In Kiryat Shmona, Flight and Hiding Are the Norm After Rain of Katyushas

The playground and shops of this border town were eerily silent this week, as dozens of Katyusha rockets shook Israel’s northern settlements.

Less than 2 miles from the Lebanese border, Kiryat Shmona has become a virtual ghost town since tensions between Israeli troops and the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon escalated earlier this week.

Many of the town’s 25,000 residents have already fled south, and others will no doubt follow if the fighting does not ease up soon.

Those who remain are glued to their televisions, where a local cable channel provides minute-by-minute updates on the security situation.

Since rockets killed two local residents on Sunday night, almost all have heeded the Israel Defense Force’s warning to stay indoors, in either underground shelters or the cement “security rooms” within their own apartments, which were created during the Persian Gulf War.

Municipal workers are laboring around the clock to assist wherever they are needed. Much of their work has been devoted to making the town’s 284 underground shelters livable for the duration of the crisis.

Russian Jewish activist Natan Sharansky, who is here lending moral support, likened the shelters to a cell he once occupied in the former Soviet Union during his ordeal as a prisoner of Zion.

Many of the shelters lack such basic necessities as running water and toilets. Most are unbearably hot. All are depressing. Despite the problems, however, private citizens and city workers are cooperating to make the best of a bad situation.

While the majority of residents are no strangers to Katyusha attacks and border skirmishes, no one has been able to ignore the constant “boom, boom, boom,” of Israeli artillery shelling just across the border.

Accentuated by the silence in the empty streets, the blasts sound like hundreds of thunderclaps, one right after the other.

‘THE PEOPLE HERE ARE VERY STRONG’

“People are experiencing a lot of stress,” said Yitzhak Levy, a Magen David Adom paramedic.

“Though most people are coping fairly well, we’ve had several calls related to chest pain and other stress-related problems,” he said.

“I don’t want to leave,” said Yaffa Simcha, the mother of four children, standing in line at the central bus station. “I’ve lived here all my life and I stayed put during the Lebanon War, but now I have children to worry about. They’re afraid, so we’ll stay with family in Tel Aviv for a few days,” she said.

Yet thousands of others were preparing to weather the storm.

“I’m here to stay,” said Yosef Mansour, a taxi driver from the nearby Christian village of Gush Halav. “If it’s a matter of us against the Hezbollah, the Hezbollah will have to go.”

“The people here are very strong,” said Shoshannah Peretz, another resident. “Believe it or not, you can get used to the racket. This is a part of our lives, and we can’t keep our heads in the sand. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

“This is no way to live, but what is the alternative?” asked Phoebe Ben-Abu, sitting in a stuffy bomb shelter near her home.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s “decision to go into Lebanon was long overdue. Fewer lives would have been lost if he had acted sooner,” she said.

Stifling a yawn, she conceded, “We slept in a secured room in our apartment last night, but the noise kept us up all night. I think we’ll be safer underground.”

The room vibrated faintly as a Katyusha landed a few blocks away.

“On second thought, we should have come here sooner,” Ben-Abu said.

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