In the deserted commercial center that borders on Kiryat Shmona’s central bus station, an army jeep screeched to a halt in front of the open door of a bakery.
“Sorry guys, we’re closed,” the owner, Avi Yosef-Hay, on Sunday told the disappointed driver and passenger, two special forces reservists who had been dreaming of bringing freshly baked buns to their platoon, garrisoned at a nearby school.
Yosef-Hay is one of about 2,000 residents who remained in this northern city of 23,000, following the government’s dramatic decision this weekend to evacuate it for the first time since 1993, due to the risk of an escalation in the fighting with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist group. The terror group’s rocket and mortar launchers are situated only 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) away from Kiryat Shmona.
The city’s transformation into a ghost town provided Yosef-Hai, 67, with a good opportunity to do some work outside of his usual business hours: in the absence of his usual clientele, he brought in a fumigator.
“When war erupts, it’s traumatizing. You jump at every loud bang for years later,” said Yosef-Hai, who has lived here for 33 years, including during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when thousands of Hezbollah’s rockets rained down on Kiryat Shmona and beyond.
His five children and wife evacuated, but he stayed out of principle. “When the enemy’s at the gate, I stay,” said Yosef-Hay.
This defiant stance, informed but unaltered by the grim reality of wartime here, is characteristic of those who chose to remain in this battered border town, the security problems of which have often impeded — but never reversed — its slow ascent out of the poverty and neglect that characterized it during its first few decades.
The evacuation was by far the largest logistical operation in the country’s north during this round of hostilities, and the second-largest evacuation so far during Swords of Iron, the military campaign that began on October 7, when some 2,000 Hamas terrorists killed about 1,400 Israelis in a brutal cross-border onslaught.
Sderot, a city of 27,000 residents near the Gaza Strip, was evacuated earlier this month due to rocket fire, along with thousands of residents from nearby kibbutzim and villages.
Many residents of Ofakim, Netivot, and Ashkelon also left those towns, as the Israel Defense Forces began pummeling Hamas targets in Gaza, ahead of an expected ground offensive.
Meanwhile, deadly exchanges of fire developed in the north, with three rockets at least landing in Kiryat Shmona. On Saturday, this city’s evacuation began, signaling to many that Israel expects a major escalation in the north. Buses took residents to hotels in the center and deep south, amid much confusion, logistical problems, and stress for the evacuees.
Choosing to stay
“Between that and the rockets, I choose the latter,” says Leah Menashe, 62. “I don’t relish the opportunity to become a refugee, I’m better off staying here.”
A single mom, Menashe’s only son, Michael, was a toddler during the Second Lebanon War. During rocket volleys, Menashe would take him to the bathroom of her small apartment because that is the safest room, she said. “I would put on the water to mask the sounds of war, but he knew something was wrong,” she recalls.
Tal Eitan, an 18-year-old high school student, is staying, despite the evacuation orders, along with her mother, 45-year-old Nataly, who made aliyah in the 1990s from what is now Lithuania. “We had a whole discussion. Mom wanted to leave and go abroad, but I didn’t because it felt wrong, felt like fleeing. And if we’re already staying, we might as well do it in the comfort of our home,” the 18-year-old says cheerfully, outside the neighborhood’s only open kiosk, where she came to get cigarettes for her mother.
Eitan was a baby during the Second Lebanon War and she does not remember it. But her older sister does and is not fazed. The older sister, who no longer lives in Kiryat Shmona under normal circumstances, is one of a handful of civilians who came from the center to the restive city, to be with her mother and sister. “If it gets really bad, I think we’ll leave, but so far, it’s not bad here,” says Tal, who is using the time to cram for her matriculation exams.
Yosef-Hai, who attends synagogue prayers regularly, was preparing to pray alone this week. “All the synagogues have closed. There’s no minyan,” he said, mentioning the quorum of 10 Jewish men required for some prayers in Orthodox Judaism.
One business that was open on Sunday was Asaf Maman’s burger restaurant, Maman Bros. He was staying open for one more day before closing indefinitely, but his last day at work was challenging.
Maman, 30, had only two staffers and few vegetables. Soldiers, delighted to find an open eatery, bombarded him with orders over the phone, as he struggled to take down the orders of the few customers who were physically there.
Despite the hustle and bustle, the soldiers’ orders barely made it profitable to open because they did not make up for the loss of business from civilians. “I’m staying open for three reasons: to have something to do; to give work to my employees who are not to afraid to come to work, and to feed the soldiers,” said Maman. His wife and two small children had relocated to Tiberias, and he was joining them as soon as he finished closing up, he said.
Even though nearly all residents left, public transportation schedules remained unaltered, which resulted in a surrealistic scene at the central bus station, where empty buses came and went with clockwork precision.
Some stragglers used the buses to Tel Aviv for a belated retreat. “We already left Sunday but the hotel they arranged for us had a ‘no pets’ policy, so we had to go back,” said Yafim Grinberg, an octogenarian who made aliyah 10 years ago from Moscow with his wife Sveta and two now elderly dogs, who were puppies then. Strapping a large pistol on his hip, he sighs as he waited for the bus.
Deserted Kiryat Shmona featured multiple unusual sights.
As Menashe spoke to a Times of Israel reporter, with a Pringles pack tucked under her armpit, a special forces platoon in tactical gear appeared behind her, the troops taking up positions outside of the elementary school that her son used to attend. The troops were brushing up on their urban warfare skills.
She greeted them casually and asked whether they had encountered any open convenience stores where she could buy milk. One soldier said he did not know, and Menashe replied: “Never mind, I’ll drink my coffee black for a few days.”
The exercises show that the army was implementing lessons from the October 7 incursion by preparing for a new one by Hezbollah troops. Kiryat Shmona has memories of such attacks. In 1974, Palestinian terrorists murdered 18 people in an attack that was smaller in scale, but similar in modus operandi to Hamas’s murder spree. The terrorists’ first target was Menashe’s elementary school, named for educator Janusz Korczak, a famous Holocaust victim, but the students had not been at school because the attack was during the Passover holiday.
Like most of Kiryat Shmona’s homes, Menashe’s apartment does not have a reinforced room. When sirens go off, announcing a rocket launch, she goes into the communal shelter of her apartment building, a crumbling four-story structure of brutalist architectural design. “I don’t mind; I grew up with Katyusha rockets,” she said.
A town in transition
The bulk of Kiryat Shmona is made up of projects featuring such buildings, which were hastily built during the decades from the 1950s to the 1990s, when the city served as a point of absorption for waves of penniless Jewish immigrants from both the former Communist bloc in eastern Europe and Arab countries.
For decades, Kiryat Shmona was one of Israel’s poorest cities, its socioeconomic challenges highlighted by the contrast with the affluent kibbutzim and moshavim around it. But in recent years, the city has pulled off a major transition, thanks to the growth and arrival of institutions of higher learning, high-tech parks, and a major government investment project of $125 million.
Of late, Kiryat Shmona has achieved positive population growth, and is comfortably above the national average in municipal expenditure per resident and per student. Even returns on real-estate investments are above the national average.
This change is visible in the urban landscape. In 2019, the municipality completed one of Israel’s most impressive nature rehabilitation projects here, resulting in the inauguration of Park HaZahav, a recreational area that features a freshwater stream that for decades had been diverted for drinking water.
Before the evacuation, the park, nestled at the foot of the towering Naftali mountain range, was attracting hundreds of families and slowly rebranding a city known mostly for the drab housing projects.
During a visit to the north Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Hezbollah that if it escalates its attacks on Israel’s north, which have killed several Israeli troops and invited deadly retaliatory strikes, “We will hit it with a force it can’t imagine, with devastating consequences for it and Lebanon.”
But Kiryat Shmona, too, has much at stake, noted Yosef-Hai, who has multiple businesses in town. “I’m ready for whatever’s coming. I just hope that it doesn’t set us back as a community,” he said.
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