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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Kibbutzim in Line of Fire in North Israel

Leaders of the collectives, many already beset by financial woes, say the conflict with Hezbollah threatens their future.

July 25, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

KIBBUTZ AMIR, Israel — The rockets that hit a cow shed here marked the latest bitter blow against a community already struggling to survive.

For this farming collective five miles from the Lebanon border, the attack last week, which killed more than two dozen cows, raised new worries about life ahead for the troubled kibbutz, and others like it in northern Israel.

With many already beset by financial woes, and up to half their residents fleeing for safer ground in central and southern Israel, kibbutz leaders say the conflict with Hezbollah threatens the future of 50 such communities in the line of fire.

"They need help," said Achikam Barlevy, who runs a development group in the upper Galilee region for kibbutzim. "We are at a standstill. There are no tourists. We can't work in the fields or the factories."

The cross-border rocket fire has peppered Israel's rural north, leaving streets deserted and bringing the economy to a near halt. The uncertainty over what comes next is one more worry for a movement that has labored to stay afloat in the face of chronic debts, aging membership and cultural changes that have shaken its standing as a mainstay of Israeli society.

Many kibbutzim, born of a socialist vision predating Israel's 1948 founding, have turned in recent years to private enterprise, augmenting their communal farming operations by opening bed-and-breakfasts, building homes for newcomers from elsewhere in Israel and launching factories to turn a profit.

But the fighting has stemmed the flow of weekend visitors to the scenic northern reaches and stifled kibbutz business enterprises. It is a crucial time, as many kibbutzim are privatizing or making other changes to stay vital in a nation that has been shedding the communitarian ethic on which it was built.

Nowhere is the plight clearer than at Amir, a community of 600 in the northern Hula Valley that went broke three years ago and has labored since then to dig out from debts of nearly $60 million. Four days before the rockets hit the cow shed, a separate rocket struck a diaper factory on the grounds of the kibbutz.

The first strike temporarily closed the factory, leaving 15 Amir residents without work. Community leaders have stopped sending workers into the wheat fields and orange groves out of concern they might be injured during one of the dozens of barrages that have targeted the upper Galilee region.

In many ways, the roof had fallen in on the 77-year-old kibbutz long before the rockets struck.

Like many kibbutzim that lapsed into debt as a result of heavy borrowing in the 1980s, Amir was deeply in the red when it filed for bankruptcy protection three years ago. Its bid to manufacture diapers flopped, in part because it was unable to compete in the Israeli market with diapers produced by big foreign brands. It has since rented the factory to a private diaper-making business.

The kibbutz struck a deal with its creditors a year and a half ago, and has managed to reach the break-even point. But its financial hold remains shaky. Farming operations, including a dairy business that produces 800,000 gallons a year, can be hit or miss.

The 19 milking cows killed, along with nine heifers, represented a tenth of the dairy herd. Kibbutz officials expected to receive government compensation for the losses, but they worry whether the milk production by the remaining cows will drop because of the shock of the attack.

Kibbutzim that have opened small hotels on their grounds have been forced to cope with a sudden halt in tourism to the Hula Valley's reedy plains and nearby forested hills along the border during the normally busy summer months.

Still other officials fear that the Galilee may lose its allure for city dwellers looking to relocate to a corner of the country with a reputation for quiet, despite occasional rocket attacks. The area has flourished as a destination for Israeli weekenders and full-time transplants since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

"The Galilee was blossoming, especially the upper Galilee. Tourists and hotels. We started to build houses," said Menachem Shavit, who manages Kibbutz Amir. "The fact of what happened now will stop all this, and people will not come to live here and tourists will stop."

On a recent day, the highways were empty but for convoys of army jeeps and military trucks ferrying artillery shells to batteries along the border. Brush fires, sparked by Katyusha rockets that had struck the shrubby slopes, smudged the sky with smoke.

A delegation from the Kibbutz Movement, representing 271 communities nationwide, toured some of the 50 rocket-threatened kibbutzim along the northern strip last week.

In past wars, few kibbutz residents relocated, said Aviv Leshem, the movement's spokesman. Kibbutzniks previously tended to see themselves as the Jewish state's first line of defense and seldom yielded ground, he said.

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