Israel has rolled out a massive civil defence scheme across the south of the country to try to protect an estimated 500,000 citizens bracing themselves for an onslaught of long-range missiles from the Gaza Strip.
All schools in the Gaza region have been closed by order of the IDF Home Front Command as a plan was put in place to protect the western Negev and residents of cities as far away as Ashdod and Ashkelon. Other cities, such as Beersheva and Ofakim, were placed on high alert amid fears that Hamas was now capable of firing up to 200 rockets a day — reaching as far as 40km (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip and possibly beyond.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered a state of emergency in all communities within a 20km (12.4 mile) radius of the Gaza Strip, and the Home Front Command called for the closure of some 80 plants and 500 small businesses within 4.5 km (2.8 miles) from the Gaza border.
It was estimated that this would cost some NIS 4 million (£710,000) a day.
Around 12,000 police troops have also been mobilised.
One senior political source quoted in Ynet estimated the cost of the air strikes as NIS 100-150 million (£17.8-£26.6m) a day.
All public bomb shelters have been opened in areas up to 40km from the Gaza border. The residents of Sderot and 23 other communities 4.5km from the fence have been ordered to stay indoors at all times, with all public gatherings banned and only vital services operating.
In areas up to 10km (6.2 miles) from Gaza, citizens must be 15 seconds away from a shelter at all times, while in the towns of Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Ofakim and Rahat only schools and shops within reinforced structures are being allowed to open.
In Ashdod, fears were mounting that the city’s underground shelters were inadequately prepared. In the city hall, as the Deputy Defence Minister held a meeting with the newly elected mayor, Yechiel Lasri, calls were flooding in to the emergency call centre set up in the basement.
Manned by Russian, Amharic, French and Spanish speakers as well as Hebrew speakers and a psychologist, David Dvash, the manager of the call centre, said thousands of calls had been coming in each day.
“Most of them relate to the residents’ anxiety,” he says. “No rocket fell here, but this is a city that is not used to rocket attacks, although in recent years we practised every drill and scenario possible. We are well prepared for long-term fighting and can cope with a situation in which the residents will have to stay for a long period at home.”
The Ashdod municipality has been criticised for the neglected state of its shelters, with some 50,000 Ashdod residents living in old neighbourhoods, built before the introduction of a law making “sheltered rooms” mandatory. One municipal employee said that the state of the 50 public shelters was “hideous”, but Mr Dvash insisted that 90 per cent were ready for use.
However, he added that the safest option for residents hearing the 45 second warning was to seek shelter in a corridor or staircase.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service declared its highest state of alert and mobilised more than 200 emergency vehicles and one helicopter to the region inside the danger zone.
In Ashdod, the usually bustling mall was nearly deserted amid an atmosphere of tension. “It feels as if the Gulf War trauma, suppressed all these years, is about to emerge now,” said Avi Lilian, 36, who travelled from his home in Tel Aviv to be with his elderly parents.
Elsewhere, Eitan and Sarit Rachum had taken their three-year-old daughter Michal from their home in Ashkelon to Ashdod in the hope of some relief from the constant missile sirens. “The alarms stress Michal,” said Eitan. “I thought that in Ashdod the atmosphere will be less bad, but I see that people are just as stressed here too.”
But he supported the current operation. “In the last few days we were euphoric, but now we really feel the Kassams. I believe that it will take at least a month until the operation is completed and that it will give us quiet for a few years.”
“It’s really hard,” said Marina Graber, an Ashdod resident with two young daughters. “Most difficult thing is to explain the kids why we have to run to the sheltered room. I tell them what a siren is, and that bad people who live far away throw missiles at us, but that we’re safe in the sheltered room, and that when the siren is over we’ll be safe again in the other rooms too.”
Sitting over an Israeli breakfast, Natasha Ablogin, 22, from Ashdod, was less optimistic.
“It’s a war that will never end. The current violence will stop when the Americans or the Europeans intervene and a third party will negotiate truce. Then, after a while, the fighting will resume.
“Whenever I speak to my Israeli friends, all I hear is ‘kill the Arabs’, even my family holds these views. There too much hatred and racism here.”