Hows the mood in Israel Depends where you live

In Tel Aviv, the lunch crowd suns itself at bustling sidewalk cafés. But in Ashkelon the playgrounds are deserted, municipal buses run without passengers and stores are shuttered with no customers even to see the notes taped on the doors: “We’ll be back soon.”

Just as in the summer of 2006, when the northern part of the country huddled in bomb shelters during the Second Lebanon War and the rest of the country carried on with its business, a new war has come that affects Israelis — at least in part — according to geography.

Leah Hassan, a nursery school teacher in Ashkelon, left her home Jan. 6 for the first time since the Israeli operation on Gaza began.

“Everyone I see outside looks pale with the same fear I feel,” she said. “Going out today I did not even want to drive, I was so scared.

“I feel traumatized,” Hassan continued. “Every time there is a siren I go into the safe room and, shaking, I pray until I hear a boom, and then I wonder where it fell.”

In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, Shlomo Dora, 31, sits back on a leather chair at a popular bistro with the sound of a crooning jazz singer on the stereo and catches up with a friend.

“Being out and about is not about a lack of solidarity because we all feel the pressure of what is going on here, but we need to get on with our daily so-called ‘sane’ routine,” Dora said.

In tiny Israel, he insists, far is never that far away.

“Israel is a small country and we all feel that we are part of this war,” Dora said. “Even if I am meeting friends for coffee, this is what we are talking about. We all have family and friends in the south and know soldiers fighting inside Gaza.”

Nearby, behind the counter of a café known for its homemade cakes and jams, two workers disagree about how out of touch the locals are about the fear and rocket fire in cities like Ashdod, only a 45-minute drive south.

“Some of really do feel close to what’s going on,” said Shani Asulin, 24, a waitress at the café.

Asulin is worried for her best friend, who works in army intelligence near the Gaza border, and her brother, a border policeman who has been doing security at demonstrations by Arab Israelis in the north.

On the other hand, “we live in a bubble here,” said Anat Mazor, the cafe’s manager. “I would expect people to feel things more, but they don’t seem to.”

Asulin admitted that the night before, she left a dance club at 2 a.m. and the place was still packed.

In Sderot, Yigal Sal, 39, who has been unemployed since a Kassam rocket hit his clothing store two years ago, says he does not leave the house much these days. His apartment, like most Sderot homes, has no protected room, so the family crouches together under the dining room table.

Sal is worried about his 8-year-old son, Mike, who has known life under rocket attack since he was born and still has trouble sleeping through the night alone.

Most nights, and especially since the fighting began, Mike creeps into his parents’ bed. Alone in his own bed, he regularly wets his sheets — common for children with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Talia Levanon, the director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, says it’s been a major challenge trying to maintain the resiliency and sense of stability among children in Sderot, which until the fighting began a week and a half ago was the main target of Hamas rocket fire.

“We find ourselves treating the same people over and over again, and we have to be creative and use all our resources,” she said Jan. 4 during a visit by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to a Sderot clinic.

The Israel Trauma Coalition is providing therapy to Sderot residents, while Tel Aviv and other cities and towns also are becoming places of refuge for southern residents.

Shraga Zaiger, a 45-year-old lawyer, has been hosting his mother, who lives in Ashkelon, in Tel Aviv since Israel’s operation against Hamas in Gaza began Dec. 27.

“We are all very worried, but it’s the personality of Israelis to go on with life as usual even during war. It was the same way when I was a soldier in Lebanon,” he said, referring to the First Lebanon War, which began in 1982.

For Galit Sabar, 30, a Tel Aviv University student, it’s no longer possible to feel far from danger. She lives in Gedera, 20 miles from Gaza and 19 miles from Tel Aviv, which was hit with its first Grad missile Dec. 6. She woke up to the sound of a siren.

“It’s getting closer, and there is talk they have rockets that could get to Rehovot,” she said, waiting at a Tel Aviv salon. “In Gedera, especially now, people feel the situation more, but in Tel Aviv you really hardly feel it at all.

“Tel Aviv?” she added with a shrug. “It’s like being abroad.”