Like most of Haifa’s residents, Narjis Shafoot has no bomb shelter in her building. But unlike most of the 280,000 people living in Israel’s third-largest city, Shafoot’s entire neighborhood doesn’t have one, either.
In Shafoot’s so-called Eastern Neighborhood — a predominantly-Arab residential area pressed against the Haifa Port area — that’s cause for concern as Hezbollah and Israel’s exchanges of fire threaten to escalate into an all-out war.
Last month, Shafoot, a nurse and mother of three, appealed on social networks to volunteers willing to scan her neighborhood in search of potential safe spaces. About a dozen people reported for duty and, to Shafoot’s surprise, four of them were Jewish.
“I was moved. I really didn’t think Jews would come,” Shafoot, 43, told The Times of Israel, adding that the volunteers have identified a partially lowered parking lot and two large alcoves that provide more protection than staying on the street or inside an unfortified home during a rocket barrage.
The grassroots effort to ready an ill-prepared Haifa for war, as well as that effort’s multiethnic character, is emblematic of a city that many view as a symbol of Arab-Jewish coexistence and activism, despite perceived government neglect of the city and its deep socioeconomic gaps.
There are compelling incentives for all in Haifa, Jews and Arabs alike, to prepare for war.
Hezbollah is capable of firing about 4,000 rockets a day at Haifa alone, according to a Home Front Command assessment, which the army deemed “probable,” from earlier this year. In this scenario, hundreds would die and thousands would be wounded in the Haifa Bay area, and key infrastructure facilities would likely get damaged and paralyze the national economy.
For comparison’s sake, during the monthlong Second Lebanon War of 2006, Hezbollah launched fewer than 4,000 rockets into the whole of Israel, only a few hundred of them at Haifa. The rockets that hit the Haifa area killed 14 people.
So far during the conflict, Hezbollah has not targeted Haifa, a red line that if crossed is understood to likely unleash a devastating counterassault by Israel on Lebanon. This prospect may be deterring Hezbollah — a Shi’ite group that is championed by many Lebanese people but is reviled by many others — from exposing Lebanon to the full wrath of Israel’s war machine.
Haifa’s neighborhoods vary vastly in their readiness for war, and nowhere are those gaps more visible than in the Eastern Neighborhood, a small residential enclave whose relatively low residential buildings are scattered between body shops and warehouses. Poorly lit at night, the place has many uninhabited Ottoman-era homes whose slowly decaying walls offer shelter to street cats and the occasional unhoused person.
“The level of neglect is just staggering,” said Noam Levy, a 46-year-old father of three from Haifa who works in tech, of the Eastern Neighborhood, which he toured for the first time last month. He was among the four Jews who helped Shafoot, whom he knows because his children and hers attend Haifa’s bilingual Yad B’Yad school.
To Levy, identifying potential shelters in the Eastern Neighborhood is both “purely social, helping the most vulnerable segments of the population, but also an action aimed at coexistence between Arabs and Jews,” he said.
Levy’s grassroots effort is part of a broader Jewish-Arab readiness effort in Haifa, which involves hundreds of volunteers working to map and prepare shelters. Haifa, whose Arab minority of about 70,000 is largely concentrated in a few eastern neighborhoods, is perhaps the most peaceful of Israel’s so-called mixed cities. But there’s little interaction between the populations.
The shelter preparation effort is changing that, according to another Arab activist, 20-year-old filmmaker Naser Odat.
“We need to move from coexistence to partnership. And the shelter action is cementing this partnership,” Odat told The Times of Israel at a recent meeting in Haifa where he and other Arab activists met Jewish partners.
The partnership, Odat said, is helping to avoid violence of the sort that erupted between Jews and Arabs in 2021, during the previous round of hostilities with Hamas.
“I am an Arab, Palestinian Israeli. When this war happened, I felt I was silenced by the fear that Arabs are feeling,” said Odat, citing multiple cases of harassment of Arabs by Jewish Israelis since the war broke out on October 7. But speaking to Jewish partners in the shelter initiative “reminded me there’s a space, a shared space for self-expression.”
Sali Abed, a leader of Arab-Jewish, left-leaning political movement “Rov Hair,” said: “There are no political sentiments now. Only communal solidarity.”
Yet even in the Arab-Jewish dialog world, nationalism is on display.
One Arab participant showed up wearing a pendant that depicts the Palestinian flag on the territory of the State of Israel. He said it’s because he’s “a proud Palestinian and this reminds me who I am,” when asked about it by The Times of Israel. He asked not to be named out of fear for his safety from “Jewish ultranationalists,” he said.
Another said he wanted more protests by Arab Israelis against Israel’s actions in Gaza, where Hamas-run health authorities say over 12,000 people have died (the figure is unverified, and Hamas does not distinguish between civilians and terror operatives in its death toll). It’s a possibility many fear could usher back hostilities of the kind that occurred in 2021.
Haifa has two categories of bomb shelters: municipal, of which there are about 110, and hundreds of so-called private shelters, which for the most part are located inside residential buildings.
Arab and Jewish neighborhoods tend to have the same number of public shelters. But the Arab ones have far fewer private shelters, “largely because of the different architecture,” said Yuval Schlisel, a 28-year-old community activist leading a readiness initiative for Rov Hair.
Whereas Jewish neighborhoods tend to have high-rise apartment buildings where contractors in recent decades have been legally required to build shelters, the Arab streets tend to have lower, semi-detached houses, many of them more than 100 years old.
Rov Hair launched an effort to map all existing shelters, private and public, and created an interactive map – the first of its kind in Haifa. But in preparing the map, Rov Hair’s 500-odd volunteers found many dozens of private shelters that were unusable, either because they had been flooded, allowed to decay, had no functioning air ventilation systems or simply had been turned into storage places.
The mapping effort turned into a much more labor-intensive cleanup action, which is still ongoing, and which has restored about 200 shelters to usability, Schlisel said.
Rov Hair is not the only group tackling this demanding task. Osim Shchuna, a Zionist activism platform, and the London-based pro-Israel charity JNF UK sent hundreds of volunteers on a separate shelter cleanup mission across Haifa’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods.
“Beyond enhancing public safety, this initiative presents an opportunity to build trust between Jews and Arabs, contributing to the overall betterment of Israeli society,” said Samuel Hayek, chairman of JNF UK.
“It was shocking to see what was in some of those shelters, and what came out,” said Miri Tzadik, a spokesperson for the mayoral campaign of David Etzioni, who helped coordinate the Osim Schuna effort.
“Dead animals — I don’t even know what kind — floating in sewage,” Tzadik described one shelter. “At another, we found a mountain of Russian-language pornographic magazines. We moved so much junk out of that shelter that it filled the sidewalk,” Tzadik said.
The hard work has paid off, Shafoot said.
“We don’t know where this war will take Haifa, our whole society, or the Middle East,” Shafoot told The Times of Israel. “But now at least we know of a few places where we can head for safety. And that’s something we didn’t know last month.”
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