Friday, 18 August 2006

Israelis in battered town start to pick up the pieces

Esther and Yigal Buskila assess the damage inflicted by a Katyusha rocket on their home in Nahariya. They had fled the attacks. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to The Chronicle

Friday, August 18, 2006
Page A - 11

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Nahariya, Israel -- Lydisia Kadosh was watching the TV news two weeks ago when she realized that the house blazing away on the screen was hers.

The burning three-story duplex in this northern Israeli town had just been hit by a Katyusha rocket, fired across the border by Hezbollah guerrillas during the 34-day war, which entered a tense cease-fire Monday.

"I saw my house exploding and going up in flames," said Kadosh, inspecting the damage Thursday. "My daughter burst into tears when she saw the pictures."

Kadosh, her husband and their four children had left Nahariya in the first week of the fighting to stay with friends and relatives. They returned home this week to find their house uninhabitable, with a huge hole in the roof and broken glass and furniture scattered everywhere.

"We have been refugees for a month, moving from place to place, and we are still refugees because we cannot live there while it is in this state," she said. "The municipality has given us a place in a hotel, but only for a short time."

The Kadoshes have plenty of company: An estimated two-thirds of the 51,000 residents of Nahariya left to escape the daily rocket bombardments.

By Thursday, most had returned, and traffic filled the streets once more. Neighbors and workers searched out friends and surveyed the damage. Huge lines developed at banks and post offices as inhabitants began sorting out their personal affairs after a month in limbo.

In the basement of the Carlton Hotel, tax officials labored from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., receiving information from thousands of people about damaged homes, cars and businesses. Some, like Kadosh, were given hotel vouchers while their homes were being repaired.

Many residents, especially those from poorer neighborhoods, complained that the compensation procedure was too bureaucratic and slow.

Nissim Assor, 57, had nowhere to escape to, so he was at home in the working-class Kiryat Assor neighborhood with his wife and five children two weeks ago when a Katyusha landed in their front garden, blowing out the windows and sending shards of metal through the door and walls.

"We escaped by a miracle," Assor said, pulling out a piece of jagged shrapnel from the pages of a cookbook where it had lodged after piercing a door, a cupboard and the book's cover. "Each day, we find more pieces in the kitchen cupboards. We have no windows, blinds or doors. We're still waiting for someone to come and fix it."

His neighbor Yigal Buskila, 36, also had nowhere to go, but he packed up his wife and 5-year-old son and headed south anyway.

"My wife and son were terribly scared. They were trembling all the time. My son still can't sleep," said Buskila, surveying the wreckage of his tiny living room and the smashed screen of his TV set. "We just turned up in cities all over the country and contacted the mayor in each place, and he found us families who were willing to take us in. We stayed a few days in each place, like refugees. People were wonderful."

Isaac Noah, a 44-year-old investment banker, also saw his home go up in flames on television after a third Katyusha hit his street, uprooting a streetlight, smashing walls, windows and part of his roof, and leaving the front of his house looking as though it had been freshly machine-gunned. "Thank God it was empty at the time," he said. "All they hurt were stones. We will rebuild them."

Around the corner, a huge banner outside the Diesenhaus Unitours travel agency declared, "The windows are broken -- but we're not!" Managing Director Nir Shilo kept the office open through the conflict but sent his staff home to work by phone and Internet. The company found accommodations for workers who wanted to leave the city with employees at its branches elsewhere in Israel.

By Thursday, the computers, telephones and electricity were up and working again, but the windows were in shards, waiting to be repaired.

"I had to stay. I believe in fate. Part of the struggle in this war was to show our enemies that even with 5,000 rockets falling in a month, the economy and life goes on," he said.

According to news reports, nearly 4,000 rockets hit northern Israel and about 12,000 homes were destroyed during the war.

Shilo said his business fell 40 percent in July, the beginning of the peak summer period, and he expected further losses for August, but he was confident the economy would recover. "My business has grown by at least 15 percent a year since 2001," he said. "It shows that people have the money to spend, and also they are of a mind to relax, to take vacations. I think that will return."

A few miles up the road, in the village of Shlomi, Shlomo Lugasi was sitting on his porch enjoying the sunshine, as he did every day throughout the war.

At 104, Lugasi is probably the oldest Israeli to survive the onslaught -- and perhaps also the toughest. He simply refused to leave the village he helped establish half a century ago, a place he picked because the name was so similar to his.

"It's much nicer now that it's quiet, without these rockets whistling over my head and exploding," Lugasi said.

"I'd prefer to have a cease-fire all the time. I believe in this peace, and I believe Israel wants peace, but I don't trust (Hassan) Nasrallah," he said, referring to the Hezbollah leader. "Nasrallah is just looking for trouble. But he'll lose in the end."

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