Fear Strikes Northern Israel as Missiles Land

Special to The Times

Simcha Mualem, an auburn-haired fifth-grade teacher, was praying on her balcony Thursday morning in the northern Israeli city of Nahariya when she heard the shrill whistle of a rocket.

Mualem said she saw the rocket slam into a neighboring building, where it killed a woman. Shocked by the sight of a rocket plowing into a balcony just 50 yards from her own, Mualem recalled, she screamed, fell from her chair and felt her body go numb from fear.

"I felt hysterical, I cried and I couldn't get my legs to move," said Mualem, 51, who was taken to a hospital and treated for shock and then discharged.

The rocket that killed Mualem's neighbor was among dozens fired Thursday into northern Israel by Hezbollah guerrillas. One person in the town of Safat also was killed in a missile attack. The onslaught sowed panic among thousands of residents and prompted officials to order them into bomb shelters and reinforced safe rooms, where many had spent the previous night.

Among the communities hardest hit was Nahariya, a coastal city of 57,000 that sits about five miles from the Lebanese border.

At least 29 people were wounded and taken to Nahariya Hospital, which moved 750 patients to the basement. Nearby, officials set up a hotline to provide counseling.

Israeli officials warned residents along the northern fringes to brace for further attacks.

"This is a war for our home.... This is a rolling operation, and we must be capable of taking some [blows] in the short term in order to ensure the future," Yitzhak "Jerry" Gershon, Israel's home-front commander, told Israel Radio.

"My children have been calling all day, asking me to join them in Tel Aviv until the violence stops," Mualem said.

She wasn't the only one being advised to leave.

At the six-story building that was struck by the rocket, most of the families had fled. Those who remained expressed grief over the death of their neighbor, whom police identified as Monica Lehrer, 40.

Shards of green glass and bits of the building's broken stone sides littered the pavement in front. The rocket shattered the lobby's glass windows and several top-floor balconies.

The tree-lined street was quiet, with most residents heeding the government's instructions to stay in their safe rooms -- an obligatory protective feature of most newer homes near the border, where occasional rocket fire has been a fact of life.

Eddie Ifrach, a 47-year-old mechanic who lives on the first floor of Lehrer's building, had left his safe room for a few minutes to drink coffee in the kitchen when he heard the rocket hit.

"I heard a tremendous boom. The whole building shook," he said. "We heard shouts in the lobby. It was scary. We ran out and saw the whole lobby in ruins."

Ifrach said he hunkered down in the safe room with his wife and two children the previous night and most of Thursday. The cramped room has a computer with Internet access, toys and games, books and a sofa bed.

He said he and his wife were too frightened to go out for groceries after the rocket strike and instead baked several loaves of bread at home.

Still, he was adamant about staying.

"We're scared, but we're not planning to leave," Ifrach said. "Where would we go? It seems that the whole country is being targeted these days."

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