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(photo credit: AP)
When Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles pounded the country during the 1991 Gulf War - the last time an air raid siren was heard in Beersheba for non-ceremonial purposes - Yitzhak Agron didn't go into his building's bomb shelter. Instead, the 63 year-old shopkeeper went to the shuk, and opened up his vegetable stand.
"What am I, a freier (sucker)?" Agron chuckled on Thursday afternoon as he sat inside a small lotto stand on the city's west side, recalling the scene from 17 years ago. "I didn't go into the shelter then, and I won't go now. When everyone was running scared in '91, nothing happened in the end, and nothing's going to happen this time either."
Indeed, the Scud missile that sent Beersheba into a panic in 1991 was actually on course for the Soreq nuclear reactor near Dimona, and missed that target as well - landing in the open desert near Arad.
But alluding to Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin's announcement on Sunday that Hamas had obtained rockets that could reach as far as Kiryat Gat, Ashdod and Beersheba, the sentiment expressed by Agron was similar to that of many Beerhseba residents on Thursday - a resounding disbelief that rockets would arrive at all, mixed with a touch of apathy if they did.
"What does it matter where they say the rockets will come from?" Agron continued. "Iraq, Gaza, Iran - nothing's going to happen, and I won't be caught running around, not for a gas mask and not for a bomb shelter."
But as the government mulls its next move to counter the rocket squads and weapons factories that have sprung up across Gaza since the disengagement of Israeli civilians and military personnel from the area in 2005, military sources have warned that Hamas will in fact try to hit Beersheba with rockets in the event of an IDF strike, if for no other reason than to show that it can.
On Thursday, however, Beersheba residents seemed more worried about the falling rain than falling rockets. While the city's spokesman Amnon Yosef told The Jerusalem Post that his town was prepared for any number of scenarios involving rocket fire from Gaza, other municipality sources expressed confidence that Kassam and Grad rockets - as much as they were a sad and unfortunate problem - were a matter of concern for the western Negev, and not their town.
"They're not going to hit Beersheba," said one municipality official, who asked to remain unnamed. "We'll hit them so hard when we go in [to Gaza], they won't even have the chance to."
Others in the municipality had expressed shock at Diskin's comments when they were originally made. After Monday's newspapers splashed news of the possibility of Beersheba falling into Hamas's rocket range across their front pages, the city's new mayor, Rubik Danilovitz, told Army Radio that he was especially surprised, since no one from the Shin Bet had bothered to bring him up to speed on the matter.
Nonetheless, the city's local responders, including Magen David Adom, said Thursday they were ready to cope with rocket fire, should it come.
"We're always prepared for these types of things, but after [Diskin's announcement] we went into what is called "readiness level three," said Lieutenant Colonel Itzik Alfasi, who heads the MDA station on the city's west side. "We've been running drills for every type of scenario you can imagine, and I can tell you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, we are ready for anything that comes our way."
The municipality also emphasized that the city's bomb shelters were well in order and that there were enough for all residents.
"All of the structures built since 1991 have safe rooms inside them," Yosef, a municipality spokesman, told the Post. "And in the old neighborhoods, there are over 250 underground shelters. Everything is being coordinated with the Home Front Command."
But once again, residents' reactions conflicted with officials' statements.
"Yeah, the shelters are in great shape," said an old man who stopped his bicycle on the sidewalk. "The mice who live in them have it better than we do."
"The public shelter is the public telephone," said another man, Elazar Ben-Ishay, laughing. "Seriously, all of the bomb shelters have been turned into synagogues; what does Beersheba need with bomb shelters?"
Jokes aside, other residents lamented the state of disrepair in the shelters.
"They are all locked. People store equipment there," said Rosa, an older woman out walking her dog. "My family is in Sderot, the poor things, so I know about these rockets. But at least in Sderot, they have somewhere to go. What would happen if there was a war right now? Who would unlock these shelters, and how much time would we have to clear them out?"
One of the only shelters found to be unlocked on Thursday had been converted into a Chabad House, and young men and women came and went freely, attending prayer services and lectures in the rooms downstairs.
"These doors are open until two in the morning, sometimes later," one of the rabbis told the Post. "If people need to come into the shelter because of rockets, don't you worry, we're here, and we're ready to take care of them."
Other residents met talk of possible rocket fire stoically, telling the Post that they would deal with the situation if they had to.
"It's really a dilemma," said Yaakov, a middle-aged man, as he waited at a city bus stop. "If we want to stop the rockets, we have to go into Gaza, but by going into Gaza, they might send the rockets here.
"God forbid that happens," he continued. "But if it does, I'm willing to take a few small booms here in order to give them a big one over there."
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