Israelis bolster new front line with Gaza

Ashkelon, an Israeli city 11 miles north of Gaza, has become a new target for Palestinian rocket fire.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Alarm: Ashkelon, a city with 26,000 schoolchildren, is working on ways to guard citizens against rockets.
Rich Clabaugh
Ilene R. Prusher
Situation room: Alan Marcus, who moved to Israel from Massachusetts 30 years ago, is working on a system to protect his seaside community of Ashkelon from Gaza rockets.

When Alan Marcus moved here from Framingham, Mass., more than 30 years ago, this was a quiet seaside city relatively far from the Middle East's strife-ridden hot spots.

Seemingly overnight, it became a frontline community in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Dr. Marcus, who has a PhD in physical geographic environments, has been trying to transform Ashkelon from a sleepy beach town to a city ready to weather a rain of rockets from Gaza – and to keep the city's citizens from getting hurt.

This effort includes a computerized system that he developed and a high-tech situation room, opened just two weeks ago, to dispatch help when rockets fall.

"This has been quite a change," he acknowledges, surveying the nerve center he has been setting up over the past year and a half. With bird's-eye mapping – the most detailed in Israel, he says – he can immediately zero in on the area hit, know who or what was hit, and how to respond.

After several strikes on Ashkelon last month, Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza on Feb. 29, in which more than 120 Palestinians and three Israelis died. Amid global criticism over the loss of life – and stepped-up efforts from Washington and Cairo to forge some kind of cease-fire – Israel pulled back and Palestinians have been launching fewer missiles and rockets.

But realizing that a new dynamic has emerged in the conflict, Ashkelon is taking serious precautions. The one thing it doesn't have yet is a surefire way to find people to a safe place when the missile is careening in their direction. The city has 26,000 schoolchildren, but no schools are armored. And though there are shelters, Marcus notes, its impossible to get to most of them in time. "You only have 15 seconds to get to a safe place."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, visiting here Tuesday, told people to "grit their teeth" and face the likelihood that – despite what appears to be a cooling off in the war between the Israeli military and Palestinian militant groups in Gaza – Ashkelon would suffer more attacks. An hour after he left what had been billed as a "solidarity visit," a Qassam rocket was shot at Ashkelon from Gaza. The rocket, the first in two days, landed in an open area in southern Ashkelon. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular left-wing group, claimed responsibility for it, Reuters reported.

The continued, if intermittent, rockets have fomented some confusion about whether Israel and Hamas might quietly be moving toward a cease-fire. Earlier in the week, both denied that was the case. On Wednesday, however, Hamas outlined demands for such a truce.

Mr. Olmert's grin-and-bear-it message didn't go over well with many, who had hoped he would bring a more concrete solution.

"If we knew it were a month of living in shelters, like during what they did up north during the Lebanon war, it would be fine," says Marcus. "But to let it go on like this for years, no country can take that strain. We hope that the army and the government will reach a solution."

In the meantime, the city is doing what it can. One problem was that when the "Red Alert" alarms go off, warning of an incoming missile, most people couldn't hear the alarms, as there were only 18 for a city of 120,000 people. Last week, the government decided they should use the much louder, wailing air raid sirens, but some officials here are concerned that these much more disruptive alarms will sow panic and increase the feeling that Ashkelon has become a war zone.

But for Mazal Levy, the city's chief social worker, it sometimes feels as if it is. Since the end of February, there have been 15 "serious hits" here, causing damage or light injuries, and that means that Ms. Levy constantly needs to have someone on duty to help treat people for shock and related problems.

"It's a new situation and a new threat. It took some time to realize that it was here, that it was real. I personally haven't felt anything like this since the Gulf War, which was in 1991," Levy says. She grew concerned when her 14-year-old daughter, upset by the attacks, went to live in their basement. "First of all we're citizens, people, and parents, and we all have our own worries – like whether our kids are safe every time a missile falls."

Levy is part of a project to set up a local help center in each neighborhood of the city, where members of the community can get training to help people in crisis after a missile attack. "It's time for the politicians to see if they can get to some understandings."

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