By DELPHINE MATTHIEUSSENT
MAALOT, Israel -- A dozen youngsters carrying water and dog food ventured into the deserted streets of northern Israel, taking advantage of the nighttime lull, when Hezbollah usually stops firing rockets.
A government official says up to a few thousand pets may need to be fed or rescued, in part because hundreds of thousands of Israelis have fled northern Israel over the past three weeks.
Volunteers put water and food into small dishes for pets left behind after their owners fled Hezbollah rocket barrages in a the street in the northern town of Ma'alot Monday July 31, 2006. Taking advantage of the night, when Hezbollah usually stops firing rockets at northern Israel, a dozen youngsters ventured into the deserted streets carrying water containers and small bags of dog food. (AP Photo/Jacob Silberberg)(Jacob Silberberg - AP)
Some pets have already died, but Israeli rescuers have stepped into action.
"We see ourselves as part of the humanitarian effort in this war," said Yadin Elam, director of the animal welfare organization Hakol Chai. "Animals are unable to move to a hotel in the center of the country. Our job is to help them, because they are the ones who cannot help themselves."
When the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas erupted more than three weeks ago, at least 300,000 of the 1 million Israelis living in the north fled the region, sometimes leaving their pets behind.
Many thought they would return a day or two later, Julia Meiler, a volunteer with Hakol Chai, said as she put a water container on a street corner in the northern Israeli town of Maalot while the sound of explosions in nearby Lebanon rang out.
As Meiler stepped back, a few cats cautiously approached the water. Within minutes the street corner turned into a mewing gathering of a dozen cats. Many animals let Meiler pet them, a sign they were not strays but had been abandoned or fled their homes following a rocket attack, she said.
A few blocks away, a small dog with long gray hair hid behind a bench. The volunteers eventually coaxed him out of his retreat, and he was soon eating the pet food they had brought.
While many of the animals have been abandoned, others fled their homes in fear after hearing the explosions of rockets raining down on northern Israel, which put them into a type of shock, said Zafrir Volansky, who runs a veterinary clinic in the northern town of Nahariya.
"When they find themselves near rocket hits, dogs can get hysterical because of the noise and run aimlessly for (miles)," he said. "Some animals are shaking, others stop eating and drinking. Cats tend to find a shelter in a dark and closed place and stay there, sometimes for days."
Two rockets fell in Maalot early Thursday. No one was hurt, but it marked the first nighttime attack by Hezbollah.
"Several hundred and maybe a few thousand" animals needed to be fed or rescued, said Youval Hadani of the Agriculture Ministry's veterinary department for Israel's northern region. The government doesn't have accurate estimates of the numbers of abandoned animals, Hadani said.
"Some people asked us for help because they couldn't go to a hotel ... with their cats and dogs," he said. "But others just left, sometimes leaving their pets without food and water, and even in some cases tied inside their homes."
The flight has also left strays desperate for food.
"Stray animals depend on food found in trash containers and water dripping from air conditioning," explained Noam Vardi, a volunteer with Hakol Chai. "In situations where more than half of the residents are gone, like in Maalot, stray animals slowly die."
While some volunteers patrol the streets to help feed the animals, more help is needed. Animal welfare organizations have put posters in public places asking the remaining residents of Israel's northern towns to put water containers on the streets and to contact them when they see animals in distress.