Israelis Seek Refuge on Isolated Beach

By ARON HELLER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; 1:19 AM

NITZANIM BEACH, Israel -- Revital Aburmad jerked from her sleep Tuesday morning to find herself lying on a strange beach. She had just had an awful nightmare; she was running to a bomb shelter, carrying her 2-year-old daughter in her arms, as the sounds of explosions echoed around her.

The worst part was the scary scene was not far from her own reality.

Aburmad, 26, is one of thousands of Israelis who fled northern Israel to escape the unprecedented rocket barrage by Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in the past week for a tent city on Nitzanim Beach in southern Israel that was funded by a wealthy businessman.

Outwardly, they look like any other beachgoers along Israel's coast, kicking around soccer balls, dipping their toes in the sea and listening to soothing music. But under the veneer of a summer holiday, they are filled with uncertainty, fear and questions of when they can go home again.

"We may be here, but I'm still dreaming about the Katyushas," she said of the Hezbollah rockets, as she rubbed her pregnant stomach. "The fear still exists, and being here doesn't change the terrible truth of what is happening in the north."

On Tuesday a new round of rocket fire landed in her hometown of Nahariya in northern Israel, killing one person.

Aburmad initially fled Nahariya for the safety of a friend's home in the city of Haifa. But after a deadly Hezbollah missile strike there on Sunday she and her husband, Meir, continued to wander southward for the safety of their daughter and unborn child.

They found shelter here, on a serene beach that is 13 miles from the border of the Gaza Strip, where Israel is fighting a second offensive against Palestinian militants. The location has become one of the most peaceful places in the country.

"You can't describe the anxiety of having to run into the shelter, without food, without drink," said Kati Bochris, 25, also from Nahariya, who had a rocket land next to her home. "You can smell the smoke and the skies turn black."

When she heard about the temporary beach resort, she grabbed her bathing suit and bolted. "I feel like someone who ran away from (Hassan) Nasrallah," she said, referring to the Hezbollah leader.

Arkady Gaydamak, one of Israel's most high-profile and controversial businessmen, erected the compound on Sunday, shelling out some $200,000 per day for tents, food and entertainment for 5,000 people. The Russian-Israeli billionaire has donated to many charities in Israel, but he also has an international arrest warrant against him involving the alleged smuggling of weapons to Angola.

Thanks to him, Nitzanim Beach is now lined with volleyball nets, pool tables and inflatable playground structures. It has a giant stage that has attracted several of Israel's top performers, and offers activities ranging from temporary tattoo parlors to capoeira lessons to karaoke singing. Capoeira is a combination of training for a fight and dancing.

"It is not normal to live under those circumstances, especially for the children it is not appropriate," Gaydamak said. "This will provide a distraction for them."

But only to a degree. The talk on the beach is still dominated by the situation at home, with constant updates streaming in on cell phones and circulated among those present. The angst is just below the surface.

While the sounds of explosions have been replaced by the light smacks of pingpong paddles, the appearance of a quiet quasi-beach resort is deceiving.

"We may be here, but our heads are still up there," said Bochris. "It's cosmetic. Outside, it all looks nice, it's like painting over reality with a brush. But if you scratch the surface a bit, you will see the truth. ... Still, it's nice to try to forget."

She said after Nitzanim there was nowhere left to run.

"I mean the Qassams landed not far from here, too," she said, referring to the homemade rockets fired at the area in recent months from Gaza.

Nearly everyone has a story of escaping danger.

Ruti Vartush, 52, of Tiberias, has been on crutches for the past two months after shattering her leg in an accident. When rockets hit her neighborhood Saturday, she couldn't move quickly enough to reach the bomb shelters. She begged her six children to leave without her, but they refused. "It was a feeling of utter helplessness," she said.

For the sake of her children, she decided to head south.

The conditions aren't ideal. Thin mattresses are packed one against the other in sweltering heat with no privacy. Many came with only the clothes they were wearing. Yet, all say the discomfort pales in comparison to the terror of being attacked in their own homes.

Regardless, most are counting the moments until they can return to their normal lives, interrupted just a week ago.

"First we went to Afula, but they fired there, so we continued south. We feel like refugees," said Geula Ilouz, 43, of Nahariya, who said she left because she feared for her three children. "At the end of the day, you just want to go home."


© 2006 The Associated Press