Determinedly normal

Real life in Ashkelon in the shadow of Grads is very different from the impression given by headlines.

rocket reaction 88 224 (photo credit: )
rocket reaction 88 224
(photo credit: )
We're sitting in the situation room in the basement behind Ashkelon City Hall on Sunday. There are about a dozen municipal and IDF Home Front Command officials at a long table. The mayor, Roni Mehatzri, has just started the meeting by saying, "After a long, trying day, mainly of visits, and of positive energy..." when, in the middle of his very first sentence, the room fills with a woman's recorded voice. "Tzeva adom (color red)," the voice repeats five or six times. It's 5:05 p.m. A Grad rocket, Ashkelon's 17th of the last four days but first of this day, has landed somewhere in the city. It takes about 10 minutes for police to ascertain and report to the situation room that one rocket hit a house, and that a woman there is being treated for shock. The home is not far from the beachfront, about five minutes away. By the time I get there, a couple of hundred people are standing in the middle of the street behind police cordons. The rocket has wrecked the front of a two-story, beige stucco house, leaving big holes in the smoke-stained walls, chunks of concrete all over the ground, a jumble of broken red tiles on the roof and shattered glass in the street. Surprisingly, little damage has been done to the neighbors' houses. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter lives nearby. Within a slightly broader radius stand the house of another cabinet minister, three synagogues and a community center. Despite the impression given by the news media at the scenes of terror attacks, the crowd here isn't angry. Instead, people seem mainly curious and excited to be where the action is. Lots of them are taking photos and videos, there's plenty of chatter and laughter. Maybe it would be different if someone had been killed or badly wounded, but this time the only injury was to a teenage girl in the house, who was taken to the hospital with a surface shrapnel wound to her back. The news photographers and cameramen are going crazy, overrunning the garden and porch of the house next door, climbing over the dividing wall to take shots of the wreckage, playing cat-and-mouse with police trying to keep the area clear. Two doors away, on the porch of the house on the other side of the one that was hit, and away from the focus of attention, stands an elderly lady drinking a glass of water with a little girl next to her. No one is talking to them. I go up and ask if they saw the rocket crash. "We were inside," says nine-year-old Naomi Gilin - meaning inside the house that was hit. It's her family's house, and she, her grandmother and her seven-year-old brother David are taking refuge at the neighbors next door. They and the 16-year-old sister Rosi were downstairs in their family home when they heard the tzeva adom from the loudspeakers outside. "We ran into the security room," says the grandmother, Larissa Gaitzgory. But Rosi was standing just outside the security room when she was wounded. Later that night, she would come home from the hospital in good condition. "We're fine," says Naomi, "but we didn't know what to do. Everything was dark [after the rocket hit], and everything fell on the floor. It didn't look like my house." Her parents, who work far from the city, were on their way home. The grandmother, however, remembers everyone knowing exactly what to do when the tzeva adom sounded. "The children were drilled in school, and we explained to them about the danger," she says. A social worker in a reflector vest comes up to her, but Gaitzgory tells her she's okay. The only time the 65-year-old exhibits any distress is when a troop of reporters with microphones and cameras advance on her, causing her to retreat inside the neighbor's house. I'm talking with Naomi when a couple of her friends hanging over the front gate call her over and point at someone behind her. I ask what they want, and one of the friends, brimming with excitement, says, "It's Lia from Survival." The tall, tanned, blonde woman in the blue plaid coat and knee-high black boots standing in front of the house is Lia Gil, the Amazonian contestant from the reality-show hit of the TV season. She lives in Ashkelon. "How cool!" squeals Naomi, running over to join the people hovering around the star. The murmur of "Lia" is heard in the crowd. The buzz has shifted from the who, what and where of the rocket attack to the tall, blonde presence of Lia. The bold ones in the crowd stream toward her. Teenagers have their pictures taken with her. "You're a brave girl," Lia tells the giddy Naomi as someone snaps their photo. There were no angry voices, no chanting against Olmert, no crying, no hysteria. Real life in Ashkelon in the shadow of the Grads is very different from the impression given by tabloid headlines and the put-on expressions of TV presenters. In the week since the war with Gaza escalated and Ashkelon for the first time came under frequent rocket attack, an undercurrent of apprehension settled in this coastal city of 120,000. Yet it's not as if everyone here goes around in fear and rage all the time. People are making adjustments for the danger, but while that danger has advanced from the back of their minds, it doesn't seem to have reached the front. In the front of the minds of Ashkelon's residents is still the stuff of their personal lives, their daily routine. Most people here say they trust the IDF to put down the threat from Gaza, to drive the Grads away for good and to do it soon. They cannot fathom the possibility that the government will allow Ashkelon to become, as one resident put it, "Sderot II." They're a little worried, they're in a warlike mood, but they're thinking positive. Thus, despite the dramatically changed reality, life in Ashkelon remains basically normal. Determinedly normal, it seems. WHEREVER HE goes, Mayor Roni Mehatzri has people coming up to shake his hand. Only a few weeks ago, Yediot Aharonot ran a story accusing him of sexually harassing a married haredi woman, a charge he denied completely, but if the story was big news here last month, it has been erased by the Grads. Mehatzri, 51, a retired IDF colonel in a crocheted kippa, is a down-to-earth type, a man of relaxed authority. With his slightly bent nose, rolling gait and raised whisper of a voice, he reminds me a little of Marlon Brando. For a city that needs a strong, wartime mayor who can inspire confidence, he at least looks and sounds the part. "I can't even imagine a scenario like that," he tells me when I ask about the possibility that the IDF won't be able to stop the rockets on Ashkelon, like it hasn't been able to stop them on Sderot. "The country can't allow this city to be broken. There are 120,000 people here, there's vital national energy and strategic infrastructure," he says, referring mainly to the power station that serves the whole Negev. "We understand that we may have to live temporarily with a higher level of danger, but if we show them in Gaza that the price of firing rockets at us is too high, that it isn't worth it - if the IDF goes on with the kind of operations it's been doing for the last few days and doesn't stop until the job is finished, things will be quiet here again." We're walking in Barzilai Hospital to the rooms where three local residents - two men in their late 30s and a woman in her early 20s - are being treated for shrapnel wounds from the rocket that crashed onto the beachfront the day before. Mehatzri comes in with a pair of teenage girls dressed as clowns and bringing balloons, and at first it's all smiles and handshakes and politeness, but soon the mayor gets an earful. "Why aren't the school buildings reinforced? Why hasn't the army erased those places in Gaza?" demands Michael Hadida, lying in bed with his eyes wide and unblinking, his voice flat and insistent - a study in controlled fury. In the room of Pamela Masri, her husband David, bearded and wearing a large crocheted white kippa, breaks into tears as he vents his frustration at Mehatzri: "Why have we allowed it to get to the point where I have to see my wife lying there, when they should be the ones who are afraid, not us? When is Am Yisrael going to study Torah; when are we going to learn who we are and how we're supposed to act in our own land? When is the IDF finally going to go to war against our enemies?" In defense, Mehatzri says that he, too, wishes the government would have ordered the current attack on Gaza "a long time ago," and he tries to be encouraging by pointing out that the army has "killed about 100 of them" in the last few days. But when this doesn't work, when the harangues continue, he stops talking and listens sympathetically. With no cabinet ministers or Knesset members in the room - although many have been showing up in the city and making brave speeches to the cameras - Mehatzri is the representative of the establishment, the government, the state. For these wounded residents and their families, he submits to the role of flak-catcher. On the way out to the parking lot, I ask what it does to him. "Look, I was an army colonel, I've been through this. I've been to funerals," he says, visibly in need of some sleep. "But what do they want from me? I'm not the prime minister; I'm not the defense minister; I'm the mayor." HIS CITY has gotten banged up. A rocket from the morning before, on Shabbat just after 5 a.m., landed in a densely populated area. At that hour, no one was injured, but two parked cars were totaled and lots of windows in the surrounding buildings were blown out. By late the following afternoon, most of the broken windows had already been replaced, but workmen were still up on ladders and Property Tax assessors were taking people's claims. In the background, possibly from the apartment building where the blast had knocked out windows and shutters up to the fourth floor, you could hear the sound of broken glass being swept up. "We expected this, we were waiting for it," says Rafi Amar, owner of a candy store that was hit, but which is already open for business on Sunday, its windows temporarily patched up. "I don't think anybody around here disagrees with what the army is doing. We have to go in there and stay there as long as it takes to calm things down. We have to explain the situation to them differently than we've been doing. Unfortunately, the Arabs only understand force." In Ashkelon it's commonly said that if the IDF just hits Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza hard enough, the terrorists will stop firing the Grads because they'll be afraid to. People here say this even after seven years of IDF retaliations for the Kassams on Sderot, even after the IDF has killed almost 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza, terrorists and civilians both, during the last two years. Here in Ashkelon, but not just here, none of this seems to have registered. It's only natural for people at war to think about their own suffering, not the enemy's. But this unawareness of the price Israel has already exacted for the rocket attacks leaves local residents believing that the government has yet to try a get-tough policy - that in the face of the terror from Gaza, military deterrence would be a new strategy. "The government doesn't take action at all," insists Rafi Levy, owner of the Istanbul Restaurant in the formerly Arab old town district. "The terrorists do just about whatever they want against us; now they've killed two of our soldiers, and the government does nothing," maintains Idit Sabro, a clerk at the Baby store in the northside shopping center. An idea that's now kicking around the cabinet - to fire artillery shells at the source of Gaza rocket fire, even at a populated area, the thinking being that this will deter further terror - has filtered down here. "For every rocket they fire, if we fire 20 shells at them, wherever they are, then they'll know better than to try again. That'll stop it for sure," says Levy. A MONTH AGO I interviewed Eitan Rochman and his son Ron, owners of the local GTC packaging factory, about the possibility of escalated rocket attacks on the city and how they thought the country should deal with the threat. Last month's possibility is today's reality, and the contrasting opinions of father and son haven't changed. Eitan suggests aiming not 20, but 50 artillery shells at the source of every Grad. "The Palestinians have families, too, and if their families have to suffer like our families suffer. They'll blame Hamas, and Hamas will have to stop the rockets or face the revenge of its own people. I'm sure this will stop it," he says. Ron, an atypically dovish voice in the city, contends that such a policy would "only kill a lot of civilians living in the buildings where the terrorists fire rockets from the rooftops. By the time the shell hits the building, the terrorist has run away and the people inside get killed. You think some Hamasnik cares if Palestinian civilians die because of him? It doesn't even enter his mind." When I came to GTC on Sunday, Eitan was going over a letter to the mayor asking that the state pay for reinforcing the factory roof against rockets. "The roof is made of thin, soft material. We've got 30 people working here without protection. We're waiting for the worst to happen," he says. I ask where they have a bomb shelter, and he says there's one about 200 meters away. "But we only have 15 seconds to take cover after the tzeva adom, so even an Olympic sprinter couldn't make it in time," he notes. Four days earlier, a Grad fell close to the factory. A secretary says she heard the tzeva adom, for all the good it did her. A month ago, city and Home Front Command officials sounded highly confident that if the rockets started falling in numbers, the emergency system would be ready and the public would be as safe as a population under aerial assault can be. But four days after the escalation began, that confidence turned out to have been hollow. At Barzilai, Mehatzri is told by all three wounded residents that they had not heard any tzeva adom before the rocket hit the marina. "What do you mean?" the mayor said, sounding genuinely shocked. "We heard an explosion, then a whistle, then it hit," a man who had been with Hadida and the other wounded man, Ilan Biton, told him. "It was really like being on a battlefield." "There are whole neighborhoods in the city where you can't hear the tzeva adom," Hadida's wife complains to Mehatzri. He replies that Home Front Command has begun that day making the loudspeakers broadcast with more volume. There were also widespread complaints that the city's 120 public bomb shelters weren't habitable. After the rocket near Dichter's house, a man in the crowd showed me the shelter on that street - it was filthy and dark, the lights didn't work. The man told this to the city's harried spokeswoman, Anat Wienstein-Berkovits, who was busy nonstop on the phone. "106, sweetie, 106," she tells him, referring to the municipal hot line's phone number. I mention the problems of the bomb shelters to Yossi Greenfield, the city's security officer, and he says the shelters aren't so relevant anymore. "The new orders from Home Front Command [for those caught outdoors by the tzeva adom, if they should hear it] are to take cover wherever you can, whichever place looks the safest, to crouch down next to a building, to go into the stairwell," he says. That was at the beginning of the week; hopefully, the city is better prepared by now. "This is our first day, give us a chance," Mehatzri says with a brave grin on the fourth day of the crisis to the wounded Pamela Masri, who's told him that she didn't hear the tzeva adom, either. (On Tuesday the Defense Ministry decided it would be replaced by air raid sirens, which are louder and easier to hear.) ASHKELON IS a special place. It's growing, it has miles of shiny, modern housing projects and tens of thousands of new, or fairly new, immigrants, but it also has old shops and neighborhoods where the people have been there for generations. There's both heavy industry and the Mediterranean beachfront. It has the dynamism of a city together with the intimacy of a small town. The people here seem especially warm and friendly. They're very solid - but they're not made of steel. It would be a great national tragedy if what happened to Sderot happens to Ashkelon next. On the counter of the old town district's Istanbul Restaurant is a bumper sticker reading, "We will win," and another that reads, "We're fighting for our home." I ask the owner, Rafi Levy, if he pasted those up in the last few days. "No, they're from another war, the last one in Lebanon. But they still apply today," he says. A beefy, seemingly gentle man, Levy, 59, took over the restaurant from his father in 1976. He remembers being a young soldier during the War of Attrition "and getting shelled forever" by the Egyptians. Still, the spate of rockets from Gaza has shaken him somewhat. "On Friday night, I was lying in bed, sort of half-asleep, I couldn't really sleep, and then - boom! My grandchildren were with us in the house. It landed far enough away, there was no damage. But it's not a good feeling." He goes over to one of his regular customers, a lawyer, and tells him I'm doing a story on how Ashkelon is holding up. The lawyer's expression turns gloomy. "I hope this is a one-time thing," he says. "If it isn't, there won't be much left of this city." Levy turns to the lawyer and says: "If that happens, we'll move to Ashdod. And if it happens in Ashdod, we'll move to Tel Aviv. There the country is strong." He didn't sound like he was kidding. He sounded like he was looking for an idea that would give him peace of mind, a sense of security. n