Ashkelon exploits lull to open more bomb shelters

The meeting of local officials at the Ashkelon Municipality's underground control and command room was stopped by an air raid siren which rang out through the city on Tuesday evening. The conversation died down as officials waited in tense anticipation to hear where the rocket fell. After a few seconds, a voice came on the municipality's radio network. "Apparently it landed around Ashdod," an official said. Ashkelon residents have increasingly found themselves rattled by sirens warning of approaching rockets that are actually aimed at its northern neighbors, prompting city officials to try and find a way to get the all-clear to residents as quickly as possible and relieve unnecessary stress. Shfela Police on Tuesday denied earlier reports that Hamas rockets had reached as far north as Yavne - over 50 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip - on Monday night, despite reports by local residents who said they heard three explosions. Police in Yavne and Rehovot were preparing for the possibility of rockets hitting the area, a spokeswoman said. "We are prepared with special police forces such as sappers and CSI teams," she said. Meanwhile, back in Ashkelon, city officials took advantage of a lull in rocket fire on Tuesday to open more public bomb shelters. Ashkelon has 126 public shelters and 15 additional shelters that the municipality has taken over in recent days. Of those, 90 have undergone renovations such as the installation of toilets, emergency lighting and electrical systems, according to Yossi Greenfield, the municipality's head of security. The Ashkelon Municipality has also convinced private associations, synagogues and youth movements to open their shelters to the general public. "The associations were scared that expensive equipment in their buildings would be damaged or stolen. We overcame these fears, and the shelters are now open. We are now involved in maintaining them," Greenfield said. Ashkelon also has around 650 private shelters in residential buildings. Local residents are responsible for the upkeep of those shelters, Greenfield explained, adding that around 320 of the shelters had been renovated by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. City officials also examined the possibility of sending hundreds of local children to resorts around the country that have offered to host them. In addition, help-line centers providing psychological assistance to Ashkelon residents have been rerouted to Tel Aviv, to allow callers more anonymity and privacy. The city hosted visits by three government ministers on Tuesday: Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Those rockets landed nearby moments later, but hit in an open area, causing little damage. Back in the center of town, a mix of foreign journalists and locals milling around gave the central square a bustling feel. In a synagogue just off the main strip, evening prayers commenced as usual, even continuing unabated through yet another "color red" siren and subsequent boom. The sirens and booms continued into the night, with sirens sounding again about an hour later and sending the crowd still milling in the square running for nearby shelters. At one point, a large explosion was heard near the entrance to the city, but no "color red" had preceded it. "Maybe it was our guys," one man, who stood cautiously at the entrance to a shelter offered as an explanation. "But rockets have landed here before with no warning. I don't know, I'm getting away from the danger, I'm going to my house in Ashkelon." But a moment later he retracted his statement. "I take that back," he said. "It's not any safer there. I'm going home to Ashkelon and I'm going to go to sleep."