People walk in the Old city of Safed, northern Israel, February 4, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)
People walk in the Old city of Safed, northern Israel, February 4, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Reporter's notebook'This isn't some border city you up and leave'

In Safed, a deadly rocket salvo fails to rattle deeply rooted residents

Jews have lived for centuries in the northern holy city. Its resilient inhabitants resumed regular life mere hours after Hezbollah hit it for the first time in years

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

People walk in the Old city of Safed, northern Israel, February 4, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Roughly two hours after a deadly barrage of rockets from Lebanon rocked Talma Lapid’s neighborhood in Safed, she was already out on her daily sunset stroll along its picturesque streets.

“The rockets were a brief scare, but then we realized it was not the start of something bigger,” Lapid, a 73-year-old mother of four, said of the strikes by Hezbollah Wednesday, which killed one soldier, Omer Sarah Benjo, and wounded eight other soldiers. “We just sort of resumed our lives,” added Lapid, who has been living for 30 years in Merom Cnaan, the northernmost — and probably also most at-risk — neighborhood of Safed.

Lapid’s unperturbed attitude to the threat of terrorist rocket attacks from Lebanon is characteristic of the hardy population of Safed, an ancient and religiously significant city of about 40,000 people that is situated 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the border with Lebanon.

It is especially prominent in Merom Cnaan, a frequent target because it borders the Israel Defense Forces Northern Command headquarters complex of bases, bunkers and emergency storage facilities.

“That’s the tradeoff: We’re surrounded by military bases that draw fire, but these pristine Galilee woods also surround us,” she said of the adjacent Biriya Forest, where thick winter mist adds mystique to the features of what is already one of the area’s most scenic nature reserves.

Lapid grew up in Kibbutz Hulata, located about 12 kilometers northeast of Safed, which for decades had been targeted by Syrian artillery. Accustomed to this threat from early childhood, she moved to Safed in 1994 and bought a detached home with a large yard for $50,000 in Merom Cnaan.

Talma Lapid walks to her home in Safed on February 15, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Established in the 1990s for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Merom Cnaan has few homes with a sheltered area. So when sirens wail to warn of a rocket launch, many of the neighborhood’s residents head to communal bunkers, which are always open in periods of unrest like the past four months.

Hezbollah and other terrorist groups began launching rockets and drones into Israel on October 8, following the previous day’s outbreak of war with Hamas in Gaza after the terrorist organization invaded Israel and slaughtered 1,200 and took 253 hostages to Gaza.

The ensuing rocket attacks from Lebanon have killed 16 Israelis. Kiryat Shmona, Metula and multiple other northern towns were evacuated due to rocket fire leading to tens of thousands of internally displaced Israelis from the north joining a similar number from the Gaza border communities.

Staff Sgt. Omer Sarah Benjo, who was killed in a rocket attack from Lebanon on Safed on February 14, 2024. (IDF)

About 200 people are believed to have died in counterstrikes by Israel inside Lebanon, whose south is controlled by the Hezbollah terrorist group.

Israel carried out relatively large-scale air strikes following Wednesday’s attack, resulting in multiple casualties, according to Lebanese media reports, including senior Hezbollah operative Ali Muhammad al-Debes.

During the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, hundreds of rockets hit Safed. The experience prepared some residents for the current round of hostilities, in which the first rockets hit Wednesday. Since October 8, many rockets have been launched at Safed but the Iron Dome defense system had intercepted them, according to residents.

Clouds cover the sky over a kindergarten in Safed on February 15, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“We’re all afraid, but I think we’re just drilled in how to react,” said Sara Abergil, a mother of four children, aged 10 to 21. “We trust in God, we trust our army and we just continue living as usual,” she said at the Merom Cnaan supermarket, which is also known locally as Ibikur, the name of the developing firm that built the neighborhood.

Abergil revealed that the current hostilities are emotionally taxing on at least one of her children. Her eldest “had a bit of a panic attack” on Thursday, Abergil said. “Her childhood anxieties from 2006 resurfaced. I took her to the bathroom and calmed her down, just like I did when she was three years old in 2006,” Abergil added.

She scoffed at the idea of evacuating out of Safed or fleeing it.

“No, you don’t understand, honey. This is Safed, not some border town you up and leave,” Abergil, whose family has lived here for centuries, told The Times of Israel with a chuckle.

A view of Safed on January 19, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

It was a reference to the fact that Safed, a hub of Jewish mysticism, is one of the so-called Four Holy Cities, along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias. For centuries before the advent of modern Zionism, Jews had lived in those cities, turning them into centers of worship and thought, as well as the final resting places of some of Judaism’s greatest sages.

The tomb of Shimon bar Yochai, a second-century sage, is situated 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Safed and provides the city with a steady stream of pilgrims to the gravesite.

But Safed’s Old City, a labyrinth of cobblestone streets, is an attraction for non-religious tourists as well. Especially in the summertime, the city’s altitude of 850 meters (2,789 feet) above sea level offers a welcome escape from the sweltering Middle Eastern heat amid art galleries and musical events, including the annual international Klezmer Music Festival.

Israeli security forces at the scene where a rocket fired from Lebanon landed in Safed on February 14, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Unlike Kiryat Shmona, where rocket attacks have triggered a near-total evacuation that has left the city almost empty, Safed is bustling. Its restaurants, offices, shops and other amenities are open as residents prepare for Shabbat on Thursday afternoon — even though two rockets launched on Wednesday hit the city’s center.

Therese Cohen, a Safed-born mother of five from Merom Cnaan, said she feels “the deep spirituality” of Safed, especially on Shabbat. On weekends, “you really feel that you’re living in a Jewish holy city,” said Cohen, 50.

But she shared neither Abergil’s determination about staying here nor her apparent fatalism regarding the threat.

“I’m terrified,” said Cohen, who moved yesterday with her five children to her sister’s home because her sister has a sheltered room.

Therese Cohen does shopping for Shabbat in Safed on February 15, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“I hope they evacuate the entire neighborhood. We don’t have individual shelters and, when the siren goes off, we can’t get to the public ones in time before the rockets hit,” Cohen said. Her children were waiting for her in the car while she shopped for groceries. “I can’t let them out of my sight since the rockets hit. I’m keeping them home, not sending them to school,” she added at the supermarket.

The neighborhood’s street names reflect the duality of life here amid great natural beauty and the threat of violence. Alexander Pechersky Street, named for a leader of the uprising in the Nazi death camp of Sobibor, dissects the neighborhood whose other streets are named for local birds, including the goldfinch and nightingale.

People walk in the Old City of Safed, northern Israel, February 4, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

At the supermarket, the patrons and staff represent the diversity of Safed and Merom Cnaan.

One regular is Lapid, the ex-kibbutznik, who is an artist with an interest in Buddhism and the writing of Baruch Spinoza. An Ashkenazi Jew of German extraction, two of her children have left Israel for Berlin.

Another is Cohen, who is observant and comes from a Sephardic home. Abergil is also religious but defines herself as a spiritual healer who combines Jewish traditions with Far Eastern ones in treating a female clientele.

Store manager Hannah Matzliah, a Safed-born mother of four, defines herself as “traditional.” She worries more over “how Safed is becoming a Haredi city” than over Hezbollah’s targeting of the place, she told The Times of Israel.

“I’m fine with Haredim, they’re great people,” she said. “But I just want this pluralism to continue, because this is our real source of strength,” she said.

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