Residents of rocket-battered Ashkelon try to regain a sense of normalcy

Coastal city slowly comes back to life after overnight strike kills 1 and injures 13, but school is still off, and residents are staying near protected areas

A man stands inside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A man stands inside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

ASHKELON — Shaken Ashkelon residents began to emerge from their homes on Tuesday morning, hours after a rocket from the Gaza Strip scored a direct hit on an apartment building in the southern part of the city, killing one person and injured 13.

“Life is continuing. We can’t let them dictate our lives from Gaza,” said Galit Tzaban, an employee at a 24-hour supermarket in Ashkelon that stayed open during the barrage of rockets overnight. She said the employees spent their overnight shift dashing into a public shelter located next to the building.

Tzaban was at home with her son, who was terrified. “Every time the siren went off, I had to jump up with my six-year-old and run to the protected area,” she said. “We are paralyzed. People are barely coming into the stores today, just to play the lottery quickly and leave.”

In the morning, streets in Ashkelon were mostly deserted, save for a few people hurrying between stores. Schools were canceled across southern Israel, as authorities warned residents to stay within sprinting distance of bomb shelters and protected areas. In the afternoon, as mortars continued to pound the Gaza periphery but did not reach further afield, Ashkelon residents began to filter out to the streets and resume their daily activities. Restaurants filled with parents trying to entertain children during the unexpected day off.

Eyal Signon, a hairdresser, sat outside his empty salon on Tuesday morning, after his morning customers canceled their appointments.

After an uneasy night spent jumping into the protected room in his house every time the siren went off, Signon chain-smoked outside the door to his salon, watching the few cars go by. His three children, ages 6 to 12, spent the night sleeping on a shared mattress in the protected room, leaving no space for Signon and his wife, he said.

“We are living glued to our phone and television, existing from one Code Red to the next,” he said. “Everything is empty here, the roads are empty, the stores are empty. Only the bomb shelters are open.”

Signon was on his way back from a hairdressing conference on Monday in Tel Aviv when he started getting alerts of incoming rockets. “I saw the mushroom of Grad rocket explosions over Kiryat Gat, and I understood that this wasn’t a normal situation,” he said. He said the residents of Israel’s south have been in limbo, in a state of constant fear, since the end of the last major Gaza operation in 2014.

“People are always living in this situation of waiting for the next escalation,” he said. “There’s always a few drips and drops of rockets here and there.”

Signon said he used to treat the Code Red alerts as a “joke,” refusing to go into the bomb shelter and wondering what good it could do. But after hearing the story of how Beersheba resident Miri Tamano singlehandedly got her three sons into a bomb shelter last month, he changed his perspective.

“She kept us from certain war,” said Signon, alluding to the powerful military response that Israel would likely have been forced to take had Tamano and her family been physically hurt or killed in the attack. “I realized it’s not a joke anymore, I need to be responsible for my actions. I have two Iron Dome [defense systems] next to my house, but it’s not a joke anymore.”

Eyal Signon, a hairdresser in Ashkelon, outside his empty salon on November 13, 2018, the day after a fatal rocket attack. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Like Tzaban, Signon said he was angry over the fact that rockets from Gaza were still dictating their daily activities. As a small business owner, he estimated that it takes about four days to recover financially from every day the city is basically closed down due to the security situation.

“No one recognizes [small business owners], we’re always dealing with some kind of security situation,” he said. “They want us to maintain our routines, come and open our stores. But what about finding a babysitter for our kids? It’s really difficult for them — kids are starting to wet the bed again because they are so scared.”

The Eshkol Regional Council’s social services team sent out a letter to parents with age-appropriate ways to explain the security situation to children, suggesting that parents utilize the time off from school for family activities such as cooking meals together and playing games in order to help children feel safe.

Debris on the floor of an apartment destroyed by a Hamas rocket in Ashkelon, November 13, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“Don’t overload the child with information, but don’t hide anything,” the letter stated. “We live in a complicated situation and it’s up to us, as adults, to help children negotiate this, even if it’s difficult, in ways that are suitable for every age.”

The letter also suggested that parents stress that although the Code Red sirens can be very scary, the alert is meant to protect residents.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people, including media and security forces, milled about the site of the fatal rocket attack in Ashkelon, where a man — a Palestinian laborer with a permit to stay in Israel — was killed and a woman was seriously injured.

The rocket struck the upper floor of the apartment building, shattering windows and pockmarking the surrounding buildings with shrapnel.

An apartment on the second floor of a building in Ashkelon that suffered a direct hit from a rocket fired from Gaza on November 13, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The devastation in the upper-level apartments was greater, with personal items strewn among broken glass and overturned refrigerators. In an apartment on the top floor, the kitchen was blown open, a roll of aluminum foil perched on top of the gas burners beneath the wide-open sky.

On the second floor, a terrified black cat picked its way among shards of a broken mirror, screeching in panic at every sound.

Blood at the entrance to an apartment struck by a Hamas rocket in Ashkelon, November 13, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“There was a tremendous amount of damage done to this building,” Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said as bomb dispersal units finished their final check of the apartment building.

Police bomb dispersal units are the first to arrive at the scene every time a rocket hits an area, even before medical responders are allowed to enter.

Rosenfeld identified the man killed in the strike as Mahmoud Abu Asabeh, 48, of the West Bank town of Halhul, near Hebron. Abu Asabeh was in the top-floor apartment during the attack and was killed by the impact of the rocket.

In the same attack, a woman was critically injured and 12 others in the apartment building needed medical attention. Police and first responders initially missed the two people in the top apartment. It was only an hour after police cleared the area that a photographer found Abu Asabeh’s body and the woman in serious condition.

Abu Asabeh spent Sunday to Thursday in Ashkelon and Friday and Saturday in Halhoul, according to relatives. He was married and a father of five who had a permit to work in Israel, including permission to stay overnight.

Mahmoud Abu Asabeh, 48, from the West Bank town of Halhul north of Hebron, was killed late Monday, November 12, 2018, when a rocket launched by Gaza terrorists struck a home in the southern Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. (Twitter screen capture)

Abu Asabeh was killed in a neighborhood of Ashkelon with older residential buildings, where few apartments have reinforced protected rooms that can withstand rocket attacks. Reinforced rooms are a requirement of all new construction in Israel.

Residents of Ashkelon have 30 seconds after the Code Red alert sounds to run to the nearest shelter, which in this case was a public bomb shelter that doubles as a synagogue and is located about 10 meters from the apartment building.

Abu Asabeh may have been able to survive if he had been in an interior room of the apartment. Although the entire side of the apartment was blown apart, a row of Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey bottles stood in perfect order on a shelf in the living room.

An apartment building in Ashkelon hit by a Hamas rocket, killing one, November 13, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Residents of the neighborhood said they were trying to regain a sense of security after a difficult night.

“We heard booms all night long,” said Rami Ivgi, who lives in the neighborhood. “Every moment, there were planes going overhead or booms. We all slept inside the bomb shelter. We’re still scared today, I’ve got my phone on emergency mode. I’m trying to continue with my regular day, but I’m still scared.”

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