In the line of fire

Shell-shocked and wary, residents of the South do their best to maintain normal lives.

drain pipe 521 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
drain pipe 521
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Rachel Rocer, 50, leans against a low stone wall outside her building in a quiet Ashkelon neighborhood, clutching her dog, Bisli. Along with her neighbors, she has just emerged from the safety of her building stairwell to stare at the Grad missile that landed meters from their apartment block.
“This is very difficult,” Rocer tells The Jerusalem Report, as she strokes Bisli. “We are afraid all of the time. We just want it to be over.”
The rocket in Rocer’s backyard was only one of the over 1,500 rockets that Palestinian militants fired into Israel between November 10, four days before Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense, and the cease-fire on November 21. Six Israelis – four civilians and two soldiers – were killed in the rocket barrages and another 113 people were wounded.
Despite the attack and the people milling about, there is an eerie stillness in the air of this Ashkelon neighborhood. Police cordon off the area where the unexploded rocket landed, and munitions experts examine the impact site.
Journalists who raced to the scene crane their necks to get a view of the rocket damage and rush to interview residents. Shell-shocked and weary, cellphones in hand, the residents drag on cigarettes and talk quietly among themselves.
Her building has no bomb shelter, Rocer says, so its inhabitants gather in the stairwell at the sound of the air raid siren and wait there for the danger to pass. Her son studies in Haifa, and the family spent the weekend there for a respite, but they returned home after a couple of days. Her teenaged daughter has gone to stay with family in Tel Aviv, but Rocer notes that there too things aren’t so safe. A few rockets also reached the Tel Aviv region during the eight-day military operation in the Gaza Strip, and on November 21 a terrorist bomb exploded on a Tel Aviv bus, wounding 21 people.
The cease-fire, which took hold on the evening of November 21 but had yet to be declared during my visit, and for the inhabitants of this coastal city located about 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the Gaza border, the past week has been surreal, leaving them unable to perform simple daily tasks without fearing a rocket attack.
“We are not living a normal life,” says Rocer. “We can’t go out anywhere, we are stuck at home. We can’t even take a shower because we are afraid we will be caught in there when the siren sounds.”
Rocer’s neighbor Meirav Ben-David stands nearby in the building’s parking lot, having accompanied her 13-year-old son, Yair, who wanted to see the unexploded rocket. Her stalwart attitude epitomizes that of many residents here. To an outsider, it may appear to be one of blind slogans and mantras, but for the residents it echoes their resolve not to be frightened away from their homes.
“We are not afraid,” says Ben-David. “The army needs to do what it needs to do and we are patient. If the government allows the army to do what it needs to do to the end, then there will certainly be a return to a normal life.”
Employed by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, some 20 kilometers away, Ben-David says she is taking the opportunity to spend time with her three children, taking them on trips to sites out of the range of rockets.
“If this is the reality, I do not need to let the situation control me,” she says. “It is not an issue of getting used to things this way, but we do what we need to do calmly. There is no hysteria. ‘The eternal people does not fear the long road.’” Three elementary schools and one hospital in the city are also hit by rocket fire on that day; fortunately, there is only property damage as all schools within a 40-kilometer radius of Gaza have been closed, along with Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The Federation of Chambers of Commerce estimates that some 80 percent of the 25,600 small businesses in the region remain closed at a loss of between NIS 90-100 million ($23-25 million) per day.
Children are out of school but parents still need to go to work; some 40 childcare centers have been set up around Ashkelon to help parents cope. A seemingly endless stream of politicians and performers make appearances at the centers to show their solidarity with the residents and to be seen as the date for national elections approach. In one such center in the bomb shelter of a seaside hotel, set up by Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center, chaos seems to reign as volunteers try to occupy children with games and art projects, while other children chase one another around.
Nine-year-old Elai Ben-Michael and two of his friends have found a quiet corner and are playing backgammon. “I feel like I am constantly living in a bomb shelter. I don’t like it,” says Ben-Michael. “Last night there were sirens almost all the time. But in here we don’t hear the sirens, only the booms when the rockets land.”
In the neighboring port city of Ashdod, a siren goes off at midday, and some 20 volunteers manning the phones at an emergency call center in a bomb shelter underneath the city hall begin fielding questions from concerned citizens. Home to a large population of Orthodox Jews, the city’s emergency center serves as that community’s sole source of information about the situation, notes volunteer Shani Turjeman, 22. “They call a lot,” she says. “There were 15 rockets yesterday.”
And yet people do need to carry on with their day-to-day lives. Leah Pichadze, 41, slips out for a few minutes to pay a parking ticket at a post office. She tries to keep her four-year-old granddaughter close by, with little success. The child has been cooped up inside for nearly a week and her desire to run around freely eventually conquers her fear.
“I’m watching her wherever she goes. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. It is scary,” says Pichadze.
On one of Ashdod’s main thoroughfares, some of the shops have reopened and a few people are out running errands.
One mother has taken her daughter out briefly to treat her to a hamburger and a coke.
In Kobi’s hair salon, hairdresser Daniel Shamalov is finishing up with a customer while Dr. Serge Friedman waits his turn, accompanied by his 10-year-old son and pregnant wife. The large front window of the salon was destroyed a few days earlier when a rocket exploded across the street, demolishing an apartment.
“People get used to it, you have to get back to life,” Shamalov says.
But Friedman, whose family has had to adjust to the reality of the south after a time abroad, says they are considering their options.
“I think if things get worse, we may move abroad for the children’s sake. This is not a normal way of living. They can’t go out, can’t see friends or go to after-school activities. That’s not a normal life,” he says. A few shops down, optometrist Motti Kovales tapes up a poster advertising sales specials on the store’s glass front. Next to him is a bombed out window from a rocket explosion.
“This won’t ever end, so we just have to continue,” he says with a shrug. “This won’t end until Europe feels what it is like to be in danger. We feel very frustrated because no one understands what it is like to live this way, especially in Europe. When we retaliate, they don’t even let us defend ourselves. It is like telling an abused woman she just has to put up with the abuse.”
Though it is a scary existence, he says, he has no thoughts of leaving.
“There is nowhere to go. Wherever I run to, they will come after me because they don’t want me anywhere,” he says. “In Europe they don’t want me either.”