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.”
The universal fear of parents for their children is part of almost every conversation in Ashkelon and the other southern Israeli towns and cities in range of Gaza rockets.
In her apartment overlooking the Mediterranean from where she and her daughter watch Israeli helicopters fly south towards Gaza, Leah Hassan tries to pass the time indoors, relieved at least that for the day her two young granddaughters, aged two and three are safe. Their parents took them to Tel Aviv to spend the day at the zoo.
Her nerves are frayed she admits, but she is steadfast in her support of the Israeli action in Gaza, calling it a war.
“I hope we’ll be able to go back to the old days but right now we are in the middle and have to absorb these blows.”
For now, she does not dare to leave the relative safety of her apartment, which like most homes in the city has a protective room built with reinforced concrete that serves as their bomb shelter.
Schools are closed as are malls and most stores and restaurants.
The one store at a strip mall in the city that was open and doing fast business was a shwarma restaurant. Its workers were busy wrapping up sandwiches for the slew of home deliveries that had been ordered. But the counter was also jammed with those who came in for lunch. When a siren went off most paused only briefly and then continued eating.
Sitting on a folding chair in the parking garage just off the kitchen, Shahar Ben-David, 30, was taking his own lunch break and assured a visitor that the garage was the safest place to be. He did not seem phased by the siren blasting once again or the rocket that had fallen in a soccer stadium across the road less than an hour earlier.
“What will we do? Run away?” he asked, taking a bite of his shwarma. “I need to work, who else will support my family?”
His wife and five-year-old daughter, meanwhile, were among those who had left the city, hoping to wait out the worst of the rocket fire from the safety of a Tel Aviv hotel.
Waiting for her lunch order to be ready, Lee Baron, an 18-year-old high school senior said she was not thinking about leaving.
“We cannot show fear because it will then give the other side strength,” she said.