Sunny With a Chance of Rockets: No Casualties but Plenty of Confused Tourists in Tel Aviv

As air-raid sirens sounded in the Israeli city Tuesday morning, schools were shuttered and shopping malls took the almost unprecedented step of remaining closed

The beachfront in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019. Other than a few tourists, the area was relatively deserted — despite Tel Avivians getting an unexpected day off.
Daniel Bar-On

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Air-raid sirens in Tel Aviv are relatively rare, but not unheard of. But a major shopping mall shuttered in the middle of the week? As far as the security guards blocking shoppers from entering Dizengoff Center could recall, this was indeed a first.

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When pressed for explanation, a security guard who identified himself as “the boss” told local residents shaking their heads in disbelief that he was simply complying with orders from the military’s Home Front Command. He reassured them, though, that the plan was to begin opening stores soon, once there was a “green light” from the Israeli army.

At about 8 A.M. Tuesday, air-raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv, followed by explosions. A few hours earlier, Israel had assassinated the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's commander in the Gaza Strip, Baha Abu al-Ata. The PIJ first responded by launching rocket attacks on Israeli communities located near the Gaza border. But by what would have been the start of the school day, it had already targeted the Greater Tel Aviv region.

It was the first time since March that air-raid sirens had sounded in Tel Aviv. That previous attack, undertaken by Hamas, was later said to have been a “mistake.” Israel’s business and cultural capital was frequently targeted by Hamas missiles during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, but that was during the summer months when children were off school.

A stroll through the streets of central of Tel Aviv early Tuesday morning revealed that this was clearly not a normal workday. Traffic was not as heavy as usual; the number of commuters passing through the turnstiles at the Hashalom train station — a major public transportation hub — was unusually low for this time of day; and there was none of the usual hustle-bustle in the streets.

The quiet streets around the Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.
Daniel Bar-On
Outside Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.
דניאל בר-און

Walking up Kaplan Street, a main Tel Aviv thoroughfare where Israel’s military headquarters happen to be located, it felt almost like Shabbat.

At this hour of the morning on any other weekday, the bike racks at Ironi Alef High School — located in the heart of Tel Aviv’s cultural center — would be overflowing. But there was not a bicycle in sight on Tuesday morning. A security guard was manning his station outside the locked gates of the school, but looked bored.

All the schools in Tel Aviv, as in other parts of the country deemed vulnerable to missile and rocket attacks from Gaza, were closed for the day. Early in the morning, the army had announced that only essential businesses would be allowed to open because of the state of high alert. But soon after, it corrected itself and said businesses could open as usual.

This seemed to create considerable confusion as many clothing stores and boutiques on Dizengoff Street, a main shopping area, remained closed in the early hours of the afternoon.

The city’s famous cafés and restaurants were open, but business seemed to be slower than usual for the time of day.

Chris and Bob, a married couple from Orange County, California, were visiting Israel with a group from their church. This was their first trip to the country, they said, and they had planned to spend their free hour this morning shopping at Dizengoff Center.

Seeing that they were rather confused about what was going on and not understanding why the mall was closed, a friendly Israeli offered them a piece of advice in broken English. “You should just go to the beach,” he said.

“That’s what they told us in the hotel, too,” said Chris.

Bus passengers taking cover after an air-raid siren sounded in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Indeed, it was a glorious day for the beach, the weather unseasonably warm for November. But for whatever reason Tel Avivians did not seem to be jumping on the opportunity. Gordon Beach, one of the city’s most popular spots, was relatively empty at midday and it seemed that most of those setting up camp there were tourists.

So if they weren’t out in the streets, not shopping in the malls and not on the beach, where were all the locals on this sort-of day off? Apparently at home, glued to the news.