War threatens lives, livelihoods in northern Israel town

METULLA, Israel (AP) – Lior Weinberg shakes his head and gazes out to where his apples, peaches, pears and plums rot on the ground in front of him.

In Israel’s northernmost community, a little finger of land that juts into Lebanon, farmers like Weinberg haven’t fled to escape war or rocket fire. But still they are being hit hard, because the army won’t let them harvest their produce.

“All I have done is worth nothing,” the 36-year-old Weinberg said. “Everything we worked for all winter is wasting away.”

Since fighting erupted on July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others, the 2,000 residents of this farming community have found not only their lives to be in danger, but their livelihoods as well.

Sitting in a makeshift office in an underground shelter, Mayor Kobi Katz said Metulla’s two major industries, agriculture and tourism, had both suffered devastating hits.

“This is one of the most difficult periods in Metulla’s history,” Katz said, adding that many businesses were in danger of collapse.

Established in 1896, Metulla is surrounded by Lebanese land on three sides. It has been on the front lines of all of Israel’s wars, and rocket fire and infiltration from Lebanon is a constant threat.

But recent years have been good to the town. It draws thousands of domestic and international tourists to its slew of guest houses, hotels and restaurants overlooking the breathtaking Lebanese landscape.

It also lays claim to the somewhat comic title of “hockey capital of Israel,” thanks to the Canada Center, which houses Israel’s first Olympic-sized hockey rink. Israel’s growing number of amateur and semiprofessional hockey players migrate north several times a week for practices and games.

Now it is now just another of northern Israel’s many ghost towns, streets emptied and shops closed while war rages. Katz said about 30-40 percent of Metulla’s residents have fled.

But all the farmers stayed behind, Weinberg said, to serve as an emergency force in case of a Hezbollah infiltration and to try and salvage what they can from their wasting crops.

“We have no plans of leaving,” Weinberg said as he stacked empty crates in his warehouse.

His staff of 20 workers has left him, however, and the army won’t let him tend to most of his fields for fear of Hezbollah fire.

Weinberg says he is used to the danger. When he stops for a short chat, he huddles behind a tower of crates for cover from a Hezbollah position above.

“They’ve got snipers and they could put a bullet through me anytime they want,” he said.

He said he sent his wife and three young sons away from the front lines – his house is on the fist row facing Lebanon – to stay with family in central Israel.

“The kids don’t need to go through what I do,” he said as a nearby artillery battery roared to life. “This is not a normal life.”

But while Weinberg worries about safety, the threat that preoccupies his thoughts most these days is of losing his life’s work.

“Everything you’ve invested, it’s all lost,” he said, adding that he could only hope the current war would “once and for all” end the threat to this little border town.

In the meantime, he does what he can, picking apples, storing what can be stored, a lonely farmer on the front lines of battle.

“I have nowhere to go, this is my land,” he said. “I’ll stay here no matter what.”