Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hoping for some southern comfort

This morning I had a call from the mother of a friend of my daughter's. She wanted to reschedule our proposed playdate this week. Nothing so unusual about that except for the reason. Their kibbutz isn't too far from Ashdod and since Thursday evening that part of the country has come under massive rocket fire from Gaza, including several direct hits on homes, schools and synagogues. My daughter's friend and her family have spent the weekend in or close to shelters listening out for sirens.

Plan had been that after her day at the kibbutz, we'd collect J and take her to the beach in Ashdod, followed by dinner at the nearby nice little kosher Indian restaurant. That was before a grad rocket injured several people outside an Ashdod yeshiva, while another grad lodged unexploded in the roof of an Ashdod synagogue.

I know this must sound terribly selfish, I'm thinking about my daughter's fun plans for the week while people are sitting in shelters and getting shot at. In a way that is precisely my point. Overseas there is this image of "warzones" places where people's lives are suspended permenantly among ruined buildings as they wait for the next rocket to fall or the next bomb to explode.

These places become divorced from normal life in the eyes of the foreign news (though of course this weekend's rocket attacks have gone largely unreported overseas). Yet this division of the world into neat "warzones" and "normal" just doesn't compute.

The cities and towns and villages of southern Israel are "normal" places, places where people just like you and me live and go to work or school or lounge about during the summer seeking relief from the heat by the beach or in the mall. People go jogging and walk their dogs and go to the movies or take a walk in the relative cool of early morning. There are run down tenements in dodgy neighbourhoods and luxury villas in comfortable suburbs, grim 50s apartment blocks and state of the art modern condo developments. There are farms and beaches and yeshivas and factories and hospitals and UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beautiful nature reserves. Just as elsewhere in Israel late summer is a time for music festivals, weddings and cooling off in waterparks.  People try to keep their children busy in the final few weeks of the summer holidays.

And suddenly all that is semi-frozen in the twilight zone uncertainty of a rain of rockets and sirens and government orders to cancel all large public gatherings, sporting events and concerts and for residents to stay close to their shelters or windowless interior rooms.

One friend was caught out by a siren while jogging one evening, spending the next half hour face down in the dirt and shaking from having felt and heard the impact of a rocket closeby. Another described the terror of having just left her cousins' house in Beer Sheva to return home to Jerusalem when the siren went, leaving her with a carload of children on an open road unsure whether to seek cover on the verge or to just keep driving.

In Tel Aviv the "social justice" protesters are still sitting in their tents protesting the rising price of housing and the cost of living. Down south sitting in a tent right now would be plain reckless.

Some would say going south right now was plain reckless but other friends of ours don't have that choice. For them the grievances of the protesters and the recent escalation of attacks from Gaza have come together alarmingly this week. Priced out of the centre of the country they found more affordable housing in Beer Sheva and are scheduled to move this week. School will be starting soon (God Willing in the south too) and they need to get settled in to their new home, rockets or no rockets.

Meanwhile another friend's sister and brother-in-law are in the process of signing on a nice apartment near the sea in Ashkelon. They too would have preferred something more central, closer to Tel Aviv, but Ashkelon is so much more affordable, and with its new housing projects, spruced up seafront promenade, marina and attractive beaches, seemed to offer a pleasant quality of life at a much cheaper price.

I asked whether they weren't concerned about Ashkelon's proximity to Gaza and the continued rocket fire. My friend's response? Once upon a time we were shocked that Gaza rockets could reach as far as Sderot. Then we couldn't believe Ashkelon was being hit. Then we were surprised at Grad strikes as far away as Beer Sheva and Ashdod. Then Yavne and Gadera. How long do I really think it wil be before they can reach Rehovot, Rishon Letzion, Modi'in and even Tel Aviv?

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