August 7, 2006 --
FOUR weeks after the start of a war sparked by Hezbollah's surprise attack on an Israeli military patrol along the Israel-Lebanon border, northern Israel has become a ghost town.
An estimated million Israelis - a sixth of the nation - have abandoned the country's north, fleeing for the relative safety of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the southern resort city of Eilat.
But as Hezbollah's rockets hit deeper and deeper into Israel's heartland, approaching the suburbs of Tel Aviv, Israelis are running out of places to go. In a country roughly the size of New Jersey, there's not much room for safe haven.
In the south, Palestinians are shooting Qassam rockets out of the Gaza Strip, threatening towns from coastal Ashkelon to the desert city of Sderot. In the north, Hezbollah's rockets are raining terror from Haifa to Tiberias.
In central Israel, Israeli authorities are engaged in a constant battle to stop Palestinian suicide bombers before they reach their targets. Yesterday, Israeli police caught a woman in Nablus with an explosives belt on her way into Israel.
If the West Bank were under Palestinian control, the conflict zone would include Jerusalem, which abuts the West Bank, and the metropolis of Tel Aviv, less than 10 miles from the border. Both are within range of hostile rockets.
This is why Israel's need to defend its borders is paramount, and why Israel has responded so seriously to the Hezbollah threat from southern Lebanon.
Israel is surrounded by militants intent on destroying the Jewish state - militants practicing their ideals in the form of rocket fire, suicide bombings and arms shipments.
"The real cure for the conflict is elimination of the Zionist regime," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week. Herein lies the true root of the conflict.
Israel's enemies in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank won't be satisfied until Israel is "wiped off the map," in Ahmadinejad's words.
During the intifada years, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian TV broadcast Hebrew-language advertisements calling on Jews to leave Israel and return to their countries of origin in Europe. "Go back to Poland, to Germany," the ads said, showing footage of suicide bombings in Israeli cities. "It's not safe for you here."
Of course, the Jews came to Israel in the first place because Europe had become a killing ground for them. The Nazis slaughtered 6 million Jews, and many of Europe's Allied powers turned away Jewish refugees even during the height of the Holocaust.
Jews also came to Israel from the Arab world, where the Arabs kicked them out of millennia-old Jewish communities in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Libya in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Today, nations around the world are pressing Israel to hold its fire and pull its troops out of Lebanon - essentially leaving in place the threat of national destruction looming from Israel's northern border.
That would render Israel an unsafe place for the Jews.
So where, exactly, are Jews supposed to go?
Israeli troops are fighting in Lebanon to make Israel a safe place for Jews to live. Israel would prefer someone else do the job of disarming Hezbollah - the Lebanese army, the U.N. force in the area, a multinational force - but so far no one but Israel has shown the willingness or ability to put lives on the line to solve the problem.
Thousands of years of persecution have taught the Jews a sad but an important lesson: Rely on no one but yourselves.
Unless someone else is willing to step up and guarantee quiet on the Lebanon-Israel border - and UNIFIL, in 28 years in southern Lebanon, failed to establish even the appearance of security - Israel should not accede to demands to halt its defense against the Lebanon-based militia. It may cost more Israeli lives, but Israel doesn't have any other choice. The life of the country depends upon it.
Uriel Heilman is a Jerusalem correspondent for JTA News Service.