Despite the constant threat of Kassam rockets, Ashkelon is still doing very well.

Ashkelon 88 224 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Ashkelon 88 224
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Sitting around a table with IDF Home Front Command and Defense Ministry officials, Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri wants to know how long it will take his southern coastal city to go on full emergency footing "if it gets like the Second Lebanon War here, with rockets landing nonstop." "Two days," says the Home Front Command officer. The Defense Ministry officials agree. In the fourth-floor City Hall conference room, Mehatzri, a retired IDF colonel, is assured that emergency instruction pamphlets have been mailed to Ashkelon's 120,000 residents; drills have been held and more are scheduled; the city has been mapped to show where at-risk populations (children, elderly, handicapped) are concentrated; public shelters are being canvassed for needed improvements; and municipal computers and communications systems are being geared up. "We even have the TV public service spots ready to go," says the Home Front Command officer. Leaning back in his chair, speaking quietly, quickly, with practiced authority, Mehatzri, 50, insists that the Defense Ministry pick up the cost of outfitting Ashkelon's factories for an early-warning system. The ministry doesn't want to do this just yet, with no immediate threat of a Kassam or Katyusha onslaught hanging over the city. The mayor presses the officials, promising to bring the matter to higher-ups in the government. "Look at what you do for Sderot," he says. "If, God forbid, the rockets start coming down heavy, you'll come and reinforce the roofs, you'll take care of the factories. But psychologically, it's important to do it now, to show people here that you're giving them something. This isn't Sderot - Sderot is at war, but Ashkelon is getting ready for it." Ashkelon, whose southern industrial zone lies seven kilometers up the coast from Gaza, has been hit by 11 rockets since Israel got out of the Strip in September 2005. Nearly all fell in uninhabited areas. Nobody has been injured, and the only property damage was to a seaside wall and a parked car. This is nothing compared to what goes on in Sderot, less than two kilometers east of Gaza, where 11 rockets commonly fall in a single day. But while Ashkelon isn't Sderot, neither is it calm and carefree. In January, two rockets fell on different days in northern parts of the city, one landing about 50 meters from a residential neighborhood. Both were Katyushas of the Grad class, which are bigger, of longer range and more destructive than the Kassams which pound Sderot. And this week, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin told the cabinet that additional rockets that could reach Ashkelon had been smuggled into Gaza since the breach of the Egyptian border. And while only 11 rockets have reached Ashkelon since disengagement, nearly 800 have been fired in the city's direction, but have fallen short or wide, says Alan Marcus, the municipality's head of planning. Between Gaza and Ashkelon are five kibbutzim and moshavim, the Rutenberg power station, the Ashkelon-Eilat oil pipeline and a desalination plant, but mainly there is the Mediterranean Sea and a lot of sand. Somewhere in there the remainder of the nearly 800 rockets fired in Ashkelon's direction landed. Late Tuesday night, three more Kassams were fired toward Ashkelon; by press time it was unknown if any had landed within city limits, but there were no injuries or property damage. Palestinian gunners in Gaza "have the chimneys of the power station to aim at," notes city spokeswoman Anat Wienstein-Berkovits. She knows of only one person injured in all the 800 launchings - a power station employee wounded by shrapnel. But obviously, things could get worse. If the IDF invades Gaza and goes to war with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian terrorists might well escalate their rocketing of the city, which is why so many emergency drills, preparations and meetings are taking place. Whether or not the IDF should invade Gaza, and what the consequences would be for the city, is a matter of disagreement among residents. ASHKELON IS nothing like Sderot. Sderot is a basket case, its people are shell-shocked. In Ashkelon, by contrast, people "don't even feel Gaza," says Roger Hatav, owner of a cafe he proudly calls the city's "parliament" in the formerly Arab, old town district. While thousands of Sderot residents who could afford to move out of that town have done so, Ashkelon is growing. Housing prices are rising fast. "We just sold a penthouse here for $1.575 million," says a buoyant Herzel Barzilai, head of the local Anglo-Saxon realty office. In the city's northwest section, where the two Grads fell in January, the hoped-for upscale future of Ashkelon is being built. Six hundred houses are being completed and another 640 housing plots are being sold. A world-class golf course, an "extreme" sports center and a go-cart race track have been planned. Southeast of that area, a second national park is envisioned for the city on the vast ruins of a Roman and Byzantine winery. "We're trying to brand Ashkelon as a tourist city," says Marcus. It isn't easy, though, when Gaza is seven kilometers away, the odd Kassam or Grad falls out of the sky and the question hovering over the city is whether the rocketing it takes from Gaza will remain incidental, fade completely or escalate. Running Ashkelon, then, requires a delicate balance. It means being under pressure to prepare bomb shelters and air raid systems, while trying to sell investors on sun 'n' fun. It means sending out emergency brochures to 40,000 households, while trying to keep them calm and confident. Ashkelon isn't Sderot, the life here is much closer to the life in Rishon Lezion, but Ashkelon isn't exactly Rishon Lezion, either. The question of what to do about Gaza's rockets is a personal one for the locals. About a month ago the City Council unanimously voted to "demand" that the Olmert government "act" to stop the rocket fire. Just how to act wasn't spelled out, but the meaning was clear enough - official Ashkelon wants the IDF to invade the Strip and crush the terrorists. "Today I don't see any choice, any other way to bring down the number of rockets without a big IDF ground operation," says Mehatzri, a political independent. He doesn't want the IDF to reoccupy the Strip, only to do what's necessary to deter the terrorists - "to teach them it's not worth it to attack Israel, like we taught Hizbullah." The risk, though, is that if Hamas and Islamic Jihad are under assault in Gaza, they will fire whatever they've got that can reach the city - and then, as long as the Palestinians' rocket supply lasts, Ashkelon really could resemble Sderot, or Haifa during the Second Lebanon War. Mehatzri recognizes this, but it's a price he's willing to pay because he thinks there's a good chance that Ashkelon might be under attack, and its citizens in bomb shelters, for "maybe only days" before the Palestinians' rocket arsenal ran out. "It could be like Haifa here, or it could end much sooner," he says. "But it's better to go through an intensive attack for a short time if that means the rockets will go down to zero. Afterward there may be a short-term effect on the city's economy, but it's better than the alternative of going on year after year with the threat of Kassams. Ashkelon can't live with that." Whether a major ground operation, followed by withdrawal, would deter future rocket attacks is a popular topic of local debate. Another point of contention is how bad things would get here during such a war. Some locals say it would be like Haifa in summer 2006 - a month of hell - while others, like Mehatzri, think the all-clear would likely come within days. Shlomo Brom, former head of strategic planning for the IDF General Staff and ex-deputy chairman of the National Security Council, sides with the optimists. "I don't think Hamas has that many rockets that can reach Ashkelon," he says, suggesting the number may not be higher than 30 or 40, despite Diskin's pronouncement this week. Brom says the recent breach between Gaza and Egypt makes little difference to Ashkelon. "They were already smuggling those sorts of rockets into Gaza through the tunnels; the only difference is now maybe they can bring them in faster," he says. Noting that Hamas and Islamic Jihad were barely able to bother Ashkelon last month in response to the IDF's heavy air assault, Brom, now a leading authority at the Institute for National Strategic Planning, expects that the fallout on Ashkelon from a major IDF ground invasion of the Gaza wouldn't be much different than it has been in recent weeks. Comparisons with Haifa in the Second Lebanon War and Sderot, he says, are "nonsense," because Hizbullah's thousands of longer-range rockets and Sderot's close proximity to Gaza make those two cities far more vulnerable to rocket attack than Ashkelon is now. SITTING AT THE computer in his City Hall office, Alan Marcus calls up maps of Ashkelon's neighborhoods showing the population densities of children, old people and the handicapped. "So if there are rockets falling in several places at once, we'll know where to send rescue teams first," he explains. Last March, he says, a drill was conducted for a hypothetical attack in which 20 missiles fell in seven city locations in 20 minutes. The IDF Home Front Command is the lead agency in Ashkelon's emergency preparations, and the clear impression is that it is determined to prevent a repeat of its poor performance in the North during the Second Lebanon War. Equally clear is that Ashkelon doesn't want to be caught with its pants down like so many local governments in the North were in summer 2006. "There were northern towns where all the municipality workers left in a panic," Marcus notes. The municipality follows Home Front Command's instructions on preparedness, and for now that means that when a Kassam or Grad is fired from Gaza in Ashkelon's direction, local residents do not know about it. They get no warning. Unlike in Sderot, where citywide loudspeakers broadcast the words "tzeva adom" ("color red") after each Kassam launch, giving residents about 12 seconds to take cover before the rocket lands, Ashkelon's loudspeakers remain silent when Gazan rockets are fired north. The reason, Marcus explains, is that if Ashkelon activated its early-warning system, there would have been nearly 800 instances in which 120,000 people were sent racing for cover - all to avoid 11 rockets that, luckily enough, didn't touch anyone. "For now, what's the bigger risk to the city - one of those rockets from Gaza or 120,000 people all of a sudden running like crazy for bomb shelters?" he asks rhetorically. Pointing out that air-raid sirens would be needed in Ashkelon because, at 48 square kilometers, it is too large for "tzeva adom" broadcasts to be heard, he adds, "How many people would die of heart attacks just from hearing the sirens? We'd have to empty out old-age homes, community centers, the sports hall, the college. The chance of injuries and hysteria is much worse than the risk from a rocket being launched." That's for now, though. If Ashkelon ever comes under heavy, sustained rocket attack, the municipality naturally expects the IDF to order it to activate its air-raid sirens, says city spokeswoman Wienstein-Berkovits. But the municipality isn't enthusiastic about this. In its resolution calling on the government to "act" in Gaza, the city council also stressed that any decision to operate the early-warning system - and any mishaps that might result from it - was strictly the government's responsibility, not the municipality's. ASHKELON IS a changed city. Until the 1990s, it was rather sleepy and stagnant, but with the giant Russian immigration, neighborhood after neighborhood of tall, gleaming, well-landscaped apartment complexes went up in a short time. With land prices low, factories moved into the industrial zones at the southern and northern edges of town, and shopping centers filled up with new stores. In the last few years, unemployment has gone way down. Even now, with the rude arrival of rocket fire, the cheap land and the Mediterranean Sea are attracting new immigrants from France and England, while Israelis from all over, including Sderot, are coming to live or start businesses or both. Three months ago Eitan Rochman and his son, Ron, moved their food packaging factory, GTC, about seven kilometers south - from Ashdod to Ashkelon's northern industrial zone - which now puts them in Grad range from Gaza. "We heard the last rocket land not far from here a couple of weeks ago. It made a loud boom. No big deal," says Eitan, 64, who, like his son, commutes to work from the Tel Aviv area. He says he moved his factory both because the rent is cheaper in Ashkelon than in Ashdod, but also "to make a statement that these terrorists can't run us out of here." GTC's current location is temporary; Rochman is negotiating to buy a plant in Ashkelon's southern industrial zone, which will put them several kilometers closer to Gaza - and in more vulnerable, Kassam range. The price per square meter is not appreciably different on the southside, but the company needs more space, the Rochmans prefer to buy instead of rent, and the closer they are to Gaza, says Eitan, the clearer their "statement" will be. In terms of residential status, Ashkelon is divided by Sderot Ben-Gurion - north of Ben-Gurion is upscale, south of it is downscale, says Anglo-Saxon's Barzilai. In the last couple of years, real estate prices have gone up on the northside by 15%-20%, while prices on the southside have remained static. Asked if this was because of the southside's closer distance to Gaza, Barzilai says property in the south was always less expensive in the north, even before the advent of Kassams and Grads. David Rosner, a city councilman and head of the local Builders Association, shows us around a 24-unit apartment building he's about to complete in the center of town. "This is the first time since I started as a developer in 1969 that I've sold all the units in a building before it was finished," he points out. Rocket threat or not, he says this is a good time for Ashkelon builders. Asked why, he says maybe this is just the local effect of the prosperity in the country at large. Yet while Ashkelon is growing, it would be growing considerably faster if it were out of rocket range from Gaza, say locals. "I don't know anybody who's leaving the city because of the Kassams, or anybody who's lowering his selling price because he's afraid nobody will buy in this area. But there's no question that [the closeness to Gaza and its rockets] is an issue for a lot of people who are thinking about buying a home here," says Barzilai. Marcus points out that there are only "two-and-a-half" sizable hotels in the city - the Holiday Inn and the Dan Gardens, with the "half" being the new, fancy hotel by the marina that was ready to open last summer, but whose owner decided to keep it closed. Now it's up for sale. A decade or so ago, two major international hotel chains were considering opening branches here, but the intifada spelled an end to that. A couple of years ago the municipality was talking with an Israeli hotel chain about building a big hotel on the waterfront, but the chain's owners said they would wait for other major hoteliers to put their money on Ashkelon before they would risk it. Until a generation or so ago, a home in Ashkelon cost more than a comparable home in Ashdod. Today, says Barzilai, a four-room apartment in a high-status Ashkelon neighborhood goes for about $180,000, while the same apartment in a similar neighborhood in Ashdod costs about $250,000. He says the turnaround was due to Ashdod's (slightly) shorter distance to the center of the country; its greater job possibilities, mainly around the port and the oil refineries; the superior promotional campaign Ashdod undertook; and, last but definitely not least, the difference in the two cities' geographic relation to Gaza, a difference that's been critical - so far. ASHKELON IS doing well, but it has ambitions of doing much better. It aspires to being an Ashdod without the air pollution, the Herzliya of the south coast, an enviable address. Seemingly the only obstacle, the only thing standing in the way of attracting those international hotels, the big tourism investors, is the specter of the Grads, Kassams and whatever next-generation rockets Hamas and Islamic Jihad may come up with. How to remove that obstacle? Opinions around the city differ. In old town at Roger's Espresso Bar, where photographs of Roger's smiling face cover the tabletops and walls, Roger says, "We have to stop fighting and sit down and talk with them." Even with Hamas? "Even with Hamas." Shlomi Hajaj, a regular at the cafe who buys shoes from Palestinians in Hebron and sells them in Israel, disagrees. "We have to go in and reoccupy Gaza. That's what the people there want, they don't want Hamas, they want Israeli rule," he insists. A few doors further up the pedestrian mall, in front of Pascal's hair salon, Pascal Beno, who has owned the old-fashioned, mint-condition shop for some 40 years, says, "We have to talk with them and make peace. In the end, I think it will happen. No, I'm against an invasion. We need things quiet here." His son, Sharon, leaves his customer's hair to dry for a minute and comes outside. "We have to bomb everything," he says. "It'll only improve the situation." Pascal, 76, gives his son an exasperated look and concludes, "I've been through more than one war. I've had enough." Under the high ceilings of their dimly-lit food packaging plant, Rochman senior and junior also hold opposing views. "Those people only understand force," says Eitan, the father. "We have to show them that for every Jew they kill, we'll kill 10 Arabs." Ron, the son, says that approach is a proven failure. "If we go into Gaza, we'll just have to go back later. We've done that a few times. The more we hit them, the more they hit back," he says, suggesting that if, instead, the economic condition of the Palestinians' lives were improved, "they'd think twice before attacking us." Eitan, hawk though he may be, believes the future will work itself out. "In the end there will be coexistence, there's no choice," he says. "If England, France and Germany made peace, and we made peace with Egypt and Jordan, we'll make peace with Gaza, too." Basically, he's an optimistic man, which is fitting because this is a optimistic city. There's an element of danger in Ashkelon, an element of uncertainty, but people here don't seem to be flinching.