Underground wards that offer a safe haven in Israel

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The Independent Online

Through the blown-out fourth-floor window of the Western Galilee Hospital's north wing, the view across the fields is dominated by the high ridge along the Lebanon border, less than four miles away, from which the Katyusha rocket hurtled into the eight-bed ophthalmic ward 12 days ago. It is easy, standing amid the shattered glass and twisted bedframes, to imagine the carnage there would have been on 28 July if the patients had not presciently been moved underground nearly two weeks earlier.

But then there are not many hospitals where that could have happened. The second biggest hospital in northern Israel, and the only one by the border, Western Galilee installed three years ago (at a cost of between $3m (£1.57m) and $4m) a complex of underground wards linked by tunnels - to which patients have been steadily moved since the war began almost a month ago. "We had seen such a thing in Switzerland and Sweden," said the hospital's deputy director Moshe Daniel. "But we hoped that, as there, we would never have to use it."

While the figures are obviously small compared with Lebanon, since the conflict began, the hospital has received 640 injured patients, and 12 dead. On Monday, 19 soldiers wounded in southern Lebanon were brought in, though several have been taken by helicopter to more southerly hospitals to make it safer for their families to visit.

If a wartime Israeli version of ER were to be set underground in Nahariya, where Western Galilee is located, it would hardly be short of plotlines.

Nicolas Elias, a 25-year-old insurance agent from the northern Arab Israeli village of Abu Snan, was recovering in bed yesterday from an apparently successful cornea transplant and coming to terms with the catastrophe that had made possible the operation he had been waiting and praying for since 1997. For Mr Elias's new cornea is one of four donated to patients here from the bodies of two Jewish brothers, Ariyeh and Tiran Tamar, 51 and 38, who were both killed in a Katyusha attack on the town of Acre last week.

Dr Uri Rehany, the head of ophthalmology, had contacted a third brother and asked him if they would make a "humanitarian gesture" by donating the corneas and the family agreed. Mr Elias said: "This is something that is very difficult. I know the man whose cornea I have has died. I don't agree with the way he died. I haven't the words to express how I feel. I do not expect ever to meet a better person in my life." Adding that he was determined to meet the Tamar family to express his gratitude, he said: "If they had given me a million pounds it wouldn't be as good as giving me an eye... I was very worried that, because of the war and because I am an Arab, I would be badly treated here. In fact the opposite is the case. They can't do enough for me."

Western Galilee prides itself on equal treatment of Jews and Arabs in its catchment area of 500,000 people. Which is just as well given that about a third of the 39 civilians killed in rocket attacks are Arabs. For Dr Daniel, Hizbollah is a "small group that wants to create chaos". "Why do they attack Arab villages? Why do they shoot their own people?"

Right on cue yesterday, an ambulance pulled into emergency yesterday with Adela Mattar, and her son Amir, 12, and her daughter Nancy, 19, after a Katyusha direct hit on the house next to theirs in the Arab village of Fasuta. Nancy suffered only a gash in her leg, but she was sobbing uncontrollably from the shock. Mrs Mattar said: "I heard the sirens but they hadn't finished when I heard the explosion. I thought the rocket had landed in our house. I was dressing and suddenly saw there were no windows." Recovering later, Nancy said: "I am not going back to the house until the war is over."

Despite the 150 rockets fired into northern Israel, it had - at least by nightfall - been an unusually quiet day at Western Galilee.