Ashkelon: The Next Sderot?


Ashkelon, Israel — For the residents of this coastal city of 120,000, the 10 miles between the Gaza border and the center of town seemed like a comfortable buffer. But in the wake of last Thursday’s rocket hit on the northern edge of the city, the buffer has all but dissolved, nerves here are raw, and residents are wondering if their city will become the next Sderot.

Talk of an exodus is in the air.

Though the missile attack hasn’t spurred public outrage like in Sderot, a city of 20,000 that borders on Gaza and has been attacked on an almost daily basis for several years, it’s a subject that’s discussed around dinner tables and in cafés — especially since the Iranian-made missile traveled 10 miles, the first to have ever gone that far. Some residents fear the attacks will cause Ashkelon residents to relocate beyond the range of the technologically more advanced rockets.

"I know a lot of young people who are hesitating to buy apartments," said Maya, a 28-year-old nurse and mother of one. Even though she and her husband decided to move out of the city more than a year ago, she is relieved to be leaving the missiles behind.

"As much as you want to be a hero and stay, you can’t ignore it," said the nurse, who added that she sees the anxiety in her patients as well. "There’s a feeling that we can’t ever be relaxed."

Just days after the Palestinian-launched Katyusha landed here, an Ashkelon municipal official said Israel must reoccupy the Gaza Strip before allowing a major population center to come under daily attack like the border town of Sderot.

"It’s reached an impasse," said Allen Marcus, director of strategic planning at the municipality. "If Ashkelon is going to be a target on the level of Sderot … then the only alternative is that the Israeli army is going to have to re-enter and reoccupy the Gaza Strip. And unfortunately this is a tragedy for both sides. We’re talking about a cost in human lives."

For anyone who had any doubts about the beefed-up arsenal of Gaza militants, Thursday’s rocket attack (the missile never actually exploded) highlighted how about 200,000 Israelis are at risk because militants are smuggling rockets into Gaza with a longer range than the homemade Kassams. Ashkelon is a particularly sensitive location because it has strategic infrastructure, including an electric power station, a desalination plant and a port for oil tankers.

While Israeli officials called the missile a sign of a dangerous escalation, the actual retaliation was only an incremental uptick consisting of air and land strikes that killed at least eight Palestinians. It showed that Israel’s government is, for the time being, resisting ordering an all-out invasion of Gaza.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Israeli Army’s stepped-up attacks in Gaza were taking a toll on the ability of militants to produce and launch the missiles. Analysts said that the Israeli army is likely to wait to examine whether the current strikes are indeed wearing down militants’ capabilities in Gaza.

The major question about a full-scale incursion into Gaza, said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, "is always how many casualties is the IDF going to take, what’s the end game, and what’s the exit strategy. That’s the reason why they’re being very cautious about this."

But Ashkelon officials say that they’ve already planned for the possibility of a large-scale invasion of Gaza, and anticipate that missiles could rain down on the city if such an invasion takes place.

During a break in a meeting with city social workers to discuss the response of Ashkelon’s welfare services in a time of emergency, Marcus explains that the city prepares for an escalation in Gaza in the same way it tries to anticipate the damage from a major earthquake in the Dead Sea.

Marcus shows a Geographic Information System map of Ashkelon on his computer monitor, with triangles and squares color coded to denote crisis areas, emergency response teams, and at-risk populations. The map was prepared for a dress rehearsal simulating a major rocket attack on the city in which 20 missiles fall in residential areas.

"And just as we had in Lebanon — we have a home front — Ashkelon will probably suffer a great deal of casualties. Because they’re going to shoot everything they have — just like Hezbollah," Marcus said.

"It’s going to be a mess. It’s going to take a long time. And until we can quiet them down, Ashkelon has to be prepared, unfortunately, to sustain casualties for a long time — a week, two weeks, a month, whatever it takes. Which is the same thing that happened in the north" during the second Lebanon war.

Marcus’ comments revealed that Ashkelon’s municipality has adopted a different approach to the missile threat than counterparts in Sderot. Where Sderot officials have demanded government intervention to reinforce public buildings for rocket attacks, Ashkelon officials have decided that it’s unrealistic to make a similar request because the price tag runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The city has already begun refurbishing bomb shelters, though not all of them have air conditioning units or televisions.

And even though Ashkelon has an early-warning system similar to the one that exists in Sderot, Marcus said the municipality doesn’t want it turned on. Because such a small percentage of missiles launched from Gaza have actually touched down in populated areas of Ashkelon — only six of 400 in 2006 and an even smaller percentage last year — the number of false alarms sow panic and eventually indifference.

"The psychological damage to the population would have been enormous," he said.

In the past, Palestinian rockets have hit Ashkelon’s marina, fallen next to a school year, and several have hit strategic infrastructure — though details have been censored to prevent militants from directing their fire.

Hava Cohen, who resides in the northern half of the city, said she and her neighbors were surprised to learn that a missile had fallen so close to their houses. Fellow observers of the Shmita year ban on purchasing food grown in Israel were kicking themselves for preferring produce from Gaza.

"We’re upset that we’re giving them money for their missiles."

Residents said that in the north of Ashkelon people are more relaxed than the southern neighborhoods, where locals are concerned because they are within the range of the locally produced Kassam rockets.

"When it was just in the south, it was scary," said Haim Hollander, a retired worker from Israel Aircraft Industries who sat in a café with friends chain-smoking and clutching lottery tickets. "But now that it fell in the north, it could fall in the center or anywhere."

The men debated whether or not it was wise not to activate the alarm system or not, or to reinforce public buildings. Moshe Michael said that residents he had talked to wanted the protection, but said that the municipality doesn’t want to take the step for fear of sowing panic.

"Either way," Michael said, "the situation is a catastrophe and will get worse."