Ashkelon mayor closes schools, instructs residents to stay inside

In underground control room, mayor highlights gov't commitment to protect his city.

Ashkelon declared a state of emergency on Saturday as the city braced for a Hamas reply to the IDF operation in Gaza. A war-like atmosphere dominated the municipality's underground command and control room, where Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin held a situation analysis every three hours. Despite the state of emergency, Hanukka was not forgotten in the bunker as Col. Yaakov Amar, commander of the Home Front Command in Ashkelon, lit a hanukkia and local city officials sang along. The holiday festivities could not, however, dispel the sense that the city was bracing for the worst. "All events have been canceled. Schools will not open at the end of the Hanukka break. Thousads of school children would be at risk if the schools are open," Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin told The Jerusalem Post. "I'm ordering the malls closed. Their ceilings are not thick enough to protect shoppers," he added, despite protests from other officials. The Home Front Command has declared a "Special Home Front Situation" in the city and has instructed residents to stay indoors. Ashkelon's streets were largely empty after six rockets landed around town, causing damage but no injuries. During the evening, a tense calm prevailed, after the IDF notified Vaknin that it had launched an aerial campaign to eliminate Palestinian rocket launching crews who were targeting Ashkelon. "The defense minister has told me that defending Ashkelon is a top priority," Vaknin told city officials, as several screens showed three dimensional satellite images of the city marked with rocket landing zones. Vaknin seemed most disturbed by the phenomenon of curious onlookers who gathered around areas where rockets fell. As he was driven to a press conference near Ashkelon's ambulance station, he pointed at them. "This must stop," he said. "These people are at risk." The municipality has a revolutionary technological tool at its disposal, which allows for emergency crews mobilized to a rocket impact zone to know the identities, demographic makeup and physical status of the people living around the area. The system was developed by Dr. Alan Marcus, head of strategic planning for the Ashkelon Municipality, who immigrated from Boston 30 years ago. Marcus's system allows for city planners to draw a red circle around a map to mark a rocket impact, and then to automatically receive information on the local population; this information is then transferred to rescue crews. "When deciding who to send as a response team, within five minutes I can tell them if there are Ethiopians in the area and send an Amharic speaker, or if there are disabled people there so that paramedics can prepare accordingly," Marcus explained to the Post. Marcus had initially built his system to deal with earthquakes, but then adapted it, he said dryly, "after the flying pipes with explosives started visiting us... Now that Iranian-made Grads are launched at the city, the system can save rescue officials hours and get information on potential victims trapped under rubble." While the municipality appeared highly prepared, Ashkelon residents said they felt less ready for what may come. "I was surprised by this, coming on Shabbat," said local resident Tami Awami. "Personally I'm very scared. Not everyone here has a safe room to go to. We went to the stairwell when we heard the air raid sirens today," she added. Awami said she fully supported the IDF's operation in Gaza. "After all of the restraint and warnings, it's time for this to happen. Let them feel what we feel a little," she said.