Life Goes On In Border Town After Arab Attack
Despite Katyusha rockets, immigrant to Israel Calls Qiryat Shemona safer than New York
QIRYAT SHEMONA, ISRAEL — TWO weeks ago the silence of a late summer evening was suddenly pierced by the brief, all-too-familiar shriek that announces the arrival of a Soviet-made Katyusha rocket, launched from somewhere in south Lebanon. It exploded in a clump of evergreens in a residential neighborhood, leaving David Armand's car pockmarked with shrapnel.
Asked about the incident later, the 40-year-old fireman shrugs off the incident with a joking remark. ``Now my car's scared,'' he says. ``Every time it hears a boom it won't start.''
Such casual responses are one way residents of this lively town of 17,000, located along Israel's tense border with Lebanon, deal with the threat of occasional Katyusha attacks and attempted border infiltrations by terrorists.
They also hint at just how thoroughly Qiryat Shemona and dozens of other towns and villages that comprise Israel's ``confrontation zone'' have taken such dangers in stride.
``It's human nature,'' says Alan Cohen, a psychologist at the Community Stress Prevention Center, which works with teachers and social workers to help residents of the area cope with the threat of terrorist attacks. ``People can get used to living anywhere. Look at Beirut and Belfast.''
Such relaxed attitudes have not always been the rule. Eight years ago Qiryat Shemona and other border towns were under virtual siege from Palestinian terrorists operating north of the Lebanese border.
``Before 1982 it was a nightmare,'' recalls the town's deputy mayor Yoel Avraham of the eight-month period in 1981 when normal life all but ceased. Under a steady barrage of Katyusha rockets - 400 alone on the worst day - commerce, education, and normal social life ceased as residents huddled for shelter in fortified bunkers. More than 70 percent of the town's residents temporarily evacuated.
In response, Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, leaving behind a seven-mile-wide security zone in south Lebanon and a proxy army of 2,000 mostly Christian Lebanese which have provided an effective buffer against assaults from the north.
Today, visitors must look closely to find evidence of the residual security threat that remains, now posed mostly by pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Lebanese Shiite Muslims.
Every home in Qiryat Shemona must have at least one ``security room'' made of reinforced concrete and steel to resist the impact of exploding shells. On the walls of homes and schools, children's drawings depicting life in underground community shelters and scenes of combat between Israeli soldiers and Arab infiltrators are a reminder of the subtle, if not always spoken concern that comes with living so close to the front lines.
But for the most part, life here has achieved a degree of normalcy that once would have seemed unimaginable. In coffee shops and public squares the talk is not of Katyushas but of unemployment, as Qiryat Shemona, in common with other ``development towns'' established after the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, struggles with the consequences of poor economic planning and governmental neglect.
Asked about the security situation, the most common response is that danger is a relative thing, especially at a time when Israelis living in other parts of the country encounter the far more prevalent threat of violence associated with the 21-month-old Palestinian uprising.
``Everyone views danger from their own point of view,'' says Randy Garber, a mother of two who ended up in Qiryat Shemona after emigrating 10 years ago from New York. ``Here I let my five-year-old walk a few blocks to the neighbor's house. In New York I'd never let my kids wander three steps from home by themselves.''
One reason for the relative complacency is the sheer statistical improbability of being hit by one of the Katyusha shells that occasionally lands inside the town. Only slightly more worrisome is the prospect of a repetition of the kind of attack carried out by infiltrators in 1974. The incident left 18 residents of Qiryat Shemona dead and 16 injured.
More significant is the work of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) which has won universal praise from residents of the area. Since the end of the Lebanon war, not a single Israeli civilian has been killed, while only a few have been injured from Katyusha attacks. (Fifty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed and 320 wounded in north Israel and the security zone, according to an IDF spokesman.) Meanwhile, only a handful of terrorists have managed to penetrate the Israeli border.
In November 1987 two Syrian-backed Palestinian guerrillas swooped down out of the night sky to the outskirts of town in a motor-driven hang glider. One intercepted an army vehicle, killed a soldier, then penetrated an army base and killed six more.
The incident was a rude reminder of the dangers that still emanate from the hills that slope upward west of Qiryat Shemona toward the Lebanese border.
But residents insist that the event was testament less to the vulnerability than to the resilience of the town, which quickly returned to normal.
Just why so many Israelis choose to live in harm's way, even under the improved conditions since the Lebanon war, is party a matter of ideology.
``People have come here with a mission,'' says one Kiryat Shemona resident, who adds that if they move south the border will move with them. ``It's important to live in Galilee since few Jews live here. It's important for the State of Israel and the Zionist dream.''
But for most, the appeal is largely pragmatic.
``There are trouble spots all over,'' says Yael Weinberg, a 33-year resident of Kibbutz Menara that abuts the high, barbed-wire fence separating Israel from Lebanon. ``People don't think of themselves in any more danger here than anywhere else. They simply like this place, the people who live here, and the lifestyle it offers. That's what it all comes down to.''