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WARFARE IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Fleeing Home for a Haven

Many northern Israelis head south to escape the rockets, leaving behind towns almost abandoned, but taking the fear with them.

July 21, 2006|Vita Bekker and Ken Ellingwood | Special to The Times

HOLON, Israel — Dror and Alexandra Brami finally decided they had had enough.

The echoing booms of landing rockets fired by the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah had left 8-year-old daughter Lotem jumpy and begging to leave. The Bramis were fed up with huddling with their two daughters and newborn son in a windowless reinforced "safe room" in their home.

And they were dismayed to see that the forest around their small hillside community of Hatzor Haglilit, in the Galilee region about 12 miles from the border with Lebanon, had been scorched by rocket-ignited fires.

So the couple crammed the family and belongings into their car -- bringing clothes, money, mattresses and diapers -- and headed south to seek a rocket-free haven in Holon, a small industrial city just south of Tel Aviv.

"We're afraid of the rockets," Dror Brami, 35, a plaster factory worker, said as he sprawled on an armchair in his brother's apartment in Holon.

Lotem shyly recollected, "We heard booms, and the house shook after one boom, and we saw fire after a rocket fell."

"We won't go back until the situation calms down," her father said. "Here in Israel's center, you don't feel the war yet."

Thousands of northern Israel families like the Bramis have fled the rocket barrages since the conflict flared after Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a July 12 border raid.

Throughout cities and small communities in the north, streets have been deserted, stores and businesses have closed and trains stopped running.

In Hatzor, as many as half of the 10,000 residents have left. As many as 30 rockets have slammed into the community, which had last experienced shelling during the Six-Day War in 1967.

The exodus from the north has lent the normally scenic region an otherworldly feel. Most towns have all but closed, and there are few signs of the residents. In some places, the only vehicles on the roads are military trucks loaded with artillery rounds and other gear. Restaurants that would usually be brimming with summertime travelers have the forlorn look of the abandoned.

The eerie silence is broken only by alarms warning of an impending rocket strike.

Residents are growing weary of clambering into reinforced public shelters, or ducking behind the nearest sturdy-looking wall.

On one recent day at a hummus restaurant in Rosh Pina, employees went scrambling for a safe spot behind the eatery -- in the direction away from the border. An Israeli soldier continued eating intently despite the siren. He was still dabbing at his bowl of hummus with pita bread after the alert had ended and the employees had returned to their places.

Many residents appeared to have left the town, near Hatzor. But the sudden exodus has not been without complications.

As those escaping the rockets join relatives in central and southern Israel, they -- and their hosts -- are learning to cope with the lack of privacy in the crammed homes.

Twelve people are occupying the two-bedroom apartment of Brami's brother, including Brami's parents, who had also come south to escape the rockets.

Daytime has the house buzzing with activity. The soft hum of the air conditioner is drowned out by the noise of the children as they shout and play and the television as it blares 24-hour news coverage of the conflict.

At night, the adults sleep on sofas or spread out air mattresses on the living room floor, while the four children share two small beds in one of the rooms.

"It's not the most comfortable situation," said Sarit Brami, who was playing host to her relatives from the north.

She sat cross-legged on the living room floor and cradled her sleeping baby in her arms, as the muted television behind her showed images of the rockets and of Israeli attacks in Lebanon.

"No one gets any privacy, and the children run around and don't listen to anyone," she said.

Even in safer surroundings, the family could feel the effects of the fighting it fled. A loud thud from a garbage truck one morning made Lotem jump in fear, thinking it was a rocket strike.

And despite Holon's remove from the rocket fire, there was worry the barrages would soon reach the center of Israel as well.

Sarit Brami said she was concerned that the Israeli army might not achieve its goals in its fight against Hezbollah.

"I support the government, but I'm angry at the lack of results," she said. "The kidnapped soldiers haven't been returned. People are getting killed. And with every passing day, I feel like the rockets are getting closer."

Special correspondent Bekker reported from Holon and Times staff writer Ellingwood from northern Israel.

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