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In south, two quiet years are a 'miracle'

    This time, Ashkelon mayor Itamar Shimoni did not wait for instructions.

    As the five-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was breached on Tuesday afternoon, he ordered his city to return to an emergency footing, including opening public bomb shelters and closing the beaches.

    It took the IDF's Home Front Command a few hours to catch up - later in the day, it instructed all communities within an 80km range of Gaza to return to crisis status.

    Like other local leaders and most of the population in Israel's south, Mr Shimoni felt let down by a previous, precipitous IDF decision announcing a return to normal activities.

    A week ago, General Sammy Turgeman, the head of Israel's Southern Command, was forced to apologise to residents of Nahal Oz, a kibbutz bordering Gaza, for the chaos caused by the status updates and their cancellation as soon as successive ceasefires had expired. "I know that we made mistakes in some of our announcements," he said.

    In fact, Mr Shimoni, in an interview last month, foresaw just such a predicament. He said: "This is not a ceasefire. What is this? We are prepared to spend two months locked in our shelters in order to get rid of all weapons in Gaza."

    As the second-to-last ceasefire was approaching its expiry, Kibbutz Netiv Ha'asara's security chief, Zvi Volk, said that "even a two-year period of quiet" would prove a miracle. "Ten years of quiet? We don't know anything like that here. Ever."

    At the Ashkelon mall, Adi, a young woman at the cashier's counter in the Aroma café, said: "I thought it was all over last week. You see these people here? With their children? They're in the mall because no one can bear being stuck at home for more than a month."

    Professor Jonathan Huppert, a Hebrew University expert on trauma, said the situation, being "neither predictable nor controllable", was taxing on many levels.

    "People don't know whether their husbands or children are being called up to reserves again. The entire feeling is uneasy, of not being able to plan even a day ahead," he said.

    In Netiv Ha'asara, the uncertainty was made plain in the car park. For an entire month, with the moshav's population having fled to north, the car park remained vacant. Last week, a tentative trickle of vehicles appeared, often unloading children eager to see their homes and their friends.

    On Wednessday, the car park had emptied once again.

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