Hezbollah Attacks Take a Toll on a Town

The Israeli government begins temporarily evacuating some residents of Kiryat Shemona, which has been hit by at least 50 rockets a day. The thousands who remain behind are furious that the government didn't begin its efforts sooner.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The war in the Middle East is now four weeks old, and while diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict are intensifying at the United Nations, there is no sign of a letup on the ground.

BLOCK: Israeli warplanes bombed targets throughout Lebanon today. At least 13 civilians were reported killed in one town as they attended the funeral of victims from an earlier Israeli attack.

There was also more ground fighting between Israeli troops and Hezbollah guerillas in villages near the border, and Hezbollah fired more rockets into northern Israel today. In a few minutes, we'll hear about the effort to bring humanitarian relief supplies into southern Lebanon. We'll also hear about the diplomatic efforts at the U.N.

NORRIS: First, to northern Israeli. The town of Kiryat Shemona has been hit hard in the fighting. At least 50 Hezbollah rockets land there each day. Now, under growing public pressure, the Israeli government has started to evacuate some residents of the town.

NPR's Anne Garrels is with us now and Anne, what is the situation like in Kiryat Shemona?

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Well, I'd say there's pretty much fury with elected officials for not helping them get out sooner. The first lucky ones only got the call this afternoon and evening that they were going to be bussed south to a hotel at government expense.

In each of Kiryat Shemona's five districts, at least 1,500 are demanding they be evacuated, but only 500 total got a free pass out tonight. They were mainly families with children, the elderly and the sick. One couple had a six-day-old baby. Some who didn't make the list came to the meeting points, local schools, demanding they be included. There were a lot of tense exchanges and then, as everyone gathered, waiting for the busses, five Katyusha rockets hit, right close by. Everyone heard the distinctive whistle and blast. There was panic. Several women burst into hysterics. One fainted.

NORRIS: Anne, we actually hear something behind you. What is that we hear in the background?

GARRELS: That's outgoing right now, actually. There's an artillery battery near me which is - it's outgoing. Not Katyushas. Those were earlier this evening.

NORRIS: How big is the town, and are any of the residents there planning to stay behind despite the evacuation?

GARRELS: Well, more are staying than want to, basically. Kiryat Shemona is a relatively poor town a couple of miles from the border. It's populated largely by Moroccan and Russian Jews. Out of the population of about 24,000, 15,000 left early on. They had the money to get out, a place to go. The 9,000 remaining behind include the poor and the disabled, some who simply had nowhere to go, no relatives or friends with whom they could stay. And basically some just couldn't believe this was going to go on for so long.

Most now, though, want out and they've signed up to get out with government transport and housing. But only 500 were taken out tonight and, with more than 50 rockets each day, people have been living in cramped, stuffy underground bomb shelters. It's now a month. Local officials say the government has agreed now to provide free transport and housing for about up to 15,000 across the entire north, but it's not entirely organized, and so far the lucky 500 are being told they're only going to get a subsidized break for five days. They'll go out tonight. They'll be brought back on Sunday, and then others will be rotated out for a break. So this isn't really an evacuation.

NORRIS: Anne, just quickly before we let you go, in general, when you talk to people, how do they feel about how the Israeli government has conducted the war?

GARRELS: Well, the head of the local university had nothing but scorn tonight for the way the government's dealt with the civilian problems here and as for the military operations, many believe the government underestimated or ignored the growing Hezbollah threat since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon six years ago.

And in what may be a military scandal, the Israeli military has just moved the deputy chief of staff up to the north to work with the local commanding general here and this is widely reported as an indication the army has lost confidence in this general. His office is putting the best face on it saying oh, well, this is where the action is. That's why the deputy chief of staff is coming here. But others say such a move is almost unprecedented. The last time something like this happened was in '73.

NORRIS: Thank you, Ann. That was NPR's Anne Garrels, near the border between Israel and Lebanon.

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