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Dispatch From Ashkelon, Front Line Of Israel's "Existential War"

Since Saturday's bloody Hamas assault began, Ashkelon, a city located 20 kilometers from Gaza, has become the front line in what is shaping up to be Israel's most dangerous war in a generation.

Photograph of a man peeking around a corner to inspect the damage caused by a rocket attack from Gaza.

07 October 2023, Israel, Ashkelon: Residents inspect damage caused by a rocket attack from Gaza.

Ilia Yefimovich/ZUMA
Francesca Paci

ASHKELON — The day's first siren starts blaring around noon.

Over the deep blue of the Mediterranean, the sounds of the battle between rockets fired from Gaza and Israel's Iron Dome air defense system rings out loud.

But Israelis no longer trust it: since last Saturday, when an assault launched by Hamas surprised both local residents sleeping in their beds, and the military intelligence that was supposed to watch over them, the myth of national invulnerability has turned to ashes.

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There are other remains here that are more tangible, like the wreckage of the car hit two days ago in the parking lot of the Hotel Regina Goren. From the hotel's bomb shelter — a feature in many Israeli homes and establishments in the area — 60-year-old Ossi and Selina, two German tourists who left from Bavaria on Monday despite the war news to "not be dramatic," look at that wreckage with tired eyes. "We thought no country was safer than Israel, and yet we've been living in this bunker for three days without being able to leave. Our next vacation will be in Austria."

Ossi and Selina's disjointed hours were, until yesterday, a kind of internalized routine for the coastal city of Ashkelon, with its 150,000 inhabitants and a destiny shaped by geography. The Gaza border is less than 20 kilometers away, and the instinct to take cover is more than a conditioned reflex for young and old alike.

Then, in one night, history changed.

Where are the politicians?

"Where are our politicians? No one has come to explain the failure of the intelligence services, which led us to wake up with terrorists in our bedrooms," exclaims Danielle, 50. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should resign, she says.

This is an existential war

Her toned arms are covered in tattoos. She smokes a cigarette under the bus station's porch on the otherwise deserted street, except for sporadic cars speeding by. She has been living here for 10 years, and for the first time, she gives in: "I was used to the rockets. My house is surrounded by craters. But terrorists entering your home, no. Yesterday, the police killed another one just around the corner. They are here. They reached because of the Gaza workers who the Israeli government had welcomed in the last six months. They paved the way. Gaza civilians? An eye for an eye. Hostages? This is an existential war."

For hours, Hamas's offensive hammered the southern part of the country: a building was hit in Ashkelon, two people injured in Sderot, and the kibbutz Yad Mordechai, near the Gaza border where dense columns of black smoke rise, is the front line of the "forbidden" zone, marked by the army as a red line.

Photograph of  Israeli police officers taking cover behind a wall during a rocket attack from Gaza.

October 7, 2023, Ashkelon, Israel: Israeli police officers take cover behind a wall during a rocket attack from Gaza.

Ilia Yefimovich/ZUMA

A radical change

The mood of the few people on the streets and the many waiting in line at the Sitoanut Rahamim supermarket to stock up on rice, tuna, dried fruits and kilos of candy for the children is somber.

Itai, 24, has spent his life in these mostly low-income apartment complexes inhabited by Russian immigrants. He scans his receipt and sums up the situation: "From Sunday to today, we've sold three times as much merchandise. Families are organizing fear and preparing for war." The sirens wail again. People rush to the nearest shelter, heartbeats racing, a quick reach for their cell phones, and a few liberating laughs.

"There's a radical change of pace," warns General Giora Eiland, former Israeli National Security Advisor, over the phone. "Israel is facing its own Pearl Harbor today, and it has no choice. Unfortunately, the hostages are not a priority, while defeating Hamas is. It's a matter of survival; it's either us or them."

"It's a different world"

That's why, at this moment, military strategists have laid out all possible directions on the table, like a fortune-teller's cards: a ground invasion, the continuation of increasingly massive airstrikes, or the exile of Hamas leadership to Egypt, similar to Arafat in 1982, or even the targeting of the entire Gaza Strip to be permanently obliterated.

Photograph of ambulances lined up outside of a hospital in Ashkelon.

Oct. 10, 2023: Ambulances are seen at a hospital in Ashkelon.


Wailing for Gaza

No one here listens to the anguished cries of the Gazan population anymore — 2 million people who are also hostages of the butchers of Kfar Aza, and who are also condemned. Not even at Barzilai Hospital, where, in past years, many Palestinians injured by the Israeli military have been treated.

In the corridors that vibrate with each rocket salvo, I see 29 of the 600 injured admitted on Saturday, men, women, children.

"It's a different world," mutters Dr. Ron Lobel, his face drawn, a veteran who has retired and been called back into service multiple times. He sleeps in a shelter set up between the hospital's departments after surviving the massacre that also involved the kibbutz where he lived, just outside the city.

It's a different world. Ashkelon, the stronghold of the Netanyahu's Likud party, turns its back on Bibi (Netanyahu) and looks even further to the right.

The hundreds of reservists' cars parked outside military base 297, on the road leading to Jerusalem, bear witness to the extent of the mobilization. Young Noa, after the fourth consecutive siren, breaks down. She needs the restroom, she needs to breathe, she needs to cover her ears. She escaped from Sderot on Saturday night and wants to no longer hear the sound of fear, but the siren continues to wail.

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