Ashkelon, Israel — The Hutzot mall in this southern coastal city is usually a hive of activity. But it was a ghost town Tuesday, its long, well-lit corridors eerily silent as Israel continued its retaliatory air assaults on the Gaza Strip, just 15 miles south.
Even as Hamas rockets rained down on the area, all the stores in the mall were open, perhaps in a show of normalcy. But there was almost no one shopping.
“People are afraid to come out because they don’t want to risk the safety of their children,” said Noy Segev in the nearly empty toy store where she works. The night before, the country’s south had endured 70 rockets fired from Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip. In all, some 300 rockets have hit in and around Sderot and Ashkelon over the past two weeks in the latest round of tensions between Israel and Hamas.
While the city of Ashkelon decided to shutter preschools and summer camps, Segev noted, most parents were expected to report to work as usual. Whenever possible they entrusted the kids to grandparents or friends.
A few minutes earlier, she and dozens of others ran to the mall’s stairwell, which, in the absence of a proper bomb shelter, is the safest place to duck a rocket.
With a shiver, Noy recalled how, in 2008, a rocket slammed into the mall’s roof and landed right in front of the toy store.
“Everything was destroyed. Everything,” she said.
Noy said that on Monday night she and four family members crowded into their apartment’s reinforced room to sleep.
“We heard the booms. I think the Iron Dome intercepted one of the rockets right over our heads.”
And the rockets weren’t just falling in the south.
Early this week Israelis in the center of the country got a small taste of what it’s like to live next to Gaza. The same night air-raid sirens (they turned out to be a false alarm) blared as far north as Beit Shemesh, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Efrat, a settlement right outside Jerusalem.
Around 7 p.m. on Tuesday, residents of Tel Aviv were shocked to hear the siren wailing in their beachfront city as the Iron Dome defense system shot down an incoming rocket.
But these few scares were nothing compared to the fear experienced by the 1.5 million residents of Israel’s south, who have endured two weeks of sirens and bomb shelters — if they have one.
In Ashkelon, an ordinarily sleepy little city by the sea, many people don’t have a concrete-reinforced room to run into every time they hear “Red Alert,” the term for incoming rocket fire. They have 15 seconds to run for cover, according to the IDF.
Although they have been on a state of alert this week, the people of Ashkelon have been trying to stick to their routines as much as humanly possible. Store owners and restaurateurs kept their establishments open in hopes of getting some business, but customers were few and far between.
As the IDF called up 40,000 reservists for a possible large-scale operation in Gaza, and ground troops amassed on the border, Noy expressed the hope that the Israeli government would “end this limbo we’re living in” by acting decisively against Islamic terrorists. Israel hit 50 Hamas targets on Tuesday, according to the IDF.
At her empty shoe store at the mall, Zveta Kornovalov also called for Israel to step up its military response to the rockets.
“I’m Russian and we Russians believe in a strong country and government,” she said in perfect, Russian-accented Hebrew.
Kornovalov said that although she has “gotten used to the situation, more or less,” her 14-year-old daughter has been experiencing terrible anxiety these past couple of weeks.
“Yesterday she was walking to her English lesson, a 15-minute walk, when a siren sounded. She ran into a building, crying, and some people tried to calm her down. She didn’t have a cellphone so one of them lent her a phone, and she called me. I picked her up as soon as I could, though I didn’t have a car.”
Kornovalov said her family can’t leave the south, even if they wanted to.
“My parents are here, we have an apartment here, my husband works close by. And anyway,” she said, “there are now sirens in the center of the country, too.”
On Tuesday night the government heightened the alert, advising residents of the south not to venture out at all due to the increasing threat of rocket fire.
As the fighting continued down south, Israelis around the country digested the news that the police had arrested six Jews in connection with the grisly murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Khdeir.
Not since Yigal Amir gunned down Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 have so many people here asked, “How could a Jew do such a thing?” Khdeir was reportedly burned alive.
Many bloggers have felt compelled to share their belief that the murders didn’t occur in a vacuum.
“The arrests and confessions of several Jewish youth in the kidnapping and murder of an Arab teen should make us all look in the mirror,” Chana Rosenfelder, an Orthodox blogger, wrote in the Times of Israel. “So too should the murder of tens of women each year by their husbands or boyfriends; stabbings at night clubs … the convictions of important politicians and servicemen for corruption, rape, bribery and deceit; rapes in junior high schools.”
Every day, Rosenfelder wrote, Israelis disregard the feelings of others, by venting their anger at the supermarket or cutting to the front of a line.
“We are a wonderful nation, warm and loving,” she emphasized, but at the same time, the murder “must make us all … think, ‘Does my behavior reflect a respect for the law?”
Alden Solovy, a Jerusalem-based liturgist and author of “Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing,” decided to write a Kaddish prayer for Abu Khdeir to be recited by Jews. Earlier, he wrote a special Kaddish prayer for the three slain Jewish teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar.
Hoping to show solidarity with the Abu Khdeir family, on Tuesday afternoon 350 Jewish Israelis, many of them American-Israelis, paid a condolence call organized by Tag Meir, a coalition of progressive Jewish organizations.
Rabbi Uri Ayalon, a Conservative rabbi who serves as the associate director for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, said the suspects, who are reportedly Jewish, were nurtured in an atmosphere that legitimizes extremism. “Not one of our leaders had the guts ahead of time to enforce the laws against hate and incitement.”
Waiting on the long line outside the mourning tent as curious residents of Shuafat stood nearby, Avraham Green, a chasid with long side curls, a black kipa and coat, stood with a friend, dressed the same way, prepared to give his condolences to the grieving family.
“We came to say we are sorry for their pain,” Green, a Jerusalemite, told The Jewish Week. “The people who committed this crime may dress like us, but they don’t represent our community. There is not one leader in our community who supports what they did. Not one.”