SAFED, Israel (Reuters) – Eliezer Asulin lives alone in the remains of his home, half-destroyed by a direct hit from a Hizbollah rocket fired from Lebanon.
It was just one of 1,200 rockets the guerrilla group has rained down on northern Israel in the past two weeks, killing 17 civilians and causing tens of thousands to flee south.
Those that have stayed behind, either for work or to protect their homes, now feel like they are gambling with their lives.
“Every day we play Russian roulette even before we wake up,” says Asulin, a truck driver from Safed, which sits 12 km (7.5 miles) from the Lebanese border and has been one of the prime targets of rocket fire over the past 14 days.
“I am only here to save whatever is left of my belongings,” said the 48-year-old as he bought fruit in the only store left open in the town, where around 30,000 people used to live.
“I have sent my family south. Most of the town has left.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert highlighted the problems of the north at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday, saying the situation had become intolerable for more than one million people.
“Life has almost stopped completely,” he said.
“People are sitting in these small, packed shelters without air conditioning in the heat of the summer. They’re not working. They’re unable to meet the basic needs of their lives.”
He pledged to pursue his offensive against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon and the bombardment of other parts of the country, a conflict that has killed around 380 Lebanese, the vast majority of them civilians, over the past two weeks.
As well as the 17 Israeli civilians killed, 24 troops have also died in the fighting, which began after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a raid on July 12.
In Haifa, Israel’s third largest city and the main one in the north, attempts are being made to return to normality despite the rockets — the university reopened its doors on Sunday. But surrounding areas have become ghost towns.
In Safed, where a rocket hit a hospital last week and patients had to be relocated, silence hangs over the main square and the cobbled streets. Synagogues are shuttered.
“We have become refugees. There is nothing to do but stay indoors or leave,” said Asulin.
In the village of Shlomi, barely 2 km from Lebanon, a stray dog wanders around looking for its owner. Only one man sits outside sipping a soft drink.
“This is a ghost town like much of the north,” said Arieh Edrin, 47, a kiosk owner.
“People only come out for groceries now. Coaches keep coming to ferry people to the south. It is harder on the younger ones.”
In other towns, anger builds along with the casualties.
In the mainly Christian Arab village of Gush Halav, 4 km from the border, many blame Hizbollah.
“I am an Arab and proud to be one. But make no mistake, I would like Nasrallah to be assassinated for what he has done to all of us,” said Bashir Zubran, 24, referring to Hizbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Others echoed those frustrations.
“There is no work, we spend most of the time in secure rooms or bomb shelters,” said Christian Sousan, 21. “We are all depressed,” he added, as the thud of a rocket nearby echoed across the village.