San Francisco sister city in Israel pushed to the breaking point

In Jewish tradition, this is an important year for the relationship born 13 years ago between San Francisco and Kiryat Shmona.

But Jewish Community Federation leaders say the relationship is coming of age in a year like almost every other, with residents of the Israeli border town living much of their lives under fire, seeking safety in bomb shelters.

At a press conference preceding last week's Israeli Independence Day reception at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, life in Kiryat Shmona — the S.F.-based JCF's partner city — was described as grueling and unpredictable.

Despite a cease-fire in the two-week war between Israel and Hezbollah, Kiryat Shmona residents are keenly aware of just how temporary peace can be, said Annette Dobbs, former JCF president.

"There has been shelling there for 30 years," said Dobbs.

Dobbs is one of the architects of the Bay Area's partnership with Kiryat Shmona, which began in 1982. Since then, the JCF here has funded numerous employment, educational and social programs in the besieged region.

When the city is under attack, locally funded medical equipment helps wounded residents survive the hourlong drive to the nearest hospital.

A JCF-sponsored stress prevention center was one of a few services in the area to remain operational during the 16-day Operation Grapes of Wrath. Kiryat Shmona became a virtual ghost town, residents said.

"It used to be not very popular to leave the town [during war]. Those who did were called `quitters,'" said Dobbs. "But when 13,000 leave, you know how bad it has got to be there."

Some reports estimate the number of residents who fled Kiryat Shmona during Operation Grapes of Wrath as high as 18,000.

JCF executive director Wayne Feinstein described the citizens of Kiryat Shmona as "beleaguered over the past several years. And over the past few weeks, they have been pushed to the breaking point."

Even the Palestinian National Council's decision last week to amend the portions of its charter that call for the destruction of Israel did little to change the somber mood in the border town, according to the JCF's Jerusalem representative, Natan Golan.

"There has been very little enthusiasm," he said, addressing the press conference during a phone briefing from Israel. Residents "are totally distracted with the ongoing crisis. They haven't been able to absorb it."

But Nimrod Barkan, the S.F.-based Israeli consul general of the Pacific Northwest, sounded hopeful about the Jewish state's prospects for a lasting peace. He called the changes to the PNC's charter "a momentous development. We're all happy to see this happen on Israeli Independence Day."