Reporter's Notebook'If your house were on fire, you wouldn’t want to go away'

At Haifa port, evacuating Israeli-Americans feel torn between family and country

Personal circumstances, safety concerns and family obligations are among a mix of factors pushing dual citizens to board a ship to Cyprus

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Barbara Zwillick waits to board an evacuation vessel arranged by the US Embassy from Haifa, Israel, on October 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Barbara Zwillick waits to board an evacuation vessel arranged by the US Embassy from Haifa, Israel, on October 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Suitcase in hand at the port of Haifa, Barbara Zwillick reflected on her ancestors who fled Europe for her native United States.

“Jews waiting to board a boat to America at wartime. How could I not think of them?” Zwillick, 71, said at the port on Monday as she took a drag on her cigarette.

Zwillick, a retired expert in textile dyes, was one of several dozen US citizens who on Monday boarded a Cyprus-bound ship arranged for them by the US Embassy in Jerusalem, following the cancellation of many flights out of Israel due to the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. From Cyprus, the passengers are to fly to the United States.

Hamas terrorists killed at least 1,300 Israelis in a brutal cross-border onslaught on October 7 — the vast majority of them civilians, including many women and children — and kidnapped some 200 others. Israel declared its intention to eradicate the terror group, and according to Hamas sources at least 2,600 people in Gaza have been killed in airstrikes. In Israel’s north, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group has initiated rounds of fire in which several people have been killed on both sides of the border, escalating into a tense standoff and prompting fears of a devastating second front.

“I feel like a refugee. I mean, I am one, what else would you call it?” said Zwillick, who lives in Yesud HaMa’ala, a village about seven kilometers (4.6 miles) from southern Lebanon and 25 kilometers from Syria.

She was traveling to New York with her 10-year-old granddaughter, to bring her to her father in New York. The girl’s mother, Alana, is a nurse working in Safed and does not want to leave Israel out a sense of duty, but does want her only daughter to leave for safety.

A US Embassy staffer talks to passengers waiting to board an evacuation vessel from Haifa, Israel, on October 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“Someone has to take my granddaughter, so I’m going,” said Zwillick. The granddaughter, she added, was sad to leave. “It’s all overwhelming for her.”

Multiple passengers were leaving with a heavy heart.

“I have mixed feelings about this,” said Ariella Keshet, a 45-year-old therapist from Katzrin, a town on the Golan Heights, who is traveling with her husband and five of their children. Born in Philadelphia, she immigrated to Israel in 2017 after living in the United Kingdom.

“I feel terrible leaving if anything happens to someone in my community and I’m not there,” she said. “Like, where was I? If your house were on fire, you wouldn’t want to go away, you’d want to stay, as painful as it is.”

Ariella Keshet (l) and one of her daughters, Emunah, wait to be evacuated from the port of Haifa to Cyprus, on October 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The Keshets decided to leave on Sunday because of a “combination of factors,” Ariella said. They were supposed to fly to the United States anyway this week but their flight got canceled. Her stepdaughter is living in Tel Aviv without a bomb shelter and is afraid to stay, she added.

The passengers were standing on a ramp that in normal times services tourists boarding cruise ships to Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and beyond, or passengers getting off to explore Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, which many consider a touristic hidden gem and a model for peaceful coexistence by Muslims, Christians and Jews.

View of the port in the northern city of Haifa, July 31, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Many passengers traveled to the port from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at the crack of dawn to be there at 8 a.m. when the embassy said boarding would start. Around the ramp, families piled up their suitcases so their children could catch up on their interrupted sleep.

Ariella was questioning her decision to leave even as she stood in line to enter the port.

“The soldiers are risking their lives to protect civilians. Is it the right thing to stay and support this country or to get out of the way? I’m not a soldier. I fight with kindness. I fight with helping,” said Keshet, who spent the first week of the war volunteering to help soldiers and families whose husbands were called up for reserve service.

“But now, how useful is that? I don’t know,” she said.

Heda Amir holds a sign reading ‘Bring them back’ and an Israeli flag near passengers waiting in Haifa to board an evacuation vessel arranged by the US Embassy in Jerusalem on October 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Heda Amir was standing in line with an Israeli flag that she had in her car from anti-government protests. She was holding a grease-stained pizza box on which she wrote “bring them back” with a blue marker.

“I’m not going anywhere, I’m just sending a message,” said Amir, a Haifa resident who is not a US citizen. “I want those who are leaving to get the US to free our hostages,” she added, referencing the Israelis and foreigners abducted and held by Hamas in Gaza.

Saleh Jabarin, an 84-year-old Arab Israeli who left Israel in 1962 and lives in Ohio, decided to board the evacuation ship because he feared he would not be able to fly back home as scheduled on November 1. “I’m not scared and I don’t think Hezbollah will fire on Haifa, but I have family duties so I’m leaving,” he said.

Saleh Jabarin waits to board an evacuation vessel arranged by the US Embassy from Haifa, Israel on October 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Jabarin, who is Muslim, said that “extremists on both sides” were pushing toward an escalation, but he was praying to Allah for peace. Jabarin was “concerned but hopeful” that the worst of the violence was over, he added.

The boarding process was chaotic. Many passengers had not received confirmation, and those without it needed to leave because it was unsafe for them to gather out in the open, staff wearing red vests emblazoned with “US Embassy” shouted to the small crowd. The unconfirmed needed to return in the afternoon, the staff said, when they would be able to board if there was space for them.

Jabarin, who had no confirmation, was frustrated and protested to one of the staff. “I thought you’re supposed to be the American Embassy. How about being more American?” he asked.

Zwillick, who moved to Israel from New York after her husband died 12 years ago, worried about her home in Yesud Hama’alah in her absence.

“Hopefully I’ll be back in the near future. Hopefully, my house will still be there,” she said.

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