"Yesterday I got a call from my cousins in Tiberias," says Orit Avraham, a volunteer in the Public Affairs Department of Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center, on Sunday. "During the war with Lebanon, they stayed with me for the summer. Now they said that if me and my kids want to come stay with them for a while in the North, they'd be happy to take us. What a crazy situation."
On the floor in the office of Avraham's boss, Barzilai Public Affairs director Lea Malul, sit the shells of three Kassam rockets that have fallen in the area over the past year. Missing are any of the bigger Grad missiles that have slammed into the city in the past few days - and the rocket that struck right on the hospital's grounds next to its helipad last Wednesday, when the upsurge of attacks on Ashkelon from Gaza began.
"The authorities still have it, but I'd like to get that one, too," says Malul.
Thankfully no one was injured in that attack, and the hospital is coping well with the current stream of civilian and military casualties while finding itself well within the Gaza fire zone.
"We're probably the only place in Ashkelon that was ready for this," says Malul. "We've been treating the victims of Kassam attacks in Sderot and elsewhere for years. On the night the Zikim base was hit last September, we took in 67 soldiers with body injuries. And just last Tuesday, we ran a major disaster emergency exercise here; we even had Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland security, as an observer."
However, hospital emergency exercises don't usually include coming under live fire, and being mentally ready and fully prepared are two different things. A plan to fortify key areas of the center against the rockets, such as the emergency room, operating theaters and pediatric wing, still has not been carried out despite being approved by the government three years ago.
"The money hasn't been made available," says Malul, who adds that the hospital is also looking abroad to fundraise for a $100-million emergency shelter.
In the meantime, a basement area is being used as its protected wing. "We evacuated 13 neonatal babies there over the weekend, including a pair of twins born at 30 weeks to a Gazan woman. We're still treating some Gazans here - these are people linked to the Palestinian Authority and can get permission to come through. This woman had to return to Gaza on Thursday, but we're taking good care of her babies."
Malul describes Barzilai as an "island of sanity" in a city shaken by the aerial assault of the past few days. Outside its walls, though, Ashkelon still looks like it's blossoming - literally. Along with the many construction sites that dot the city, attesting to the building boom of recent years, every patch of green space is awash in colorful wildflowers - white daisies, yellow dandelions and especially the bold red of the anemones (kalaniot) for which this part of the country is famous.
What impact the attacks will have on the potential flowering of Ashkelon remains to be seen. And no place better represents its aspirations to serve as the premier center of tourism and leisure along the southern coastline than its marina, where most of the newly built apartments in the adjacent building complexes are being snatched up by foreign buyers.
On Sunday afternoon, the marina is still filled with sailboats and even a few grand yachts, but the several dozen tables of its dockside restaurants sit completely empty.
"That's how it's been the last few nights, too," says Avi Afentar, co-owner of the Todra bar/cafÃ©. It certainly won't help business that the previous night a rocket slammed into the marina just a few minutes from Todra's door.
"I knew this day would come," says Afentar's partner, Pini Biton. "If Hizbullah was able to reach Hadera with missiles from the North, why wouldn't Hamas reach us here? Everything depends now on how we react. It's times like this that I wish that we had a government run by organized crime, so we could strike back at them with the only kind of force they understand."
"A country can't act that way," responds Afentar.
"They [Hamas] do," says Biton.
"They don't have a country," says Afentar.
"Oh, yes, they do!" Biton shoots back.
It's the kind of discussion now being heard all over Ashkelon, and everywhere in this country. Right now though, the owners of Todra are more concerned about how quickly their business can recover if the situation quiets down during the coming days. Even if it does, there will be no making up the lost business of the past week.
"I was here when that rocket struck last night, with a few other crazy people," says Afentar. "Some of the tables were damaged. We can get some compensation for that. But a few of our customers ran off without paying their bill. Who's going to pay for that?"
That, indeed, is the question of the day in this city on the new front line, be it in the hospital or the marina, whether the bill is $100 million for safety's sake or a few shekels for a bar tab: If the rockets keep falling on Ashkelon, who, at the end of the day, is really going to pay the price?