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Lives shaken by rockets

In Israeli city, missiles jolt neighborhoods and nerves

HAIFA, Israel -- Lital Sharvit , a tired 19-year-old single mother, didn't have to run for safety when the sirens that warn of incoming Hezbollah rockets wailed at 1:15 Friday afternoon. She hardly leaves the underground shelter anymore, except for the nights when she creeps back to her family's apartment to shower.

Five times the booming explosion of an incoming rocket reverberated in the hot, still air of this Mediterranean seaside city. Inside the concrete bunker the sounds are barely audible. Sharvit and the 50 other Israelis who waited out the alert in the Michael Street shelter knew from the muffled sound that the rockets did not strike nearby.

Those who had rushed in off the street when the siren began left quickly, resuming their interrupted conversations and cellphone calls even before they had finished climbing the dark, musty stairs from the shelter to the street. Sharvit shuddered slightly and stayed put.

``We are afraid all the time," she said, nodding toward her mother, younger sisters, and neighbors. ``We stay in all day. I am afraid even to go to the house to shower," she said, though rockets are usually not fired at night because it is easier for the Israeli Defense Forces to spot launchers in the dark.

``I am uncomfortable all the time," Sharvit said. ``Even when I sit here, I feel I am sitting on needles."

Most of the approximately 1,600 rockets that Hezbollah fighters have fired from southern Lebanon into Israel since the Islamist militiamen set off the conflict -- by infiltrating the Jewish state and abducting two soldiers July 12 -- have been small, short-range Katyushas. The rockets have killed people, but much more often they have scorched fields, ruined groves, and forced evacuations of the collective and cooperative farming communities that lie along the northern border.

But larger, more powerful, longer-range Katyushas are being fired at Haifa, 18 miles south of the border and the largest city in northern Israel. In addition to conventional explosives, those rockets are packed with metal balls that act like bullets when the explosives go off. About 60 of the rockets have hit Haifa , killing 10 people and wounding about 100, according to Haifa Police Chief Nir Mariash.

When the missiles began falling, this city of 1 million people was in shock. Virtually all businesses closed. The streets were empty. About 25 percent of the population moved south, to the center of the country. Those who wanted to move but couldn't afford to are still here and terrified.

``It is very difficult," said Sharvit, who is pale and visibly stressed. ``My baby is 18 months and he's eating adult food -- but I'm afraid to go up to cook. I'd like to walk out of here, but I am a single parent, and we have no money."

Still, many others stayed in Haifa by choice, and have begun to cope.

Trying to move on
During the second Palestinian intifadah, or uprising, which petered out about two years ago, Israelis seemed almost obsessed with cleaning up and repairing as quickly as possible the damage done by suicide bombers who struck cafés, shopping centers, and public buses. Even after the largest blasts, something resembling normal life resumed within days.

It is a coping strategy that people in Haifa are embracing vigorously as they struggle to live amid their fears that a rocket could fall on them at any place, any time.

The neighborhood known as Bat Galim -- Daughter of Waves -- juts into the azure waters of Haifa Bay next to the port facilities, and it has taken several hits. Military censorship forbids publication of the dates and locations of the strikes lest the information prove useful to Hezbollah.

Hanoch Borger , Haifa's chief gardener, was supervising repairs in the neighborhood last week, a day after a rocket shattered the palm trees and destroyed the flowerbeds in one of Bat Galim's main squares. At the side of the square stood a tree with dozens of small puncture wounds from ball bearings. Sap dripped from the holes as if the tree were bleeding.

``You are a sitting duck, and don't know where the rockets will fall," said Borger, 47. ``It's choking our lives. . . . There's nobody on the streets, we can't go into the coffee shops. Life has stopped, really stopped."

But by Friday, the salvageable trees in the square had been doctored up, the flowers had been replanted, and visitors had to look closely to see the fresh stumps where destroyed trees had been.

In neighboring Kiryat Eliezer , the same was true in an old apartment block devastated by one of the larger Katyushas.

On Friday, a day off for many Israelis, workmen were laying bricks and connecting natural gas tanks to replace those that caught fire when the rocket hit the side of the building. The crater the explosion dug next to the building was already filled in, and what rubble remained had been raked to the side. But people seemed to understand clearly that their coping strategy did not mean everything was fine.

``My wife went into shock," said Menachem Farin , 51, a construction manager whose apartment is a block away. ``She screamed and she cried . . . and then she went into a room with our dog and sat on the floor without moving."

She was taken by ambulance to a hospital and now takes medication to calm her nerves, but ``if I close the door, she jumps. If the phone rings, she jumps," Farin said.

The reflex is very strong after such an experience, he said.

``The adrenaline pumps, and the heart reacts. After the war there will be big problems for some people. My wife has a job in a bank, but now she is very, very nervous," Farin said.

Coping with conflict
Mental health professionals agree that the danger Israelis are being exposed to will create a lot of needs in the future. But they say that Israelis are better positioned to cope than many other peoples.

This is the 10th armed conflict since the founding of the state, and addressing the psychological needs of people under threat has become part of the country's standard operating procedure.

When war breaks out, the public schools' psychological services department becomes an emergency mental-health-crisis response network, said Sharona Maital , a Haifa resident and director of school psychological services in one of the main northern districts. Round-the-clock psychological services are available in the city.

School psychologists maintain booklets for parents, with recommendations on such matters as how to deal with young children and television news during war (don't let them watch) and what to do with a young child who becomes intensely clingy after a scare (don't push back).

``If people have a blueprint of what needs to be done and who needs to do what, this doesn't solve everything, but it is a very strengthening resource," Maital said.

Perhaps most important, ``people who have lived through tough times and learned that they can pick themselves up and move on are much more resilient," she said. ``This is not just an individual feeling, it is communal."

Michal Finkelstein , a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University's Sefat affiliate in northern Israel, said this sense of solidarity, of people feeling they are not alone, is an important ingredient for overcoming trauma.

``People, volunteers, are coming from all over the country. Artists, social workers, many people want to contribute," she said.

Some of the country's best-known singers are visiting shelters in the north, giving free performances. The Habad movement of Orthodox Jews is delivering truckloads of sandwiches and children's games daily across the north -- except on Shabbat.

American Jews are pitching in, too. Boston members of the Boston-Haifa Connection, an association sponsored by Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, have raised $5 million in emergency funds to start a trauma-treatment program for children and seniors, to take impoverished children out of the city for a break, and to make interest-free loans to businesses hurt by the war.

But some Haifa residents just shrug off the threat.

Dr. Lev Khalevinsky , 64, was sitting on a bench in the city center last week waiting for a bus with his partner, Mara Kreitman , 60, a retired nurse. There was little traffic and no other people around.

Why were they sitting outside without protection?

``We needed some air," Khalevinsky said.

But weren't they scared of the rockets?

``Yes, of course, we're scared," Kreitman said. ``But a man needs to stand up to his fear. This isn't our first war, and it won't be our last."

Globe correspondent Rafael D. Frankel contributed to this report.

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