Ashkelon’s wide boulevards and seafront promenade are deserted, the few souls who do venture out quickly make their way back indoors, listening out for the wail of rocket warning sirens that are now setting the uncertain rhythm of their lives.
Ashkelon, a coastal city of some 110,000 people, is reluctantly finding itself thrust onto the front line of the latest showdown in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with other cities unaccustomed to incoming fire such as Ashdod and Beersheva.
“This is all new to us,” said Avichai Levi.
Like other residents, he had never experienced anything like the rocket assault that has befallen their city since Israel’s massive air assault on Gaza began over the weekend. Rockets had fallen occasionally in the past, but only rarely. It had even been considered a safe refuge for residents of the border town of Sderot which for the past few years has borne the brunt of the attacks.
Levi awoke Tuesday morning to the sound of a rocket slamming into the construction site across the street from his parents’ apartment. The rocket, a Grad missile, killed a construction worker on the site and injured sixteen others. Levi, a manager at a local cell phone company, has moved back to his parents’ apartment along with his wife and newborn daughter, together with his three younger siblings. They take strength, they say, from being together.
His sister Helen Levi, 26, said it’s bewildering trying to make sense of what is going on around them. Looking out of the window she points south in the direction of Gaza where sometimes they can see plumes of smoke in the air from another Israeli air raid. In the background there are intermittent sounds of Israeli artillery firing across the border.
“Gaza, it’s right here,” she said, her voice trailing off. “I think we still don’t understand what’s happening so at some level we can still be optimistic because we don’t yet get the gravity of the situation.”
Avichai, sitting across from her on a dark leather couch offers, “We cannot know yet how this will all end. We don’t want to go into Gaza but I don’t think we’ll have much of a choice.”
Brewing talk of a ground invasion makes everyone nervous although this family, like many of their fellow Israelis, feel it is inevitable.
Eliyahu Shalalashvili, 49, on a lunch break from the Ashkelon grocery store where he works overseeing the stock room, spoke of his concerns for his twenty-year-old twin sons who are soldiers mobilized in different units along the Gaza border. Both are on the ready to become part of a possible ground mission.
“We don’t sleep at night,” he said of himself and his wife. “We pray that God will watch over them. I think we should go into Gaza but I would rather go in myself than send my children.”