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Tel Aviv, Israel’s bustling financial center, shakes as rockets rain down

TEL AVIV – Tel Aviv City Hall launched a playful social media campaign this month declaring itself a vaccinated city eager to welcome international travelers back on their first trips abroad after the coronavirus.

That was before the rockets began to hit.

In the past week of fighting between Israel and militant groups in Gaza, Tel Aviv was the target of at least 160 rockets fired from the Palestinian coastal enclave about 40 miles south.

The bombing of Tel Aviv was a devastating turnaround for a bustling metropolis that distinguishes itself as Israel’s non-stop party city on the Mediterranean Sea and the country’s financial center. During the weekend, incoming warnings and rocket volleys sent a crowd of beachgoers running for cover and closing many of the city’s famous restaurants and bars.

Tel Aviv has been the target of rocket fire in the past few rounds, but not with the intensity of the past few days. And while the military says its Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts about 90 percent of missiles heading towards populated areas, some slip through when large barrages are fired.

Shahar Elal, 30, an Israeli who was back from her current home in Zurich for a family visit, said she and her mother had walked into a sheltered room behind the kitchen of a beach cafe when a siren sounded Saturday afternoon who was startled after being caught off guard.

“Beer in hand, sunscreen on our face, we ran,” she said, dropping a wallet on the way. When they emerged, they saw the white plume of smoke from a missile that had fallen into the sea ahead of them.

One day last week, during business hours, militants fired about 100 rockets in the direction of Tel Aviv and the surrounding area, saying they would take revenge on Israeli air strikes against so-called civilian buildings.

The incoming fire sent nearly a million Israelis into air raid shelters and protected rooms. On Saturday, a man, Gershon Franko, 55, was killed by shrapnel after a rocket hit the middle of the street outside his apartment in the leafy Ramat Gan suburb of Tel Aviv.

Often referred to as the “State of Tel Aviv,” this largely liberal, secular beach town and its metropolitan area have long had a reputation for being somewhat detached from the dangers of the less affluent, more peripheral parts of the country that are nearby its fleeting limits. Many residents of this city of skateboards, surfers and electric scooters are said to live in a hedonistic bubble.

“It’s kind of an escape,” said Sagi Assaraf, 31, a medical technician, explaining the state of mind in Tel Aviv as he sat on the beach with a beer and some friends on Sunday, the day after they all had to flee from the same strip of sand looking for cover.

“In the end, it’s people who just want to live in peace and quiet,” he said, adding, “The explosions stopped them.”

He and his friend Ben Levy, 32, a graphic designer who played guitar, had both done their mandatory military service in combat units and said they were unaffected by the rocket fire.

Major General Uri Gordin, the head of the military’s Homefront Command, said he believed more rockets were fired into the Tel Aviv area on Saturday night than during the 50-day Gaza War in the summer of 2014.

Many residents spoke confidently of resilience and defiance, saying that showing weakness and fear would bring the enemy victory.

“We have to stay optimistic and get on with our routines,” said Levy.

Even in Ramat Gan, on the block where the deadly missile hit, shopkeepers and local residents displayed a similar sang-froid.

Menachem Horovitz, who owns a small café and bakery down the street and lives just around the corner, was home that afternoon when he heard the siren, followed by a bang that shook the whole house.

He came out to investigate the damage to the bakery. “The police came,” he said matter-of-factly. “I cleaned up and put everything back into position.”

Saturday was Nakba Day, the day the Palestinians remembered the flight and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees during the hostilities related to the establishment of Israel in 1948.

On Sunday morning, Mr. Horovitz had replaced the broken glass in his shop front and was almost sold out for the Shavuot Jewish holiday from sunset.

A handwritten sign in the window read: “Thank you to the residents of Ramat Gan for your support. The people of Israel lives ”, interrupted with a Star of David instead of a full stop or an exclamation mark.

In a nearby block of flats, all the front-facing windows had been blown out. Shrapnel had pierced the refrigerator in the back of an apartment like a bullet. The residents had fled and left their half-eaten lunch on the table. City officials provided all residents with temporary accommodation in hotels.

Ms. Elal, the visitor from Zurich, lived with her family from northern Israel in a holiday apartment by the sea and was back on the beach on Sunday.

“There is no point in stopping our lives,” she said. But she added that she had never seen the streets or beaches of Tel Aviv so quiet and empty on a vacation weekend. She said most of her childhood friends who now lived in Tel Aviv had returned to live with their parents in the north – an area that used to suffer most from rocket attacks from Lebanon.

Josh Corcos, 30, Shai Asraf, 29 and Yuval Mengistu, an Israeli friend from Mexico, sat in the same beach café on Sunday that Ms. Elal had sought refuge the day before. Mr. Asraf had come from Netivot, a southern city that was frequently the target of rocket attacks from Gaza.

They had been eating French toast and Eggs Benedict in an all-day breakfast restaurant when the sirens went off on Saturday afternoon. They took cover, came out 20 minutes later and continued to eat, they said.

Some people panicked more than others, they said.

“We were all in the army so we don’t mind that much,” Mr. Corcos said of the rocket fire. “But you don’t expect it in the middle of breakfast in Tel Aviv.”

That night, Hamas sent a warning that Tel Aviv residents should be back in their homes by midnight. The three men returned to their rented apartment at 11:30 p.m. to wait. At 11 minutes past midnight, the sirens wailed and more rockets hit the Tel Aviv area.

“Four days ago the city was normal and hopping,” said Mr Asraf. “Something has changed since the missiles fell. Most people stay at home. “

City officials said they are confident that tourism will recover in due course.

But as the sun set in the Mediterranean, the streets of Tel Aviv, usually crowded with night owls, were eerily deserted. The non-stop city had come to a standstill, at least temporarily.

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed to reporting from Jerusalem.

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