Reporter's Notebook

When lightning strikes twice: Repeat rocket hits break calm on an Ashkelon street

Within a few years, two homes on same Ashkelon street destroyed by direct rocket hits from Gaza; 9 months after last major flareup, no improvement in Ashkelon shelter situation

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

  • A home destroyed on the previous day from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A home destroyed on the previous day from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A home destroyed on the previous day from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A home destroyed on the previous day from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Neighbor Avishai Cohen stands in from of a destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Neighbor Avishai Cohen stands in from of a destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A home and vehicle destroyed on the previous day from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A home and vehicle destroyed on the previous day from a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Nissim Azoulai and his two daughters stand in front of the wreckage of a direct rocket hit in their Ashkelon neighborhood, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Nissim Azoulai and his two daughters stand in front of the wreckage of a direct rocket hit in their Ashkelon neighborhood, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Mattresses in Ashkelon's public shelters during Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Mattresses in Ashkelon's public shelters during Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Mattresses in Ashkelon's public shelters during Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Mattresses in Ashkelon's public shelters during Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Empty storefronts at Ashkelon's marina, in light of ongoing Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Empty storefronts at Ashkelon's marina, in light of ongoing Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Empty storefronts at Ashkelon's marina, in light of ongoing Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Empty storefronts at Ashkelon's marina, in light of ongoing Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Avigdor Liberman and Yisrael Beytenu MKs visit the scene of a rocket attack in Ashkelon on May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Avigdor Liberman and Yisrael Beytenu MKs visit the scene of a rocket attack in Ashkelon on May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Miryam Keren was in her kitchen when the warning siren sounded on Wednesday, making it to her safe room seconds before a rocket fell in her back garden. Shockwaves were so strong that her car was hurled across the street, and part of her home was completely destroyed.

“She’s almost 80. We’re thinking of moving her to a hotel,” said her son Guy, who came to Ashkelon on Thursday to help his mother sort through the wreckage.

Keren’s home is the second to be hit on this small, otherwise idyllic Ashkelon street, running only a few hundred meters and creating a cul-de-sac feel for the community around it.

Kitty-corner to her house are the ruins of another strike, a hollowed-out shell of a former home. A pasta strainer still sits on a drying rack in the kitchen, a computer mouse is forgotten on the floor, and a couch competes for space with ferns that had started to grow in the former living room. The entire back wall is missing.

“This is the old part of the city, you can see, one hit and everything crumbles,” said Avishai Cohen, 42, who also lives in this center city neighborhood.

Residents can’t agree on whether that house absorbed a direct rocket hit last year or a handful before, they say the timelines feel fuzzy with the many heavy rocket barrages they have suffered. Keren’s family said it was five years ago, marking it as the first time that the home suffered rocket damage, as a result of the close strike that destroyed the neighboring house.

Ashkelon has held the ignominious title of most-rocketed Israeli city in 2022 and 2021’s major conflicts with terror organization in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Neighbor Avishai Cohen stands in from of a destroyed home from a previous rocket attack in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Nevertheless, nearly a quarter of the city’s residents live without adequate shelter. Last year, the former government approved NIS 320 million ($88 million) to improve protection, much of it in the form of grants for residents to build shielded rooms. A spokesperson for the city confirmed that the money is yet to be distributed.

“This street is a magnet for missiles,” said neighbor Nissim Azoulai. Azoulai’s four children and wife were at home when the rocket, launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad as part of what the Ashkelon mayor’s office said was a 44-strong salvo towards the city on Wednesday, hit Keren’s house.

“Mom wanted to leave the safe room, but when she went to leave there was a shockwave and the door shut,” said his daughter Talia, 10. “It was a really strong boom.”

Nissim Azoulai and his two daughters stand in front of the wreckage of a direct rocket hit in their Ashkelon neighborhood, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Yet Azoulai, Keren and their neighbors, who live in free-standing homes with internal safe rooms, are the comparatively lucky ones.

A short drive away is one of the more economically disadvantaged parts of the city, lined with tightly-packed old construction apartment buildings. Most of them lack adequate access to the main forms of shelter, which include protected rooms within personal apartments, reinforced building stairwells, shared shelters within buildings and public shelters in neighborhoods.

Sitting on a bench in this neighborhood was Moges, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel who declined to share his last name, accompanied by his two young sons.

When the rockets hit on Wednesday, Moges said his family sheltered in their stairwell. Like many buildings in this neighborhood, it was built well-before Palestinian terrorists began raining rockets down upon Israel’s southern communities. The stairwell is fully open air.

A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

“We were scared,” Moges said, looking at his children, who he had corralled into playing near the paltry protection of the stairwell. “They could have put a shelter there, there’s space,” he added, motioning toward the empty sidewalk.

In the nine months since Israel’s last major flareup with Gaza terrorists, the municipality distributed several dozen mini-shelters, according to a city spokesperson.

Some, brightly painted with cartoons by the city’s high school students, dot areas further down Moges’s street. None are on his block, and none are within a feasible distance to reach between an alarm’s sounding and a rocket’s landing.

An estimated 40,000 residents, nearly a quarter of Ashkelon’s citizens, similarly find themselves inadequately protected against rockets, despite being just 10 kilometers from Gaza’s northern border.

A public mini-shelter in Ashkelon, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Former MK Alex Kushnir, who worked on moving the NIS 320 million allocation through the Finance Ministry last year, said he believes the money has already moved from the Treasury to banks, and is waiting approvals from the Housing and Construction Ministry.

“I assume the housing minister is busy with other things,” he said wryly, while visiting a trauma center in Ashkelon with current lawmakers from his Yisrael Beytenu party. “Every time that there’s a security issue, people remember that there’s a problem here,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Housing and Construction Ministry did not respond to a request to comment on the status of the funding.

“If they know how to find the money for coalition concerns, for [Haredi party demands], then they should be able” to fund adequate shelter in Ashkelon, said party MK Oded Forer, standing outside Keren’s ruined home.

Avigdor Liberman and Yisrael Beytenu MKs visit the scene of a rocket attack in Ashkelon on May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Politicians are currently in a race to finish the two-year 2023-2024 state budget before a May 29 deadline. Within the budget are NIS 12.4 billion ($3.4 billion) allocated to political promises, including billions to fund ultra-Orthodox party concerns. The head of the Haredi United Torah Judaism, Yitzhak Goldknopf, heads the Housing Ministry.

Quiet held in Ashkelon on Thursday until the afternoon as Egyptian-mediated ceasefire talks continued, although rockets and shelling continued throughout the day against Israel’s communities closest to the Gaza border. Municipal shelters had cautiously emptied, but families left behind mattresses and fans, in preparation of needing to decamp once again at a moment’s notice. They refilled later in the day on Thursday, as more salvos were aimed at the city.

Mattresses in Ashkelon’s public shelters during Operation Shield and Arrow, May 11, 2023 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

In Rehovot in the early evening, a rocket hit a home, killing one person and injuring several others in the most serious rocket attack since fighting began.

When asked if he had considered leaving the neighborhood in light of the security situation, Azoulai shrugged it off.

“My whole life I’ve lived in Ashkelon,” he said. “And it’s an amazing street, quiet.” Except for when it’s not.

Cohen agreed, explaining, “My whole family is here, my job is here. We’re just used to this, we know there’s always going to be another round.”

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