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In Haifa, shock and determination

/ Source: NBC News

HAIFA, Israel — Hezbollah fired three more rocket barrages into Israel's third-largest city on Monday, continuing an assault that killed at least eight on Sunday.

NBC’s Martin Fletcher reports from the battered city, where residents continue their support for Israel’s military offensive in Lebanon despite being in the crosshairs of Hezbollah’s rocket launchers.

What is the situation in Haifa today?
Very scary. We were just at a house that had a direct hit from a Katyusha rocket. It was a three-story house and its whole front collapsed into the street.

The attack — a direct hit in a residential neighborhood called Bat Galim — is what Israelis feared and, no doubt, what Hezbollah wants. 

There were six apartments in the house, but there were only three people there at the time the attack happened. All three people who were there were wounded. 

Is there continued support among the residents of Haifa for Israel’s offensive into Lebanon?
As far as I can tell, people in Haifa are very supportive of Israel’s ongoing offensive, but they are also very frightened.

Haifa was hit by about 10 rockets on Sunday, as well as several on Monday. Clearly Hezbollah has the range of Haifa and has the rockets available that can reach it, so people are very scared.

I still haven’t met anybody that thinks Israel should stop doing what they are doing. Actually, everyone I’ve spoken to has said that it’s all the more reason to continue fighting against Hezbollah. In particular, they are saying that although it’s frightening when these rockets fall, it's also scary that Hezbollah is making a statement that essentially says: We can hit you anytime.

So the people here are posing a very pragmatic question: Do we want stop now — and risk further violence in the future? Or should we finish with the whole thing now?

The answer so far, from what I’ve seen and heard, has been that people want to finish with the whole issue now. They want the army to keep fighting Hezbollah until they destroy them or in some other way remove the threat of rockets on their town.  

So are residents of Haifa leaving?
I think quite a few people are leaving. You don’t see convoys of refugees or anything like that, but the whole area in the north of Israel, about one million people, is now under threat from these Katyusha rockets because of the rocket’s range.

They are living lives right now where they are being told to either stay in bomb shelters, stay close to home, or stay close to somewhere safe.

So, for instance, all children's activities have been cancelled — all the summer camps have been canceled. Reservations for all hotels and bed and breakfasts, which is the main economic resource for many people here, have been canceled.

In the absence of any real work going on or holiday activities for the children, many families have said, to heck with that, we’re going to leave. I don’t have any exact numbers, but certainly many families have left to go to relatives or safer places down south.

That said, there are definitely not scenes of convoys of refugees leaving — it's more like individual families deciding that there is no point in being here right now. In Haifa itself, there is much less traffic than usual and fewer people than usual. But it’s not empty.

And we should bear in mind that towns further north and closer to the Lebanese border — like Nahariya — have borne the brunt of the rocket attacks. Something like 70-80 rockets have hit Nahariya in the last five days. There you hardly see anybody on the streets; it’s very empty. All the restaurants are closed, the cafes are closed, basically all the public places are closed because people have been told to stay at home.

Another reason for that is because Israel’s Home Front Commandhas taken over and declared the north of Israel as a place with a state of civilian emergency. That gives the army the right to tell people to close their businesses, go into bomb shelters, and all the other orders they need to keep people as safe as possible.

At this point, what is the end game for Israel? Does it seem like they will just continue going on with their military offensive until they see the total destruction of Hezbollah?
Well, they set themselves a goal: To destroy Hezbollah as a military threat to Israel.

They have never said that they want to destroy Hezbollah outright as an organization. First of all, it’s a goal that is probably unattainable. Second, Hezbollah is not only a military force — it also has a lot of local support among the more than 1.2 million Shiites living in Lebanon. So, it’s an organization that will continue to exist.

What Israel wants is to destroy Hezbollah’s military capability to threaten and attack Israel. They want to make sure Hezbollah doesn’t come within a mile of their border.

Most important of all, they want the Lebanese army to take control of the border, which is what the Lebanon committed itself to doing six years ago when Israel pulled out in compliance with United Nations Resolution 1559. But the Lebanese army never did take over control of the border, and in the absence of that there was a vacuum, which Hezbollah moved in and filled. And that’s the situation that Israel wants to end.

How has the international support, as well as condemnation, affected Israel’s actions? Well, at the moment Israel is pleasantly surprised.

In the first couple of days there was a lot of criticism from European nations, as well as from the U.N., over what was described as an Israeli overreaction. But if you look at the statements by the G-8 on Sunday, they were actually very supportive of Israel. There were a few condemnations — asking Israel to show restraint and not kill too many people — but overall the statement by the G-8 was reasonably supportive, much more supportive than say France or Greece sounded just a few days ago.

There seemed to be a lot of understanding for Israel’s need to defeat Hezbollah. The assumption is that America’ s strong position that Israel has the right to defend itself until it defeats Hezbollah was an influencing factor, and it seems that America was able to impose that on the other G-8 nations.