This would be the fourth time over the past 12 years that his city had been targeted by Hamas rocket fire. But that didn’t prepare Gustavo Surazski, the rabbi of the Conservative community in Ashkelon, for the onslaught on Monday night.
“Sure, there’s a feeling of déjà vu when something like this happens, but initially, there was also a sense of shock,” he said.
The building just across from his took a direct hit late at night during a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza that targeted this coastal city. A 40-year-old, apparently a resident of the West Bank Palestinian city of Hebron, was killed in the attack, and two women in the same building were reported to be in critical condition.
“The pounding was so intense,” said the South-American-born spiritual leader of Congregation Netzach Yisrael, “that I had the feeling that the Iron Dome [anti-missile] system just couldn’t keep up with it. From the window of our apartment, which faces the Gaza Strip, we could see planes and helicopters going by and watch the some of the rockets being intercepted.”
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Based on past experiences, the rabbi said he didn’t think this latest outbreak of fighting between Israel and Gaza would end within a day, as had other recent rounds. “Already certain lines have been crossed,” he explained. “At the same time, I don’t think this is going to go on for weeks, but who am I to prophesize? As is often the case in these situations, one rocket landing in the wrong place can be a complete game-changer.”
Suraszki, his wife and six-month-old son spent the night in their safe room, but not all residents of Ashkelon were as fortunate. Olga Zemolikin, for example, lives in one of many older apartment buildings in the city that have no rocket-resilient safe rooms. These only became mandatory in the early 1990s following the first Gulf War, when Israel came under Iraqi missile attack.
“We hardly slept all night,” said Zemolikin, “because we were too busy running up and down the steps trying to get out of harm’s way.” A single mother with two children, Zemolikin lives on the fourth floor of her building. She was advised to sit in the stairwell on one of the bottom floors, should the sirens go off, since the nearest fortified safe space is a 10-minute walk away.
“My children, fortunately, were quite calm throughout,” she reported, “but one of our neighbors has an 18-year-old daughter who became hysterical, and we could hear her crying all night.”
An immigrant from Ukraine, Zemolikin works as a caregiver for the elderly. She said that if the rockets continued falling on Ashkelon, she intended to move herself and her children to her sister’s place in the center of the country in order to get out of their range.
“I think we’re heading to a full-blown war,” she said, “and it’s about time because we can’t go on like this. The other alternative is reaching some sort of agreement with Hamas, but I don’t think that’s a solution either.”
Nurit Yosefi, a young single mother from Ashkelon, said her two toddlers hadn’t slept a wink all night. “It seemed like every second, the sirens were blaring, and we had to run for cover.” Because there were no fortified safe rooms in her building either, the only thing she could do was drag her children out of their beds and crouch with them under the stairwell of their building.
“It was really scary, and I don’t know what I’m going to do if this continues,” said Yosefi, who works as a cashier at the local supermarket. “For the meantime, I’m moving in with my sister, who also lives here in Ashkelon, but at least she has a safe room in her apartment.”
Sderot, which is closer to the Gaza border, also came under intense rocket fire starting late Monday afternoon. Ruth Lavi, director of a daycare center operated by the Israel Association of Community Centers (IACC), said it was the first night in as long as she could remember that she and her husband slept in the underground shelter of their home. “In previous rounds of fighting, we were in better shape, I guess, so it wasn’t that much of a problem running up and down the steps,” says the 62-year-old mother of three. “This time, though, we gave up and decided to spend the night there.”
The daycare center had been closed all day Monday, at the instructions of the army out of fear that Hamas might retaliate after one of its leaders was killed the night before. Operating on the assumption that the daycare center would be reopened the following day, Lavi went to her office late in the afternoon to put in an order for food and other supplies. Just as she stepped out and was heading home, she recounted, Sderot was hit with a barrage of rockets, and she ran back inside for shelter.
“Since then, I’ve been on the phone non-stop with parents who are very worried about their children having to go through this again,” she said. “Some of them told me they planned to pack the kids into the car and drive up north because they can’t bear being cooped up so many hours.”
The uncertainty of the situation, she said, was wearing away at her. “And right now, we are in a situation of absolute uncertainty,” she added.
Adele Raemer, an English teacher from Nirim, a kibbutz on the Gaza border, said that some members, including her own daughter, have already begun to take flight. “Everything seemed calm yesterday, and my son-in-law was watching my granddaughter on the swings when suddenly, they found themselves running for shelter. “For my daughter, that was enough,” said Raemer, who runs a popular Facebook group called “Life on the Gaza Border – Things People May Not Know.” "She put the kids in the car, and they left a few hours ago.”
Members of Nirim interested in evacuating have been given the option to move to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev until things calms down, Raemer said.
Asked if she had hope that an agreement could be reached to avert a full-scale war, Raemer said: “I don’t know. The government has all the tools, but they’re not using them for political reasons. It seems they’re afraid it will cost them their seats.”
Esther Marcus, a member of Alumim, a religious kibbutz on the border, said the situation over the past day reminded her of the early days of the 2014 Gaza War. “We definitely don’t want to go through that again,” she said. “But to avoid it, we need to have leadership in this country. Good leadership.”