Hezbollah guerrillas fired more than 120 rockets and mortars from Lebanon into towns and cities across northern Israel on Thursday, triggering widespread anxiety in the usually tranquil region. Two people were killed and about 90 wounded.
Hotels in northern Israel sent guests packing. Hospitals moved patients to the basement. Schools shut down. And residents of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, were warned to stay near bomb shelters.
After threatening to attack Haifa for the first time, Hezbollah followed through within hours, hitting the city of 270,000 with two rockets. The attack caused no injuries but may have had the deepest impact on Israelis, leaving many fearing that nowhere was safe.
Two rockets hit the port of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, in a move Israel described as a “major escalation”. There were no reports of any injuries. Haifa, home to 250,000 people, lies 18 miles from the Lebanese border.
‘She died on the spot’
The dead from the attacks included a 40-year-old woman in the coastal city of Nahariya who was sipping coffee on the balcony of her apartment complex when rockets started falling.
“It was a straight hit. She died on the spot,” said neighbor Danny Pinkus, 27, peering up at what remains of the charred balcony five floors up. “If there is another one (attack), maybe I’ll move to Tel Aviv.”
The other victim was a 45-year-old man who died of wounds sustained in an earlier attack on the town of Safed.
“We’re living in a war zone,” said Herut Tamari, 66, who runs a pottery business and guest house in the border town of Metulla.
It was the heaviest barrage of northern Israel in decades. Guerrilla rockets traveled farther than before to hit regions, previously out of range, inhabited by half a million Israelis. One rocket even hit the headquarters of the Israeli army’s northern command.
Nahariya Mayor Jackie Sabag said his city was shut down. Thousands sought safer ground in the south with mixed results.
‘The government is not doing enough’
Shimon Shecter, a 43-year-old construction worker, said he was sitting in his car at a traffic light on the road out of Nahariya when a rocket struck near his vehicle.
“I heard a big whoosh. There was a huge explosion and I saw dark in my eyes,” Shecter, who suffered shrapnel wounds to his face, said from his bed at the Western Galilee border hospital.
The hospital had moved many patients to underground bunkers to protect them from rockets, two of which hit the hospital’s outer fence, said spokeswoman Judith Jochnowitz.
Lea Kenig said she was packing up her family to try to get away when a rocket landed.
“I saw the light of an explosion and I heard a big boom,” Kenig said as she tried to comfort her wounded two-year-old son, Ofir, at the Western Galilee Hospital.
“The government is not doing enough” to protect the residents of northern Israel, she said.
Even though the metal shutters of her apartment were closed, a piece of shrapnel the size of a bullet sliced through and hit Ofir in the shoulder.
‘Praying for them’
As President Moshe Katsav walked through the town, another volley of rockets landed nearby amid a group of journalists, lightly wounding one. Katsav’s security detail rushed him into a nearby building.
“I am sure the residents of the north all know that all citizens, in these difficult hours, are praying for them and worrying about them,” he said during a tour of the northern town of Nahariya, which was hit repeatedly.
Safed, the home of Judaism’s mystical Kabbalah sect and the center of life in the region, became a ghost town after seven Katyusha rockets hit, killing one person and wounding eight others. The last time an Israeli civilian was killed near the border was in anti-aircraft fire in August 2003.
Shops shut down and the winding cobblestone streets of the old city were deserted. The sound of rockets exploding could be heard in the background.
Broken glass covered the street in the center of Safed, a city of about 30,000. A small crowd gathered to gawk at a damaged furniture shop. An immigrants’ center and a college were also hit.
The only open store in the area was a grocery whose owner, Alain Bensadoun, said the current barrage was worse than previous attacks in the 1980s. He said his niece fainted and was taken to the hospital when a rocket exploded nearby.
“I’m not scared. I’m not scared of Hezbollah or anyone. If God wants to call me, he will anyway,” he said. “This is war. ... If we are not strong, it will go on forever.”
‘She’s sleeping like a queen’
The violence started Wednesday when Hezbollah guerrillas captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in attacks on Israel’s northern border.
In response, Israel hit southern Lebanon with waves of airstrikes, blasting Beirut’s airport and army bases in its heaviest air campaign against its neighbor in 24 years. Four dozen civilians were killed, Lebanese officials said.
Senior Israeli officials said Thursday their offensive in Lebanon was open-ended and would try to push the militants away from the Israeli border.
“We cannot allow ourselves to let them stay there,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel’s Channel 10 TV.
In Nahariya, a Mediterranean resort town of 50,000, cars with suitcases tied to the roofs headed south after Israel’s Home Front Command ordered hotels and guest houses to shut down. One woman was sitting on her fifth-floor balcony when a rocket hit her building, cutting through the ceiling and killing her.
Nahariya Hospital was on high alert, and the deputy director, Moshe Daniel, said all elective surgeries were canceled. Doctors evacuated the top floor and moved the patients, most of them children, to the basement, along with dozens of women in the maternity ward.
One of the basement rooms was packed with about 30 new mothers. Doctors rushed back and forth and babies cried. Golan Elbachli, 31, stood with his wife looking into a crib at their second child.
“This doesn’t affect her. She’s sleeping like a queen,” Elbachli said of his newborn daughter. “Her mother, it affects.”