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Last Updated: Friday, 18 August 2006, 23:32 GMT 00:32 UK
Kiryat Shmona counts cost of war
By Raffi Berg
BBC News, Kiryat Shmona, Israel

With a fragile ceasefire holding between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel's northern-most city of Kiryat Shmona is slowly emerging from more than a month under fire.

Life is returning to normal for these residents of Kiryat Shmona, eating on the patio of a restaurant
Life is slowly returning to normal in Kiryat Shmona
Just a mile and a half east of the Lebanese border, the city was battered by at least 1,000 missiles, more than anywhere else in Israel.

The battle scars are evident everywhere - shattered roofs, pock-marked walls, buildings in a state of collapse - and the residents are shell-shocked and exhausted.

Sandwiched between the Golan Heights and the Naftali Hills, Kiryat Shmona has for years been on the front line of Israel's skirmishes with militants in south Lebanon.

It has been hit by so many rockets since the 1960s that locally the city has earned the nickname "Kiryat Katyusha". Ironically, it is this very affliction which ultimately proved the city's saving grace - despite the relentless bombardment in the latest conflict, Kiryat Shmona did not suffer a single casualty.

"It's sad to say but this place is used to Katyushas. When the war started, everyone went straight into the shelters because they knew exactly what to do," said Ofer Adar, a city official. "The missiles didn't find anyone in their homes or on the streets, and as a result everyone survived."

Schools shut

Some 8,000 residents - a third of the city's population - spent four weeks and three days hiding in shelters, while twice that number left town for safer places like Tel Aviv.

Many of those who fled have already come back, but with more than 2,000 buildings damaged - some irreparably - life here has hardly begun to return to normal.

Kiryat Shmona is in northern Israel, sandwiched between the Golan Heights and the Israeli-Lebanese border
Five schools were hit by rockets and the start of the new school year in September has had to be suspended.

Some businesses have reopened, but many remain shut and some will have to be demolished.

On Selinger Street, where trade was brisk as shoppers hurriedly prepared for the Sabbath, a crude banner reading "Nasrallah, garbage, we will wipe you and Lebanon out!" hung outside the front of a bombed-out restaurant.

"People love living here and don't want to leave," said Mr Adar.

"Despite all the bombs and the wars, it's still a good place. The air is clean, the water is sweet and the land is green. People don't want to raise their kids in a big city, they like the quiet here."

'Everything gone'

Nearby, Margalit Binyamini surveyed the damage to her home - one of four apartments in a block which took a direct hit from a missile.

Outside, debris and bits of broken furniture and belongings littered the ground.

"I feel good that I am alive, but I have lost everything," said Mrs Binyamini, 58. "My bed, my clothes, my possessions - all gone."

The mother-of-three and her husband, Amnon, both of whom waited out the war in Tel Aviv, have been offered temporary accommodation by a neighbour while their home is being rebuilt.

Half the cost will be met by the government, but the Binyaminis will have to foot the rest, an amount they do not yet know.

"I have lived here for 35 years and it is still a good place to live," said Mrs Binyamini.

A resident of Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel stands in front of her missile-damaged apartment block
Sylvie Fartook's apartment was destroyed by a Hezbollah missile
"All the people here are friendly and helpful. They are like one big family."

The Binyaminis' upstairs neighbour, Sylvie Fartook, whose apartment was also destroyed, stayed in Kiryat Shmona for the first week of the conflict, but could not take any more.

"I have lived here through all the wars since I was four years old, but this was the first time I have had to leave Kiryat Shmona, because it got so bad," said the 55-year-old retired teacher.

"Everyone said it was like no other war they have experienced. Sometimes there were 100 rockets a day.

"People are very frightened. Even people who said they'd live here all their lives are for the first time contemplating moving," she said.

But for now, the talk in Kiryat Shmona is of picking up the pieces and rebuilding again, as it has had to do so many times before.

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