Intermittently pounded by Palestinian guerrilla rocket and artillery fire for more than a week, Kiryat Shemona has become practically a ghost town as thousands of residents seek safety farther from the nearby Lebanese border.
The streets of this spartan development town of 15,000 persons, most of them immigrants who fled North African Jewish communities in the early 1950s, are almost deserted.
The few pedestrians who do move about the town seem to walk with a quick, nervous pace as they cross exposed streets and vacant shopping esplanades, their eyes seeming never to leave the distinctively painted entrances to underground bomb shelters.
The dull crump, crump of an artillery duel between the Palestinians and Israeli-supported Christian militias just 10 miles to the north brings people out of the town's only hotel and the few open restaurants. But after a few minutes of listening, they tire of it and move back inside.
The town was edgy Monday morning, just an hour after a 40-year-old Israeli woman was killed in a rocket attack in the Misgav Am border kibbutz, which stands within sight of here atop a steep rise overlooking the town. It was the fifth Israeli death in the cross-border war between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Since Misgav Am was the target of a bloody attack 16 months ago, in which two Israelis died, the reality of living under the gun in Israel's violent north was especially on everyone's mind.
Fannie Azran, a Moroccan-born proprietor of a small food market, has lived in Kiryat Shemona for 30 years, but not long enough, she says, to get used to the shelling. Her grandfather gave her the family business when he left town just after a period of especially heavy shelling in 1967. She has lived through the bombardments of the 1973 war and was here on April 11, 1974, when Palestine guerrillas seized an apartment block and killed 16 civilians and two soldiers.
"If the rockets don't stop tomorrow, I'm going.I can't take one more day of it. I'm taking my kids and leaving," Azran said.
All apartment units in Kiryat Shemona are required by law to have one windowless room, reinforced with extra-thick concrete walls and ceilings, in addition to the communal underground shelters in each block. Azran invested heavily in bombproofing her entire apartment, hoping to be able to sit out rocket barrages at home.
"But there's no place you can get away from the fear of it all. The sound trucks drive around ordering everyone into the shelters and people are running everywhere. How long can you live with that?" Azran asked.
Nobody knows how many people have fled Kiryat Shemona -- estimates range up to 85 percent -- but virtually all of the children have been sent to homes of relatives elsewhere in the country or to kibbutzim that have set up special summer camps for the temporary refugees.
All of Kiryat Shemona's industrial park, which employs most of the town's working residents, has closed, and most stores are shut. The Israeli Army has been trucking in food to sell to residents who have stayed behind.
Most of the bomb shelters were empty Monday and some residents. complained that this was because they have become uninhabitable from neglect. The floor of one shelter in the center of town was covered with brackish water and, by appearances, seemed to have not been used in years. Toilets in other shelters were stopped up and a few of the shelters appeared to be stocked with drinking water, food or bedding.
But Yaniv Palti, 34, who was born here, said the shelters still are welcome sights when the rockets start exploding.
"You never know when they are coming. There's no warning," he said. "If you have a really good ear and happen to be listening, you might hear something a second or so before the explosion. But there's no whistling noise to warn you. When the explosions come, you just have to fall on your face and wait for a chance to run to a shelter."
Shimon Dayan, 14, was hit and killed Sunday just as he and his mother were leaving to stay with relatives in Ashdod. They had picked a quiet time to pack and begin their trip, neighbors said.
"Nobody who stayed behind is happy. How can you be happy with the rockets?" Palti said.
News of Monday morning's Israeli helicopter-borne raid against Palestinian positions in Lebanon and bombing raids throughout the day in southern Lebanon was met here with outward satisfaction.
The U.N. headquarters in Naqura, Lebanon, said Palestinian guerrillas fired 350 shells and 50 rockets into northern Israel during the night, many of which fell in the vicinity of Kiryat Shemona.
"When is all this going to end?" asked Palti, who then answered his own question, saying, "Who knows? Do you know? Ask the Palestinians. Maybe they can tell you. "