Israelis in Tel Aviv remain defiantly blase as barrages from Gaza bring conflict closer

It was noon on Wednesday, but the blazing midday sun had not deterred Nira Eilam and two friends from getting together outside a cafe for a quick coffee and chat.

Neither, Eilam said, had the latest barrage of rockets aimed at this city from Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, several of which set off air raid sirens Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We had to get out and feel that our life is normal, to make sure that it’s business as usual,” Eilam said.

And business in Tel Aviv, Israel’s second most-populous city, did seem to be moving along in typical fashion, even as the Israeli military expanded its operation against militants 50 miles away in Gaza who launched rockets farther into Israel than ever before. Five of them have been shot toward Tel Aviv, but in this relaxed Mediterranean metropolis, a surreal atmosphere of normalcy has persisted.

“This operation has not changed anything,” said the city’s deputy mayor, Asaf Zamir, although he noted that public bomb shelters had been opened. He declared that despite the rockets, which had intermittently sent residents running for shelter throughout Tuesday and Wednesday morning, “tonight the restaurants, bars and pubs will all be packed as usual.”


Israelis play with a ball Wednesday at the beach in Tel Aviv, which is normally crowded at this time of year. Not far away, Israel on Wednesday stepped up its offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, pummeling scores of targets. (Oded Balilty/AP)

That sense of security is in part a result of the performance of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which the military said has intercepted all five of the rockets fired at Tel Aviv. Two were among a total of 105 rockets fired from Gaza on Wednesday, the military said, 23 of which were struck down by the defense system, which is deployed around major cities.

Eighty-two rockets hit Israel throughout the day. Local news media reported that one landed in Caesaria, north of Tel Aviv, and that another reached the Carmel coast, just south of the northern coastal city of Haifa.

But in Tel Aviv, people rode bicycles and walked dogs under the shade of trees along Rothschild Boulevard, the central street in Tel Aviv’s financial district. Nearby, Eilam sipped a latte.

“I was at the movies last night when the siren went off, and we did not even hear it,” Eilam said. “But when I went to sleep, I did make sure I was wearing my nicer pajamas just in case another siren went off and we had to go into the public bomb shelter. You have to make sure that you are dressed appropriately.”

Still, with the current conflict growing closer, some here said that this city’s defiantly blase attitude masked a hardened sense of risk acceptance among its residents, who are often perceived even by other Israelis as detached from the long-running Mideast conflict. Scars linger, however, from a spate of suicide bombings in this city during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, just over a decade ago.

“Every time this happens, it brings back old memories from previous conflicts,” said Eilam’s friend Libit, who gave only her first name. “It is traumatic.”

Zamir, the deputy mayor, concurred.

“I could not ride a bus, because it might blow up, and we could not go out to clubs,” he said of that era. “It’s true that Tel Aviv has enjoyed a certain quietness up till now, but there are still the collective memories. We are not in a bubble.”

The threat of conflict is clear just below where Eilam and her friends sat — in one of Israel’s largest, most modern public bomb shelters. Opened four years ago and going down four floors below the plaza outside Tel Aviv’s flagship theater house, Habima, the shelter can hold up to 5,000 people, runs on its own separate electrical circuit and is equipped with special vents in case of a prolonged chemical war.

When the first sirens sounded over Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, about 40 people made the dash from the cafes on the plaza down to the shelter, which in non-war times doubles as a parking lot, said Or Gabai, the plaza’s manager.

On Wednesday morning, however, no one bothered to go down, because there was not enough time, he said.

“It’s not really meant for this kind of conflict,” said Gabai, explaining that it was built to sustain a chemical attack from Syria or Iran — not to address the rockets lobbed by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, which travel quickly but inaccurately.

The shelter was, however, built to align with its peaceful surroundings.

“This is a place of entertainment, and we don’t want to advertise that there is a bomb shelter here. It would make people nervous,” Gabai said, adding that the plaza’s architect asked for automatic, remote-controlled doors — set inconspicuously in the ground around the square — to allow for the entry of masses of people in times of extreme emergency.

“Most people don’t even notice the doors as they walk by,” Gabai said.

Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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