It was a scene Ashkelon has been through too many times to count. And no one is counting, since everyone knows this isn’t the last time Hamas will fire rockets at its residents.
But it doesn’t make the situation any less surreal.
Residents of this coastal city, barely 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the Gaza Strip, went about their business on Wednesday, eating, shopping and visiting the beach in the hot Mediterranean spring sun. The blue expanse of the sea stretched out to the horizon, a view its Egyptian, Canaanite, Philistine, Greek, Roman, Arab and Crusader rulers enjoyed over the millennia.
If Ashkelon’s ancient rulers had taken a moment to turn from the Mediterranean toward the south, they would have seen the date palms and fields near the port of Gaza.
But today, one sees smoke. Some of it is the white puffs rising lazily from the chimneys of the Rutenberg Power Station on the coast. Most of it, however, is acrid black smoke rising out of neighborhoods in the northern Gaza Strip, as Israeli planes pound Hamas and Islamic Jihad installations, hitting back on the third day of rocket fire from Gaza’s terrorist groups.
The sounds of war reach the city too, as the percussion of IDF strikes punctures the gentle soundtrack of waves, birds and the occasional passing car.
Ashkelon has seen its share of violence, and that long history of war contributes to the surreal atmosphere in the city during modern conflicts. The Barzilai Medical Center in the city, which has treated thousands of the city’s rocket casualties over the years, is home to a tomb that some Shi’ite Muslims believe was the burial site of the head of Hussein ibn Ali, the martyred grandson of Muhammad whom Shi’ites revere today. Every year, dozens of Muslims – many from enemy countries – come to Ashkelon to worship at the tomb, which is protected by the Iron Dome system against rockets from Sunni terrorist groups in Gaza.
“We believe it is a holy place,” Shi’ite cleric Sheik Moiz Tarmal told Reuters a few years ago. “Many rockets do come into Ashkelon, but that place has always been safe at the end, so we believe it is spiritual.”
‘More explosive power’
Barzilai may be a site of pilgrimage, but it is also very much an active emergency medical center. An hour before, three IDF soldiers and one civilian whose jeep had been struck by a Hamas anti-tank missile were handed over to the hospital staff by IDF medics. Staff Sgt. Omer Tabib, 21, from Elyakim, didn’t survive.
The medical professionals at the hospital, like the residents of the city, have been here before. They lived through the previous rounds of conflict between Hamas and Israel since the 2005 Gaza disengagement, and have learned to function effectively under the ever-present threat of rocket fire.
But there was also an underlying sense that this time feels different in many ways.
“We’ve seen very difficult pictures during these three days,” said Amos Shavit, Barzilai spokesman.
Barzilai Medical Center has treated “in the order of 110 casualties of one form or another,” said Dr. Jonathan Rieck, the debonair director of the Emergency Medicine Department. “Most of them have been mild casualties, most have been stress reactions.”
There were four or five serious civilian casualties, either as the result of direct rocket strikes or blast injuries associated with the rocket strikes, he added.
Rieck said that the hospital did not make any special preparations as tensions rose in Israel in recent days. “It’s part of our job to be ready for that sort of event. As it is, we deal with trauma on a daily basis… I don’t think at the moment we’re seeing anything unexpected or that we haven’t seen in the past.”
“Having been here before, we don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Rieck explained. “So the major effort I make is to try to get a good rotation of staff so they don’t tire out… I think the preparation is mental, everyone understands what the situation is. Doctors who aren’t here are on call; they understand that, and they can be called in at any moment.”
The hospital’s experience with conflict over the past two decades has taught it important lessons that have honed the skills of its medical teams, said Rieck, enabling them to offer more rapid and more effective care to the injured soldiers. “I think what we do right is the organization of the whole trauma system. [That day’s] handover from the field to us was seamless. We all knew the medics, we all had a common language. We knew what the status of the wounded was.”
At the same time, Rieck said that from his vantage point, the threat facing Israeli soldiers and civilians has grown. As he has treated victims of Hamas attacks in recent years, he has noticed an increase in the lethality of ordnance, both anti-tank missiles and rockets. “Over the years we’ve seen more explosive power, blast injuries, penetrating fragment injuries, injuries to limbs.”
‘The army will send the message’
Minutes away from the hospital, on Malchei Israel Street in the quiet Eshkolei Paz neighborhood, inspectors and media swarmed around the one-story home where a direct rocket strike gravely injured an 80-year-old resident and killed her caregiver, 32-year-old Soumya Santosh of India.
A gaping hole in the front of the home paled in comparison to the utter destruction in the back. Pieces of wood and red roofing tile filled the yard and the alleyway behind the house. A blue Honda Accord sat with its windows blown out.
Patrick, a 69-year-old neighbor who moved to Ashkelon from Paris more than 50 years ago, had been outside on his deck drinking coffee when the rocket struck at around 2:00 pm on Tuesday.
“There was a siren,” said Patrick. “My wife and neighbor ran to the safe room, I grabbed the dog and I went inside. Just after I closed the door, I took a few steps, and there was an explosion.” He said he was knocked to the floor by the blast.
Patrick calmed his crying wife, and went outside. “I knew it landed nearby because I had felt the shock wave. It could be that was what saved me.” Two pieces of shrapnel were lodged in walls inside the home; one jagged piece was stuck in the door he had closed behind him.
“My head hurt from the noise, so I went back inside,” he recounted; a day later, he said his ears were still ringing from the blast.
Patrick and his wife lived in Ashkelon during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense and the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. “ I got through it, like all the south. We all go through it, and I go through it too. We got used to it, but we get scared.”
But this was the first time he had been so close to a rocket strike.
“The army will send the message that we are strong,” he predicted. “They should do their job properly, and we’ll get through this.”
In front of Patrick’s home, with shards of broken glasses glinting below his feet, Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam also projected a message of strength. “We are not determined to see this operation finished too early. We are determined that it will be done in a way that restores the quiet for residents of Ashkelon and residents of Israel.”
But not all the residents were interested in putting up a brave façade. Resident Abraham Moshe said that the city had become a ghost town, that people here felt like hostages.
Internal violence this time
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld drove up as the mayor was finishing his remarks.
Rosenfeld said that Israel had seen plenty of rocket fire before, but admitted that one aspect of the week’s violence has taken police by surprise.
“For more than two decades we haven’t seen such major incidents taking place, in terms of burning synagogues, literally a pogrom, in the different towns across Israeli Arab communities,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve seen local residents using weapons as well, opening fire, and the response from our units has also been using live fire in order to prevent anyone from being killed.”
“That level and that scale – thousands of people in the streets, burning synagogues, attacking Israelis, burning vehicles – that is something we didn’t expect.”
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