A Journey to Israel's Missile-scarred Southern Cities

Two days after rockets were fired at Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gan Yavne from the Gaza Strip, quiet and equanimity are apparent in all the places that were hit.

There is something touching about the note written on a scrap of paper that is carelessly pinned to the bulletin board of an apartment building in Ashdod. The handwriting is awkward and there are childish spelling mistakes. The note reads: "Shalom to the tenants. I lost the keys of the Peugeot car in your building during the fall of the Grad. If anyone found them, let him please call my phone."

A row of burnt cars stretches across the scorched parking area, wrapped in plastic and adorned with Israel Police ribbons, as though they are surprise gifts. Two days after the Grad missiles struck, employees of Window and Door - which does glass and aluminum work - and of Shai's Shutters are busy taking apart all the windows on the facade of this seven-story apartment building. Window after window - each one was smashed to smithereens. An acrid smell still hangs in the air. On a small first-floor balcony, a bent and shrunken old man is arranging chairs that were overturned by the force of the blast. We knock on his door - and he opens it and slams it in our faces. This is not the time for uninvited guests.

Ashdod Grad - Ilan Assayag - October 2011
Ilan Assayag

The ugly white tiles that cover the walls of the relatively new building are pockmarked by ricochets. A smell of bleach pervades the just-washed lobby. Apprehensive tenants are calling the council tax department, whose phone number has been pasted on the bulletin board put up by the city's beautification department. Next to it is a card with the phone number of the municipal psychological service, which "will be happy to help in connection with the event that occurred on October 29."

The "event" was the missile that struck this apartment building, whose tenants are now licking their wounds, repairing their windows and overcoming their fears with quiet and estimable equanimity.

Two days after the tragedy, quiet and equanimity are apparent in all the places that were hit by rockets and missiles - Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gan Yavne. A small war that again erupted for a moment and was immediately capped, something the residents of this area have somehow got used to. The order of things is also, by now, routine: A Grad hits an open area, 10 or 20 Palestinian "activists" are assassinated in revenge, followed by a few more revenge volleys resulting in one Israeli fatality, then quiet until the next round, in the unending blood game of "whose is bigger." Tel Aviv is more distant than ever, and so is the Gaza Strip, whose houses are visible on the horizon but might as well lie across the hills of darkness.



White smoke rises from outside Gan Yavne in the middle of the morning. It is just someone burning weeds. This is a polished southern designer town, particularly its new, northern sections. Cream-colored homes with red-tile roofs, fine outdoor sculptures - certainly compared to the atrocious sculptures in other communities - exemplary gardening, roads you could eat off. And empty. Recycling bins on every corner, a school named for Ilan Ramon - the Israeli astronaut who was killed as he returned to earth on his first space flight - and streets named for the Israel Defense Forces, Yitzhak Rabin, Yehuda Amichai. Gilad Shalit posters and African workers tending to the palms and the synthetic banana trees in people's gardens. Other than them, the streets are empty. It's a ghost town, even though the schools are closed because of the situation. The owner of Bracha's Grocery Store points us toward the site where the missile hit.

The Neot Maccabim neighborhood is older and less classy. If in Ashkelon the lethal Grad that killed Moshe Ami chose to land at the corner of Rabin and Begin, here it struck on Hodaya (Thanksgiving ) Street, not far from Hanes (Miracle ) Street. The neighbors say that no fewer than 21 cars were wrecked by the Grad which landed here on Saturday afternoon. They too are wrapped in plastic. The Hyundai Accent is now being loaded onto a tow truck. "Don't worry, I'll sell it," the owner, who wears a large black skullcap, says.

The cratered road has been repaired; a green garbage truck is crammed with junked items from homes that were hit. The range of destruction was wide; numberless metal pellets were scattered in every direction. Worst hit was a Renault Megane, in which dried bloodstains can be seen on the driver's seat. The owner, Haim Elimelech, is still hospitalized with a leg wound. A computer studies student, Reuven Ben David, was at home when the missile struck. "It was a miracle," he says. "Ten minutes earlier kids who were playing basketball came by here. It's a matter of luck, luck from heaven. It was a missile we aren't familiar with. There was a huge explosion. People shouted and cried and there was total chaos. Look at the ricochets on the walls, the metal pellets in the refuse bin. Would you like a pellet as a souvenir? There are even holes in the Israeli flag, do you see it?" A torn Israeli flag flies in front of a nearby building.

Peleg and Shahar Rubin, brother and sister twins, in the eleventh grade in Rabin High School, were visiting their grandmother in a nearby village. Now they are helping their parents collect the ruins. On this occasion they also throw out the old TV, which hasn't worked for ages. The only thing that wasn't hit was a carton of empty Tuborg beer bottles in the neighbors' yard.



The signs of shock are still visible on people's faces. The road sign pointing south says Ashkelon and Erez Crossing. The clock in the commercial center of this Ashkelon neighborhood is an hour off - it's still on daylight saving time. I remember this clock tower from visits to Ashkelon as a boy. At the time, it stood in splendid isolation, now it is mired in a sea of stores and restaurants. "We're waiting for the next Grad," says Dudu Cohen, the proprietor of Cafe Maadan, the oldest cafe in the south, founded in 1954 by new immigrants from South Africa who also built this neighborhood and left it long ago.

Cafe Maadan is an Ashkelon institution, and so is Cohen. A native of Ashkelon who now lives in Moshav Geha, he bought the cafe in 1984 and has been here ever since. On Saturday night, two Grads landed 300 meters to the west and 500 meters to the east, almost simultaneously. "Boom, boom, one after the other, a few seconds apart," he recalls. Cohen was in the cafe, heard the siren and, as usual, rushed to the northern wall with the customers, "because everything that comes, comes from the south."

Were you scared?

"I've gone through wars ... it was an awful boom, I won't say I am a hero." Then the ambulance sirens sounded and Cohen realized that people had been wounded, and later that one person had been killed. Everyone paid and disappeared immediately, and since then fewer have come. "We have returned to regular life, but it's not life anymore. It slashes life." From inside the cafe the sounds of "Happy birthday to you" can be heard, but it turns out to be the birthday of a waitress.

Cohen has voted Likud all his life, since that first triumphant time in 1977 when Labor was ousted from power. Cohen says he is "right wing in the soul," even though his comments are not all that right wing. What do we do? He laughs. "All we can do is talk. There's nothing to do, we have to be done with this story. It can't end without arrangements. I am a right-wing person. I was not happy with the Gilad Shalit deal. We just gave in, and now we deserve to be battered. When I go to America, I see that Guantanamo place [in Cuba], thousands jailed there. And here we shat everything because of that soldier. I am happy for his parents, but it's bad for the country. It wrecked things at a level where a lot of effort will be needed to rehabilitate it. It's all connected. The bottom line is that they [Hamas] are starting to understand they achieved something by force and it's gone to their head. We thought that there were retards on the other side, and we found out that it's not exactly like that. They have started to stand up for what they want, and there's a problem. A big problem. Only dialogue and arrangements will solve this. We have to put an end to this story."

Another Operation Cast Lead?

"Definitely not. All that will accomplish is people being killed on both sides. Who needs it? What did we accomplish with Cast Lead? Tell me one thing. Nothing. One or two thousand killed, and nothing. Netanyahu can make a decision tomorrow and you won't know what hit you. Tzipi Livni was also Likud [before Kadima], but she is like a big, big tree, bending, bending, bending, until it falls. There is no ideology today, except for the fanatics. I don't know if I'll vote Likud again, but for sure not for that Shelly Yachimovich [of Labor], who tells the public what's pleasant to the ear."

Sitting at the next table is a skullcapped taxi driver. He saw the missile that landed on Ami's Chevrolet and killed him. "I had a red light, he had a green light, at the corner of Begin and Rabin. He came from Rabin, I came from Begin. I stopped for the red light, he drove with the green. The guideline to stop when you hear the air raid siren is imbecilic if there's nowhere to hide. As soon as I heard the whistle of the missile overhead, I went into reverse. That's what I think you should do. I was in a race with God. There was an incredible boom, the whole taxi shook. I crossed Begin toward Barnea. I had two passengers in the car, a mother and her daughter, and I dropped them at Cinnamon, a cafe, next to where they live. Then I heard that the guy was killed. I knew him. He had a tractor and a cart, a nice guy, a good man."



Not a sign of the event remains at the corner of Begin and Rabin in Ashkelon. On Rabin Street in Ashdod, we turn right onto Alexander Penn Street - named for the forgotten poet - where the missile hit the building. After gauging the damage there, we head north, back to Tel Aviv. The radio quotes the prime minister: "There is no cease-fire and the IDF will continue to operate." The report on Israel Radio is cut short: "Red alert in Ashkelon!" We think of going back, but then the announcer says the missile landed in an open field.