Rocket sirens pierce the Tel Aviv 'bubble'

Tel Aviv is a city that symbolizes efforts by Israelis to maintain a sense of normalcy despite the Arab-Israeli conflict. But now the new normal here includes the opening of municipal bomb shelters.

Oded Balilty/AP
Israelis take cover as an air raid siren warns of incoming rockets from Gaza, next to an Iron Dome defense system in Tel Aviv, Saturday. Israel bombarded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with nearly 200 airstrikes early Saturday, the military said, widening a blistering assault on Gaza rocket operations to include the prime minister's headquarters, a police compound and a vast network of smuggling tunnels.

Israel’s cosmopolitan capital has developed a reputation over the past decade for residents leading lives removed from the rest of Israel and the Middle East, but this weekend's rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip have burst the infamous Tel Aviv bubble.

Video footage showing bathers sprinting from a hotel beach on Saturday with rocket intercepts overhead served as a jarring contrast to the city’s image as a destination for carefree pleasure seekers. On Sunday, Tel Aviv was targeted by two separate rocket salvos, though all of them were shot down.

Not only does Tel Aviv symbolize Israel’s capital city for business and culture, it’s also a city that symbolizes efforts by Israelis to maintain a sense of normalcy despite the daily feuding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But now the new normal in Tel Aviv includes the opening of municipal bomb shelters to the public.

"People here hold up the banner of freedom," says Motti Haimovich, the owner of a French bakery in central Tel Aviv. "When there are rockets, then there isn't any freedom."

On the morning after the first siren last Thursday evening, weekend café goers at the Le Moulin bakery showed for their usual coffee and croissant to check in with one another, says owner Motti Haimovich. But when a siren sounded at the height of the midday rush on Friday, the café emptied quickly.

That type of blow to the daily routine is being held up by Palestinian militants as an achievement. For Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip the very success of placing Tel Aviv under attack – even if there are no casualties – is a symbolic milestone matched by no one else in the region since Saddam Hussein fired Scuds at the Jewish state in the first Gulf War in 1991. Because of that, many Israeli commentators say that the prime minister may want to prolong the fighting.

Israelis derisively refer to the city as "the State of Tel Aviv" to impugn it as a mecca for out of touch armchair liberals who still insist on pushing the peace process with the Palestinians. The plight of rocket attacks could remake the attitudes of Israelis who dismiss the city and its residents as naïve peaceniks.

"Now maybe we are even," said Israeli author Etgar Keret, referring to the dividing lines between armchair liberals and mainstream Israelis. "Now we can start talking." (The original version of this story misstated the source of the quote.)

Residents of Tel Aviv often are nostalgic about that period around the first Gulf War, which left the city virtually unscathed. They have more serious and pained memories of the second Palestinian intifada, which unleashed a wave of bombings around the city.

So far, rockets haven’t turned Tel Aviv into a ghost town like Israeli cities in southern Israel. Part of the reason is that none of the rockets have hit buildings so far, giving people more confidence to keep their daily routine.

"Has the world stopped?" asked Madaleine Koger, a retired shopowner, who was forced by a siren to interrupt a bike ride on the sea promenade to take cover in a hotel basement. "For this I should stop all of our life?"

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