On a sunny, late fall day the promenade at Ashkelon would normally be full of people enjoying a stroll next to one of Israel’s most beautiful beaches.
Since the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel’s latest pushback against Hamas rocket strikes on civilian targets, Ashkelon and Ashdod, its northern neighbor on the Mediterranean, are all but deserted.
A recent visit to the area on a day that saw Grad rockets landing on a high school and a hospital in Ashkelon reveals that hundreds of thousands of Israelis find themselves living in a tense reality where every normal activity has been disrupted as rocket fire continues to pound Israeli cities over a large area of southern and central Israel.
An emergency-response team at the site of rocket attack that damaged an apartment building in Ashkelon.
“I’m afraid to get into the shower in case the siren goes off,” said Estie Ohayon, 58, a worker at Ashdod’s city hall.
Traffic in and around Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beersheva is sparse, as schools and many non-essential factories have closed in order to prevent injuries.
Several roads in the area are closed to all but military traffic and intercity bus service is limited due to both road closures and the IDF’s need for the buses to transport the tens of thousands of reservists who have been called up to the Gaza border.
Small businesses, restaurants and other places of entertainment are all suffering, as most people aren’t in the mood to go out and workers are home taking care of kids whose schools remain closed.
Israel’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce approximates the loss of retail and service trade in the south at between NIS 90 million ($23 million) and NIS 100 million ($25 million) per day. They estimate that around 80 percent of the more than 25,000 small businesses in the region are closed.
On one of Ashdod’s main streets on Monday morning, right across the street from an apartment block that had taken a direct hit from a Hamas rocket the day before, there were few shoppers about. One café owner said his business had dwindled to less than 10 percent of normal.
Sitting on a bench outside, Dr. Asher Friedman, 42, his pregnant wife, and his 10-year-old son were trying to enjoy some family time at a time when they would each normally be at work or at school.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years,” said Dr. Friedman, a local dentist. “This is definitely the most difficult time we’ve had here.”
“We’re not afraid,” he added, “but the time has come for some serious cleaning out. But, this is the Middle East, and there may never be a solution.”
Concerned residents at an Ashkelon building look toward where a rocket had just fallen.
Eddie Benhamou, spokesperson for the city of Ashdod, is more positive. He explains that it’s his job “to stay relaxed,” and he points out that despite extensive damage to the apartment complex in the center of his city, assessors arrived quickly and the emergency response team quickly relocated the family to a hotel while their apartment is repaired. “The area has quickly returned to normal,” Benhamou asserted.
A few miles away at the ORT Ronson High School in an upscale Ashkelon neighborhood, Israel National Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld points to the damage done by a Grad rocket that sliced through the roof of a playground, causing extensive damage. No one was hurt, since all schools in the area had been closed since last Thursday.
Mickey Rosenfeld, spokesman for Israel’s national police, shows damage at an Ashkelon school.
Some 40 makeshift childcare centers around Ashkelon have been set up to help parents occupy the children who are out of school. The human resources department at Ashkelon’s Barzilay Regional Hospital is operating a childcare facility in the bomb shelter of an old Ashkelon hotel to enable its workers to come to work.
Around 100 primary and middle-school–age kids are scattered in the heavily fortified basement, engaged in activities organized by student volunteers and female IDF soldiers.
“I feel useful here,” said Tel Aviv University student and Ashkelon resident Ettie Peres, 22. “I haven’t been able to work or study and I’ve been afraid to go to sleep or go out of the house. It’s not normal to live like this, without even being able to fulfill the minimal needs of a human being.”
Romi Levy, 8, who’s playing quietly near Ettie, said she’s happy to be in the shelter.
“We don’t hear the sirens here,” she said.
Dr. Moshe Levy, head of Barzilay hospital, with an undetonated rocket that fell on the hospital grounds.
Over at the Barzilay Hospital, the parents of those kids playing at the shelter don’t have the same luxury. Code Red sirens sound frequently through the day, and around lunchtime a rocket fired from Gaza fell on the grounds of the hospital, close to the operating room.
“There are no words anymore,” said Dr. Moshe Levy, the hospital’s director. “I thought no one would bomb a hospital. This is supposed to be the new Middle East.”
Levy said that only one area of the 550-bed hospital is in a protected area, “and Hamas knows that.”
Since the start of the current round of rocket attacks, Barzilay has sent more than half of its patients home and stopped all non-essential surgeries.
“We’ve ceased almost all other medical activity, apart from treating the wounded from rocket attacks,” Levy said.
As of Tuesday, there had been approximately 120 casualties treated at the hospital, with one third suffering from trauma and anxiety, according to Levy.
The relatively low casualty figure of Operation Pillar of Defense is due to the highly professional and well-publicized citizen preparedness program of the Home Front Command. Instructions on how to behave in a rocket attack and what to do when the siren sounds have been circulated in many languages to every Israeli citizen.
As in many of Israel’s previous confrontations, it’s the citizens who are on the frontlines. Limor Livnat, Israel’s minister of sports and culture, spent Monday touring the southern communities.
“You’re the source of strength for the IDF,” she told a group of Ashkelon residents at one of its shelters.