TEL AVIV — When Hamas rockets first targeted this city one evening last week, Nadav Cohen, owner of the bar-bistro El Vecino, hustled his full house of patrons to the underground wine cellar-cum-shelter, where they huddled low to the floor, clutching their drinks.
He opened a bottle of vodka and another of licorice-flavored arak liquor, making their “own little party,” he said, as the group listened for the “booms” of the Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. They watched videos on social media of white lines streaking across the night sky and real-time maps showing where the rockets had struck.
In past conflicts between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, Tel Aviv had mostly remained out of the line of fire. But over the last week, repeated barrages of Hamas rockets have put the residents of this coastal city — long known as “the Bubble” or “the State of Tel Aviv” to denote its distance from Israel’s many wars — on the front line.
“Last time there were rockets on Tel Aviv, a lot of people didn’t even know about it,” Cohen said. “Since last week, Tel Avivim are still going to the beach, to the bars, to hang out, but something’s changed.”
On Saturday night alone, more rockets were fired at the Tel Aviv area than during all of the 50-day Israel-Gaza war in 2014, according to Maj. Gen. Uri Gordin, who leads Israel’s Home Front Command. Over the past week, three people in central Israel have been killed when they couldn’t find shelter.
The spiraling conflict between Hamas and Israeli has left about a dozen dead in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a teenage girl. More than 200 Gazans have been killed, including more than 60 children, health officials say.
Hamas has fired more than 3,300 rockets into Israel but has celebrated with particular fervor the hundreds it has lobbed toward Tel Aviv. The decision to hit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Dimona, home to Israel’s clandestine nuclear program in the south of the country, is “easier for us than drinking water,” said a Hamas spokesman known as Abu Oubeida in a televised statement last week.
The aerial attacks on the greater Tel Aviv area, Israel’s most densely populated, have taken on something of a routine, starting with a nighttime announcements from Hamas specifying the hour that the rockets will start to fall. When the air raid sirens sound, or from warnings flash on phone apps, residents rush to their “safe room” or to the building’s stairwell within the allotted 90 seconds.
But where the rockets land remains perilously unpredictable. At a concert hall in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, Israeli singer Shuli Rand and his accordionist moved their show to the underground parking lot as sirens wailed above. “We have a history here of tragedy after tragedy,” said Rand, who said the current conflict, after a year of coronavirus, has forced Israelis to quickly switch back into crisis mode.
Community groups on social media remind residents to leave their buildings’ front doors open in case passersby need shelter when the sirens sound. Israelis in the north of the country have been offering to host Tel Aviv families who want to leave the city. School has been canceled indefinitely.
The Tel Aviv metropolitan area — home to the country’s stock exchange, its highest concentration of high-tech companies and its most vaunted cultural institutions — is among the last remaining bastions of Israeli liberals.
But even here, most Israelis have lost faith in the concept of peace with Palestinians, said Maria Kleiner, who has been sleeping with her three children and several other families in a public shelter since Thursday, because their apartments lack proper shelter. Ever more people in Tel Aviv are becoming hawkish, some residents say.
For many in the city, however, responsibility for the mounting violence rests with Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At packed playgrounds, especially those with shelters nearby, the talk among parents inevitably circle backs to Netanyahu, known by his nickname Bibi, who just two weeks ago was widely expected to be ousted from power after falling short in national elections earlier this spring.
“This wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for Bibi. He is using this war as a distraction,” said Miri Tsayig, a 50-year-old accountant from Tel Aviv, as she showed her two infant sons an underground shelter below their neighborhood playground.
“This is a political war, totally unnecessary,” said Danny Vilenski, a left-wing activist who has participated in two stop-the-war demonstrations over the past week.
He said that both the conflict with Hamas and the simultaneous outbreak of Arab-Jewish unrest throughout the country and in the West Bank have been a test for him and his dwindling community of left-wingers, who advocate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
But Vilenski said it has also made clear that “the problem is not with Gaza. It’s with the fact that Israel is becoming more right-wing. … Especially in Tel Aviv, which is a bubble in Israel, this feeling of normality is breaking. People do not feel safe, and so they are turning more and more to the right.”
Since the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas has found a way to put Tel Aviv in greater jeopardy. Retired Col. Miri Eisin, a former senior intelligence officer in the Israeli military, said the group has adapted its tactics in an effort to overwhelm Israel’s missile defense system, firing heavy barrages launched toward multiple locations within the span of several minutes. This has been made possible by the large number of rockets manufactured in Hamas’s underground production facilities, she said.
“Hamas is firing more but has also changed the way they fire: in batches to overcome the intercepting capability of the Iron Dome, while upgrading the lethality of their warheads,” said Eisin.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have sought to destroy major sections of Hamas’s underground tunnel networks, where rockets are believed to be made. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that the military campaign “will take as much time as is needed to return security to Israeli citizens.”
International pressure is mounting on Israel to bring the operation to an end. But when a cease-fire is finally reached, Tel Aviv can again “expect a barrage,” said Eisin. “Hamas will need to show their own people: Look, we still have the capabilities to fire at Tel Aviv.”
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