In this city, the six-day-old conflict in the Gaza Strip, just 10 miles south, feels both incredibly near and strangely far. The low, broad booms of Israeli airstrikes serve as ominous background noise. The wail of sirens, the scurry for shelter and the crack of exploding rockets deliver moments of heart-thumping fear. Mostly, there is an eerie quiet — the sound of closed schools, shuttered shops, thin traffic and waiting.
But waiting for what? Faraj, like several interviewed here in the bull’s-eye of rocket attacks from Gaza, was not sure. Residents went through this — a rising barrage of projectiles and a military offensive to stop it — four years ago. A shaky cease-fire with Hamas and two years of relative quiet followed. Then came another escalation of rocket fire and now another military operation to stop it. Like nearly all Israeli Jews, according to one new poll, Faraj said he supports the Israeli offensive. Whether it would bring lasting calm he did not know.
“I don’t know what they want,” he said of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. “I don’t know the solution.”
Israeli officials say the goal of the operation is to bring peace and quiet to the south by crippling Hamas’s military capabilities. They insist they do not want to topple Hamas or take over Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005. Less clear is whether the offensive can end the sirens that have become routine in southern Israel — or whether, as prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote Monday, any truce between two bitter enemies might not lead to “another round, and another erosion, and another round.”
Here in the Israeli regions near Gaza, where lives have been led for years to the intermittent rhythm of incoming rocket fire, there is a palpable sense of resignation to that cycle. Schools have reinforced roofs, and bus stops are fortified to double as shelters. Some months, 200 rockets are fired at Ashkelon, said Mayor Benny Vaknin. By midday Monday, 15 had been launched, he said.
Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza in the current conflict, in a town north of Ashkelon; 109 Palestinians have died in Israeli airstrikes.
Wartime day camp
For now, most people are staying inside. In Ashkelon, down two musty flights of stairs at the Golden Tower hotel, children of hospital employees — who must continue working — were packed into a basement ballroom for a sort of wartime day camp. They colored Mickey Mouse cartoons, plucked hot dogs from a platter and danced in mambo lines to the music of singers hired both to entertain and to keep things loud enough to prevent small ears from hearing blasts above ground.