An Israeli coastal city copes with rocket fire

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) - David Sheni was fixing a hot water heater on the roof of his apartment building in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Monday when he heard the city’s early warning system.

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Seconds after the words “Color Red” blared three times from loudspeakers, a rocket struck the building next door.

“The whole building shook and debris flew off to the street below,” Sheni said. “The rockets keep falling on the city. It’s a war of attrition.”

Ashkelon, a city of some 120,000 people, with white, sandy beaches and rows of luxury apartments is considered by many to be Israel’s “southern Riviera”.

But located about 12 km (7 miles) from the Gaza Strip, Ashkelon became a frequent target for Palestinian militants’ rocket fire during a five-day Israeli incursion into the Hamas-controlled territory that ended on Monday.

Israel pushed deep into Gaza, saying it was trying to stop militants from firing short-range rockets at smaller border towns. As the violence escalated, Hamas started firing Soviet-designed Katyusha rockets, of which 21 hit Ashkelon.

More than 100 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, and medics said about half of them were civilians. Two Israeli soldiers also died in the fighting and on Wednesday, an Israeli civilian was killed by a rocket in the town of Sderot, the first such death since May.

The rocket fire on Ashkelon has been light compared to the daily barrages that pound the border towns, but its effects are visible. Stores are open but the streets are relatively empty.

And unlike in smaller towns, which for years have been favorite targets for Gaza militants, residents of Ashkelon are new to the threat. Once an alarm sounds, they have 15 seconds to seek cover before a missile streaks in.

“We haven’t lived like this before. We hear the red alert and we don’t know what to do,” said Yogev Cohen, 24, who runs a cafe. He says his business has been empty since the rocket fire began.

To cope with the rockets, the city started offering free first aid classes and handing out vibrating beepers to alert residents hard of hearing if rockets have been fired.

“Life is nice here, everything is good here, but the missiles destroyed everything,” said 33-year-old David Efrom, but added, “If it is quiet for three days in a row, people will forget everything.”

With its beachfront resorts, Ashkelon is also a popular vacation site where thousands of French Jews holiday every summer.

“It disrupts our lives, but people are determined to stay and tourists will still come,” said Michel Orlinski who heads a French association to develop Ashkelon.

His office overlooks the Mediterranean and on a clear day he can see the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, where much of the recent fighting took place.

“We are prepared for it, but it’s still a surprise when the rockets start falling,” Orlinski said.

Additional reporting by Don Pessin; Editing by Sami Aboudi