When the Israeli army emptied its military prison here last spring to make room for Lebanese detainees transferred from a camp in southern Lebanon, the residents of this small settlement overlooking the Mediterranean seacoast paid scant attention.
Yakov Margalit, secretary of the local council, said: “We are used to it, because in every war (Israel has fought), there were here many thousands of prisoners: Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Iraqis--all kinds and sorts of Arabs.
“We don’t like it,” said Margalit, whose parents came from Russia 65 years ago to what was then Palestine. “But what can we do about it?”
Little did Atlit’s 3,500 residents suspect back in April that two months or so later, the last 766 of those transferred Lebanese would put this settlement’s name on the front pages of newspapers around the world when the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 demanded their release as the price of freedom for 40 American hostages held in Beirut.
Israel announced on Sunday that it will free 31 of the prisoners--26 Shia Muslims and 5 Sunni Muslims--this morning, and residents said Sunday that they expect the rest of the Lebanese detainees to be released soon.
“Otherwise what can we do?” asked Judith Azulai, a 32-year-old storekeeper. “We have to free the hijacked people. . . . Every human being for us is dear.”
The Israeli government insists that all the Lebanese detainees will ultimately be freed, independently of the hijackers’ demands and in line with a timetable calculated on the basis of the security situation north of the Israeli border.
But here in Atlit, no one really believes that. And while they may see as inevitable an exchange of prisoners for the U.S. hostages, conversations with a random sampling of residents suggest that many are bitter about it.
“You want the truth?” store owner Mordechai Timsit, 41, asked rhetorically. “The truth is, if we let (the prisoners) go, (the hijackers) will go out and get another plane. And then the next time they’ll want the prime minister.”
March Back to Lebanon
“Exactly!” chimed in a woman customer. The woman, who identified herself only as Esther, had evaded a reporter a moment before, saying: “I don’t understand about these things. My husband does, but I don’t.”
“As an old army man,” council secretary Margalit said, “I can tell you that if it was in my hands, I’d act aggressively.” Margalit said he would march back into Lebanon and take 10,000 prisoners. “To counter terrorists, you must act with terror,” he said.
If Atlit’s residents take a hard line, it is only in keeping with a military tradition in the area that dates back to the time of the ancient Phoenicians.
The fall of Atlit to the Muslims in 1291, a few months after the conquest of Acre, marked the end of the Crusades. The ruins of a Crusader fortress can still be seen on a promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean, but visitors can admire them only from a distance because they are on one of several Israeli military bases in the area.
Founded in 1903
The modern village was founded in 1903--part of Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s contribution to Jewish resettlement in Palestine. Most of its lands were bought from Arab fishermen who had built their shacks among the Crusader ruins.
During World War I, Atlit was headquarters for a secret pro-British spy organization called NILI, an acronym formed from the first letters of the Hebrew words meaning “The strength of Israel will not lie.” The group opposed the Turks because of their treatment of Palestinian Jews.
Ironically, it was the British--by then rulers of Palestine under a League of Nations mandate--who built the first detention camp at Atlit, filling it with Jews who flooded into the area in defiance of immigration quotas. Among the former prisoners of Atlit were many heroes of the underground Jewish forces that were vital in the creation of the state of Israel.
Later, detention facilities around Atlit housed thousands of Egyptian POWs from the Suez War of 1956 and other Arab prisoners from the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Used for Israeli Soldiers
Then it became known as Israeli Military Prison No. 6, used to hold Israeli soldiers guilty of minor infractions of army rules. “Every soldier knows about it,” one reservist said.
The army moved all Israeli inmates out of the facility before the transfer last April 2 of 1,168 Lebanese prisoners, most of them Shia Muslims, who had been held at Israel’s Ansar camp in southern Lebanon. Ansar was closed when the Israeli army evacuated the area around it during the second phase of the staged withdrawal of its occupying forces from Lebanon.
The army has refused reporters’ requests to visit the Atlit prison compound, which is considered a closed military area. However, army sources said that the prisoners are divided among barracks and tents and that conditions are better than they were at Ansar, with running water, indoor sanitary facilities and proper dining halls.
The prison compound is about three miles northeast of the settlement, surrounded by banana groves. The compound is within a wall of vertical concrete slabs punctuated with 14 numbered guard towers manned by Israeli soldiers with heavy machine guns. An Israeli flag flies over the entrance, and two signs warn that no photographs are permitted.
Muslims on the Doorstep
Atlit’s residents say they are not bothered by having several hundred presumably hostile Muslims on their doorstep.
“We sleep soundly,” storekeeper Azulai said. “We know there is a very strong security there.”
This is the kind of place where a shopper could walk into Mordechai Timsit’s store Sunday, grab a package of paper products and tell him on the way out that she would be back to pay later.
Residents tend to vote for the political right.
The people living here are not easily ruffled. Apart from a few descendants of the founding fathers, the bulk of the residents are immigrants from places like Morocco and Iraq. They came in the 1950s and 1960s, when they also had to live in tents and barracks.
Now the town is a mixture of older, single-story stucco homes and newer, more elaborate two- and three-story houses. People boast of the beautiful beaches in the area, then quickly explain that most of them are off limits because of military considerations.
Arrivals From Ethiopia
The most recent arrivals are about 100 families of Ethiopian Jews who are adjusting to Israeli life at an immigration center here.
The town center consists of five stores opposite a bank. Late Sunday morning--the first day of the Israeli workweek--three of the stores were closed.
The biggest employers in the area are a canning factory and a plant that extracts table salt from seawater. Those and the army.