If, as rumors had it, Israel and Hamas were close to a ceasefire deal on Tuesday evening, it was not apparent to the residents of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Rishon Lezion. All three towns were pounded by rocket fire from Gaza and all sustained direct hits — an unhappy first for Rishon, and a sadly familiar blight for Ashdod and Ashkelon. Beersheba, the rocket-battered capital of the Negev, for its part, sustained 30 rockets in two hours earlier in the day — including a direct hit on a home — with no serious injuries.
Stas Misezhnikov, Israel’s tourism minister, stood outside a devastated apartment building in Rishon, his home town, and spoke of “an absolute miracle that no one was killed here.” The owner and his wife were in the apartment on the sixth and top floor when it was hit — taking refuge, as the Home Front Command requires, in the “safe room” that is legally required in modern apartment buildings. The rocket smashed directly into the apartment, “exactly where they were sitting,” said Misezhnikov, “and yet they came out alive.”
Home owner Amir emerged a little later, indeed, to say, with remarkable stoicism, “we followed the instructions. We heard the huge explosion. We knew the house had been hit. We came out; really, everything was destroyed. I calmed my wife, and we walked downstairs.”
The rocket — said to be carrying 90 kilograms of explosives — penetrated through three floors of the building, causing immense damage, but no serious injuries, because all the residents were in their safe rooms.
It was a similarly close call for the Vaknin family in Ashkelon. Their apartment, too, took a direct hit. “But my family are a disciplined lot,” said Yossi Vaknin, alternating between English and Hebrew as he spoke to the media in his rocket-smashed home. “My wife and my four children, aged 23, 18, 11 and 8, were in the safe room where they were supposed to be, and they’re all fine. My wife called me, hysterical, to say, ‘Yossi, we’re stuck in the safe room.’ They couldn’t get the door back open after the rocket strike.” The fire department extricated them.
Yossi wasn’t home at the time, but he knew there’d been a strike. “I figured it was yet another of the dozens of rocket attacks we’ve sustained,” he said. “It didn’t cross my mind for an instant that my home would be hit.”
Only on Monday, he noted, he had paid a condolence call on a family in Kiryat Malachi who had lost a relative in the rocket strike there last week in which three Israelis were killed.
Tuesday, day seven of Operation Pillar of Defense, saw dozens of rockets pound the south. There were moderate and serious injuries in attacks in Ashdod — where a shop took a direct hit — and in the same Ashkelon rocket attack, where a man was hit in his car. And the Home Front Command’s spokesman spent much of the afternoon on the radio imploring Israelis to head for safe areas — “it’s really a matter of life and death” — and not become complacent because of reports from Cairo that an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire deal was imminent.
Even if the reports were true, he stressed, Hamas would be trying to maximize its “achievements” in the last remaining hours of conflict. And so it proved, with “red alert” after “red alert” sounding across the south as afternoon gave way to night. By 7 p.m., offiical figures showed 23 Israelis injured in the course of the day, most of them lightly, and another 45 treated for shock.
The numbers would have been far worse were it not for residents’ readiness to follow those Home Front Command orders, and for the relentless assistance of the authorities and local councils. Ashkelon’s Mayor Benny Vaknin said he went door-to-door in a high rise with many elderly residents in the rocket zone, making sure locals were able to get themselves out of harm’s way.
The time lag between alarm and rocket strike in Ashkelon is some 45 seconds, insufficient time for many to make it to safety.
In Rishon, Israel’s fourth-largest city, just south of Tel Aviv and about 60 kilometers from Gaza, residents have about twice that length of time to take cover. Observed the town’s Mayor Dov Tzur, “We’re part of the south now.”