Here in the crosshairs cities of southern Israel, reinforcing residential rooftops, bedrooms, schools and other public buildings against missiles from Gaza has been a big business for years.
Then a decade ago, Israel began building a 420-mile barrier in the West Bank, hoping to reduce the horrific suicide bombings carried out by the armed Islamist movement Hamas, which now governs the fenced-off Gaza Strip.
Rather than go through the barriers, Hamas began going over them in Gaza, first with crude rockets made from sawed-off roadside light posts and wrought-iron launching stands, and now with more powerful and longer-range threats.
Israel’s wars in 2006 and 2008 were defined by rocket fire, and in both, the government deployed ground forces to stop it. But the mixed results of those wars, in southern Lebanon and Gaza, left Israelis wondering whether their once-reliable defenses were adequate.
Then Iron Dome premiered in the recent conflict. It sharply reduced Israeli casualties and, in Segev’s words, “revived Israel’s image as a super man.”
“But there is the question here of whether it has changed the Israeli history and image as a nation on the offensive,” Segev said. “Many Israelis are tired of being on the offensive, and maybe a more defensive position feels like the right one at this time.”
For all its jaw-dropping successes, which played like a loop on many television news channels here, Iron Dome had some holes.
This city of wide, palm-lined avenues and parks bears damage from the rockets that slipped through the gaps, and many of its 120,000 residents, while feeling safer, know that the new shield has limits.
Stern’s school is one of three that share a single compound at the center of Ashkelon. On a typical school day, 3,500 children study and play on its grounds.
About 8 p.m. a week into the conflict, a Gaza-fired missile slammed into an eighth-grade classroom across from Stern’s tiny office, tearing off the roof and leaving a chasm through the floor. Work crews recently completed repairs at the site, marked off by a series of Israeli flags.
In the basement of the school are deeply dug bomb shelters, designed, Stern said, with “big wars” against Egypt and Syria in mind. But Israel’s challenge has changed.
The rockets from Gaza, rather than the once-threatened air raids from farther away, allow significantly less time to file 1,000 students into basement bunkers. Ashkelon residents know they have 30 seconds to get their families into a safe room.
When the sirens rang, which they did more than a dozen times a day during the conflict, some students packed into a row of yellow concrete blocks, the size of shipping containers, lined up on one side of the school playground.
Others waited in fear for the bang of a rocket strike or the boom of an Iron Dome intercept.
Stern knows the system saved lives and probably prevented a ground assault that would have driven up casualties on both sides. But, he said, “If one rocket falls in a bad way that kills many, we will have to go in.”
At the Afridor apartment complex across the street, another rocket smashed into the fifth-floor apartment of the Vachnin family at dinnertime a few days into the conflict.
No one was hurt — the family had packed into their safe room — but the missile caused extensive damage as it speared through the floor and into the apartment below.
The rocket contained no explosive payload, the army officers who cleared it away told the family, but the fear of sudden violent death remains.
A neighbor, Ayala Makhon, heard the siren minutes after she had returned home from her job as a real estate developer.
She and her 15-year-old son, Ben, rushed into the safe room that doubles as his bedroom. On its thick, lead-lined door hang photos of girls in Ben’s high school class and of his basketball team.
The room shook, and she knew that after days of success, Iron Dome had failed.
Through her living room’s sliding glass doors, Makhon looks due south to Gaza, just beyond a stand of distant cypress trees and rolling dunes. She said she has little faith that peace will ever be achieved with the Palestinians, even though she hopes for it.
Iron Dome has brought her a small measure of relief, not only from the rockets aimed at her city but also from potential dangers faced by her son.
Ben is three years from mandatory military service, and like many boys his age, he is eager to serve. Like many mothers across this country, Makhon thinks of little else but his safety as a soldier.
“Our sons may never have to go into Gaza again,” Makhon said, glancing at Ben.