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Monday, 31 July 2006

Rockets rain down on Israelis near border

Half the residents of Kiryat Shemona have fled southward

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Monday, July 31, 2006
Page A - 7

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Kiryat Shemona, Israel -- Forest fires raged into the night on the mountains around this town after the north of Israel suffered a barrage of more than 150 Hezbollah rockets on Sunday.

More than 90 rockets fell in and around Kiryat Shemona, a city of 22,000 near the border with Lebanon where life has been virtually frozen since hostilities began on July 12 with a Hezbollah cross-border raid and rocket barrage.

"I am supposed to be a hero for my children, but I can't be that anymore. I am afraid," said resident Iris Shviti, emerging with her children from a shelter.

As many as half the residents of Kiryat Shemona are believed to have fled the town for safer areas in southern Israel.

"In the first days, it was hard. Now, it is impossible. I can't take it anymore," said Shviti's 14-year-old son, Lior.

A shopping center and a house both took direct hits as residents ran for cover to air-raid shelters and specially reinforced rooms. Scores of buildings were damaged, and 10 vehicles were set ablaze.

Police and emergency services struggled to fight the fires and raced around the city checking for casualties as the rockets hit the town in barrages from early morning to evening. Seventeen people were injured by nightfall, but there were no reports of fatalities.

Dark smoke billowed into the evening sky, turning deep red against the setting sun. On the outskirts of the town, several Israeli army artillery batteries pounded southern Lebanon with 155mm howitzers, the heavy shells whistling over the mountains to hit targets up to 15 miles away.

The Israeli troops have been camped out on the field since the fighting began, eating and sleeping in the open air among neatly arranged stores of shells and huge mobile artillery batteries, which to the uninitiated closely resemble tanks.

Every few minutes, another huge gun fired a 3-foot-long shell. Flames spouted from the end of the 20-foot cannon. A deafening report like a thunderclap split the air, sending shockwaves pulsing across the field. The troops wore special ear protectors to muffle the sound and bulletproof vests to protect themselves in case a Hezbollah rocket hit near their position.

"We're defending the people in the north of Israel by firing artillery shells to destroy the Hezbollah rocket launchers. Our accuracy is pretty good," said gunner Eli Deutsch, a New York native who immigrated to Israel at age 8 with his parents.

The soldiers wondered how much longer they would have to be there. The Israeli government announced late Sunday that it would suspend air attacks for 48 hours while it investigates how civilians were fatally targeted in the Lebanese city of Qana. Before the announcement -- which was made by the U.S. Department of State -- Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz had said military operations would continue despite the "painful" deaths of more than 50 people in the attack on a building in the Hezbollah stronghold of Qana.

Peretz said Israel needed another two weeks to complete its mission to destroy the Hezbollah military presence in southern Lebanon.

"Only two more weeks," said one Israeli soldier as he hefted a shell weighing more than 80 pounds into the howitzer in preparation for another strike. "That's not so bad."

There was a crackle of radio static, and the field commander ordered the battery gunners to halt their fire. The hit was confirmed. The target was destroyed. The commander declined to identify the target or reveal how he knew it had been hit.

But the quiet was short-lived. A few minutes later, two batteries across the field began firing in tandem. Another Hezbollah target was in their sights.

The Israelis are hoping that their artillery will destroy the Hezbollah missile silos and rocket launchers that have shut down the lives of a million Israelis in northern Israel.

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