The city of Ashdod felt more bleary than terrified on Sunday, the third day of the latest round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian rocket squads of Gaza.

Gazan terrorists have launched about 20 rockets at this city since Friday, when Israel’s assassination of the commander of a Palestinian terror group triggered the recent spate of violence. In Israel, much media attention has been focused on the success of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries, which have successfully intercepted many of the incoming projectiles, including some of those aimed at Ashdod.

But this obscures a grimmer reality: There was a fraction of the normal traffic Sunday on the broad boulevards of Ashdod, an unpretentious coastal city of 250,000 people. All of the city’s 40,000 schoolchildren were kept home on the orders of the military, which means that parents are home taking care of them and, though businesses are officially open, much of Ashdod has effectively been shut down. The situation was the same Sunday in other southern towns and cities, including Beersheba, where a rocket fired in the afternoon hit an empty school.

Iron Dome and the military’s airstrikes have not kept Gaza’s terrorists from paralyzing Ashdod and much of Israel’s south.

When rockets began flying from Gaza in earnest a decade ago, they targeted small communities along the Gaza border, especially the town of Sderot. The range, quantity and lethal payload of the Gazan rockets have increased markedly since then. Despite Ashdod’s outward lack of panic on Sunday, despite residents’ particularly Israeli mix of bravado, resignation and denial, despite the fact that the city’s cafes are not entirely vacant and the port is functioning, the streets and malls of Ashdod in March 2012 mark a change that would have been unimaginable only several years ago. This hard-working port city just a half-hour’s drive from Tel Aviv has become the front line, and a small number of terrorists with primitive weapons in the Gaza Strip can bring life here to a halt.

One resident, Terri Millstone, was at a local pizza joint, Pizza Italiano, on Saturday night, when the incoming rocket siren went off again as it had been doing every few hours since the previous day. Millstone knew she had 45 seconds to make it to a bomb shelter. The closest thing was the pizzeria’s freezer, where she proceeded to hide.

“People are pretending that life is normal,” she said. “It’s surreal.”

In the basement of City Hall, young women were answering phones in the municipal control room. The operators usually deal with reports of sewage problems or malfunctioning street lights, but today they were in emergency mode: If on a usual day there are 500 calls, by mid-morning Sunday there had already been three times as many.

Staff at Ashdod's municipal control room, which aims to show residents that "the routine is stronger than the state of emergency." (photo credit: David Katz, The Israel Project)

Staff at Ashdod's municipal control room, which aims to show residents that 'the routine is stronger than the state of emergency.' (photo credit: David Katz, The Israel Project)

Most of the operators speak Hebrew. Some speak Amharic, Russian and French. All were calm when an alert abruptly sounded in the room: A rocket had been launched from Gaza and was on its way north toward Ashdod. A man with a black skullcap in front of a bank of monitors panned a few of the closed-circuit cameras installed around the city, looking for an explosion or smoke. In the city outside, people were running to protected rooms and shelters. About a minute later, it became clear the rocket had landed in an open area to the east of the city, causing no damage or casualties. The phones started to ring again.

David Dvash, 49, in the jeans and button-down shirt of an Israeli bureaucrat, runs the control room. He seemed to take the situation in stride. The city’s philosophy is to continue taking care of routine matters even as rockets fall, he said, in order to project an atmosphere of calm.

“If on one phone someone is reporting a rocket falling and someone else calls about a burst pipe, we’ll take care of both,” he said. “Residents need to have the impression that the routine is stronger than the state of emergency.”

People in Ashdod are resilient, he said, but “most of the population isn’t used to this.”

Ashdod’s children, he said, are being psychologically scarred in the way that Sderot’s children have been in the years since Palestinian rocket fire began.

“Our kids are asking questions about rockets, about death,” Dvash said. “These are questions kids don’t ask in Switzerland.”

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