel may take months to accomplish its goal of eliminating the threat of Hezbollah, prolonging the financial hardships.

Financial analysts have said they expect economic growth in Israel to slow this year, after rebounding from the past five years of violence. The Israeli shekel has weakened, and Israel's stock market has been jittery since the beginning of the latest fighting.

But Gross says the hardships are worth it.

"There is no other alternative," he said, as workers swept up broken glass and debris. "It would be a mistake to put up our hands and ignore the actions of Hezbollah."

Yehuda Smadar has already experienced the economic devastation of a cycle of violence in the Middle East. He gives rides on wooden boats around the Sea of Galilee, a business that nearly went under during the Palestinian uprising.

He was counting on this year to recoup his losses. Then came the rocket attacks. Now his fax machine and phone lines have been jammed with cancellations.

He remained philosophical about the prospects for his business.

"Can you live without peace? No," he says. "I care about the country being safe. My business? I can open another business if I need to."

He attracted a trickle of foreign tourists who kept their reservations for boat rides.

Among the visitors was a group of 27 South Korean pilgrims who stayed in Tiberias. In the sticky midday heat, they were walking down from the Mount of Beatitudes to Capernaum, referred to in the Gospels as "Jesus' own city," where he lived, preached and performed miracles.

The group had been divided over whether to stay or to move on to Jordan, the next stop on their tour. After an hour of debate over breakfast, they took a vote: 23 preferred to stay despite the risk and four wanted to leave.

"We have strong faith," said Jin Sup Kim, leader of the tour group from Christian Divinity School in Seoul.

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com

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