'No country would abandon its people like this'

Shopping center's deputy director, Shaul Lazar: "People are in shock."

ashkelon damage 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
ashkelon damage 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Shaken storeowners returned to work at the Hotzot Ashkelon mall on Thursday, hours after an Iranian-made Grad rocket fired from Gaza obliterated a gynecological clinic on the mall's third floor, critically wounded three people, including a mother and her infant daughter who were sitting in the waiting room. A trickle of shoppers wandered through those stores situated on the lower two floors of the complex, but the atmosphere remained tense as property tax officials surveyed scenes of near-total devastation on the third floor. "People are in shock," the shopping center's deputy director, Shaul Lazar, said, as he walked through the wreckage. "We are trying to restore things and get back to normal. The rocket struck last night just before six. We reopened today at 12." "Look at the size of these pieces of shrapnel," Lazar said, pointing to the large holes peppering the sections of the walls that remained standing. The open sky was visible; the rocket had torn most of the ceiling clean-off. "Had the rocket not struck this girder, it would have continued downward into the second floor. This could have resulted in many more casualties," a municipality security officer said. "I just got off the phone to the husband of the gynecologist. She remains unconscious in the hospital, her jaw is broken and she has a bad facial wound," Lazar said. "This is where the injured mother and daughter were sitting," the security officer said, motioning toward a row of razed chairs surrounded by fallen concrete slabs. Downstairs, Shulamit Sampson stood in her empty gift and jewelry shop, waiting for customers. Sampson immigrated to Israel from New York in 1977, and came to live in Ashkelon a few years later. "I was driving away from the mall when the rocket struck - my husband and eldest daughter were still here," she recalled, fighting to maintain her composure. "I got my husband on the line, and he was calm. He closed the store and left the center with my daughter." "When I moved to Ashkelon, I thought to myself, this is the life. I never imagined it would get like this," Sampson said. Two teenagers, Chen and Gil, walked into her store, and began to ask about ear piercings. "This is a scary situation," Gil, 15, said. "My parents now insist I send them a text message every time there is news of a rocket. We're going to have to get used to it." Sampson disagreed with her young customer. "I don't think we should get used to it. Something has to be done. We need a permanent solution." Her husband, Uzi, a former navy commander, walked into the store. "I saw the infant girl being evacuated. She was covered in blood," he said. "The whole floor here shook. There was mass hysteria. People around me began crying." "No country in the world would abandon its people like this. In Sderot, they've faced this for seven years - I make sure never to forget about Sderot. We feel that this country has no leadership - [Prime Minister] Olmert is busy trying to figure out how to get out of criminal investigations. Meanwhile, we've been ditched. Next year, rockets will reach Kiryat Gat, Beersheba and Ashdod. Our enemy perceives us as weak." On the ground floor, Vered Fruchter, 28, watched scenes of US President George W. Bush's convoy driving through Jerusalem on the TV screen in her confectionery stand. "We should go on the offensive because Bush is here. We need to go into Gaza and attack," she said. "I heard the whoosh of the rocket above my head, it struck as I was going home from work. I feel afraid, I have no sense of security. I don't even feel like I'm at work right now." Half a kilometer away at the Ashkelon police station, dozens of officers from around the country have arrived to provide assistance, should more rockets hit this city. "We've returned to our rocket-response force model," Ashkelon Police chief Dep.-Cmdr Haim Blumenfeld said, referring to a contingency plan first put into effect in March, when Ashkelon first faced an increase in attacks from Gaza. "We have many concerned residents here, and we're in the streets in force to provide a sense of security." The Jerusalem Post joined Dvir Arobus in his unmarked patrol car as he drove through Ashkelon's streets. "We've divided the city into four quarters to enable a speedy police response should a rocket land. Each quarter has its own commanding officer," he said. "The important thing is to have the people see that you're there for them." Ashkelon's roads were indeed saturated with police vehicles on Thursday. "We've had lots of calls from people every time they hear a boom. We can even hear the echoes of IDF attacks in Gaza. The city's residents are on edge, but life here continues as normal," Arobus said.