ASHDOD, Israel — Israel’s fifth largest city is approximately 30 kilometres north of the Gaza Strip. During the current operation, almost three hundred rockets have been fired at Ashdod, more than at any other Israeli city.
My friend and I arrived just as the air raid siren went off — we couldn’t hear the alarm, but the army radio on the bus, which took a route to the outskirts of Ashkelon only 13 kilometres from Gaza, was interrupted by the announcement and my Red Alert app buzzed. The train on our right also slowed, as they are supposed to do during a rocket attack.
We walked around the city and it was almost completely empty. Very few people were on the beach, no one visited the museums and there were no cars on the road. I went to buy a bottle of water from a shop on the beach and the owner told me he had only had— by about 1pm — half a dozen customers.
It was almost as if the city had become a ghost town.
And then the strangest thing happened. We walked inside a shopping mall and it was as if the city’s population was hiding underneath. We went to have something quickly to eat.
“Tzeva Adom”, “Tzeva Adom”, “Tzeva Adom”.
The air raid siren sounded just as we sat down.
I have already witnessed it three times — and each has happened at a surreal moment. The first time, we had been discussing why Hamas and other militant groups would never aim at Jerusalem — what would happen if they hit al-Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock?
Alas, the alarm went off almost immediately although it took us a few seconds to realise it was not the wind or our imagination. The second time, I was in the shower and then was somehow unable to close the shelter. By the third time, we were eating near the Old City in Jerusalem and watched and listened — the rockets actually landed in the Palestinian Territories.
But this time it took us around ten, maybe even twenty seconds, to work out what was happening. People here have forty-five seconds to run to shelter — and as you can see in this video, it was panicked. Just before the video starts, people were screaming and mothers grabbed their children and sprinted.
We only stayed for a few seconds, ran outside and saw the smoke from the interception.
I have been in Israel since July 1 and what has amazed me most of all about this conflict here is how people continue to go about their work. When the third siren went off, most of the diners stayed where they were. After the siren in Ashdod — the one that we heard — life returned to normal (and I mean, people shopping inside the mall). There was even a birthday party going on downstairs.
When I went to Damascus Gate only a few hours after police had been firing rubber bullets and tear gas at stone-throwing protesters and journalists had been filming wearing flak jackets and helmets, people were shopping and socialising and kids were playing on the grass.
It reminded me of a friend whose father was in Kiev the day the government’s police force fired at protesters killing dozens. He was having his haircut just off Maidan Nezalezhnosti — the hub of the Ukrainian Revolution. How bizarre is that, going around your usual business when outside the door, the city burns?
Of course, Jerusalem, where I spend most of my time, is generally very quiet — there are almost no tourists and the streets are not busy at all. Large riots come and go — but the majority of them took place at the beginning of the month. Many of my friends have been evacuated either by their government or their universities (I am studying here for a month and many were given funding from their colleges who are in charge of their insurance). The United States’ State Department recommends travellers against non-essential travel to the whole of the country — that is, bizarrely, the same level as Iraq.
The UK Foreign Office advised against all travel to Ashdod — the same level as Gaza, Syria and Somalia. But although it is very quiet, there are places where people continue to work, shop and play.
“Life goes on,” a shop owner in Jerusalem told me during my first week, “because it must.”
Image courtesy of Tom Fenton