Like most citizens, Ashdod restaurateur Ilan Vaknin has been living from cease-fire to cease-fire the past 49 days, making the most of the brief gaps of normalcy before the routine of rockets, sirens and running for cover return yet again with no end in sight.
“You should have come here on Tu Be’av,” Vaknin said on Monday, describing how his restaurant Cafe Lyon was packed full on the holiday, known as “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” This year, the holiday fell on August 10, the beginning of the 10th ceasefire between Hamas and Israel over the past two months.
On Monday, a day when more than 100 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel, his restaurant appeared to be rather full, though Vaknin said it was only about 30 percent of what it should be.
When asked what’s changed since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, now in its 50th day, the father of four said there wasn’t really much positive to say.
“I think we’ve even gone back a bit, people aren’t getting used to this, but it seems like the state is,” he said.
“They only have two ways to solve this – militarily, or diplomatically, and they’re not doing either.”
Forty-nine days earlier, on the first day of the operation, the restaurant and most of the other businesses at the “Star Center” in Ashdod were nearly deserted, the only customers at Cafe Lyon a hardy young couple in their 20s on break from the army and a few tables hosting journalists from the foreign press.
A lot can happen in this region in 50 days – especially in Israel – but it was hard to see it in Ashdod on Monday.
Though 68 Israelis have been killed and well over 2,000 Palestinians – according to Gazan health officials – there is still no decisive military victory or diplomatic agreement on the horizon and southern cities continue to get battered by more than a hundred rockets and mortar shells every day. The Jerusalem Post spoke to the same people in the same locations in the coastal city who were interviewed on the first day of the operation, July 8, to see what had changed.
In Vav neighborhood, a bomb shelter converted into a religious study hall affiliated with Breslov Hassidim was still being used to house locals who didn’t have their own safe rooms in the dilapidated shikunim apartment blocks that circled the shelter.
Caretaker David Levy stood in the library/ bedroom, the same spot he was 49 days earlier, and said the only thing that had changed was that now they have bigger mattresses.
On the first day of the operation, a single mother and her two kids were killing time in the shelter, along with her niece and her two daughters. David said that over the next few days their numbers grew and there were at least 13 children and their mothers in the shelter. They stayed for about 10 days, he said, until they found other places to go with family or friends in the center or the north of the country. He said the first two women are still sleeping there, but they no longer stay there during the days, only at night.
Levy said the women continued to sleep there through all of the cease-fires, saying that they, like himself, don’t trust Hamas.
He said he thinks “more or less people have gotten used to” the situation, but that for himself, the answers always lied in divine salvation anyway, with all due respect to the army and the Iron Dome defense system.
On Monday evening, there was another rocket-warning siren in Ashdod, and an Iron Dome interception over the city sent shrapnel over the center of town, with some chunks of metal crashing through the roof of a local mall. Three days earlier, the city was the site of a direct rocket strike on a synagogue just a couple blocks from the bomb shelter study hall.
Three people were lightly hurt by the rocket, which struck right next to the daycare center on the first floor of the two-story building that houses the Morasha synagogue and a study hall, leaving a gaping hole in the concrete exterior wall.
Outside the synagogue, an enterprising haredi (ultra-Orthodox) boy was holding a twisted chunk of a Grad rocket and trying to sell rocket shrapnel (four ball bearings for five shekels) but found no takers.
Construction workers were busy clearing out the concrete and metal debris from the yard of the synagogue and a crowd of haredi locals was milling around outside, talking about the moments of terror on Friday, when the rocket fell only seconds after the siren went off, and how if not for a miracle, there would have been several fatalities at least.
Across the street there were still at least a half-a-dozen cars with shattered windows peppered with holes caused by flying shrapnel from the blast. They didn’t look like they were going anywhere soon.
David Rafael, 29, had left the synagogue minutes before the strike on Friday. On Monday, asked about what’s changed over the past 49 days, he said simply that “the longer it’s gone on the less safe people feel, even with what all the army did [in Gaza].”
“No one thinks there will be a solution, it will all just be one big [war of] attrition,” he said.