Thursday, August 10, 2006

JERUSALEM — A radio station that broadcasts silence has become popular in Israel since the war with Hezbollah began a month ago.

The station was initiated by state-run Israel Radio for residents in the northern part of the country who fear that they might not hear sirens warning of a rocket attack while they are sleeping.

The “silent station” is an alternative wake-up device next to their bed and breaks its silence only with announcements of impending rocket attacks. When the announcement comes, the residents have less than a minute to get to cover.

The cover recommended by the authorities is not a public shelter but a room with reinforced concrete walls and metal doors and metal shutters, which every home built after 1992 should have.

The bylaw was enacted after the 1991 Persian Gulf War when Israel was struck by 39 Iraqi Scud missiles. Although many homeowners have grumbled about the rule, the “protected spaces” have saved the lives of more than one family in the current conflict.

For those who live in older houses, the authorities recommend taking shelter in any interior room that does not face the street. Persons on the street when the sirens sound are directed to take shelter in the staircase of any nearby building so as to escape the metal anti-personnel pellets with which the rockets from Lebanon are filled.

Thousands of people living on or near the northern border have chosen to live in the shelters because they have proved to be safe.

Residents of border towns like Kiryat Shemona, which has been hit by more than 4,000 rockets from Palestinians and Hezbollah over the decades, are accustomed to spending a few days if necessary in their shelters, many of which are fitted out with air conditioners, rugs and television sets. However, no one anticipated spending weeks in the shelters, venturing out only occasionally for fresh air or to use the bathrooms in their nearby apartments.

Since the current war started, the town has been hit by more than 700 rockets. While 18 persons have been wounded and more than 1,200 homes damaged, there have been no fatalities thanks to the shelters. Only 6,000 residents out of more than 22,000 remain in the town, the rest having found temporary housing elsewhere in the country.

With tourism deterred by the war, hotels in the middle of the country and the southern resort of Eilat have invited thousands of border residents to spend several days with them, free of charge. A philanthropist has organized a tent city on a southern beach where 6,000 northern residents, mostly children, are waiting out the war, with abundant free food. Radio talk shows take numerous calls from citizens offering to host northern families.

It was only this week that the Israeli government recognized it was too much to expect civilians to endure the strain for so long without relief.

Government agencies became involved this week in busing border residents to resorts and other quiet areas for a few days of respite on a rotational basis. Eager not to give the impression that the border is being evacuated, government officials call these sojourns an “airing out.”

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