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In only a flash, a peaceful city no longer

A WHILE AGO my friend Myla invited me for a summer's outing, which we scheduled for this week. I'd avoid the traffic and take the train, where Myla would meet me and escort me around her beautiful mountainside city. There was only one hitch: Myla is an American, but her adopted hometown is besieged Haifa.

I awoke Sunday to the news that a missile had made a direct hit on the Haifa train station, killing eight and wounding 17 more. The trains haven't been running since then.

In a flash, pacific Haifa -- a city of mixed Jewish and Arab inhabitants known for its integration -- became out of bounds. Haifa, the most innocuous destination in Israel -- with its exquisite Bahai temple gardens cascading down Mount Carmel, its sea views reminiscent of San Francisco, its bustling workaday port, and its refreshing proletarian atmosphere. Every December the city throws a homegrown interfaith street festival for all three holidays wrapped into one: Jewish Hanukkah, Muslim Eid Al-Fitr, and Christian Christmas.

After that deadly bomb, I e-mailed Myla: ``You are welcome to come stay at our home for as long as you wish." Welcoming even casual acquaintances to become houseguests has become more the norm than the exception. Volunteers man hotlines to aid people wishing to find help and accommodations further south.

But Myla's kids were safely away on vacation, so she decided to stay put. After several days of staying cooped up indoors as per safety orders, Myla complained she was suffering more from boredom than from fear.

Now nobody except news crews is going into Haifa . Indeed, the traffic is all the other way, and roads clogged with mega traffic jams. The Technion, a prestigious science university, provided free bus transportation out for any students left on campus.

At the first explosion Sunday , drivers jumped out and ran for cover, abandoning their cars in the middle of the road, thus rendering thoroughfares inaccessible for ambulance crews. Some even fled leaving the keys in the ignition. As the barrage of missiles continued, people adjusted to the new reality. Now, when air raid sirens sound, drivers obediently pull to the side of the road and make an orderly exit, as if they signaled nothing more than a passing cloudburst.

As people on both sides of the border suffer bombardments, some silently commiserate with each other as they hear the sounds of shelling. Normally unflappable Debby has lived in a Galilee kibbutz for 19 years, during which time she has seen hundreds of rockets fired from Lebanon. But she was never as terrified as on Monday night, when there were so many so close together she felt her heart was beating so hard she thought it might stop. ``Still," she said, ``I pity the innocent people across the border who are getting hit even harder than we."

The cool nights of the Galilee usually beckon at midsummer. But a week ago, upon finding the Carmel Forest Spa filled to capacity, one couple settled for a holiday at the much hotter Dead Sea. Yet in the space of a few days the Dead Sea is overbooked, and the Carmel Forest Spa is becoming a ghost town.

As a veteran of several security emergencies, I myself took the first modest and yet overt step toward personal preparedness. As I stood at the supermarket checkout counter, I raced off for an impulse purchase -- a case of bottled water.

Even though I live on the ``safe" outskirts of Tel Aviv, the water shelf was precariously low. The radio has begun playing melodic old ballads that one never is lucky enough to hear unless danger lurks. Major hospitals have stepped up their security alert status.

But it was walking into the law school at Tel Aviv University that really stopped me short. I was met by an ominous impromptu sign tacked up on the entrance with thick black arrows pointing to the basement. It read: ``To the shelter."

Maybe Tel Aviv isn't such a safe bet for Myla after all.

Helen Schary Motro, who teaches at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, is author of ``Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada."

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