ASHDOD, Israel (JTA) — In a math class being held in a bomb shelter in this embattled city, Israeli 11th-graders scribble equations into their notebooks and try not to think about war.
"This is about feeling we can live a normal life, that it’s not all about a war and being shut up at home watching the television news and listening out for explosions," says Maria Kantaria, 17.
Since Sunday, 11th- and 12th-graders across Israel’s southern towns and cities have been back at school following two weeks in which classes were canceled due to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. On Monday, classes resumed at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
Slowly, the region of Israel within range of Gaza’s rockets is making its way back to a state of semi-normalcy, despite the ongoing war in Gaza.
The streets of Ashdod, a port city that became a target of rocket fire for the first time after Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza on Dec. 27, had been fairly empty since then until the beginning of this week.
Although many remain indoors, a growing number of Ashdod residents can be seen out and about — walking dogs, shopping and pushing baby strollers down the city’s wide sidewalks — as the number of rockets fired from Gaza has waned.
"Slowly, Ashdod is coming back to itself," Kantaria says.
It felt strange to leave her family’s apartment after so many days inside to take a bus to school, she said, and she was scared to get on the school bus until she saw so many others also on board.
"We have to be strong and pray that our soldiers return home safely," Kantaria says, her hands clasped on her desk next to a calculator and a panda bear pencil bag.
Residents in Gaza, meanwhile, rarely emerge from their homes as the Israeli ground and aerial assault there continues.
Students in southern Israel are permitted to attend classes only in buildings that have protected rooms and a bomb shelter. Mekif Aleph High School, where Kantaria studies, does not have any such protection, so she and her classmates have had their classes temporarily transferred to a nearby elementary school.
The students have been divided into morning and afternoon shifts, so there will be no overcrowding in the bomb shelters should the city again come under attack.
Although the rocket fire has decreased in recent days as Israel’s military has pressed Hamas in Gaza, students are quick to point out that a Grad missile landed near another high school on Sunday, crashing into a nursery school that was empty at the time.
"What do you do if a warning siren goes off?" Drorit Silvera, a teacher at the high school, asks the math class.
"We stay here," one of the boys shouts, noting they already are in a bomb shelter — one of two classrooms in the school built with reinforced concrete and shatter-proof windows.
In drills, students have been instructed to move to the walls in the event of a rocket alert to make room for other students and staff.
Signs with arrows pointing to the two shelters are taped on hallway walls, and soldiers from Israel’s civil guard are there to help protect the students.
Hana Manor, the school’s principal, says approximately 90 percent of the students are showing up for classes. Those not attending are either staying in the center or north of the country, or are at home taking care of younger siblings who do not have school while their parents are at work.
With national matriculation exams scheduled in various subjects over the coming weeks and months, Manor says it’s vital that the 11th- and 12th-graders return to their studies.
The students say they are relieved to be back with their friends and teachers but fear being exposed to potential rocket fire on the trip between school and their homes. Many say they walk close to buildings — if an alarm sounds they can run into the closest stairwell for cover. Those traveling by car leave the window open a crack so they can hear the alarm.
"It’s easier to be together — at least here we can support each other," says Semion Antus, 18. "But still it’s stressful because we are half-listening all the time for an alarm to go off."
Antus, like many of his classmates, is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He says he and his fellow immigrants are trying to comprehend what it means to be in a country at war.
Like most Israelis, they are strongly supportive of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, despite the mounting criticism from around the world.
"We cannot speak to them," Rinat Slonimski, 18, says of Hamas. "Not everything can be fixed through talking."
Some of the locals who left their homes to stay with relatives and friends further north when the fighting began are beginning to trickle back.
Among them is a family in Gan Yavneh, a suburb of Ashdod. Rachel, a doctor, who asked to be identified only by her first name, says the family returned this week after several days with her parents in Petach Tikvah.
She has a newborn and two children of elementary-school age. During the daytime, her two older children attend a day camp set up by her husband’s workplace, an Intel plant in nearby Kiryat Gat.
Their house has a protected room, but now that they are back the children still need to be reassured. They all sleep together in one room to make it easier to go to the protected room should an alert sound in the middle of the night.
"I tell them it’s natural to be scared, that it’s all part of their natural response to protect themselves,” Rachel tells JTA. “I try to give them hugs and love and keep them away from the television news and in as much of a routine as possible."
At a shopping strip in Ashdod, locals paused Monday to get a quick bite and soak up some sun at outdoor chairs and tables.
"It feels almost normal," says Shai Vakni, 24, in between taking orders at a pizza restaurant called Pizza Patzutz, Hebrew for Dynamite Pizza. "And what do you expect — people to keep their lives on hold?"