Thursday, July 27, 2006

'Club Med for Refugees'

In case you didn't see the footage on CNN a few days ago, follow the link to go through the slide show. The difference between an Israeli refugee 'resort' and a Lebanese refugee 'shelter' is *interesting*.

SPIEGEL ONLINE - July 27, 2006, 03:51 PM

Club Med for Refugees

Partying in Israel's War Zone

By Matthias Gebauer in Ashkelon, Israel

Hundreds of thousands have fled northern Israel and its steady rain of Hezbollah rockets. They're fleeing to the southern part of the country, out of Hezbollah's range. It's a hardship for many, but most are making the best of things, with an almost holiday-like atmosphere.

"Check her out, she's the most beautiful girl from northern Israel," Ilan Faktor says, practically swooning, his white teeth beaming from his tanned face. He's girl-hunting with his buddies, and the women are everywhere -- all in bikinis and most with long, curly hair. "The best part," Ilan says, "is that they can't run away."

Ilan and his buddies live in a crowded refugee camp set up on the beach in Ashkelon, Israel. All along the street, flags flap in the breeze from the sea. People here seem to love showing off their gym-toned bodies. Tents have been set up everywhere. In one, people practice yoga; next to it others are getting their bodies painted. In another tent Orthodox Jews try to recruit young people. One could easily mistake the place for a nightclub if it weren't for the fact that everyone here has been displaced by a war. Hordes of young people under 25 mill around wearing the same kind of colorful armbands you might see in a hip urban club.

Ilan isn't happy with the color of his armband -- the blue has already faded. Worse yet, blue means he's scheduled for the day's earliest meal-time. Organizers in fact adopted the idea of arm bands from night clubs; here, though, it's a way of arranging staggered mealtimes. In the end that's only difference between this camp at the Israeli beach resort of Ashkelon, just south of Tel Aviv, and an all-inclusive holiday resort.

A Hezbollah-driven exodus

Make no mistake, though -- it's no holiday resort. It's a refugee camp, in spite of the sun and the sound of waves pounding the beach. Everyone here has fled the rain of Hezbollah rockets that are showering northern Israel. First they came from Nahariya, then Carmiel and later from Haifa and Tiberias. In total, more than 2,600 have converged here. On Monday the camp was expanded, with new tents and toilets being set up on the white sand dunes right next to the sea.

Still, for those fleeing the north, there are worse places to land than Ashkelon. A Russian immigrant generously allowed the camp to be set up on his property; he hired Ilan Faktor to help run it. Normally Faktor works as a rave promoter, and he's brought a lot of those ideas along with him. Live bands play each night, and during the daytime, the thumping base of techno music can be heard along the beach. On Friday, the stars of Israel's "Pop Idol" stopped by. "We have to keep the people entertained," says Faktor.

Up front, at the entrance to the camp, three more buses have pulled up, this time from Haifa. Many residents in Haifa stayed in the city at the start of the rocket attacks, thinking they would let up. But they haven't -- the city has become one of Hezbollah's favorite targets, with the hail of rockets continuing unabated almost every day. Busload after busload continue to leave the region, carrying hundreds of thousands of Israelis beyond the range of Hezbollah's weapons.

The government in Jerusalem estimates that about 6 percent of the 7 million people living in Israel have been displaced by the attacks. Initially, people left for areas south of Haifa that were just outside of Hezbollah's range, but as the hotels, camp grounds and private rooms filled up, they had to continue further south. Hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are booked up, and thousands are turning to smaller towns and cities where hotels have opened their doors to refugees.

The onslaught of people his even hit the most distant parts of the country. Even the popular beach resort of Eilat, much further south on the Red Sea, is struggling to deal with crowds. Hotels have been booked solid for days, and those who can't find private rooms there are just sleeping under the stars, a hotel manager reached by telephone told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But even they seem to be enjoying themselves -- the camps have a party atmosphere, with frolicking on the beach, music and even joints. Trying to find a silver lining in the crisis, the hotel manager even says the bombings have created new couples -- people are fleeing the bombs and finding love. "There's something good to be found in every situation," he says.

But here in Ashkelon, there's nothing spontaneous about the positive vibe. Faktor has worked hard to create the light atmosphere. "We'll keep dancing here as long as Hezbollah still has rockets," he says. Or: "We stand together when we are attacked, but we also throw our hands in the air." Ilan and his posse smile broadly. They're already looking forward to tonight's party. They're going to serve German beer and deep bass grooves. What else could anyone want?

War as common as natural disasters

But there's also a lot of truth to be read between Faktor's easy lines. When it became clear to all Israelis that they had to protect their fellow citizens in the north, they came together fast and showed solidarity. In the West, people often show their unity in times of crisis like natural disasters, but in Israel, it's during times of war that the people come together. And war here seems to arrive with the same regularity as natural disasters. So togetherness is celebrated in an almost over-the-top way in the bunkers, camps and private apartments.

Faktor, who's a bit of a womanizer, arrived from Nahariya in the north six days ago. The night before he fled, a rocket struck the house next door and injured several people. "In the beginning, we sort of thought it was a little bit funny," he says. Only his mother was scared, he says. But as the bombing continues, Faktor's mood has grown somber. His grandfather refuses to leave his home and the whole family is worried. They call the old man every few hours on his mobile phone to make sure nothing has happened.

Nor does Ilan have any idea when he will be able to go back home. All he brought with him was a bag filled with necessities -- the rest he had to leave behind. The family recently paid off the mortgage on their house and his mother stayed behind to look after it. But what will happen if it gets struck by a missile? She still hasn't been told that the government or one of many private foundations will give them money to repair or rebuild their home if it is bombed. That's just one of many reasons that the refugees here in Israel have it a whole lot better than the hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese.

Ilan and his mother are now considering moving back to Ukraine. It may be safer there. When they emigrated to Israel six years ago like many other Jews in the north, the Israeli army had just withdrawn its troops from northern Lebanon. But Ilan's mother didn't really understand the implications at the time. Even today she takes little interest in politics. She just wants the hail of rockets to stop.

Ilan, for his part, wants to stay. In Ukraine he never would have had the money to enjoy this kind of Mediterranean vacation. And with his cheap eastern European clothes and his Ukranian accent he wouldn't have been such a hit with the ladies. Anyone, after all, can use a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and tonight before sunset Ilan wants to find someone to lie down with on the beach. "In the dunes I almost always get lucky," he says, before going back on the make.


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