The ground shook when the third rocket landed with a deep boom. “That might have been a kilometre away,” Lior Zaguri assured the people huddled in the back of his tiny grocery store as this town just 10 kilometres from Gaza came under fire for the third time Friday.
The store itself shook when the next four booms came in rapid succession, each one sounding louder than the one before. “That was closer,” Mr. Zaguri acknowledged, calmly.
When the Red Alert sounded Mr. Zaguri had herded everyone to the far end of his store. The nearest bomb shelter was too far away to reach within the 15 seconds or so before the first rocket hit, so the best thing people could do was get as far away as possible from the open front of the store.
Crouching behind a shelf of dry goods, a woman in her 40s began to hyperventilate; “I can’t stand it,” she said haltingly as Mr. Zaguri tried to calm her.
A neighbour and her two young daughters had just been in the shop to pick up a few things. “We’re heading to Shoham,” the woman said, referring to a community near Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, just out of rocket range. She was driving away when the siren sounded.
Among those waiting for the barrage to end was David Sabag, 50. He explained that his nearby wooden house was particularly vulnerable to attack. “There’s a lot of wooden houses here,” he said, half shaking his head. “We have no shelter on our street,” he added.
The government, he explained, had brought a number of large sewer pipes into his neighbourhood, one for every two houses. “We crawl into them when the siren sounds.”
As the last of eight booms faded away, people began to emerge from the line of shops at the west end of this middle-class community that first was inhabited by Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s.
Looking up, several people began to take photos of the sky. Directly overhead were four white rings, each surrounded by clouds – the telltale sign that Israel’s anti-missile system, the Iron Dome, had intercepted some of the rockets headed this way.
On Friday a school in Ofakim had been hit by a rocket; no one was in the building at the time. But people are on full alert.
“It’s all a matter of fate,” said a man seated on a bar stool at a coffee shop/beer parlour down the street. “Death is an integral part of life,” he said almost transcendentally.
He was dressed conservatively, wearing a black kippa, the sign of a religious Jew. “There’s nothing to fear,” he insisted, drawing looks of incredulity from some of the other customers.
The coffee shop was the busiest place in town this Friday midday, when the centre of the community of about 30,000 would normally be bustling with last-minute shopping before the Jewish Sabbath arrives at sundown. Instead the arcade of white shops was mostly closed: Shopkeepers and customers had left town, or remained close to shelter.
Inside, sipping coffee and beer eight or 10 men were marking their weekly lottery tickets, while others clustered around a pair of poker machines housed behind a screen. They preferred the odds of winning money to that of surviving attack.
When the siren sounds, the barkeeper explained, they all pack inside the lone one-toilet washroom in the place. “There’s nowhere else to go,” he said with a shrug.
Driving out of town, we passed hundreds of cars parked on the side of the road and on hard-packed parts of the adjacent desert. More were arriving every minute and were directed where to go by young men and women in uniform and bright yellow vests.
These were the vehicles of reservists who had been called up in the past 24 hours. They were reporting to duty at the base camps of several army companies set up in the area just outside the Gaza Strip.
Many stood, looking up at the sky, watching the remains of several criss-crossing vapour trails left by the many rockets that had recently flown overhead from Gaza.
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