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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

A Deadly Day That Changed Everything

Residents of Israel's third-largest city woke to find that `war is here in Haifa.' Israeli officials promise the eight who died won't be forgotten.

July 17, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

HAIFA, Israel — This port city's usual hum gave way Sunday to a ghostly quiet that for many residents carried the uneasy sense of life altered for good.

Israel's third-largest city came to a near-stop, caught somewhere between nervous waiting and plain shock, after Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon hit it with 10 rockets, including one that smashed through a train shed near downtown and killed eight workers.

At least 38 people were reported injured during the barrage, which prompted municipal officials to direct residents to stay home or take refuge in one of the city's reinforced shelters.

The flurry of rockets struck about 9 a.m., catching the bustling seaside town at the start of the workweek and business day. The explosions could be heard around Haifa, and residents who live on the ridge overlooking the bay could see smoke curling from several sites.

Witnesses said motorists stopped their cars in the middle of the street and ran for cover, some of them shrieking with panic. "They were crying, screaming. They didn't want to leave the shop," shopkeeper Asher Asulin said.

By noon, almost every store and office had closed, and downtown had a "Twilight Zone" quality. Cars were few and pedestrians even scarcer. One cafe appeared to have been emptied and locked up so abruptly that half-filled coffee cups remained on the tables. Behind the counter, a blender continued to churn.

It was the second time in four days that Hezbollah reached Haifa with a rocket. On Thursday, a single projectile slammed harmlessly into the side of a hill, for the most part generating more curiosity than panic in the city 20 miles from the Lebanese border.

But on Sunday, Haifa wasn't shrugging it off.

"Today we woke up with shock, real shock," said Hashem Diab, a 49-year-old organizer of arts festivals. "I realized that war is here in Haifa."

An air of grave urgency hung over the city, which, with 270,000 residents, is the largest urban area in northern Israel.

At the Rambam Health Care Campus, the main hospital in Haifa, two dozen gurneys and several wheelchairs were lined up outside the emergency-room doors in preparation for more attacks.

Municipal leaders canceled city events and, as in places closer to the northern border, banks were closed and summer camps scratched. Lifeguards were directed to summon swimmers in from the sea. The scenic strip of white-sand beach south of Haifa lay deserted under picture-perfect skies.

Israeli army officials identified the projectiles that hit the city as Iranian-made Fajr 3 rockets, with a range of about 25 miles. The payload is bigger and the range as much as double that of the Katyusha rockets that Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon have long fired at Israeli communities just across the border.

"It has a capability, a deadly capability, that we haven't seen before," an army spokeswoman said. After the first Haifa attack, army officials said only that the missile was not a Katyusha.

As the rockets began falling Sunday, workers in a maintenance shed of Israel Railways were ordered into the facility's reinforced safe room.

While the mechanics scrambled for cover, a rocket tore through the shed's steel roof and exploded.

"I felt it. Everything shook. My body shook. My ears felt like they were coming out," said Yossi Amergi, 46, who spoke from a bed at the Rambam hospital, his right calf and cheek bandaged.

As Amergi recounted the incident, a siren blared, warning of a new rocket strike. But after long moments of waiting, there was no sign of an explosion. The projectile was believed to have landed elsewhere in the northern region.

The fatal rocket left a ragged, 10-foot hole in the roof of the train shed, littering the floor with debris. Investigators skirted pools of oil and hydraulic fluid, collecting chunks of steel in plastic bags.

David Ben-Zaken, a supervisor at the facility, said he was still in shock at the grisly scene he encountered when he ran to the shed after hearing the blast. "I saw people here on the floor -- workers, friends. They died in my arms," he said.

Israeli officials have warned that Hezbollah is stockpiling longer-range weapons and might possess 100 or so rockets capable of reaching deeper into Israel. Since the Jewish state withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year presence, the militant group's cross-border rocket fire has targeted tiny frontier communities, not more distant cities such as Haifa.

On Sunday, authorities warned people in cities as far south as Tel Aviv, about 75 miles from the border, to stay near places where they might run for cover.

Senior Israeli officials arrived in Haifa to offer support. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, joined by top police officials and the chief of the army's home-front command, attended a special city council meeting hours after the attack.

Looking stern, Peretz assured relatives of the victims that those killed or injured would not be forgotten. "I want them to know that everyone who hit them will pay dearly," he said.

By day's end, there were fewer residents left in town to hear such words. Many had piled into cars and headed out of potential rocket range. Some fled to Eilat, which sits on the Gulf of Aqaba at Israel's southern tip, while others were making their way out of the country.

Diab, the festival organizer, said some of his friends were on their way to Jordan; others got on a plane to Europe a day earlier, after the first rocket strike.

Diab said he planned to stay, though he took his two children to an area on the other side of a ridge that he considered less dangerous.

There was a feeling around town that the rules had changed.

Roni Grossmann, the city spokesman, said Haifa would go on "living from day to day." But, he added quickly: "What we knew yesterday is different today. It's a different kind of rocket."

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