Sick, poor suffer most in Israeli shelters

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel (AP) — Shimon Almakayiss, a 25-year-old cerebral palsy patient, is curled in a ball, his feet twitching as he sucks his thumb and rests his head on his mother’s lap. After four weeks in bomb shelters, his medication has run out, and his mother is in despair.

“When I call the welfare services no one answers,” said Rivka Almakayiss. “It has become intolerable.” Shimon groans and waves his hands when his mother asks how he’s doing.

Even the strongest willed Israelis are starting to lose patience after their prolonged underground existence in cramped, smoky shelters protecting them from the relentless barrage of rockets fired by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

In this town, where some 700 rockets have fallen since fighting erupted July 12, those who haven’t fled to safety elsewhere in Israel are mostly the poor, the sick and the elderly.

A week ago, residents could risk brief excursions for showers and meals. But recently the number of rockets fired daily has doubled, police say. In the past four days alone, 215 rockets have rained down on the city. Sirens wailed at least a dozen times in a two-hour stretch Monday morning.

“Soon they will have to send us to the madhouse because we are all losing our minds,” said Rachel Ben-Sheetrit, who lives off welfare and can’t afford to leave her home for a hotel out of rocket range.


Katyusha rockets have knocked out electricity and phone lines, leaving some residents to sit in hot, dark, smoke-filled rooms. Some shelters smell of urine.


Ben-Sheetrit’s oldest son, Yaron, 20, was standing at the entrance to his shelter on Friday when a Katyusha rocket landed just a few feet away. The force of the blast sent him tumbling down a flight of stairs. He hasn’t ventured out since.

Ben-Sheetrit said she would migrate south if she had the means to move her husband and six children.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “But I stayed because I have a son with epilepsy and a handicapped husband. I can’t leave them.”

Almakayiss said her son has become increasingly agitated and violent since his school was closed and he was forced to dwell underground. When he sees his father getting anxious from the explosions, he hits him. And he has been harassing the young children in the shelter, too.

“It’s hard to control him … he is used to being outside and busy,” she said. “If we had money we would leave.”

She said she has relatives in Safed, Haifa and Sderot, near the Gaza Strip. But all are in the range of the deadly rockets.

“There is nowhere left to run,” she said.

The closed, cramped confines of the shelter are starting to take a toll. Just a week ago, some laughed off the threat and spoke of the whole experience as an adventure. Now, arguments are more frequent and supplies less abundant. Aside from watching TV and playing cards there is little to do. Some pace back and forth like caged animals.

Israel is not suffering from a shortage of medical supplies, but Almakayiss said she’s been unable to leave the shelter long enough to get what she needs for her son.

Even those who escaped the city for a while find themselves returning to shelters after running out of resources.

Standing outside a shelter with a large backpack, Eliran Lankri, 23, said he was looking for a place to stay. He just returned from four days in the southern resort city of Eilat, but no one would pick up his tab beyond that. Because of his asthma, he said he can’t sleep inside the stuffy shelter. But after his house was badly damaged by a rocket, he can’t sleep at home either.

“I have no plans. I don’t know where to go,” he said.

Many blame local authorities for abandoning them.

“We’re worse off than refugees. At least refugees are looked after, nobody cares about us,” said Tamar Ashtankar.

Mazal Arbil, 41, shares a shelter with her six children and 2-month-old grandson along with a dozen or so sick and elderly residents. She said her children have all spent considerable time in the shelters before, but she never imagined her grandchildren would, too.

“I don’t care if they keep fighting, just get us out of here. We’ve had it up to here,” she said. “We’ve never been through anything like this before.”