ASHKELON and TEL AVIV, Israel — In Tel Aviv, the lunch crowd suns itself at bustling sidewalk cafes. But in Ashkelon the playgrounds are deserted, municipal buses run without passengers and stores are shuttered with no customers to even see the notes taped on the doors of “We’ll be back soon.”
Just as in the summer of 2006, when the northern part of the country huddled in bomb shelters during the Second Lebanon War and the rest of the country carried on with its business, a new war has come that affects Israelis — at least in part — according to geography.
Leah Hassan, a nursery school teacher in Ashkelon, left her home Tuesday for the first time since the Israeli operation on Gaza began.
“Everyone I see outside looks pale with the same fear I feel,” she said. “Going out today I did not even want to drive I was so scared.”
“I feel traumatized,” Hassan said. “Every time there is a siren I go into the safe room and shaking, I pray until I hear a boom and then I wonder where it fell and my imagination begins to race.”
In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, Shlomo Dora, 31, sits back on a black leather chair at a popular bistro with the sound of a crooning jazz singer on the stereo and catches up with a friend.
“Being out and about is not about a lack of solidarity because we all feel the pressure of what is going on here, but we need to get on with our daily so-called ‘sane’ routine,” said Dora, who works at a company that makes medical devices
In tiny Israel, he insists, far is never that far away.
“Israel is a small country and we all feel that we are part of this war,” Dora said. “Even if I am meeting friends for coffee, this is what we are talking about. We all have family and friends in the south and know soldiers fighting inside Gaza.”
Nearby, behind the counter of a cafe known for its homemade cakes and jams, two workers disagree about how out of touch the locals are about the fear and rocket fire in cities like Ashdod only a 45-minute drive south.
“Some of really do feel close to what’s going on,” said Shani Asulin, 24, a waitress at the cafe.
Asulin is worried for her best friend, who works in army intelligence near the Gaza border, and her brother, a border policeman who has been doing security at demonstrations by Arab Israelis in the north.
“What? We live in a bubble here,” said Anat Mazor, the cafe’s manager. “I would expect people to feel things more, but they don’t seem to.”
Mazor, a Haifa native, said some do seem more affected and subdued by the fighting.
Asulin offers that the night before, she left a dance club at 2 a.m. and the place was still packed.
In Sderot, Yigal Sal, 39, who has been unemployed since a Kassam hit his clothing store two years ago, says he does not leave the house much these days. His apartment, like most Sderot homes, has no protected room, so instead the family crouches together under the dining room table.
Sal is very worried about his 8-year-old son, Mike, who has known life under rocket attack since he was born and still has trouble sleeping through the night alone.
Most nights, and especially since the fighting began, Mike creeps into his parents’ bed. Alone in his own bed he regularly wets his sheets – a sign in children of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Everyone stays inside and looks towards God to make sure a Kassam does not hit him or his loved ones,” Sal said.
His daughter Noy, 17, fled to Eilat for the first few days of the war but has returned. Most of her friends have left the city; she spends most of the day online sending them messages.
“It was hard to come back to the Kassams,” Noy said in a quiet voice.
When an alert goes off, she dutifully ducks under the dining room table.
“We wait to hear the boom and I feel my heart racing,” she said.
Talia Levanon, the director of the Israel Trauma Coalition, says it’s been a major challenge trying to maintain the resiliency and sense of stability among children in Sderot, which until the fighting began a week and a half ago was the main target of Hamas rocket fire.
“We find ourselves treating the same people over and over again, and we have to be creative and use all our resources,” she said Sunday during a visit by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to a Sderot clinic.
The Israel Trauma Coalition, which is supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, is providing individual and community therapy to Sderot residents. Tel Aviv and other cities and towns also are becoming places of refuge for southern residents.
Shraga Zaiger, a 45-year-old lawyer, has been hosting his mother since Israel’s operation against Hamas in Gaza began Dec. 27. On Tuesday he had taken her out for lunch at a crowded cafe.
“We are all very worried, but it’s the personality of Israelis to go on with life as usual even during war. It was the same way when I was a soldier in Lebanon,” he said, referring to the First Lebanon War, which began in 1982.
His mother, Malka, has spent most of her life in Ashkelon and is surprised to find herself a refugee from it.
“It’s strange but this is our life,” she said.
For Galit Sabar, 30, a Tel Aviv University student, it’s no longer possible to feel far from danger. She lives in Gadera, 20 miles from Gaza, which on Tuesday was hit with its first Grad missile. She woke up to the sound of a siren.
“It’s getting closer, and there is talk they have rockets that could get to Rehovot,” she said, waiting her turn at a Tel Aviv hair salon. “In Gadera especially now, people feel the situation more, but in Tel Aviv you really hardly feel it at all.
“Tel Aviv?” she said with a shrug. “It’s like being abroad.”