Life goes on in bustling, frenetic city little perturbed by rocket attacks from Gaza

Mon, Nov 19, 2012, 00:00

Israel’s largest city may be under threat of rocket attack for the first time in two decades, but anxiety over the menace from the sky has only subtly disrupted the rhythms of ordinary life. Locals notice fewer cars on the road and the radio news blares out that little bit louder from corner shops. Otherwise, Tel Aviv is its bustling, frenetic self.

That makes it all the more incongruous when the air raid sirens ring out, as they have every day since last Thursday, to signal an incoming long-range rocket from the Gaza strip.

On Saturday afternoon, the promenade that runs along the city’s Mediterranean shore was filled with the sights and sounds of any other quiet Sabbath: couples walking hand-in-hand, tourists catching the last of the day’s sunshine, the faint thwack-thwack of ping-pong rallies on the beach.

When the sirens began just before 5pm, there was confusion at first.

People dashed for some nearby buildings, but nobody was quite sure where the shelters were. The beach emptied. On the road, cars just stopped – one or two at first, then all of them, and their occupants ran for cover by a low wall.

Rocket intercepted

At the Banana Beach cafe, Fiammetta Martegani (31), an Italian-Israeli who has lived here for three years, huddled low and watched as a loud explosion sounded and a plume of black smoke rose overhead.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) later said the rocket had been intercepted by a defence missile fired from a battery installed near Tel Aviv just hours before.

“I’m getting used to it now, but the first time I was very scared, because that has never been part of my life,” said Martegani. “But for Israelis, they grow up with this kind of thing.”

Sitting with a friend on the seafront shortly before the alert, Eli Ezra, a former paratrooper, said he was relaxed about the threat. “I just hope the IDF do what they have to do now in Gaza,” he said, and that meant doing whatever it took to win “two or three years of quiet”.

“Imagine if they shot rockets at your neighbourhood in Ireland every day for four or five weeks. Tell me, do you think you would just sit around and say, ‘that’s life’? We have to react. I think it’s very good, what’s happening now in Gaza.”

Notwithstanding the phlegmatic response from many residents in Tel Aviv, the news that the metropolis is now within firing range of certain rockets fired from Gaza – reported by Israeli authorities to be Iranian-made Fajr-5, which can travel up to 75km – has required a psychological adjustment. Not since 1991, when Saddam Hussein fired scud missiles at the city, have the air raid sirens sounded so regularly.

Simone Hayot from Paris, who was visiting her mother in Tel Aviv, said she was lying on the beach when she heard a thunderous explosion on Friday. It was shocking, “like it had landed just next to me”, and left her furious.

“They have three-quarters of the planet, the Muslim people. The Jewish people are entitled to their little space.”

“Make peace,” she said, as if addressing Palestinians. “Organise yourselves. They talk about misery, but they’re wasting all their money on bombs and attacks instead of building schools.”

Israel’s military operation in Gaza has rallied political rivals to prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s side, in effect temporarily suspending the campaign for January elections. Many in Tel Aviv say it has had a similar effect on public opinion.

Sceptical voices

But sceptical voices can also be heard. On the beachfront immediately after Saturday’s explosion, Udi Razzin (41) said many people in the city had misgivings.

“Somebody wrote on Facebook yesterday, ‘Why are they bombing Tel Aviv? I’m left-wing and I’m gay.’ And another guy wrote: ‘And I’m Arab.’

“I don’t think it will change what people think as regards a big solution to the situation. I believe we have every right to defend ourselves, I think we should do that, but I don’t think this is the answer.”

Razzin was a soldier in the Israeli army 20 years ago, and says he feels sympathy with the people of Gaza. “I’ve been to Gaza. I served there. I know exactly what’s going on here. They’re poor, miserable people. Their leadership is f***ing them and we’re f***ing them.

“From our point of view, it’s unbearable to live like this. This isn’t how I want to spend my Saturday. But they have it a lot worse.”

Within 20 minutes of Saturday’s explosion, light was fading and calm had fallen over the beachfront again.

“This is what we have to show them – that our life goes on,” said former paratrooper Eli Ezra. “Tomorrow we’ll go out to work. And if there are more missiles, so be it.”