Northern Israelis adapt to life under fire

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel (AP) — Yossi Vaknin says he’s got rocket-dodging down to a science since being forced underground by Hezbollah missiles. Sitting outside public shelter 110, in a tank-top and flip-flops, he smokes a cigarette and glances at his watch. It’s almost 4 p.m. “This is their time,” he says.

Sure enough, just moments later, there is the familiar whistle followed by a loud explosion nearby. He’s already safely in the shelter as another Katyusha rocket slams into his hometown.

Based on experience and gut instincts, Vaknin, 29, has cultivated a routine in the nearly three weeks since the missile barrages began. As of Monday, Kiryat Shemona has been hit 215 times since fighting began July 12, according to Yedidia Freudenberg, the city’s security chief.

On Sunday alone, the city, located some two miles from the Lebanese border, was bombarded with 75 Katyusha rockets, by far the most since fighting began. Hours earlier, an Israeli airstrike killed nearly 60 civilians, most of them women in children, in the Lebanese village of Qana.

Katyushas are nothing new here. The town has been a favorite target of guerrillas in Lebanon since 1968, when the first rocket arrived. But even the town’s oldest veterans say they can’t remember anything close to the massive strikes in recent weeks.

Unlike others, who fear the night, Vaknin says 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. are the most dangerous hours. So he plans his brief excursions home for showers, meals and cigarette breaks accordingly. He’ll watch a movie underground in the afternoon, for example, and then go home in the evening for a breather.

Some 35 people occupy public shelter 110. Vaknin shares the floor with his mother, father, sister and two nieces, their mattresses packed one against the other. Their next door neighbors, the Sheetrits, have also relocated here, and the families take turns fetching food from above. The TV blares as the children weave their scooters through the mattresses, teenagers play cards and the elderly read books.

“We’re one big family,” Vaknin says with a wry smile.

But his father, Amram is not as satisfied. He’s had enough already and says he’s going stir crazy.

Boredom is the greatest enemy down here, and keeping the children entertained is the main task. During the week, volunteers come to paint and play with them.

“They don’t really understand what’s going on. For them it’s an adventure. They think they’ve just moved, and this is their new home,” Vaknin says.

The adults pass their time sleeping, sharing the lone phone line _ cell phones have no reception _ and placing bets on when the next Katyusha will land.

The room is over-airconditioned so people snuggle under heavy blankets. The TV is constantly on, usually tuned to the news, and often the familiar faces of neighbors in other shelters in town pop on the screen.

Despite his nonchalant appearance, Vaknin says he never forgets the danger looming in the skies above.

“In a split second, you can lose your life,” he says. “There is a lot of luck involved, a lot of fate. This always goes through my mind. Everything is in the hands of God.”

Kiryat Shemona has yet to suffer a single death in this offensive, but there have been plenty of wounded and several close calls.

On Friday, Haim Nachmani, 53, was sitting in the shelter when a rocket landed across from his apartment building. The force of the blast blew out windows, caved in doors and sent pieces of shrapnel flying through dozens of parked cars and apartments.

Nachmani ran home to find his wife, naked and shivering, in the shower and his daughter passed out on a pile of broken glass in the living room. They suffered shock but nothing more severe.

“When I heard the whistle, I screamed but no one heard me,” said Bat-El, Nachmani’s 21-year-old daughter, as she lay on the floor of the shelter Saturday. “That nightmare will stay with me my entire life.”

That’s why, despite temptations, most choose to stay underground almost all day long.

“In 32 years here, I can’t remember such madness,” said Vadkin’s mother, Esther, as she whipped together lunch in her barren home, before scurrying back to the shelter.

“What can you do? I’m still here. This is where I got married, this is where I raised my children, and this is where my grandchildren were born. This is where I’ll stay. I’ll die here and I’ll be buried here, too.”