The damage after a rocket fired from Lebanon hit a building in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, February 11, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Main image: The damage after a rocket fired from Lebanon hit a building in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, February 11, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Reporter's notebook'I feel deep pain but I am not afraid'

Refusing evacuation, those who remain in Kiryat Shmona cling to home and brace for ‘hell’

Saying their presence on the war-torn border helps guard the center, some 20% of the northern city’s residents won’t budge despite financial uncertainty and frequent rocket strikes

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

Main image: The damage after a rocket fired from Lebanon hit a building in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona, February 11, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Examining the bombed-out façade of the Center 8 shopping mall in Kiryat Shmona, Natali Eitan calmly lit a cigarette.

A resident of an adjacent apartment building, she spoke to The Times of Israel on Tuesday while sitting on a bench overlooking the impact site of one of the hundreds of rockets that Hezbollah gunmen and other terrorists in Lebanon have launched at Kiryat Shmona since October 8, a day after the outbreak of war between the Hamas terror group and Israel in Gaza.

Hezbollah and other terrorists have killed 16 Israelis in a limited but escalating exchange of fire that has claimed the lives of about 200 Hezbollah members, according to statements by the terror group. On Thursday, a salvo of more than 20 rockets hit Kiryat Shmona, damaging multiple buildings. On Wednesday, a rare rocket attack on Safed killed one soldier and wounded eight others, triggering a relatively strong reaction by Israel, which struck deeper north in Lebanon than before, conducting airstrikes near the city of Sidon. Arab-language media attributed to Israel an alleged airstrike in Damascus on Wednesday morning.

The war has resulted in about 120,000 internally displaced people in Israel, roughly evenly split between southerners who left communities under assault by Hamas and other Gaza-based terrorists, and evacuees from northern locales targeted by Hezbollah terrorists and their junior accomplices in Lebanon.

Evacuees on short trips back home were horrified by the reality of wartime in Kiryat Shmona, a once-vibrant city about a mile (2 kilometers) from the Lebanon border, that was turned into a scarred ghost town after the departure of 80% of its 23,000 residents. Yet, as in other evacuated cities, thousands remain, citing a mix of reasons, including wanting to receive the government’s generous resettlement grant; emotional attachment; and ideological Zionistic convictions.

Eitan, a 45-year-old mother of three who immigrated, to Israel from Lithuania in 2001, stayed in Kiryat Shmona because her apartment is the only place she feels at home, she told this reporter on the bench, situated about 100 yards away from the explosion at the mall. The rocket shot clean through an external wall and the blowback ripped through a parked army truck, shattering the mall’s glass façade.

Natali Eitan stands outside her home in Kiryat Shmona on February 20, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

The backdrop didn’t bother Eitan, she said.

“A rocket could hit you at any second here, but probably won’t. I live with this knowledge so I’m not intimidated by the evidence for it,” said Eitan, whose home was bombed during the previous round of hostilities with Hezbollah in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Multiple evacuees, meanwhile, reported feeling too afraid to return yet to Kiryat Shmona, where they spoke to this reporter while stocking up on household items to take to their government-funded accommodations farther away from the border.

“I wouldn’t want to be living here now,” said Leah Singson, a 14-year-old junior high student who was in Kiryat Shmona with her mother Tuesday to fetch clothes and kitchen utensils for their apartment in Nof Hagalil, a city in the Lower Galilee.

Leah Singson, left, and her mother wait for a bus out of Kiryat Shmona on February 20, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

The Singson family of seven – members of the Bnei Menashe Jewish community who immigrated in 2014 from eastern India – miss Kiryat Shmona, said Leah, who had attended the city’s Chabad school for girls.

“I would’ve loved to just walk around here but everything’s closed, no one I know is here. It’s not fun right now,” Leah said as she waited with her mother for an outbound bus.

Ricky Hadad, a mother of seven who evacuated to a hotel in Tel Aviv, stayed in town this week in an attempt to move back permanently.

“But I’m too scared, the rockets freak me out and I can’t sleep. On some nights I ended up calling one of my children in panic to come get me out of here. So I’m returning to the hotel even though being there depresses me. I’m climbing up the walls,” she said before asking for help moving a duffle bag to the central bus station.

“Stayers” and evacuees alike said they felt abandoned, perplexed, or angry about the decision to evacuate or how it’s being pursued.

Eitan, an assembly line technician at the Kiryat Shmona-based Electro Galil electronics factory, supports the decision to evacuate but laments insufficient provisions for workers rendered jobless. She’s about to get her last unemployment payment next month, forcing her to either find a job in Kiryat Shmona – an unlikely prospect in a city and area whose economy the war has essentially shut down — or join the evacuees and try to get work in the center, where her two daughters are living in government-funded accommodations.

“I’m being basically forced out because of government policy, or lack thereof,” said Eitan.

A damaged army truck parked outside the point of impact of a rocket that hit Kiryat Shmona’s Center 8 Shopping Mall is seen here on February 20, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

Officially, she clarified, she is also an evacuee, registered as residing at an apartment hotel with her daughters in Bat Yam near Tel Aviv. Her son is a soldier serving on Mount Hermon. But she misses Kiryat Shmona, so she spends half her time here.

“I love it here. I love the quiet, the mountain air,” explained Eitan, whose boyfriend is also staying in Kiryat Shmona, where he works.

Israel’s northernmost city, Kiryat Shmona was a relatively impoverished community even before the war. The average monthly salary here was about NIS 10,000 ($2,772), 20% lower than the national level. This reality, coupled with the relative paucity of employment opportunities and other problems plaguing Israel’s so-called periphery – the cities and towns outside its center – have impeded the city’s development regardless of its security issues.

Some locals described the government’s measured response to Hezbollah’s attacks on Kiryat Shmona as an extension of what they perceive as broader neglect by decision-makers of communities in Kiryat Shmona and other impoverished or remote places.

“We’re on the periphery both when it comes to infrastructure like hospitals and schools, but it turns out we’re also marginal when it comes to security,” said Michael Mor, a 22-year-old resident of Kibbutz Gonen who works in Kiryat Shmona. “They won’t deter Hezbollah from sniping at us, and they won’t even build us bomb shelters,” said Mor, noting that hundreds of apartments throughout Kiryat Shmona are in old buildings without sheltered areas.

Michael Mor serves a customer at the kiosk where he works in Kiryat Shmona on February 20, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

The evacuation, multiple residents said, will exacerbate problems because it’s pushing many young, promising residents to leave for good.

Eitan’s eldest, who is 27, “isn’t coming back to Kiryat Shmona. She has a new boyfriend in Tel Aviv. She found work there. The war has pushed her out and there are many young people like her,” her mother said.

“The evacuation is a huge mistake,” said Mor from Kibbutz Gonen, who is the only employee of the only open liquor store in Kiryat Shmona. One of his evacuated friends from Kiryat Shmona also found work in Tel Aviv, earning twice his Kiryat Shmona salary. “So he’s never coming back. The war just facilitated his move to the center,” Mor said.

Locals in Kiryat Shmona have become experts at identifying and localizing the thuds of war that constantly echo throughout the city.

“If there’s a whistle before the thud, that’s usually a Hezbollah anti-tank missile,” Mor says in cataloging the noises. “An echo and then a thud means our outbound artillery. And when a salvo hits, oh, man, you’ll know it, there’s no mistaking those noises.”

Most of the traffic on empty streets here is public transportation buses whose drivers diligently follow their pre-war routes and schedules even though the vehicles are typically empty, or transporting only a handful of passengers.

Yuri Giller walks to the convenience store near his home in Kiryat Shmona on February 20, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

One of the residents who remained is Yuri Giller, an 82-year-old veteran of the Russian army who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s from Yekaterinburg with his two sons. Hamas terrorists murdered one of his sons, Yaroslav Giller, 28, at the music festival in Re’im. Yuri’s elder son, Alex, is living in Haifa.

Giller is struggling to cope with the “very deep pain” over his son’s death, he said, but fear of rockets “is not a problem” for him, he said, adding: “It’s mostly a psychological weapon.”

Yaroslav Giller was among some 1,200 people murdered by Hamas terrorists on October 7 in Israel. The terrorists abducted another 253 into Gaza, among other war crimes and atrocities. Of those, only about 100 have been released in a prisoner swap that ended in December. The Israel Defense Forces invaded the Gaza Strip on October 27 as part of a still-ongoing military campaign whose stated goals are to topple Hamas and retrieve the hostages.

Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have died as a result of the operation, according to unverified data from Palestinian sources, which do not differentiate between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel says it has killed some 12,000.

Thinking of his late son, Giller sobs briefly. Asked about the practicalities of living in Kiryat Shmona – the availability of medical services, food and the supply of water and electricity – he regained his composure and stiff upper lip. “Everything’s fine. Life goes on. The clinic’s open, there’s a grocery store, there’s water and power and there’s also money from social security,” he said, referencing the resettlement grant, which starts at about NIS 6,000 ($1,650) per household each month.

Tech professionals pose for a group photo in Kibbutz Mahanaim on February 20, 2024. (Courtesy of Margalit Startup City Galilee/Erez Ben Simon)

This was also the message coming out of a gathering Tuesday by more than 70 tech startups in Kibbutz Mahanaim in the war-hit Upper Galilee. Initiated by entrepreneur and investor Erel Margalit and his Kiryat Shmona-based Margalit Startup City Galilee business incubator, the meeting was about rehabilitating the region’s budding tech scene and repopulating the area generally.

Margalit told the startup crowd that unless Israel makes “decisive choices” about Hezbollah, it will “falter in its ability to orchestrate a return to order here in the north and bring our people back home.”

Some locals here share Margalit’s preference for a decisive move on Hezbollah, even if it means what one of them, Michael Mor, described as “unleashing hellfire” on Kiryat Shmona and beyond.

“We’ve let this monster grow on our border, and now the price for removing it will be very high,” Mor said. “But unless we pay up, we’re done for everywhere. They’ll come for us in Tel Aviv after they’re done driving us out of the Galilee,” he said.

Mor, for one, vows to remain one of Kiryat Shmona’s “stayers,” even if full-scale fighting erupts and Hezbollah rains down thousands of rockets.

“Come what may, I’m not leaving the region. I’m not abandoning my home,” Mor said.

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