Tel Aviv's city hall launched a playful social media campaign this month declaring itself a vaccinated city eager to welcome back international travellers on their first post-coronavirus trips abroad. That was before the rockets began to strike. During the past week of fighting between Israel and militant groups in the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv has been the target of at least 160 rockets fired out of the Palestinian coastal enclave about 65km to the south.
The bombardment of Tel Aviv has been a devastating turn of events for a bustling metropolis that brands itself as Israel’s non-stop party city on the Mediterranean and the financial hub of the country. Over the weekend, incoming alerts and rocket salvos sent crowds of beachgoers running for cover and closed down many of the city’s famed restaurants and bars.
Tel Aviv has been the target of rocket fire in past rounds of fighting, but not with anything like the intensity of the past few days. And while the military says its Iron Dome antimissile defence system intercepts about 90 per cent of rockets heading for populated areas, when large barrages are fired, some slip through.
Shahar Elal (30), an Israeli who was back for a family visit from her current home in Zurich, said she and her mother had rushed to shelter in a protected space behind the kitchen of a beach-side cafe as a siren sounded on Saturday afternoon, frightened after being caught off guard.
“Beer in hand, sun lotion on face, we ran,” she said, dropping a wallet along the way. When they emerged, they saw the white smoke trail of a rocket that had fallen into the sea in front of them.
One day last week, during business hours, militants fired about 100 rockets in the direction of Tel Aviv and its environs, saying they were retaliating for Israeli air strikes against what they described as civilian buildings. The incoming fire sent close to 1 million Israelis into bomb shelters and protected spaces.
On Saturday, one man, Gershon Franko (55), was killed by shrapnel after a rocket slammed into the middle of the road outside his apartment in the leafy Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.
Often referred to as the “State of Tel Aviv”, this largely liberal, secular beachside city and its metropolitan area have long had a reputation for being somewhat detached from the dangers of the less affluent, more peripheral parts of the country that are close to its volatile borders. Many residents of this city of skateboards, surfing and electric scooters are said to live in a hedonistic bubble.
“It’s a kind of an escape,” said Sagi Assaraf (31), a medical engineer, explaining the Tel Aviv state of mind while sitting on the beach with a beer and some friends on Sunday, a day after they all had to run from the same stretch of sand looking for cover.
“In the end they are people who just want to live in peace and quiet,” he said, adding, “The explosions shook them out of it.”
He and his friend Ben Levy (32), a graphic designer who was strumming a guitar, had both performed their obligatory military service in combat units and said they were unfazed by the rocket fire.
Maj Gen Uri Gordin, the chief of the military's Homefront Command, said he believed that more rockets had been fired at the Tel Aviv area on Saturday night than during the 50-day Gaza war in the summer of 2014.
Many residents spoke in sanguine terms of resilience and defiance, saying that showing weakness and fear would hand a victory to the enemy. “We must remain optimistic and carry on with our routines,” Levy said.
Even in Ramat Gan, on the block where the deadly rocket struck, shopkeepers and local residents displayed a similar sangfroid. Menachem Horovitz, who owns a small cafe and bakery on the street and lives just around the corner, was home in the afternoon when he heard the siren followed by a boom that shook the whole house.
He came out to inspect the damage to the bakery. “The police came,” he said matter-of-factly. “I cleaned up and put everything back in place.”
Saturday was Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees during the hostilities surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.
By Sunday morning, Horovitz had replaced the shattered glass in his storefront and was almost sold out of cakes for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot starting at sundown. A handwritten sign in the window read: “Thank you to the residents of Ramat Gan for your support. The people of Israel live,” punctuated with a Star of David instead of a full stop or an exclamation mark.
In an apartment block nearby, all the front-facing windows had been blown out. Shrapnel had pierced the fridge at the back of one apartment, like a bullet. The residents had fled, leaving their half-eaten lunch on the table. City officials provided all the inhabitants with temporary accommodation in hotels.
Elal, the visitor from Zurich, was staying with her family from northern Israel in a holiday rental by the sea, and was back at the beach on Sunday. “It doesn’t make any sense to stop our lives,” she said. But she added that she had never seen the streets or beaches of Tel Aviv so quiet and empty on a holiday weekend.
She said most of her childhood friends who now lived in Tel Aviv had gone back to their parents in the north – an area that used to suffer most from rocket attacks from Lebanon.
Josh Corcos (30), Shai Asraf (29) and Yuval Mengistu, an Israeli friend visiting from Mexico, were sitting on Sunday at the same beach cafe where Elal had sheltered the day before. Asraf had come from Netivot, a town in the south that was the frequent target of rocket attacks from Gaza.
They had been eating French toast and eggs Benedict at an all-day breakfast restaurant when the sirens went off on Saturday afternoon. They took cover, came out 20 minutes later and resumed eating, they said. Some people were panicking more than others, they said.
“We were all in the army, so it doesn’t bother us so much,” Corcos said of the rocket fire. “But still, you don’t expect it in the middle of breakfast in Tel Aviv.”
That night, Hamas sent a warning that Tel Aviv residents should be back in their homes by midnight. The three men came back to their rented holiday apartment at 11.30pm to wait. At 11 minutes past midnight, the sirens wailed and more salvos of rockets headed for the Tel Aviv area.
“Four days ago, the city was normal and hopping,” Asraf said. “There’s been a change since the rockets fell. Most people are staying home.”
City officials said they were confident that tourism would bounce back in due course. But as the sun began to sink into the Mediterranean, the streets of Tel Aviv, usually thronged with revellers, were eerily deserted. The non-stop city had come, at least temporarily, to a stop. – New York Times