In Ashkelon, officials must decide: emergency or business as usual?

'If the city changes its daily routine, food suppliers might be afraid to enter,' security head says.

grad ashkelon 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
grad ashkelon 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The underground command and control room at Ashkelon City Hall was full on Wednesday afternoon, hours after dozens of locals were sent into shock by Kassam and Katyusha rocket fire. The local leaders crammed into the room had to decide whether to place the city on a full-fledged war-preparation footing, or to continue with business as usual. For now, they were choosing the middle ground. Those present included Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin, the city's police chief, Cmdr. Haim Blumenfeld, the municipality's head of security, Yossi Greenfeld, and representatives from the IDF Home Front Command, the Fire and Rescue Service and Magen David Adom. A satellite map of the city was projected on a large white board as city officials marked the areas that had been hit. Nearby, a projected table of data showed each of the day's attacks so far. The officials heard the bad news: At 10:46 a.m., two Kassam rockets hit the city. At 11:19, two Katyusha Grad-type rockets were launched at the area. Some of the projectiles landed in a sensitive, strategic area. "So far we've evacuated 13 people suffering shock to the hospital," an MDA official reported. "Others may have evacuated themselves to the hospital." "I will have a full list from the doctors of the injured soon," municipality spokeswoman Anat Berkowitz said. "Did the [Color Red] siren fail again?" a city official asked. Other officials said they would examine the issue. "Tomorrow evening there's a sporting event planned at the city's soccer stadium. Can it go ahead?" one official asked. "The city is in emergency mode," the mayor answered. "But the Home Front Command has not canceled events. This must be made clear to the city." According to Home Front Command directives that went into effect in Ashkelon Wednesday, any event held under a ceiling that is not rocket-proof is meant be canceled, though events held under reinforced thick ceilings can go ahead. But what to do about outdoor events remained unclear, and in general, confusion reigned about what to regarding many holiday events. "Tomorrow evening, an outdoor event will be held with 700 participants. It's an annual sports day," the city manager informed the mayor. "We expect an escalation this evening," Blumenfeld informed those at the meeting. "This is what the IDF tells us. We know they [the terrorists in Gaza] don't intend to stop. The IDF is holding another situation analysis at this moment." "We won't cancel this event," Vaknin ruled, however. "We will continue as normal, ladies and gentleman." "As normal," he emphasized. "I'd like to cancel a dance event this evening," an organizer told the mayor. "Do not cancel it!" Vaknin replied. "The Home Front Command has given the approval for this event to go ahead." "Keep the information call centers open, and staff them with Russian and Amharic speakers, too," he ordered. "No one is to cancel any event if it was not canceled here," the city manager said. "This just came in: At this time there are 600 kids aged three-seven playing soccer at an event," a city official said, after receiving a note. "Do not cancel something now," the Home Front Command representative said. Senior officials told The Jerusalem Post it was important to send a reassuring message to Ashkelon and the rest of country. "We have our finger on the pulse. Our head of security is in close contact with the IDF. We are responding to hourly changes, attempting to keep a balance," Vaknin told the Post. "On the one hand, we want to show that normal life continues. On the hand we want to ensure safety." Vaknin called on the government to end what he described as its limp response to the ongoing rocket attacks. "If this policy continues, and if, God forbid, the situation continues, the schools will not open at the end of Hanukka break," he warned. "We have to show that the daily routine continues," Blumenfeld echoed. "We have increased the number of our patrols throughout the city." "If you cancel something, you send a message of instability, which increases the residents' distress," Greenfeld, the security head, said. "The decisions we make affect the whole area. If the city changes its daily routine, food suppliers might be afraid to enter the city. Employees of other businesses from outside the city might hesitate to enter. It's very important to send a message of strength," he said. Greenfeld, a veteran of Military Intelligence, added, "At this time, the IDF and Hamas are exchanging blows, each responding to the other. If we see that the situation escalates and tension rises, and if we see intelligence showing a change in situation, then we will have to recommend that other decisions be made in the city." In the meantime, the Ashkelon Municipality has distributed a letter warning residents of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. "In the area in which you reside a difficult incident has taken place. We hope that you and your loved ones have not been injured and that normal life resumes quickly. "At the same time, it's important you know that after such incidents, some people report unwelcome feelings like sadness, a depressed mood, a lack of interest in things that interested them beforehand, nightmares, difficulties sleeping, and recurring images and thoughts about the incident. "These are to be expected in the days following a difficult incident. Therefore, they should not arouse unusual worry. We know that most of these feelings disappear after a number of days or weeks," the letter said. "However, there are some people who continue to deal with these feelings months after the incident, even if they felt well immediately after the incident. In case you or your loved ones feel this way, we recommend you consider consulting a professional," the letter continued.