Hunkered down in Israel, again

Faced with Hezbollah's steady rocket attacks, Israelis remaining near the vulnerable northern border return to bunker life.

Published July 21, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

Never mind the Katyusha rockets overhead, down here it's just plain hot. The humid air reeks with the smell of too many people, crammed into the 150-square-foot cellar right on the beachfront of the northern Israeli resort town of Nahariya. Mattresses are stacked up against the white walls during the day, and Hamwa Shoshan can't stand the bunker anymore. Though she's afraid of the Hezbollah attacks, she'd rather take her chances and sit with her friend Rachel at the entrance.

But there's not much to see in front of official bunker No. 516 either. Nahariya's normally packed beach promenade is empty these days as the conflict in the Middle East has turned the community of 56,000 into a ghost town. Only 9 kilometers from the Lebanese border, those residents who could leave Nahariya did so shortly after the first Katyushas hit here early in the morning a week ago.

Retired teacher Hamwa and Rachel had to stay. Hamwa's husband works at a plastics factory in Haifa; otherwise they would have left, she says. The company saw no reason to halt production over a few randomly aimed rockets. Rachel stayed behind because her 92-year-old mother, Elisabeth, is bedridden. "Besides, she's already survived many wars," Rachel says, laughing. "She feels like she's immune." Bombs in Nahariya somehow are just part of the local routine.

An odd mood is prevalent among those staying behind in the north. They're familiar with the dangers that living close to the border entails, since there have been plenty of attacks in the past -- and those doesn't even include the war in 1982. Most Israelis are so used to violence that they don't outwardly show fear anymore. But they clearly hate living under threat enough to use the most brutal rhetoric when demanding the utter destruction of Hezbollah. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needs to carry things through "to the end," says Hamwa.

But in the meantime, a sort of slapstick humor dominates conversations. Hamwa and Rachel have no problem discussing in detail why the bunker doesn't have air conditioning and television installed. And they know the latest crisis could continue for a long time. "Days, weeks or even months," estimates Rachel. "It depends on when we've finally destroyed Hezbollah."

Still, Rachel admits that her nerves are starting to wear thin. At night, she has trouble sleeping. Between midnight and dawn she leaves the bunker to barricade herself and her dog in the bathroom located in her basement. She's not deterred by the fact that a rocket slammed into an apartment building only two blocks away. "It's not for me," Rachel says, referring to the bunker. With her small shop shuttered, her days are mostly filled with boredom. Watching TV doesn't offer any escape either, since broadcasting is dominated by war coverage.

Suddenly there is a dull thud. Rachel and Hamwa jump up quickly and head toward the stairs. But then they turn back again. "That one was far away," says Rachel, expertly, "at least 3 kilometers." She dials the number of her daughter. She's fled with the children to Tel Aviv. "It shouldn't worry anyone," Rachel says. She shrieks down the phone as her small niece picks up. Everything's fine, it's just a bit hot.

Everyone in Nahariya is supposed to spend the whole day in the bunker. More than 70 rockets have already struck the city. On a map hanging in a military bunker there is very little space left between the red pins marking the explosions. The soldiers, who were hurriedly ordered north after the initial escalation, can't really do anything. "We mount patrols, make announcements, and look after security," says the sergeant. But they can't forewarn people -- they can only rush to where the rockets strike.

The sergeant was quick to the scene of the incident when, at 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday, a rocket landed right in the center of Nahariya. Andrei Zelinksi, 37, had just sent his two daughters to the bunker. He himself wanted to run home quickly and fetch new clothes. The missile, fired completely untargeted from behind the mountains near Nahariya, struck him directly. He died immediately, making him the second person in Nahariya to be killed by a rocket attack. Seventy more have been injured.

The media swings into action when these events occur. Barely a few hours had gone by before the first photos of the father appeared on Israeli TV screens. Members of his family were interviewed. Israel is being attacked; everyone needs to know. In Haifa, the government press office organizes tours for journalists, specifically to include a couple of bombing sites and a lunch. Those journalists who can't make the journey to the north can contact eyewitnesses directly by phone. There are lists of names posted daily on the Internet.

Hospitals are also well prepared for the onslaught of journalists. The hospital's English-speaking spokeswoman, Judy, has a whole list of patients who can provide information in various languages. Just as happily, she leads a tour of the clinic's underground facilities, which were constructed in 2003. "We have known for a long time that we could be attacked by Hezbollah," she says. "When it happened, at first it was a bit hectic, but we had everything under control."

It is the Israeli routine of war. On Wednesday, 20 young people arrive from Jerusalem. "The children in the bunkers are going crazy, but we'll look after them," says one of the youths. In the office of Galia Mor, the city's cultural commissioner, there are lists of the activities that are available underground. Yoga, meditation, puppet shows, a magician and a painting course are all on offer to help time pass more quickly for people stuck in the bunkers.

But the entertainment program hasn't yet reached bunker 516 on the beach promenade. Around midnight, a police car suddenly pulls up. One of the smiling uniformed officers asks the women to go back down into the bunker. There's been a warning of further attacks tonight. Rachel and Hamwa obey the instructions, though reluctantly. "When they're gone, I'm going home," Hamwa says, offering a wink. "My bed is much better than the mattresses."

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online at or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Matthias Gebauer

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