CARMIEL, Israel — Colorful rainbows, choo-choo trains and flowers decorate the walls of the neighborhood bomb shelter in Carmiel, but amid the overflowing toilets, foul smells and tension of war this weekend, nobody seemed to notice.
On Saturday and then again on Sunday, more than 100 people crammed into the underground shelter as Katyusha rockets launched by Hezbollah terrorists rained down on Carmiel, a picturesque town nestled in the mountains of northern Israel.
Crying babies and occasionally hysterical mothers added to the drama in a scene repeated throughout the Galilee region — from Nahariya, Acre and Kiryat Shmona in the far north to towns further south, like Rosh Pina, Safed and Tiberias, that had never before seen Katyushas.
Between towns, the highways were virtually deserted as Israelis largely obeyed an order not to go outside.
“For me, I can go to hell, but it’s my family I’m worried about,” said Niso Levi, a 51-year-old engineer who emigrated from Albania in 1991, along with his wife, Matilda, and daughters Anna and Ilana.
The shelter, known in Hebrew as a miklat, is a staple of every residential complex in Israel. And this one was supposed to protect residents of Carmiel’s Givat Ram neighborhood in the event of an attack. But neighbors complain that the shelter’s water pipes are broken, that the toilets don’t work — and that the shelter was locked by municipal authorities at the very moment it was needed the most.
“This is ridiculous. We’re paying as much in taxes as anyone else!” Ilana Fleischman screamed, in full view of TV reporters that had come to cover the latest rocket devastation. “The pipes are broken, the bathroom stinks. Nobody wants to come here.”
Not that anyone has a choice.
With the distant booming of Katyusha rockets becoming louder and more frequent, only a few brave souls ventured out — and when one boom sounded particularly close, everyone rushed back into the shelter, some in near-hysteria.
“In 1991, I was alone at home” when Scud missiles fell, “so for me, this is like a trauma,” said Fleischman, explaining her nervousness. “When we woke up this morning with a boom, everybody fell out of bed. Now my son doesn’t want to sleep alone.”
Standing nearby was Aharon Armejanov, a short, wiry truck driver who was born in Azerbaijan and moved to Israel in 1974.
“I am definitely not afraid,” he said. “At the same time, I’m not looking to be a hero. I have four children. I’m a veteran of the Lebanon War, so it doesn’t make any difference anymore,” he said, referring to the 1982 conflict.
With boredom creeping in, political debates in the bomb shelters were inevitable, and Armejanov was quick to offer his opinions on the current crisis.
“We made a big mistake when we withdrew from Lebanon. This gave Hezbollah time to build up their weapons,” he told JTA, voicing an opinion shared by many in the Galilee.
“We need peace, but you must pay for this peace with blood,” Levi said.
“The difference between us and Hezbollah is that we give them a warning first and we don’t attack civilians,” added Shuster Yafina, a recent immigrant from Moldova.
Yet not all of Carmiel’s victims of Hezbollah’s aggression think Israel should launch a full-scale invasion of Lebanon.
“We need our soldiers at home. They are our children,” said Ludmila Daich, then quickly changing the subject. “I’m very sorry but I don’t want to speak about politics. I can’t think about that right now, only my grandson. Baruch Hashem, we are alive.”
Ludmila and her husband, Peter, were sitting in their modest home just across the street from the neighborhood shelter when a Katyusha ripped through the ceiling — leaving shattered glass all over their bed and shards of broken concrete in their front yard.
“I was thinking of going to the shelter, but it was closed, so I came back here,” said Peter, a Ukrainian immigrant who settled in Carmiel 10 years ago. “I was here with my wife and daughter-in-law and her son. They live in Ma’alot, but they came here because she thought it would be safer in Carmiel.”
It was much the same story in Tiberias, which was slammed by eight Katyushas over the weekend.
Asher Ya’ish lives on the second floor of an apartment building in the city. One of those missiles hit an apartment on the fourth floor; fortunately its occupants were vacationing in Tel Aviv.
“I was sitting with my kids on the balcony, looking out at the Kinneret,” said Ya’ish, 60. “Half an hour before it happened, my daughter had arrived from Haifa, thinking it would be safer here.”
But safety is a relative term, and nobody feels safe in Tiberias these days.
“I can’t believe it. It’s like a nightmare,” said Ya’ish. “I never thought this could happen.”
In fact, the last time a missile landed in this lakeside town of 45,000 was in 1971, and those rockets came from Jordan, not Lebanon.
After the mid-afternoon attack at the residential complex, a crowd quickly gathered at the site of the destruction, with one middle-aged man screaming “Nasrallah, we’re not afraid of you! We will destroy you!” before the TV cameras, referring to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Yet beaches south of Tiberias, along the shores of the Kinneret, were still packed with vacationers until they were evacuated by police.
Zohar Oved, the mayor of Tiberias, says he believes his city was targeted by Hezbollah specifically because it’s an international tourist destination.
“We are a special community and the people believe our government is acting in the right direction. We cannot manage tourism with a situation like this,” said Oved, noting that one Katyusha fell within a few yards of City Hall.