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Israelis Say They’re Fighting to Prevent New Tragedy

April 25, 1996

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel (AP) _ On a typical day, 17 children eat lunch in the room where a Katyusha rocket fell Thursday, scattering chunks of concrete and shreds of paper streamers with the force of its explosion.

For Israelis, the gaping hole in the roof of a day-care center is proof enough of the threat they face from Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon _ and the reason they have gone to war.

Israel has lost much of the world’s support for its military offensive as the number of civilian casualties has mounted. Sympathy plummeted after at least 91 refugees died in Israel’s shelling of a United Nations base in south Lebanon.

But Israelis say they won’t wait for a roomful of children to die before they fight back against Hezbollah _ regardless of what the world thinks.

``I’d rather no one be killed and be unpopular,″ Yair Doari, who lives on a kibbutz near Israel’s northern border, said with a shrug.

Since Israel’s military offensive began April 11, Lebanese guerrillas have fired some 500 Katyusha rockets at the north. No Israelis have been killed, and only a handful wounded. By contrast, more than 150 people _ the vast majority of them civilians _ have been killed in Lebanon during Israel’s operation ``Grapes of Wrath.″

Israel blames Hezbollah guerrillas for the heavy civilian toll, accusing them of firing on Israel from inside Lebanese villages and using civilians as shields.

``They don’t care about the suffering of the Lebanese,″ government spokesman Uri Dromi said. ``Israel has the right to defend itself. It will take all action necessary to remove this ongoing threat of Katyushas.″

Army and government officials also point out that Israel’s northern communities have been largely deserted since the fighting started. More than two-thirds of the 23,000 residents of Kiryat Shemona, the largest town along the border, have left, and the rest spend most of their time in underground shelters.

``The fact that there are not so many casualties in the north is simply because people had to leave after being terrorized by the Katyushas,″ Dromi said. ``If there had been children in the center _ it would have been a huge tragedy.″

The day-care center where the Katyusha struck Thursday has been abandoned since the offensive began. But on normal days, 17 children aged 7 to 14 come to the center for hot meals and for help with their homework, said teacher Limor Sobel, peering through the shattered windows after Thursday’s devastation.

A grid of reinforcing rods kept the center’s roof from collapsing completely. But chunks of concrete and plaster covered the floor, and the sun shone brightly through the 9-foot-by-9-foot hole the rocket ripped in the ceiling.

Torn streamers and pink-and-purple paper fish dangled from the walls. Light fixtures hung by their wires. Broken glass littered the grassy yard outside, where air was thick with the scent of blooming lilacs.

``Children here live all the time fearing that something like that can happen,″ Sobel said. ``Every day they wake up feeling that bombs can fall.″

Prime Minister Shimon Peres says he won’t accept a cease-fire unless guerrillas stop firing the Katyusha rockets for good _ a position widely supported by Israelis.

``I want all the people that say they want Israel to stop to come here to Kiryat Shemona and live here a week or two under the Katyushas,″ said Igal Levi, 30, who lives across the street from the day-care center. He had just come out of his underground shelter for some fresh air Thursday when the rocket hit, shattering the windows in his apartment.

According to Israeli government figures, 450 Katyushas fired from Lebanon landed in Israel, killing 34 people, from 1968 until the current round of fighting began two weeks ago. Since then, another 500 rockets have landed in Israel.

``We have to finish this,″ said Levi, who works in a paper factory.

He said he is sorry about the suffering the operation is causing Lebanese civilians.

``But we are civilians, too. We don’t have any choice,″ he said. ``We didn’t ask for this war. If they live in quiet, we live in quiet. All we fight now is for peace.″

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