In Tel Aviv many stay cool as rockets explode

TEL AVIV Fri Nov 16, 2012 11:59pm IST

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TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Pleasure-loving, wheeler-dealer Tel Aviv withstood Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles 20 years ago and Palestinian suicide bomb attacks a decade later.

The latest threat - Palestinian rockets from the Gaza Strip - is something new, but in a sense familiar.

Some in the throbbing metropolis strung out along on Israel's sandy Mediterranean shores kept their cool on Friday, after sirens wailed and another explosion was heard, the second in 24 hours. No one was hurt.

Israel was throttling back for the sleepy sabbath weekend, and the freeways were humming with homebound traffic. About 40 percent of Israelis, more than three million people, live and work in Tel Aviv and the urban sprawl around it.

A surfing initiation class was out, practising paddling in slack water as girls in cutoffs and flip-flops got out of the way of muscled guys on mountain bikes on the crowded cycle path.

The distant high-altitude rumble of warplanes mixed with the breeze from the sea as the sun sank beneath the horizon.

"Israelis are very cool. We're used to living with this sort of stuff," said Federico Broedner of Freddy's Havana cigar shop in the heart of the city not far from the U.S. embassy - the seashore five-star hotel belt.

"People are glad they (the military) are doing something about it (the rocket threat from Gaza)," he said.

"My local customers are cool but the foreigners are worried. One man had a panic attack and ran out of the shop when we heard the explosion."

In fact, some residents on Thursday and Friday were either too laid-back to care or not awake yet to the fact that this was not a drill, that the Palestinian rocketeers of Gaza finally have the city in their range, if not their sights.

Palestinians, and even many Israelis, believe some Tel Aviv residents are blind to the realities of the conflict.

In Gaza, at least 14 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli strikes since the conflict escalated on Wednesday. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket attack on Thursday in a town well to the south of Tel Aviv, where rocketing has become commonplace.

"A WEEK OR TEN DAYS"

Thousands of rockets have been fired at southern Israel since Hamas took over the enclave in 2007. Israel invaded Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 to stop the rocket fire, a war in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Rocketing stopped for a few years but resumed again in 2012.

This is the first time that Islamist Hamas militants in Gaza have fired rockets with sufficient range to reach Tel Aviv and its outlying dormitory cities. None of the gleaming office towers that reflect the setting sun has been scratched.

Hamas, which also targeted Jerusalem on Friday, is gambling with a game-changing move.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the militants would be made to pay. A lethal strike on Tel Aviv would probably trigger an Israeli invasion.

Tel Aviv residents who remember the Gulf War 20 years ago say the rockets still seem less dangerous than Saddam's Scuds, when Israelis wore gas masks in case the Iraqi leader topped his missiles with chemical warheads.

A nationwide early-warning system alerts Israelis to incoming rockets. Homes and offices have blast-proof rooms to retreat to within 30 seconds of the wail of sirens.

Those caught outside lie flat on the ground. Drivers get out of their cars and crouch or lie by the roadside until they hear an impact or an all-clear.

The new "Iron Dome" interceptor system is successfully tracking launches from Gaza and knocking out many of those rockets that look as if they might hit residential areas.

"Tel Aviv is on a normal footing. You can go to the beach, or to the movies," a spokesman for the military's civil defence command said on Israeli television after the latest rocket attack on the city. "After an explosion is heard, you can get back to normal 10 minutes later." (Reporting By Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff)

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