Kiryat Shmona residents learn to live with Katyushas

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KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel — Kiryat Shmona was three-quarters empty on Tuesday, the sixth day of Israel's Grapes of Wrath campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Only 5,000 residents remained in the city that the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation has adopted; some 15,000 others were bused to army residential quarters in the middle of the country, or drove to relatives or hotels far from Hezbollah's Katyushas.

In the middle of town, cab drivers stood next to their cabs. A few bored young men sat at outdoor cafes. Some shops were open, most were closed. The municipality building served as nerve center, where Kiryat Shmona learned from army spotters in Lebanon what to expect.

"All residents are directed to go into their bomb shelters. We have a warning of Katyushas being fired," city spokesman Yoram Even-Tsur said that morning into a microphone that carried over loudspeakers on the streets.

Soldiers in jeeps rode around the city's neighborhoods, ordering people inside their homes into shelters.

In seconds a Katyusha fell — fired from Lebanon over the mountain that separates that country from Israel, and falling harmlessly, high on the mountainside above the city. From below one could see the smoke from the burning trees and grass where the rocket fell.

Once Operation Grapes of Wrath started, the past few days proved relatively calm. Only one Katyusha was fired at the city the previous day, landing in an open field, away from people. In all, Even-Tsur said, about 50 missiles had fallen on the city, injuring 10 people, including one woman critically — Hani Chimi, the wife of the deputy mayor.

Outside the municipality building, there were some signs of life — even during the warnings when people were supposed to be in their shelters. A few men were out mowing their lawns; a pair of old women were walking home from the grocery store.

"Most of the people who've stayed are veterans of the town, the ones who came here in the 50s and 60s — they're rooted here, and nobody can move them. The younger ones have a greater tendency to want to leave," Even-Tsur said.

There has been a muted debate in Israel on whether it is right and honorable for residents to flee Kiryat Shmona during wartime, echoing the debate over Tel Avivians who fled that city from Gulf War Scuds. Some critics point to staunch Londoners during World War II, but most Israelis understand that Kiryat Shmona residents have been taking this shelling off and on since the late 1960s — they don't have to prove anything to anyone.

A lot of the underground bomb shelters are empty, but up the hill in the apartment building at 274 Yehuda Halevi St., the shelter is full. It is about the size of a studio apartment, with six couches set up for sleepers.

There are photos along the walls — "Rocky" posters, a poster of a blonde in a bathing suit, and a couple dozen photos taken in the shelter during Operation Accountability, Israel's weeklong bombing campaign in Lebanon in July 1993. Some of the people smiling in the photos are camped out on the couches again — two men and three women in their 50s and 60s, and the son of one of the women.

They won't go beyond the sidewalk in front of the building, even a couple of blocks to the store to buy food. Army food trucks come by daily to distribute groceries, and a truck from a department store chain stops by every day to sell food. People here will settle for that.

"Hani Chimi was driving home from buying milk when the Katyusha hit her car. That was 65 meters from here. Now she's fighting for her life," said Yigal Cohen, 23, sitting out the war with his mother, Tama.

Some of the older people tried spending a few days out of town with their grown children, but then came home, saying they only felt comfortable in their own apartments.

Ida Zafrani hasn't left Kiryat Shmona for a day. "My children yell at me to come stay with them. My son Meir, he lives at Kibbutz Ginossar, called me up and said, `I'm going to take you out of there by force,' and I told him, `You're not going to force me to leave. This is my home, I'm staying right here, I'm not going anyplace,'" she said.

Zafrani, 60, who came here from Morocco in 1962, has 11 grown children. Only her son Eli still lives with her. Her husband died of cancer three months ago. Her brother, Khalifa Ben David, was killed by a Katyusha 14 years ago. Khalifa's son and her nephew, Motti Ben David, was killed by a Katyusha in Operation Accountability. Many years back a Katyusha fell near her building, knocking her down and putting her in the hospital.

"I lost consciousness, but thank God, I was all right. Since then I got diabetes, high blood pressure and bad nerves. If I don't take tranquilizers, I can't sleep."

Yet she won't leave. "This is where I'm staying, I'm not moving, this is my home, this is where I belong." She touches the ground, she kisses her fingers. Zafrani, a religious woman who wears a kerchief over her hair, has no ideological or Zionistic reason why she won't budge — she's just rooted to the place. She has nothing against those who've headed for safer parts. "May they live and be healthy," she says.

The radio is playing in the shelter — music and news. Spirits seem pretty high. At the municipality building, Michael Ohayon, another rooted veteran of Kiryat Shmona, says: "The best thing that happened was that so many people left town. If not, the shelters would have been crowded with people, and the pressure would have been like an atom bomb."

Rooted or not, people are jumpy at 274 Yehuda Halevi. A soft explosion goes off in the distance, and people say, "There's another Katyusha," and anybody standing outside the shelter scurries in. A local nurse and social worker come to check on people, and when another explosion is heard, a few people shout, including the social worker, who says, "That's another Katyusha. Everybody inside."

Rumors spread fast. A man down the street says he heard the last Katyusha fell near the town swimming pool. Another man says it fell at the other end of town.

One of the Katyushas, as it turned out, struck an apartment building in another neighborhood. No one was injured, because no one was inside the upper-floor apartment where the rocket hit.

On the sixth day of Grapes of Wrath, there were few hittable human targets left in Kiryat Shmona — nearly everyone was out of town or underground. After nearly three decades of Katyushas, you learn.