KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel --With the Israeli military unable to stop Hezbollah from firing hundreds of deadly Katyusha rockets into the north every day, the government is moving to temporarily relocate thousands of residents too poor, too sick or otherwise unable to leave on their own.
Coming almost four weeks after the start of the fighting, the effort appears to be another indication that Israeli officials have concluded that, absent a cease-fire, the war will prove long and difficult and Hezbollah will continue to have the ability to fire its ball-bearing-laced rockets into a wide swath of northern Israel.
With most of Kiryat Shmona's 25,000 residents already gone, those who have stayed in this city a few miles from the Lebanese border have been driven underground or behind reinforced concrete. Local officials estimate that 5,000 to 10,000 residents remain, living largely in basements or other shelters to avoid the rocket attacks that have become common.
"My psychologist told me today that if I don't get out I'm in big trouble," shrieked Mali Nizri, the mother of a 17-year-old boy, as she pleaded unsuccessfully with volunteers to allow her to board a bus taking Kiryat Shmona residents to the coastal city of Netanya last night. She said the final straw came when she took clothes outside to be hung to dry and a Katyusha detonated nearby.
The first priority, said Mayor Haim Barbibay, was those without enough money to leave on their own, single mothers and the elderly. "More people want to leave than stay," he said.
About 500 Kiryat Shmona residents left yesterday for what local officials called a "refreshment" trip for those who have spent the past four weeks in shelters. Although the mayor said that "it's very difficult psychologically for people to come back here," the plan was for the residents to return this weekend and be replaced by another group.
But in Jerusalem, government officials suggested that many residents of Kiryat Shmona and other northern towns that have borne the brunt of the Katyusha salvos might be relocated indefinitely.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the prime minister's office decided yesterday that any Kiryat Shmona resident wishing to leave would probably be evacuated as part of a "wide-scale relocation." A trade fair and convention center in Tel Aviv is expected to house 3,000 people arriving this weekend from Kiryat Shmona and 3,000 residents arriving later from other northern towns.
The inability to stop the Katyusha barrages continued to frustrate the Israeli military, still reeling from a rocket attack Sunday that killed a dozen military reservists staying at the Kfar Giladi kibbutz a few miles north of Kiryat Shmona.
Israeli officials insisted they had wiped out 40 percent of Hezbollah's short-range missile capability. But despite a 10,000-soldier force in southern Lebanon, the Israeli military continues to fight pitched battles within a few miles of the border, easily within range of the Katyusha.
And Israeli commanders acknowledge they cannot say to what extent the Lebanese militia is being resupplied with arms.
"Hundreds of rockets and ammunition are coming to Damascus International Airport with Iranian aircraft," Brig. Gen. Shuki Shahar said yesterday.
Since the fighting began July 12, 36 Israeli civilians have been killed and 545 wounded, he said. He said 65 soldiers have been killed, mostly in combat.
Psychological damage is mounting too, local officials here say. Even small children have grown accustomed to the ear-splitting explosions from rocket detonations and outgoing Israeli artillery, said Yariv Amiad, a volunteer who spent yesterday at the Kiryat Shmona municipal offices helping to organize the first departure of families.
Katyushas rain down here constantly, destroying homes and setting fire to brush that surrounds the city, filling the adjacent valley with thick white smoke.
"We can't take it anymore," said Galit Shimoni, 37, as she waited with her three children and husband at a high school to board a bus to Netanya yesterday.