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In battered northern Israel towns, residents warily greet the silence

KIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel -- Some residents emerged warily from their bunkers in this border town yesterday as a cease-fire with Hezbollah brought an eerie silence to the surrounding hills. A few cars returned to the roads and traffic lights began working again, but life was far from normal.

Unlike in Lebanon, where war refugees were flooding back to their homes, few Israelis who fled the fighting were returning home yet.

Late yesterday, the army said residents of Tiberias, Afula, Haifa, Nazareth, and several other towns were allowed to leave their shelters. However, people in Kiryat Shemona and other northern towns were told not to venture from their bunkers.

Kiryat Shemona was the hardest hit of Israel's cities, with more than 1,000 rockets slamming into its streets and surrounding hills since fighting began July 12. Its residents weren't quite ready to turn the corner yet.

``We're confused," said Ester Ben-Hemo, 51, poking her head out of her balcony. ``It looks quiet, but we don't know what will be later. People are still afraid to come back."

More than half of the 22,000 residents of Kiryat Shemona fled during the monthlong war. Those who remained stayed holed up in their homes and shelters.

Though more people were seen on the streets, some buying groceries at the few stores that had stayed open throughout the war, most shops remained shut yesterday. The main mall, struck by a Katyusha rocket, was littered with glass and debris. Despite the new cease-fire, the army continued to warn residents of Israel's northernmost towns to remain in their shelters.

It was not only the absence of rockets, but the silence of nearby Israeli artillery batteries that added to the strangeness of this first day of the cease-fire. Hills scorched by brush fires ignited by rockets -- and the rubble of buildings that took direct hits -- served as reminders of the trauma of the last month.

``The city is still in a coma," said Shoshi Bar-Sheshet, the deputy manager of a mortgage bank. ``I understand people's hesitation. It doesn't happen overnight."

Bar-Sheshet, like others, said she hoped exiled residents would return once the army lifted its emergency orders to remain in shelters. With the orders still in place, many residents kept their bedding underground, venturing outside but staying close to home.

Watering a tree outside his apartment building, Eli Hemo, 63, said he was skeptical of the strength of the cease-fire.

``Let's give it a few days and see what happens," he said. ``We're still not back to normal. So long as our soldiers have not returned home we cannot return to normal," he said, referring to the thousands of soldiers in Lebanon who are to be replaced by the Lebanese Army and a UN force.

Many in town felt the cease-fire would only be temporary.

``It is not over, maybe we'll have a break for a half a year, a year, but eventually we will return to it again," said Vivian Hermon, 59. ``I don't believe in it. I don't believe in anything."

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