Across Northern Israel, a 24-Hour Dash to Evacuate 15,000 People

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel, Aug. 8 -- Yehiel Ben Shtrit could carry only his crutches, which he rested across his lap as he waited for the bus to safety. Esther Vakhni packed a garbage bag with clean clothes, a bottle of water and a toothbrush. Karin and Shlomi Saranga brought their four kids, including 6-day-old Star, who had never slept a night outside a bomb shelter.

Haggard and more than a little edgy after nearly a month of living underground, about 500 residents of Kiryat Shemona, Israel's most heavily rocketed city, got word just after 7 p.m. Tuesday that the government would provide a five-day respite in the south.

"We needed to go because the air in the shelter is no good for the child," Shlomi Saranga said, his newborn in a portable cradle on the Tel Hai elementary school's concrete floor. "The other kids are scared, the bombs are falling every day. It was enough."

Across northern Israel, as many as 15,000 people were to be evacuated over a 24-hour period, most to hotels or military bases outside rocket range, the first time during the war that the government had funded such a program, local officials said.

After weeks of pleading with city administrators, the residents of Kiryat Shemona, who have endured more than 600 rocket attacks, were told they had an hour to pack and dash to one of five schools serving as bus depots. They were handed pink notecards imprinted with their family names and the number of beds available to them at a hotel in Netanya.

They were the lucky ones. About a third of the 24,000 residents will remain in Kiryat Shemona, one of Israel's poorest cities, many of them on welfare, disabled or elderly.

"The organization during this war has not been good, and here it was especially messy. You'd think it was the first time we dealt with this, but we have been attacked many times over the years," said Hannoch Erlich, a school principal who was helping to coordinate. He said people were selected to leave based on their health and family situation, with preference given to the sick or those with children.

"This is a real failure by the government and the military to leave so many people," he added. As he spoke in the school's lobby, a thunderous crash was heard outside.

"Is that a Katyusha?" one woman screamed, referring to the type of rocket that has been raining on the town.

"I heard a whistle before it hit," said another.

A few dozen people in the courtyard hurriedly grabbed their things and began running inside. Then a second boom shook the building and people pushed their way down a crowded staircase toward the school's bomb shelter. A mother dragged her crying daughter by the arm. At least two more rockets struck nearby, one of them blasting a house with no one inside.

Rachel Ben-Abou, who appeared to be in her fifties, stopped in the middle of the lobby, screamed and began hyperventilating. Family members tried to urge her toward the stairs. She appeared to faint and fell to the floor. Someone brought a glass of water. A man placed her feet on a chair and rubbed her head.

"Where are the sirens?" Ehrlich yelled at an Israeli soldier standing with his rifle by the door. He was told the alarms that normally warn residents of an impending attack had been temporarily turned off.

"Calm yourself and your children," he shouted down the stairs to the shelter. "I never thought the war would take such a long time," said Mayor Haim Barbivay, standing in the parking lot, who said he had asked the government to evacuate his people a week earlier but had gotten approval only Monday. "But when a war starts you never know when it will end."

The bus arrived at 9:45 p.m. and about 40 residents hurriedly climbed aboard, scrambling their way through the folding door. Eighty others chosen to evacuate never showed up.

Special correspondent Tal Zipper contributed to this report.

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