Reporter's Notebook: Under fire in Ashkelon

The last time an air raid siren sounded while I was driving, I disobeyed Home Front Command orders.

By
January 6, 2009 04:50
3 minute read.
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For the second time since the start of the Gaza war, an air raid siren caught me driving in my car. It was 11:50 in the morning, and I was in Ashkelon, driving with the windows rolled down to ensure that I could hear the siren. The last time I found myself in this situation, I confess, I disobeyed Home Front Command orders and chose to remain in my vehicle, rather than exit the car and stretch out on the ground, as the safety instructions dictate. But a vehicle forms a poor shield against flying rocket shrapnel, officials explained, and this time around I pulled over and hit the ground. A distant explosion could be heard in the background. The knowledge that this rocket had fallen far from me was not enough to immediately rid my body of the adrenaline. A quick glance around revealed that many drivers had done the same as me, but other vehicles simply drove on, seemingly oblivious to the chilling siren. Some locals have told me they find it embarrassing to lie down on the roadside. A few hours later, I found myself in exactly the same position, on the road, lying on my stomach during a siren. This time I was huddled down with two Ashkelon residents I had been in the middle of interviewing. They had almost been struck by a previous rocket that landed in the area, a few meters from their car. "There was a strong boom, and everything, including us, shook," Itzik recounted, seconds before the siren sounded again. Dozens of police officers, Home Front Command soldiers, and paramedics, who were dealing with the previous rocket impact, ducked for cover. Minutes later, a young woman suffering from shock was rolled out on a stretcher toward a waiting ambulance. Hearing her cries and seeing her disoriented expression drove home the fact that "shock" is not just a word. Emotional scarring seems inevitable to those who find themselves near a rocket explosion and who go on to suffer from shock. "It's just plain scary," said a city official who asked not to be named. "For eight years we heard about what our southern neighbors in Sderot were going through. Our sin was our failure to grasp what it's like to be under constant attack, to internalize their experience. Now we're paying for our sins," he added. As the rockets fell around, a marathon of high-profile government visitors from Jerusalem rolled through the municipality's underground control room with their teams of bodyguards. Some had tasted life under rocket attacks from up close during their tours of the city; their bodyguards pounced on them during air raid sirens to offer protection. It remains unclear how effective such measures are. Mayor Benny Vaknin was well prepared for his visitors, with a list of requests to the government. He asked Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On for financial help to repair public property like schools. Bar-On preceded his visit with an announcement of NIS 8 million in emergency aid for front-line local authorities, and the establishment of a fund to provide quick loans to small and medium-size businesses facing financial ruin because of the security situation. Vaknin thanked Bar-On for the assistance, but then proceeded to enter a tough round of negotiations over Ashkelon's right to stray from the national restrictions on water usage during the duration of the Gaza conflict. Bar-On, who is no pushover, eventually granted the request. Knesset Member Ophir Paz-Pines, chairman of the Knesset's Interior Affairs Committee, also made an appearance. "Our morale is excellent. Not very good, but excellent," the ever-cheerful Vaknin, who has become somewhat of a legend among residents because of his outstanding management of the city during the crisis, told Paz-Pines. From conversations with the city's residents, Vaknin appears to be right. With few exceptions, people here believe that the rockets raining down on their city are an acceptable price to pay for a successful IDF operation to quell Hamas. "The army should finish Hamas off. This is no time for half measures," one resident said.

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