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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 July 2006, 00:53 GMT 01:53 UK
Testing times for tolerant Haifa
By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Haifa

Haifa is one of Israel's most culturally tolerant and mixed cities. Enjoying breakfast in one of the Arab cafes in the old quarter of town is usually a delightful and relaxing experience.

Israeli house hit by an Hezbollah rocket in Haifa
The attacks are forcing many to consider leaving the city
But the cafe is now only open for visiting journalists and, when your early morning coffee is disturbed by the piercing sound of a rocket siren, the experience can hardly be described as relaxing.

At least 12 times on Tuesday, the sirens went off - sending waiters, local residents and the press scurrying for cover. In our case, "shelter" was a lavishly decorated room in the basement of the cafe.

As I sat out one siren, I got talking to newlyweds Alex and Alim Shehad. Both were born in Haifa but are frightened by the constant rocket attacks. They both laughed when I asked them if they intended to stay here.

"He wants us to leave now to go and stay with my uncle in Tel Aviv," said Alim. "But I'm worried about my friends and family here. You just don't know what to expect from one day to the next."

We will overcome - I'm not going anywhere
Elderly Haifa resident

As we finished talking to the Shehads, yet another siren pierced the air. The rocket, presumably fired from a Hezbollah position in Lebanon, landed right in the middle of town.

Fifteen minutes later, we were there. The rocket had hit a working-class part of Haifa less than half a mile from where we had been sheltering.

The Katyusha rocket had totally destroyed a three-storey block of flats. The building had completely collapsed in on itself.

Cars were crushed in the street by falling masonry, and several neighbouring buildings were damaged.

Miraculously, no-one was killed, residents and neighbours managing to escape just in time to bomb shelters.

No longer immune

It is easy to see why so many of Haifa's residents and those from other northern towns have left to stay with friends and families further south.

While families, especially those with young children, continue to leave, others are more defiant.

Haifa residents in a public shelter
Public shelters are protecting people from the bombardment

"We will overcome. I'm not going anywhere," said one elderly man as he watched the aftermath of the latest rocket attack.

There have, of course, been far fewer civilian casualties here in Israel than those killed in Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

But the deaths of eight rail workers here on Sunday, when a Hezbollah rocket crashed through their maintenance shed, shocked Haifa and the whole of Israel.

Thousands are thought to have abandoned this city, although the Israeli authorities will not say exactly how many.

No longer can Haifa claim to be immune to the problems that affect this troubled region.

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