Ashkelon - the new Sderot?
Major southern city becomes regular target, hit by increasingly destructive rockets
Sixteen-year-old Liz Sheetrit and her family stand in their homes with shell-shocked expressions as they point to their burnt front yard and shattered kitchen window. “I can’t believe this happened to us,” Liz exclaims. A Grad rocket fired from Gaza struck the family’s street this past Saturday night, damaging four homes in their neighborhood, leaving a splattering of shrapnel holes, shattered glass, and pieces of metal stuck in the housing exterior.
Liz says she feels only slightly lucky. She and her family were thankfully not home at the time of the explosion but her dog, which was home, still harbors some marks from the attack.
The Sheetrit family and the other neighborhood families are lucky for another reason. They live in relatively new homes, all of which have bomb shelters. “Our neighbors entered their shelter as soon as the alarm went off. If they had been anywhere near the kitchen or living room, someone could have been seriously injured,” Liz’s father said.
More than 50% of Ashkelon’s residents live in older buildings that were built without shelters, according to municipal spokesman Yossi Assoulin.
“But thanks to the Iron Dome, residents here, even during Grad rocket attacks from Gaza, haven’t lost their sense of security,” Assoulin says.
The Iron Dome is a mobile air defensive system developed in Israel to intercept incoming Palestinian rockets through a special radar-detecting system. Although the system has been criticized for its steep operating costs, it has become an important means in defending Israeli civilians by successfully shooting down countless rockets. Israel plans to invest $1 billion in the Iron Dome system in coming years, with $205 million coming from the US.
However, Iron Dome offers no guarantees.
On the same day that the Sheetrit home was struck by rocket shrapnel, an Ashkelon man, Moshe Ami, a father of four, was killed in a rocket attack on his way home. The air raid siren, which gives Ashkelon residents about 25 seconds to find cover, went off as Ami was driving home in the heart of the city along Rabin Road. Unable to make it to the shelter in time, a piece of shrapnel from the rocket explosion mortally struck Ami and he later died of his wounds in Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center.
In addition to Ashkelon, a city of more than 120,000 residents, the barrage of Grad missiles also struck Beersheba, Ofakim and Ashdod, considered major metropolitan areas in Israel’s south.
Elad, an Ashkelon taxi driver born and raised in the city, said Saturday night was a nightmarish experience. “Working as a taxi driver during these kinds of terror attacks is the worst experience. While everyone else stays at home and in their shelters, we have to go out to make our living.”
“There’s no way we can make peace now,” Elad added. “There is no one to make peace with. How many more rocket attacks are needed to prove that?”
Ashkelon’s mayor Benny Vaknin said Sunday that the type of missiles fired Saturday caused much greater destruction than past rockets. “These types of rockets are much more accurate and capable of great devastation, damaging concrete building and roads. Within six months, we have experienced three rounds of destructive rocket attacks, in late April, August and now, October. We need to rethink how to address this situation.”
Vaknin refused to allow Ashkelon students to attend schools on Tuesday, for the third day in a row. He said he is not taking any chances “endangering children’s lives.”
Most of Ashkelon’s schools are not protected against rocket attacks. The city has close to 30,000 students in its education system, including 6,000 college students at Ashkelon’s Academic College.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for most of the weekend’s rocket attacks. Hamas has taken second seat during the current fighting, allowing Egypt instead to mediate a ceasefire between Islamic Jihad and Israel.
For now, Liz Sheetrit hopes that life will return to normal for her family and neighbors. “We are trying to get back to a routine, but no one can guarantee that rockets won’t strike here once again.”