Twice on Wednesday the bus revved up its motor and began driving away from the neighborhood civilian distribution center in Kiryat Shmona. Each time, sirens pierced the air, warning of impending Katyusha falls.
Soldiers and volunteers helped rush the elderly passengers back to the center and the safety of its underground shelter before the rockets started falling.
The disappointment and the pent-up fears that had been building for four weeks were too much for Sarit Shukrun. Heading for the shelter with her nine-month-old son, Ro'i, in her arms, Shukrun burst out crying. Before she could reach the shelter, she collapsed and almost fainted on the landing. Just when she finally began to let her guard down, she found that the nightmare wasn't over yet.
Earlier that morning, angry residents gathered outside Kiryat Shmona's "war room," the municipality's emergency underground headquarters, demanding that they be removed from the city immediately.
"The evacuation isn't being carried out properly," said 51-year-old Michael Baldav. "There are people with connections in the emergency headquarters, including members of the city council. When the headquarters gets an allotment of hotel rooms, it gives them to their own people. I registered to leave the city three months ago, and no one has called me since. That's what the anger is about, when no one talks to you and you see the discrimination before your very eyes."
A woman standing off to the side was crying. She was a single mother with an eight-year-old son suffering from cerebral palsy. She came to the municipal headquarters to ask the city to evacuate her. An official allegedly told her to make her own arrangements to leave the city.
"How can I leave the city with a son suffering from CP," she sobbed.
Tammy Mashan, head of manpower in the city, has heard these stories and many more. "Dozens of people came here today," she said. "They want to be evacuated immediately. They want a hotel with three meals a day and a swimming pool. They won't settle for less than that. I understand them. They are having a very hard time here. We try to help but it is hard to deal with their curses and violence." Danny Kadosh, the city's general manager, said he had been assaulted twice during the past month. One irate resident hit him with a phone.
On Wednesday, Kadosh was sitting at his desk in the war room listening to residents' requests and complaints and making the arrangements for Wednesday's batch of evacuees. Officially, the residents are leaving for six days. But it is an open secret that they will not return before a cease-fire is achieved.
"We haven't declared that this is an evacuation," he said. "Officially, this is a rest and recreation break. But we don't expect anyone who leaves to agree to return." Kadosh said that the government had agreed to pay for the evacuation and upkeep of 2,500 residents. But he added that the city would ask it for more funding to evacuate another 2,500 after the first batch leaves.
Motti Avraham, owner of the Mor Minimarket at the southern entrance to Kiryat Shmona, said he hoped the government would evacuate all the civilian population and above all, the children. "The trauma of this war will remain with them for the rest of their lives," he warned.
Avraham, who was born in Kiryat Shmona 47 years ago, said he knew this from first hand experience. As a boy, he said, he remembered running to the shelter at night when terrorists launched Katyushas at the city.
A visitor to Kiryat Shmona, attorney Yoram Sheftel, strongly disagreed. Sheftel, who became a public figure after successfully defending Ivan Demjanjuk against charges that he was Ivan the Terrible, a Nazi war criminal, has visited Kiryat Shmona three times and slept overnight in a shelter each time since the fighting began.
"It would send a message that it is possible to cause tens of thousands of Israelis to flee from their homes," said Sheftel. "They didn't evacuate London during the blitz in World War II and it was much worse there." Sheftel added that he didn't have the impression that the children of Kiryat Shmona were traumatized or in an intolerable situation. "They are in air-conditioned public shelters. They have a ton of games, television and radio, and they do not suffer from overcrowding," he said.
The impression that everyone in Kiryat Shmona is beating down the doors of the municipality demanding to leave the city is not an accurate one. In the neighborhood distribution center at the Matmid religious high school, Ze'ev Glida'i sent out a volunteer to find elderly people ready to leave the city to fill up Wednesday's quota. Not everyone was willing to leave. One elderly woman, sitting at the entrance to a public housing unit on a street where there were signs of at least three Katyusha explosions, said that even though she was afraid of staying behind, she preferred to do so because she suffered from back problems and feared she would not get medical treatment where she would be taken.
Part of the problem may be lack of communication. While some residents are well-enough informed and angry enough to make their demands forcefully and publicly, others, many of them elderly or new immigrants, are cut off from day-to-day life and may not have even heard of the opportunity to leave the city.
Furthermore, not everyone is angry at the city. Esther Himo, a grandmother of 12 said she was leaving Kiryat Shmona to help look after her grandchildren. "I don't have a bad word to say about anyone," she told The Jerusalem Post. "Everyone took good care of me."
Ya'acov Amar, who came to register his family of five, said that although he would not be leaving on the buses that day, "Everything is fine. I can wait."
However, David Eliani, a driving teacher in Kiryat Shmona who has been a volunteer since the fighting began, charged that there had indeed been favoritism in the choice of those who were given hotel rooms away from the fighting.
In the first weeks of the war, private institutions donated money to allow city residents to get away for a week at a time. Eliani said he had investigated which families had left under this arrangement and said he found that many of them were either relatives or political supporters of certain city councilmen. He charged that many of these people had moved from one hotel to another without even returning to Kiryat Shmona, while others were not given any chance to leave.
Kadosh admitted that some people had indeed skipped from one hotel to another but that this phenomenon was marginal.
"There are always people who cheat and deceive and some of them have left Kiryat Shmona two or three times," he said. "But that is the exception to the rule and this kind of thing happens everywhere."