A screeching siren pierced this overcast Mediterranean city early Monday afternoon, and two men laying bricks on a corner jogged over to crouch next to a sea-facing wall.
A loud boom followed, and then the men went back to laying bricks. It was the fourth such episode of the day.
"I just hope a rocket doesn't hit and destroy all our work," 30-year-old Yanir Faraj said with a light laugh.
In this city, the six-day-old conflict in the Gaza Strip, just 10 miles south, feels both incredibly near and strangely far. The low, broad booms of Israeli airstrikes serve as ominous background noise. The wail of sirens, scurry for shelter and crack of exploding rockets deliver moments of heart-thumping fear. Mostly, there is an eerie quiet — the sound of closed schools, shuttered shops, thin traffic and . . . waiting.
But waiting for what? Faraj, like several interviewed here in the bull's-eye of rocket attacks from Gaza, was not sure. Residents went through this — a rising barrage of projectiles and a military offensive to stop it — four years ago. A shaky cease-fire with Hamas and two years of relative quiet followed. Then came another escalation of rocket fire and now another military operation to stop it. Like nearly all Israeli Jews, according to one new poll, Faraj said he supports the Israeli offensive. Whether it will bring lasting calm he did not know.
"I don't know what they want," he said of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. "I don't know the solution."
Israeli officials say the goal of the operation is to bring peace and quiet to the south by crippling Hamas's military capabilities. They insist they do not want to topple Hamas or take over Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005. Less clear is whether the offensive can end the sirens that have become routine in southern Israel — or whether, as prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote Monday, any truce between two bitter enemies might not lead to "another round, and another erosion, and another round."
Here in the Israeli regions near Gaza, where lives have been led for years to the intermittent rhythm of incoming rocket fire, there is a palpable sense of resignation to that cycle. Schools have reinforced roofs, and bus stops are fortified to double as shelters. Some months, 200 rockets are fired at Ashkelon, said Mayor Benny Vaknin. By midday Monday, 15 had been launched, he said.
Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza in the current conflict, in a town north of Ashkelon; 109 Palestinians have died in Israeli airstrikes.
For now, most people are staying inside. In Ashkelon, down two musty flights of stairs at the Golden Tower hotel, children of hospital employees — who must continue working — were packed into a basement ballroom for a sort of wartime day camp. They colored Mickey Mouse cartoons, plucked hot dogs from a platter and danced in mambo lines to the music of singers hired both to entertain and to keep things loud enough to prevent small ears from hearing blasts above ground.
"We love you. And we will be victorious!" Israel's culture and sport minister, Limor Livnat, shouted from a stage as cameras rolled. She was the latest of the government ministers who have been collecting photo ops in the south, eliciting some grumbling among residents, to stop by.
Farther south in Sderot, a slow-paced town a mile from Gaza, Shimon Shushan, 39, was selling "pizza by the meter," and Solomon Suissa, 62, was willing to sit outside the shop to sip milky coffee. A former military man, Suissa said he had been deployed in Gaza on and off for nearly three decades, which, he said, gave him special insight.
"There's no one to talk to in Gaza," he said, referring to possible Israeli negotiations with Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel. Now a volunteer policeman with a sidearm on his belt, Suissa said he was glad for the Israeli offensive, because the rockets in the south had been ignored too long.
"Israelis are always looking for peace, but they want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and there's no solution," he said.
Across town, television crews atop dirt bluffs filmed the swells of post-airstrike smoke, the four tanks lined up on a field across the highway, and the military vehicles plying the road below — signs of the buildup in preparation for a possible ground invasion.
Then, abruptly, came a Code Red announcement from big loudspeakers. One rocket shot toward the sun and slammed into the incoming rocket from Gaza in a small blast of light. It was one of the interceptor missiles from Israel's Iron Dome system, which has blocked nearly all the rockets heading toward cities in the past six days.
On Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called it "the most technologically impressive achievement in recent years in Israel," and he hinted at one element of Israel's long-term plan: A missile-defense system that blankets the nation.
But Iron Dome is not foolproof, he said.
Back in Ashkelon, there was evidence of that at a high school. A rocket that morning had pierced a concrete roof and left a small crater in the ground. The rocket had failed to explode.
As young soldiers milled around, a siren rang out. The soldiers and a few journalists packed into a hallway safe room. After a few loud blasts, one soldier said, "The Iron Dome took care of it."
Outside, school security guard Itzik Grabli, 69, said it had been a mistake for Israel to withdraw from Gaza. Hamas had simply grown stronger, he said. But like others interviewed, he was ambivalent about a ground operation. Civilian casualties are expected in war, he said. Still, too many Israeli soldier deaths would be hard for the country to bear, he said.
"But they have to destroy Hamas control, remove them from power," he said. "Any option other than Hamas would be better."