Israeli Town Finds Seaside Peace Shattered

I had just parked my car Wednesday outside the popular Sea Mall in downtown Ashdod, Israel, when the siren preceding a rocket attack pierced the air. I watched the roads of this Israeli coastal town empty as panicked people scuttled for cover. Grabbing my bag, I leapt from the car, wondering if I could make it across the road in time. You only get, I learned later, 45 seconds to scramble for cover before the rocket lands. As I reached a nearby building, I heard the sickening thud of a rocket landing, followed by a further thump seconds later. Frightened mothers stood with their children in the doorway of the shopping mall, scared to stay put, even more scared to venture out into the street.

Since the fragile ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ended last week, Israeli citizens living within a 27-mile radius of the border with the Gaza strip find themselves living in a war zone. Ashdod is a sleepy town of over 200,000 where housing is relatively cheap and the beach is just a bus ride away. Back in 1982, Israeli writer Amos Oz referred to Ashdod as "not quite a world premiere but simply a city on a human scale." But Oz's hope that in Ashdod "we shall see what will flower when peace and a little repose finally come" must have crumbled this week as the Israeli military pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, killing more than 300 Palestinians. In response, Hamas militants shot more than 200 missiles in four days, including long range Grads, into southern Israel, among other targets. Some of those weapons hit Ashdod, just 23 miles away from the turbulent border that Israel shares with the Gaza Strip.

I wasn't the only one to visit Ashdod on New Year's Eve. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the hawkish Likud party, conducted a noisy press conference in the rain at the site of an earlier rocket landing. As we arrived at the site, a jittery representative of the Ashdod municipality told us what to do in the event of another rocket landing. "Get near a wall," he said nervously, "but please do it quickly."

Netanyahu, flanked by stern security guards, seemed bemused as two local photographers had a near fist fight as they jostled for a better position. "Look around you," said Netanyahu, glancing nervously at the bickering photographers, "even if you're a world class sprinter, you won't make it to safety here if a rocket falls."

Irit Sheetrit, 39, a mother of four, didn't make it to safety and was struck down by a rocket here Monday evening as she and her sister drove home from a workout at the local gym. I stopped off at her parents' home Wednesday, where the family gathered for the traditional Jewish "shiva" or seven-day mourning period. Ayelet Murdoch, 37, trembled as she recounted those final 45 seconds with her sister as they ran from the car to a nearby bus stop. "One minute Irit was next to me and the next she was lifted up into the air and flung down head first into the concrete," Ayelet said, adding that her sister was well aware of the large numbers of Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip, including four daughters from one family. "Right now, I hate the people that did this to my sister," Ayelet admitted, "but at the end of the day Israel will have to speak to the other side."

Driving back to downtown Ashdod, the roads are eerily quiet. Two helicopters hover in gray skies and there are reports on the radio of further airstrikes in Gaza and of more rockets landing nearby. I drop into a deserted downtown café, where a sad-faced worker traces the faint shape of a heart in the froth of my coffee. As 2008 passes by, this seems like the only sign of peace in Ashdod.