Gaza city and Ashkelon: cities divided by more than a border
In the closest Israeli city to Gaza, residents support the invasion
Israelis react after a rocket, fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza, landed in the southern city of Ashkelon. Photograph: Reuters/Amir Cohen
An Israeli soldier inspects an Israeli home allegedly hit by a Hamas rocket in Sderot, Israel. Photograph: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Just a few kilometres separate Ashkelon and Gaza city, but in many ways the two cities are worlds apart. The enclave to the south, where plumes of black smoke rose for another day yesterday and the sound of exploding Israeli missiles could be heard far beyond its borders, is crowded and poor.
Horses and carts move along cratered streets, electricity and water are patchy and municipal services are basic if not non-existent.
In Ashkelon, the closest Israeli city to the border, joggers run along a track that separates a line of hotels and condominium blocks from the gently lapping water. It’s a city of beachfront cafes, pristine streets, shopping malls and green open spaces.
To locals, however, Ashkelon is unrecognisable these days. We are in the middle of the Israeli holiday season, a time of year when the hotels along the coast are normally full with holiday-makers. In the past two weeks, visitors have fled or stayed away. Cafes are empty, shops are closed and hotels have slashed their prices in an attempt to fill their rooms.
Ashkelon’s proximity to the border puts it within range of the most rudimentary home-made rockets coming from Gaza, so its people are by now well-accustomed to the emergency drill.
Rocket sirensAt least six times yesterday, rocket sirens blared across public tannoys and interrupted radio broadcasts, giving people 30 seconds to take cover in the shelters that are provided in nearly every building.
Many of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s missile defence system, each hit identifiable by a dull thud and a white trace against the blue sky.
It’s no way to live, says Esther Mesika, who owns the empty Avenue cafe in central Ashkelon. She worries that some day she’ll be out with her earphones on and won’t hear the rocket sirens. She worries about having children grow up under the threat of incoming fire.
From Esther and everyone else I meet in Ashkelon, there is unconditional support for the Israeli action in Gaza.
“I’m very sad about the soldiers, but we need to finish this,” she says, referring to the 13 Israelis who were killed on the eastern outskirts of Gaza city at the weekend. “The people in Gaza are like me, but they need to kill the Hamas people.”
Mesika says she is “very sad” about the killing of children in Gaza but accuses Hamas of exploiting their deaths, going as far as to say Hamas “wants people to die so people will take pictures of them and send them around the world”. If there was an easy solution, she says, she would jump at it.
Civilian casualtyTensions are running high along Israel’s border with northern Gaza. Rockets have targeted the Erez border crossing, where last week a mortar struck and killed an Israeli civilian who was bringing food to soldiers at the border post. He is one of two Israeli civilians to be killed so far in the conflict.
The area is heavily fortified, with tanks and armoured personnel carriers seen regularly along the main roads. Yesterday, Israeli forces claimed they killed at least 10 Palestinian militants after they crossed from Gaza through two tunnels.
Nissim Kasantini, a 41-year-old who spent three years in Gaza while he was in the Israeli army, accuses Israel’s critics of double standards. “In Syria, every day hundreds of people are killed, and they’re Muslim. But because we’re Jewish and it’s easy to hate Jewish people . . .” he says, tapering off. His “heart is broken” at the sight of dead children, Kasantini says, “but when I see a soldier killed, my heart is broken too”.
He is particularly exasperated at what he sees as insufficient recognition of the good Israel has done in Gaza. “We give them food, electricity and medicine. Nobody talks about that. They take money from all over the world and use it for war, not to build or study.”
Kasantini wants to see a full ground invasion followed by an occupation of Gaza. “If you ask ordinary people there who they want to control Gaza, 80 per cent will say the government of Israel. We gave them everything. If there was peace, they could do everything. They could come and go.”
Uri Shekel, a 51-year-old Ashkelon resident who spent six years in a special forces unit of the Israeli army, is a firm believer in the idea of a two-state solution. He spent 20 years in Norway and feels that as a result his perspective is not that of “a typical Israeli”. If he was in power, he would give the Palestinians Jerusalem and immediately withdraw to the 1967 borders, although he worries that this wouldn’t satisfy the Palestinians. Above all else, he’d like to see “two nations” living in peace, side by side.
‘Remove Hamas’Yet Shekel also wants Israel to escalate its military operation and initiate a full ground invasion that would involve taking control of all of Gaza. The priority, he says, must be to remove Hamas from power, and ideally to “hand over” Gaza to the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.
Shekel says he feels “very sad” about the killing of children in Shejayia, the district of Gaza city where a heavy Israeli assault ended with the deaths of 62 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers.
“But Israel gave them flyers, saying ‘please leave your homes’. You know the system where they first fire a small bomb at a house [as a warning] and then a big one? What is more human than that?”
He too is conscious of the fierce criticism that has been directed at Israel in Europe this week, but believes that people don’t want to see the intolerable threat that Israelis feel in their daily lives.
“People want to see the dead child in Gaza and not the picture of Israeli children who are pissing in their beds every night. This is not the story that people know in Europe,” he says.
“You’ve been to Gaza. You’ve seen terrible things I’m sure. Nothing that I will say will give you a stronger impression than what you’ve seen. I’ve been at war; I know it. But in order to finish this conflict, we have to remove Hamas from power. It’s the only hope.”