Residents of Ashdod after a Grad fell - Alex Levac
Residents of Ashdod after a Grad fell. Photo by Alex Levac
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Michael Kurtz offers a self-defense demonstration. At 74 years-old, paralyzed on one side of his body, he has 40 seconds to reach the stairwell before he hears the boom. He rises heavily from his armchair, grasps his walker with his one working hand, and starts to push it in the direction of his front door. By the time the 40 seconds have passed, he has made it to the middle of the living room. It will be another two minutes before he reaches the door. "How long has it been?" he asks proudly, once he's arrived. I lie barefacedly to him: Exactly 40 seconds.

Kurtz lives on the ninth floor of an apartment building in Be'er Sheva, without any reinforced room, with a distant bomb shelter. His protracted retreat is accompanied by the classical strains of the Voice of Music, the radio station that he calls "my best friend." Rachel, his wife, is not home right now. Kurtz says that he takes comfort in the fact that if a rocket hits his apartment, he will most likely be the only casualty: Rachel can make it to the eighth floor. But she's on a bus now, on her way home. When we spoke to him earlier this week, Kurtz said he had had to set out on this race to the door nine or 10 times.

A few minutes before we ascended to his apartment, we ourselves were caught by a "Color Red" warning siren while walking in the street. We raced to the stairwell of a nearby apartment building. "We should just obliterate Gaza," a resident said to us, as three booms were heard, one followed by another.

This week, Israel was again split into two states for two peoples: the state of the south and the state of all the rest, both of them states "of all their citizens." The one was under missile attack, the other pursued its routine undisturbed. The current outbreak of violence found the state of the south seized by a lesser level of panic than in previous rounds, perhaps because the experience has become so familiar, but mainly thanks to Iron Dome. The border between the two states passed somewhere near Ashdod. A plume of white smoke suddenly rises up in the late-morning grayish haze, and the column of cars rushing southward down the road find momentary shelter under an overpass.

A winding dirt road on the outskirts of the air force base in Hatzerim led us to the outpost of the Iron Dome battery - the last word in the State of Israel's home-front strategy. Four tents are pitched in the middle of nowhere, along with two chemical toilets, two searchlights, one battery of missiles that resembles a garbage truck lifting its rear-end heavenward, and a few soldiers slinking around with nothing to do.

 

A lone jeep stands on the little hill across the way. Menahem Kahana, a photographer for the French news agency is hanging out, waiting for a missile launch. He's been here in the middle of the desert for a few hours, since 5 in the morning, living on a camping stove, cigarettes and coffee. But no launch. But an hour or so after we left, Kahana finally got what he was waiting for: His photo of an Iron Dome missile heading up to intercept another missile, and of the soldiers cheering from the trench alongside, would be printed in most of the Israeli newspapers and maybe even some of the foreign ones.

A friendly soldier from Rosh Ha'ayin, sporting a peach-fuzz beard and pimples, is the sentry at the gate: He hasn't been home in two weeks, and his parents don't dare to come and visit him here. In fact, the soldiers do not actually operate this miraculous invention from here. That is done from somewhere else - called "the pit." Here they merely guard. But in two months, he himself is due to join the others in the pit, thanks to whose work Israel made it through this week's round of missile fire with significantly much less terror and blood than in the past.

Meanwhile, the soldier demonstrates for us the "choreography" of the routine here. Upon hearing the Color Red warning in Hatzerim, the soldiers don their flak jackets and helmets, and scramble to the adjacent dirt dugout.

Now there is boom after boom. No one knows just what is going on, and in the background is the incessant noise of jets on their sorties to Gaza. Out of nowhere, a young ultra-Orthodox man appears. Meir Madiv, a newly observant fellow who now studies at the Yagel Yaakov kollel (yeshiva for married men ) in Be'er Sheva. Madiv, 36, lives in Ofakim. This morning, he set out with two of his children on an excursion. The kids, he says, wanted to see missiles. But the visibility isn't good today, and it's hard to see Gaza. One of the children merely heard a missile "and was already seeing the apocalypse," as his father put it, and wanted to go home.

Madiv had taken his children home. They'd had their outing, and now, on his way to the kollel, he was taking a tour of the missile battery. He says he misses the days of Operation Cast Lead. Then, when the visibility was good, people would take their plastic chairs and a half-kilo of sunflower seeds, and sit around all day on the low hills around Sderot, watching the volleys of missiles and phosphorus bombs falling on a burning Gaza.

Later on, Be'er Sheva's Gimmel neighborhood receives a visit by Interior Minister Eli Yishai and an entourage of Shas party MKs and aides. Just to be on the safe side, an armed security man in a tie points out the location of the nearest shelter. The area is characterized by small two-story homes. Televisions are tuned to the "quiet channel," which is silent except for when there is an alarm.

The Hazon Ovadia state-religious elementary school on Gush Etzion street is desolate, as well. The Grad missile that hit Be'er Sheva on Sunday landed in its schoolyard. Yishai is photographed against a background of the scarred school building, and offers a few sound bites about Iron Dome. The locals grab hold of his jacket lapels; everyone wants him to come to their home.

Yishai comes through for everyone. A quick visit is made to various homes. "Did you feel that the Holy One, Blessed be He, was protecting you?" "With God's help, you won't go through this ever again," mouths the minister. "Is the mayor here?" asks a passerby, his face splattered with dabs of whitewash from the repairs to his home, which was damaged by the Grad.

"Who is Eli Yishai, and how can Eli Yishai help? Can he help with all my anxiety and fear?" asks the fellow, and then vanishes.

The minister embraces every baby, in front of the cameras. But nothing obscures the sense of helplessness felt by the residents. There is nowhere to go - not during Color Red, not at any other time. One mother proudly points to the grandmother, the heroine of her family: She got all of her grandchildren to seek shelter against a wall as a Grad fell.

The mood here is still edgy, and resident Eli Assoulin makes this emotional appeal to Minister Yishai: "A year and a half, and there's no reinforced room [in my home]. My plans have been filed with Simona at city hall, but Simona doesn't answer. Simona's sick. My son left the country. My wife and all the children want to go, too."

Yishai is already on top of things, and refers Citizen Assoulin to the Shas deputy mayor standing alongside him, who will deal, in place of the ailing Simona, with the request for a reinforced room.

"Tomorrow morning, you go to the municipality," instructs the minister, following a quick consultation.

Shas MKs Yitzhak Cohen and Avraham Michaeli are also on the tour. "Me and my daughter alone - and the whole house is shaking," another resident recalls her moments of terror. "The whole house is filled with the smoke. The entire window falls off. Come and see, Mr. Minister." Mr. Minister is already examining the door, which was also demolished.

"Did you feel a presence from above?" asks the deputy mayor, as Sivan Daboul recounts to the minister how her mother - who had lived on tranquilizers for a long time but stopped taking them in the past two years - resumed using them the day before. The aged mother wordlessly looks on, watching the guest who was summoned to their home, with an impassive look.

Only one home around here has a yard that is somewhat well cared for: The owner decorated it with models of terrifying helicopters and paratrooper dolls parachuting straight into his garden. Three Israeli flags flap in the wind. But the home is up for sale. Across the way is the Gate to Heaven synagogue, dedicated to the memory of the saintly Rabbi Moshe Lev.

This is exactly what Michael Kurtz does not like. "I'll tell you the truth. I'm not afraid of the Arabs, or the Persians. I'm afraid of the Jews. From those who are running wild in Jerusalem. They're more dangerous than the Arabs. They didn't go to the army, and Rabbi Ovadiah says that it's thanks to them that we won. Can you imagine anything worse than that? We're endangering ourselves, we're going to wars, and he says that we are winning thanks to him.

"After the Six-Day War, after the War of Attrition, Yom Kippur and Lebanon, am I supposed to be afraid of a Grad? In the Israel Defense Forces I served with [journalist] Amnon Dankner. He certainly doesn't remember me from then. I have always been among the few people who said that we should sit down with the enemies. When our plane would dive-bomb on Beirut, it would kill another few children in the area. Not intentionally. That is a fact. But it breeds hatred. When we won in the Six-Day War, I said that if Israel was for real, we should return all the territories. But the Israelis said: We won, so it's ours. Later on, they brought in the Palestinians to work here and treated them like garbage. And that brought more hatred. The fact is that the hatred for Israel after the Six-Day War is greater than before it. Therefore, there will be no end to what is happening now in Gaza."

 

A Grad missile has landed at the foot of a luxury residential tower on Rogozin Street, in Ashdod, with semi-prestigious shops on the ground floor. The African municipal employees are already sweeping up, workers from the Israel Electric Company are already reconnecting the cables, the broadcasters are broadcasting, the curious onlookers are gathering. The steel pellets from inside the missile have spread everywhere; a few Haredi children are already collecting them.

"I already have nine at home from the last explosion," says one, who is gathering up more pellets near a van with Minnesota license plates. It and another few cars were damaged by the missile.

Scars of the shockwave may be seen on the building's upper floors. Even the mirror in the sumptuous building lobby was pelted by a few marbles. Another miracle - there are no casualties. The Little Switzerland shop (with the "largest selection of sweets in Israel" ) was not damaged, but at the adjacent Marcel Mercier hair salon, a hairdresser is sweeping up the containers of creams and conditioners. The salon window was shattered; the fancy hairdryer is now covered with dust, as is the price list: NIS 40-60 for a haircut for a man, NIS 120-170 for a woman. There are relatively few curious onlookers here today. Maybe Ashdod is also getting used to it.

All at once, the alarm sounds. The street instantly empties, aside from Channel 2 TV correspondent Roni Daniel, who continues to broadcast. Dozens of residents crowd into the parking lot of the apartment tower that had been hit only minutes earlier. Boom follows boom, but this time they are dimmer and more distant.

Later on, the neighbors' brown-and-white puppy still seems terror-stricken. It has been over an hour since the missile fell, and he hasn't stopped trembling.