Anxiety in Ashkelon

A visit to the embattled southern city, where running to the bomb shelter has become routine.

Daliat al-Carmel native news reporter Ziad Halabi. (photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
Daliat al-Carmel native news reporter Ziad Halabi.
(photo credit: ARIEL ZILBER)
On a recent trip to Tel Aviv, Hilla Moridan says she stood and looked around her as a rocket siren sounded. The panic that ensued, the apprehension on people’s faces, the sheer terror that brought the country’s second- biggest city to a momentary standstill – it made her laugh.
It wasn’t the laugh of a sadistic observer who takes joy in watching an entire population choke up with tension. Rather, it was the empathetic laughter that was tinged with a sadness, even envy, one that only a resident of Ashkelon could be permitted to express.
“Here in Ashkelon, we have 30 seconds to seek shelter after hearing the siren,” she says while on a break from waitressing at the Cafe Joe branch in Ashkelon’s small marina. “In Tel Aviv, they have a minute and a half. If that was the case in Ashkelon, I’d have time to shampoo my hair, take a shower, put on my robe, and then run to the staircase. That was so much time,” she says.
“I looked at the people there [in Tel Aviv], and they were white,” Moridan continues. “It kind of made me laugh, even though it’s very sad. I said to myself, ‘My gosh, they’re so not used to this. These poor people are experiencing this in a completely different way than I am. They are reacting in the same way that I reacted to it initially six, eight years ago. And it’s totally different.’”
Three weeks into the hostilities along the Gaza frontier during which thousands of rockets have been launched into Israel, Ashkelon has been among the hardest-hit cities. Hopes for a fun-filled summer have been dashed. All the locals can hope for now is a slow recovery – at least until the next round of fighting sends people back into the bomb-proof shelters and staircases.
“This is the busiest time of the year,” says Moridan during her shift.
This is only the second time since the start of the war that the cafe has opened.
“As you can see, the cafe is empty. Ashkelon has become a ghost town. It’s like Yom Kippur. If you go out, you’ll notice that the highways are empty. The restaurants and stores are empty.”
This was supposed to be a summer in which Moridan would work to save money for the upcoming academic year. As a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev student entering her third year, she looked forward to the bustling tourist season, when Ashkelon draws crowds from other Israeli towns and abroad who flock to this budding mini-Riviera.
Indeed, the residents of Ashkelon have seen their once pristine beachfront turn into a quaint, family-friendly destination, with bars and restaurants cropping up along the pier. Visitors are also amazed at the posh villas that have lined the seafront boulevard and the construction cranes that have become a staple of the city skyline in recent years.
“The city has changed beyond recognition,” says Behor Amiran, a pensioner who has become a fixture in the marina.
“When I made aliya [from Libya], I lived in a transit camp for almost nine years. The conditions there were minimal. We lived in shacks. We didn’t even have electricity. The job situation wasn’t so great. That was during the austerity period. Since then, they’ve built this big, beautiful city. Ashkelon, in my opinion, is the most beautiful city in Israel. I’m in love with this city, and I’m not prepared to trade it for any other city.”
Every morning, Amiran drives down to the pier, fishing rod in hand, undeterred by missiles or rockets. With the Ashkelon power station jutting out over the beach, he is less concerned for himself and more worried about those closest to him.
“I’m not worried,” he says matter- of-factly. “The rockets don’t have any effect on me. I come to the beach every day. On the other hand, I see my daughter get really anxious because of the children. People around are also really anxious. It interrupts the routine,” he says.
“People ask me to watch the kids, do shopping, do other things. Some parents aren’t working because of the situation. There’s a great deal of fear in the hearts of people because they don’t know what to expect,” he adds.
AS SOMEONE who has called Ashkelon home for six decades, this grizzled retired painter has seen his fair share of hardships. As the younger generation tries to grapple with the significance of this surreal reality into which they have been thrust, Amiran isn’t nearly as philosophical.
“Getting hit by a rocket is like winning the lottery,” he says. “I’ve never won the lottery, so I don’t see myself getting hit by a missile.”
Amiran’s bravado aside, in a way this city remains hostage to the Hamas-run entity that lies just a few kilometers to the south. While the politicians and defense experts can tally the military gains while trying to gauge the diplomatic significance of it all, it is clear that the incessant barrages of recent years have taken their psychological toll on the people of Ashkelon.
“This hasn’t been an easy time,” Moridan says. “As you can see, this entire area is empty. People aren’t leaving their homes. People are scared. This isn’t an appropriate routine for children. They don’t go to their group activities; they’re always at home. Even when there are ac-tivities in the bomb shelters, they can’t go to them because the shelters are usually far from home. You can’t endanger your child by traveling over there. This is the reality which we have been living in for many years. It always comes and goes again. There will be momentary spells of quiet, and then it starts up again,” she says.
“We would lose count of the number of sirens that would go off,” she continues.
“We don’t have a bomb-proof room at home. We would always go out to the stairwell. We just preferred to sit there because we didn’t have the patience to get up and run out and back in again every few minutes. It was insane. In the span of 10 minutes, we would sometimes have something like four sirens.
And the rockets would be fired in spurts.
It’s like a burst of rain. They would sometimes shoot nine missiles in one batch, and people would just lose their minds because of it.”
The few tourists who did muster the courage to take a vacation in Ashkelon had the benefit of staying at hotels that were virtually deserted. The city has also drawn other visitors, particularly foreign media and journalists who have camped out there and in the Gaza frontier towns to get the Israeli perspective on the events.
A television news truck is parked near the Holiday Inn. A few meters away, with a microphone in hand and an earpiece in place, Ziad Halabi awaits instructions from producers in Dubai.
They inform him that he will be on the air in a few minutes. With the Ashkelon beach in the background, Halabi’s face will be beamed into millions of homes tuned in to MBC, the pan-Arab satellite station that broadcasts throughout the Middle East.
“The kidnapping [of the three Jewish teens] near Hebron and the intifada in Jerusalem were kind of a prelude to this,” he says. “This is the third time that I’ve covered a war in Gaza, so I don’t get worked up over it anymore. When you amass so many war hours, you don’t get too excited like a journalist who sees it for the first time. But it does sadden me and pain me each time anew.”
Halabi and his crew have become almost inured to Jewish-Arab tensions.
A native of the Druse village of Daliat al-Carmel, Halabi has lived for years in Shuafat, the east Jerusalem neighborhood that has been the site of some of the most intense unrest between Arabs and police in recent memory. If the Gaza wars have taught him anything, it is that keeping a distance from the locals who he says have been whipped up into a militaristic frenzy that makes any native Arab speaker – even an Israeli Druse from the North – a target.
“Speaking Arabic in public is something that is a very unpleasant thing to do during these times,” he says.
“Particularly in this war, which has seen a lot of soldiers killed in Gaza. The frustration of the people here is expressed whenever they spot someone who speaks Arabic. We try to keep a low profile and have less contact with the locals. At the end of the day, we try to do our jobs, even though it is not at all comfortable here, and that’s putting it mildly.”
Halabi says that he has been on the receiving end of racial epithets and slurs.
“People think that I’m from the Hamas military wing,” he says. “It’s as if I’m the one who’s been digging up the tunnels. In years past, I would answer back. I’d have a verbal spat with them. Now I have a tendency to refrain from trying to understand them because it makes me angry. What I’m concerned about is protecting my crew and continuing our work, even if it comes at the price of public upbraiding or humiliation.”
When the rockets cease and life returns to a kind of normalcy, the residents of Ashkelon will have to pick up the pieces once again. If recent years and recent wars are an indication, optimism is in short supply.
“People in the center of the country would say to us, ‘Wow, you guys have much less time to get to the shelter than we do,’” Moridan says. “That’s true, but it’s become such a routine for us that we don’t even think about it anymore. It’s sad that this is how it is. Really sad.”