Ashkelon in the cross hairs

Eighteen-year-old Eden Sharbane awoke before dawn last week to the eerie sound of a “red alert” siren in her Ashkelon neighborhood. Glancing outside her window, she saw a red and orange blur: a rocket was about to hit her apartment building.

Sharbane screamed and called out in warning to her mother.

Two floors above them, a rocket fired by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, some 10 miles away, crashed through the concrete and steel rods of the building’s roof and landed in a neighbor’s living room.

Practically overnight, life in this quiet coastal city has changed dramatically. Thirteen rockets landed in Ashkelon over the course of four days. Shaken residents suddenly find themselves in a war zone.

“All of a sudden I began to realize what a different reality there is now,” Sharbane said.

After the attack on her building, Sharbane went out for seaside walk to try to calm her frayed nerves, but another rocket fell in a nearby parking lot.

Less than a day later, the hole in the ground marking the spot of its landing had been paved over with fresh asphalt, but residents of this city of 120,000 know that despite quick clean-ups and reassurances, they are Israel’s new front line in the battle against Palestinian rocket crews in Gaza.

Israel’s internal security minister, Avi Dichter, who is himself a resident of Ashkelon, said that since last week the number of Israelis living under the threat of Palestinian rocket fire has jumped to 250,000 from 25,000.

Hamas leaders are warning that their attacks will push beyond Ashkelon, leaving many Israelis to worry that Tel Aviv will soon become a target.

Israel is weighing several military options to counter this threat. They include conducting limited ground operations like the one that concluded March 3, assassinating Hamas leaders and operatives, firing back at the sources of rocket fire irrespective of their location and launching a full-scale land offensive to smash Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure.

After the first Katyusha-style rockets landed in Ashkelon late last week, the city activated its rocket-warning system, which gives residents about 15 seconds to find cover. The system has been active for several years in towns closer to Gaza, including Sderot.

Chaim Ashtamker, a 36-year-old bus driver in Ashkelon, said he fears the city will share the same fate as Sderot, which has become a ghost of its former self after years of rocket fire. With Palestinian terrorists in Gaza using new, longer-range Katyusha-type rockets, the coastal city of Ashkelon has become their key target.

“Our routines go on as normal, but we are all a little in shock,” Ashtamker said. “I have small children at home, so of course I am scared.”

Residents debated whether or not the recent ground incursion into Gaza — which killed scores of Palestinians, including many civilians, and left two Israeli soldiers dead — was the right answer.

Liya Gil, a 32-year-old Ashkelon resident and a recent contestant on the Israeli version of the reality TV show “Survivor,” paused after a seaside interview with a local entertainment show to ponder the city’s new circumstances.

“I came out of the reality show ‘Survivor’ to the real ‘Survivor,'” she said with a laugh. Then, turning serious, she said, “There is the army and defense ministry to take care of things. I hope things will improve.”

Writing in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot, columnist Nahum Barnea said Israel faces a dilemma, forced to choose between “the plague and cholera.”

“Ultimately, the debate boils down to two possibilities: Either the IDF seizes renewed control over the Gaza Strip or extensive parts of it, or Israel begins open, direct and serious negotiations with Hamas,” he wrote. “The choice between those two options is a choice between the plague and cholera. Nevertheless, it appears to be unavoidable.”

Whatever move Israel makes, Alan Marcus, head of strategic planning for Ashkelon and other city officials are developing ways to cope with the crisis — from fixing up bomb shelters to posting instructions in Hebrew, Russian and Amharic explaining how residents should protect themselves.

In his office he displayed some digital maps he had designed that show where some of the weakest populations in the city live — among them the elderly, handicapped and recent immigrants — so teams can be dispatched quickly to help them in the event of an attack.

Marcus, who has lived in the city since emigrating to Israel in 1975 from Boston, compared the current situation to what happened to northern Israeli cities along the border with Lebanon during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“I hope sanity will return,” he said.

At a café at the city’s train station, there were few commuters at rush hour on Sunday, the start of Israel’s work week. Einat Azriki, 24, who works at a café inside the station, said she’s still digesting the change of events.

“We are now learning what real fear feels like,” she said.

JTA staff writer Leslie Susser contributed to this report.