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'I went outside, I was in shock'

‘You never get used to it’: Ashkelon shaken by first rocket deaths in 2 years

Two women killed in southern city; with up to a quarter of the city lacking shelters in their homes, residents say they’re living on ‘Iron Dome and luck’

  • Women react at the scene where an apartment building was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on May 11, 2021. (Edi Israel/Flash90)
    Women react at the scene where an apartment building was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on May 11, 2021. (Edi Israel/Flash90)
  • The scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 11, 2021. (Flash90)
    The scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 11, 2021. (Flash90)
  • Israeli security forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on May 11, 2021. (Flash90)
    Israeli security forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on May 11, 2021. (Flash90)
  • An apartment building hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on May 11, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
    An apartment building hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on May 11, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Residents of the southern city of Ashkelon ran to public shelters nearly all day Tuesday as rockets fired from the Gaza Strip pummeled the southern city, killing two women and turning homes, a school and cars into smoldering wreckage.

The firing of hundreds of rockets at Ashkelon underlined the lack of access to shelters in the southern city, with the mayor saying that one-quarter of its residents are dependent on public fortified areas and many cannot reach them on time.

Guy Mann, who lives in Ashkelon near a building that suffered a direct hit, lamented the poor access to shelters in an interview with Army Radio Tuesday.

“I was woken with by a big explosion which was extremely intense,” he said. “The house is not protected and it is not realistic to get to the neighborhood shelters, especially when the barrages are so continuous. We can only rely on the Iron Dome [missile defense system] and luck.”

A heavily damaged house is pictured at a targeted residential neighbourhood in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 11, 2021, as rockets are fired by the Hamas terror group from the Gaza Strip toward Israel (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“At around 5 a.m., we were woken by sirens. We had to hide in the wardrobe because there is no shelter in the house,” said Shelly Belayev, whose building was heavily damaged, its facade blackened and an apartment devastated.

“There was a very strong explosion, I have never heard a sound like it. I quickly realized the missile fell here,” she said. “I went outside, I was in shock.”

Since the sirens began late Monday, barrages of rockets launched from the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave have rained down on the coastal city, located just north of the Gaza Strip.

A woman was killed after a rocket impacted her home in Ashkelon, on May 11, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The deluge continued on Tuesday, with Hamas’s armed wing the Qassam Brigades saying it had fired 137 rockets on Ashkelon and nearby Ashdod within just five minutes during the afternoon.

Two women, one aged in her 40s, the other in her mid-60s, were killed in Ashkelon, the Magen David Adom emergency service announced on Tuesday, while the city’s Barzilai Medical Center said it was treating 74 people. The victims were not immediately identified, but television reports said a rocket directly hit the home of an elderly woman and her caregiver, killing one of them.

A heavily damaged house, hit by rockets from Gaza, in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 11, 2021,(JACK GUEZ / AFP)

On Tuesday morning, residents of the city, home to around 150,000 people, ventured out to survey the damage, pushing strollers near wrecked cars. In one residential area, the roof of a building was completely destroyed.

“I have to walk my dog but I’m afraid and I am always looking around me to see where the shelters are and where to run if there’s a siren,” said Anna, who declined to give her surname.

She said she hadn’t slept the night before.

“We were afraid there would be new alerts,” the 66-year-old said.

‘You never get used to it’

Exchanges of fire between the Israeli army and terror groups in the Palestinian enclave are relatively frequent, and Israeli residents of areas neighboring the Gaza Strip are no strangers to air-raid alarms.

An Israeli firefighter walks next to cars hit by a rocket fired from Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

But the current escalation, which began Monday against the backdrop of violence in East Jerusalem, is the worst since at least 2019.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has reported at least 28 dead including nine minors in the Israeli strikes. Israel said at least 18 of them were terror fighters and said some of the children were killed by errant rocket fire, not Israeli strikes.

“I looked out the window and saw smoke. I realized the rocket landed at my school, I live 30 meters from there. If we were studying there today — not everyone would have been able to reach [the shelter in time]. It’s scary,” said 18-year-old Shai Ashual, a student and resident of the southern city.

Schools were closed Tuesday in Ashkelon and other areas within a 40-kilometer (25-mile) perimeter around Gaza.

“It’s happened before but you never really get used to it,” said 53-year-old Perla Nahum.

Firefighters battle a blaze in a school in Ashkelon after it was hit directly by a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021 (Fire and Rescue Services)

In 2019, missiles from the enclave killed five, the spokesperson for Ashkelon’s mayor said.

“Ashkelon has been suffering for 20 years, that’s enough,” Mayor Tomer Glam said on public radio Tuesday.

Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam during a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We must put an end to this situation. We can’t continue like this,” he said.

Michael, an Ashkelon resident who had gone out to do shopping, said he wasn’t afraid.

“I remember that they (Gaza terror groups) made other threats in the past,” the man in his seventies said, declining to provide his surname.

“The Israeli people are strong.”

Residents of the city, particularly the southern neighborhoods, have complained for years that the older buildings do not have reinforced areas and that communal shelters are insufficient.

“It is impossible when normal life becomes a state of emergency within minutes. It is time to strike Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad with a hard blow,” Glam, the Ashkelon mayor, told Army Radio. “There are houses from the 1960s where there is no basic protection — it is time for finance officials and decision-makers to understand what is happening here in the city.”

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