Residents of northern Israel resuming lives and livelihoods

KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel — The displaced residents of this embattled border town returned home this week to damaged homes and an uncertain future.

Clutching suitcases, shopping bags and tired, fidgety children, most of the 18,000 people who had fled 16 days of Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah militants streamed into town over the weekend, hopeful that Saturday's cease-fire would hold.

Many of them were relieved to be returning home, yet fearful that Hezbollah would not honor its side of the bargain.

"Even though it's over and there's an agreement, I prefer to sleep in the security room with my parents, because I don't think Hezbollah can be trusted," said Katie Zaguri, 14, after returning.

The 4,000 people who stuck out the attacks in underground bomb shelters or reinforced security rooms in their own homes here also resumed their lives, testing out the cease-fire.

While the adults dusted off a town scarred by hundreds of Katyushas, they permitted their children, cooped up for too long, to venture out into the inviting sunshine.

Regardless of where they were during Operation Grapes of Wrath — Israel's military operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon — people here were clearly anxious to resume their lives and livelihoods.

Now that the cease-fire is in place, it is the job of municipal social workers to reassure both adults and children that feelings of fear, anger and displacement are normal reactions to war.

"People with strong emotional makeups and strong emotional ties with others are doing the best, and even they are feeling vulnerable," said Chana Manne, a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Kiryat Shmona. "Those without such support are faring far worse."

In an attempt to help the children cope with the trauma of war, teachers and social workers spent most of Monday, the day school reopened, encouraging the youngsters to share their feelings.

"We're on the lookout for unusual behavior," Manne said. "This could include being withdrawn or overactive or very distractible. Nightmares and bedwetting are common. What's important is for the children to talk about their experiences and to learn that others share their feelings."

Regardless of their age, Manne said, "every person in the north, including children, has been unsettled by this experience."

According to Finance Minister Avraham Shochat, the damage caused by the rocket attacks on northern Israel totaled about $33 million, including the destruction of property and losses to businesses and wage-earners.

All told, 127 Israelis were injured, three of them moderately or severely, by the more than 700 rockets fired at the north. More than 1,400 homes were damaged, 1,200 of them in Kiryat Shmona.

In a meeting Sunday with Shochat, representatives of the northern communities demanded $800 million in government compensation.

Kiryat Shmona, the hardest-hit town, sought $100 million in damages.

Although some of the stores in downtown Kiryat Shmona opened Sunday — the start of the Israeli workweek — there were not many customers.

Those who did come to shop stocked up on just-delivered fruit, vegetables, milk and bread as shopkeepers hastily cleared out old, rotting produce. Two-week-old magazines were going for half price.

"We're doing brisk business, but it can't make up for the 17 days we lost," said bakery manager Omer Aloni. "When you consider that we had already been closed a week for Pesach, it's a financial nightmare. Let's just hope the government reimburses us."

"Businesswise, it's a disaster," said Edna Ze'evi, the owner of a new gift shop in the town's trendy mall. "We started business just two months ago and Pesach season was supposed to be high season.

"Instead we got Katyushas and had to shut down for 17 days. I reopened this morning, but as you can see, no one is interested in buying gifts at the moment."

Livnat Timsit, 17, a high-school senior, said it was "a relief to be home, especially since I have to take my matriculation exams very soon."

"At first I moved with my family to a kibbutz near Beit She'an, but the kibbutz school didn't have the kind of physics lessons I needed so I moved down to Jerusalem. It's been pretty crazy."

The need to evacuate, Timsit said, "has been hard for everyone. Having to leave everything behind gave me a stomachache. My little brothers and sisters were afraid that their toys would be destroyed, and at the kibbutz they wouldn't let my mother out of their sight."

City officials said about 85 percent of the city's children had returned to school Monday and the rest were expected back as well.

While happy to be home, Timsit, like others, voiced concern for the future, even though the cease-fire agreement called on Israel and Hezbollah to stop targeting civilians.

"Honestly, I don't trust the cease-fire and I don't think it will help us in the long run. I mean, Hezbollah fired Katyushas at us just two minutes before the cease-fire went into effect on Shabbat," she said.

"They clearly have the power and ability to continue their attacks. I hate to admit it, but within a few months we'll be back in the shelters."

Michal Roemi, who toughed it out in her apartment's reinforced security room, agreed.

Sitting in her apartment, the walls and window shutters cracked by rocket blasts, Roemi said: "People here are angry because the [cease-fire] agreement does nothing to protect us. Who's to say that in a month, two months, the rockets won't start falling again?"