The Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya has gone underground. In place of a sparkling, sunlit hospital of 600 beds situated in two modern five-story buildings, almost overnight it has become a 450-bed facility in the buildings' bomb shelters.
According to the hospital, 1,471 civilians and 173 soldiers have been treated there since the fighting began in the North. Of these, 579 civilians and 27 soldiers sustained physical wounds. The other 1,038 were treated for shock and trauma.
The emergency room has been moved twice since July 12. The peace-time ER opened onto a large unprotected plaza and parking lot. Now, in its second reincarnation, it, too, is located underground. The hospital has established a system whereby ambulances pick up the wounded who have been flown in by helicopter and whisk them to the basement via an underground road, directly to the wards or the operating room.
According to Dr. David Kniaz, the deputy director of the surgical department, the northernmost building has been completely evacuated. Patients have also been removed from the upper floors of the southern building, but the surgical units on its first two floors are still in use. These rooms were constructed as bomb shelters to begin with.
The evacuation of the northern tower turned out to be prescient. On July 28, a Katyusha struck the building's ophthalmology department, destroying at least two patients' rooms and causing severe damage to the rest of the ward.
Department head Uri Rehany vowed to build an even more beautiful ward to replace the destroyed one. He expressed bitterness about the way the war has, in his view, been portrayed by the international press. "This is a propaganda war," he said.
"All they do is look at the 'poor' Lebanese. They didn't know what Hizbullah was doing. They were all innocent. But that's not the way it was. For six years they saw how Hizbullah built bunkers and brought in missiles. What poor innocents! They let Hizbullah do everything," he said.
According to Rehany, during the years of the open border between Israel and southern Lebanon, which lasted until 2000, one-third of all the patients in his department were Lebanese. All of them were treated free of charge, he said.
For Rehany, the war has also had a bright side of sorts. Last Thursday, when two brothers were killed by a rocket in Acre, he persuaded a third brother, Motti Tamam, to allow the hospital to harvest the dead men's corneas. As a result, he has been able to restore sight to four blind people - two Jews, an Arab and a Druse. The hospital is a national center for cornea transplants and has a waiting list of 120 patients.
It is a short car ride east from Nahariya along Routes 70 and 85 to Karmiel, which has also been hard hit. Karmiel is one of six communities in the North where the Home Front Command has established mental health centers, called Hosen (strengthening) centers, to provide on the spot treatment for civilians suffering from trauma and stress. The command's chief physician, Yaron Bar-Dayan, specializes in these issues in his civilian practice and lectures on them at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.
According to Bar-Dayan, there have been at least 2,000 cases of
trauma and stress throughout the North. The Karmiel center alone has dealt with 300. They employ an innovative system, he said, based on the way armies treat shell-shocked combat soldiers. For the last several decades, combat units have included doctors and mental health officers who treat soldiers on the battlefield to enable them to function again and to prevent trauma from causing permanent psychological damage.
In Karmiel, anyone suffering from trauma and stress is taken to the center, by ambulance if necessary, and given immediate treatment. The center is located in a bomb shelter in one of the city's community centers, not only to provide protection, but also to give the patient a greater feeling of security.
A few paces from the Hosen Center, some 30 local residents have been living in a communal bomb shelter since the beginning of the war. It is difficult to believe that this spacious and relatively cheerful shelter is representative of all the shelters in the North. The floor is covered with wall-to-wall green linoleum, there are separate sleeping and living areas, and it is clean. The mothers have hung balloons along the ceiling, perhaps in honor of someone's birthday.
Much of the pleasantness of the shelter has to do with the inhabitants themselves, according to Bareket Even-Chen, the single mother of five-year-old Tomer. The occupants include 15 small children, 13 adults and a handful of elderly people. Even-Chen said the adults, mostly young parents, clean the shelter and make certain it runs smoothly. "It's a home, now," she said.
Although the children hardly never leave the shelter, they do not seem to be under stress, said Even-Chen. "They are kept very busy," she told The Jerusalem Post. "Soldier-teachers and people from the community center come to entertain them and they receive many games and toys."
There is also a television in the living area. In one corner, a group of mothers were playing cards with their children.
Even-Chen said she never lets Tomer out of the shelter and that she herself only goes out twice a week, at night, when she feels it is safer, to do the laundry at home. The occupants shower in the shelter. Also, the city delivers a hot meal to the shelter's inhabitants every day.
Even-Chen praised the municipality for taking care of them so well. "I haven't seen another city that functions as well as Karmiel," she said.
The sudden wailing of warning sirens did not interrupt the activities in the shelter. Conversations and games continued without skipping a beat. A few people asked nonchalantly whether there was an alert. Even the best of bomb shelters is no place to spend an entire day, let alone almost four weeks. But the occupants of at least this neighborhood shelter in Karmiel will vouch that, under the circumstances, it is better than the alternative.