In Mideast, A New Fight To Recover

After rocket blasts, residents suspect silence in battered town near border



KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel -- A day after the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, it was too quiet in this northern Israel town for Eytan Skyan.

Gone were the squealing air raid sirens, the thundering artillery barrages and the exploding Katyusha rockets. But to Skyan's ears, there were not enough sounds of rebuilding - the hammering of nails, the paving of roads - to demonstrate that the Israeli community hardest hit in the conflict with Hezbollah was stirring back to life.

"Nothing is happening," said Skyan, who returned here hours after the cease-fire to discover that his clothing store had been damaged by a rocket fired from Lebanon. "It is a big mess, and the government is not giving us the money yet for the damages."

Skyan's impatience with the government was echoed by dozens of residents of this town of 22,000, the target of about 1,000 rockets during the monthlong war. About two-thirds of the residents had evacuated, and they began returning yesterday to a battered community in which thousands of businesses and homes have been scarred by the conflict.

As residents returned to their homes, hundreds of Israeli soldiers walked out of Lebanon yesterday - some smiling broadly and pumping their fists, others weeping or carrying wounded comrades - as a cease-fire with Hezbollah solidified after a shaky start. The process was expected to accelerate in the coming days.

The international community is trying to build a United Nations peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon, but it is unclear how quickly one can be deployed. The guerrillas' patrons, Syria and Iran, proclaimed that Hezbollah won its fight with Israel - claims that the Bush administration dismissed as shameful blustering.

In Kiryat Shemona, more than 2,000 apartments and buildings were hit by rockets, and evidence of the attacks remained visible on nearly every street. A secondary school that suffered a direct hit had a hole in a classroom wall large enough to accommodate a car. There were broken windows, small craters in the roads, a house with its roof torn off.

Under Israeli law, the national government is required to compensate residents for wartime losses. Northern Israel was hit by 4,000 Hezbollah rockets during the conflict, and the huge number of claims is certain to lead to delays.

At city hall, a resident demanding compensation screamed at the mayor before storming out of the office, cursing the state of her hometown.

The mood was equally tense at a community hall, where Finance Ministry officials accepting claim forms from weary-looking returnees often engaged in heated exchanges.

The frustrations reflect a broader tension in Israel. On Monday, members of parliament sparred over the way Prime Minister Ehud Olmert carried out the war, with critics accusing him of mismanaging the military operation that claimed 155 Israeli lives.

A political storm was also gathering yesterday around the military's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. Israeli newspapers reported that Halutz went to his bank and sold a $26,000 investment portfolio three hours after two soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah guerrillas along the northern border. The daily Haaretz reported that senior officers believe Halutz will be forced to resign once the army completes its pullout from southern Lebanon.

"These people went through the first war with Lebanon. Now they are having the second war with the state of Israel," said Igal Buzalglo, 35, a Kiryat Shemona council member who was trying to help residents file insurance claims. "These people are losing their patience."

Still, there were promising signs of life. Stoplights were back to normal after a month of blinking yellow because there was no traffic. People swept up broken glass and cleaned out bomb shelters where residents had slept for the past month.

At the main shopping mall, bookstores, restaurants and clothing stores were busy serving several hundred customers, most of them soldiers taking a break.

Mayor Haim Barbivai said he expects the town's factories to reopen by Sunday and hopes to see life returning to normal by the end of the month. Few residents appeared to have confidence in his predictions. And he has received an onslaught of complaints.

"It is understandable that all the people who have spent time underground in bomb shelters are going to have complaints. I will do my best to help them," he said, "On the first of September we are supposed to start school, and we have a lot to fix by then."

Much of that work is on Dan Street, a hillside away from the Lebanese border.

Shasha Meir sat on the steps leading to his apartment, which was wrecked by a direct hit by a Katyusha rocket three days before the cease-fire. Meir, a bus driver, continued to work even after thousands of residents had evacuated, spending about 16 hours each day inside the shelter.

His wife and children, who had left to stay with relatives in the south, returned yesterday to find their home in ruins.

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