By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow
Ashdod, March 15, 3:30 PM: I had just parked my car in the Southern Israeli city of Ashdod, near where a Palestinian rocket had earlier smashed into a main street, when the air raid siren went off again.
No matter how many times one has heard it, when the siren goes off to warn of rockets heading your way, survival instincts take control.
I found myself running into the closest residential building, where I gathered with a group of random passers-by at an entrance to a bomb shelter, far from the building's entrance.
The IDF's Home Front Command would be pleased; this was the textbook response, in line with instructions passed on to civilians.
The sirens wailed, before falling silent. Now we had entered the quiet and most tense phase of the attack, after the sirens cease, and before the arrival of the rockets sent by terrorists in Gaza to kill and maim Israeli civilians indiscriminately.
It takes the rockets 45 seconds to fly from their launch sites in Gaza and reach downtown Ashdod, a sprawling southern Israeli city on the Mediterranean coast, home to 200,000 residents.
A woman seeking cover near me placed her head in her hands, waiting. A young man paced back and forth, arms crossed. We all knew that the incredible Iron Dome anti-rocket system shot down most of the rockets heading into the cities. But just an hour earlier in Ashdod, the system missed, and a rocket slammed into a busy street, sending debris and glass flying in all directions, and injuring an elderly lady. Others took cover in time, preventing more serious injuries.
Hence, while civilians were grateful for the protection, a doubt always exists in the back of their minds. Will this be the time that the terrorists succeed in getting through the defense shield? As this question dominated my thoughts, the sounds we had been waiting for began.
First, there was one loud thud overhead, followed by an even louder explosion. Finally, a third boom ripped through the air. A few people gasped.
The attack was over, and the Iron Dome interceptor had worked, as it did with 85% of rockets heading into Israeli cities during the latest upsurge of attacks.
That same evening, many of Ashdod's resilient people headed out of their homes to let off steam, determined not to let Iran's closet proxy in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, terrorize them. Cafes filled up with people, malls were semi-filled with shoppers, and young people sipped beers at bars.
Nevertheless, despite the impressive robustness of the population, there can be no doubt that the repeated exposure to sirens and explosions is traumatizing sections of the population, particularly the children.
As Dr. Adriana Katz, who heads a mental health clinic in Sderot, southern Israel's most bombed community told me, sufferers of post-traumatic stress-disorder can recover from their condition with the right treatment, but the minute the siren goes off again, all of the progress is erased in a minute, and the PTSD sufferer goes back to square one.
This was precisely the aim of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which continued firing the rockets for several days in a row, and whose leaders boasted that they had succeeded in getting a million Israelis to take cover from their weapons.
Each time terrorists fire a rocket deliberately into Israeli cities, towns, or rural areas, they committed a clear-cut war crime; directing weapons at civilians. By that measure, a total of some 200 war crimes were carried out by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees during the recent escalation.
More often than not, terrorists firing the rockets use their own civilians in Gaza as a human shield, firing from the rooftops of residential buildings, schools, and near hospitals, thereby committing two war crimes simultaneously.
The rockets attacks came as a response to Israel's air strike on Popular Resistance Committee Secretary-General, Zahir Kaisi, as he drove through Gaza. Kaisi was making final preparations to launch a major attack, by sending a terrorist cell from Gaza into Egyptian-controlled Sinai, and from there, into Israel to carry out the attack. Last August, a Sinai-based terror cell with links to Gaza carried out such an attack; eight Israelis lost their lives.
Islamic Jihad and its associates paid a price for their attacks, losing over 20 combatants, most of them members of rocket-launching squads spotted by the Israel Air Force preparing to fire into Israel.
Still, Israel exhibited unmistakable restraint during the fighting, choosing to strike only the most immediate threat - rocket-launching terrorists - rather than going after senior figures higher up in the chain of command.
Perhaps, the Israeli government concluded that the latest round was not the right time to become involved in a major Gaza confrontation with Iran's proxies.
Maybe, decision makers in Jerusalem expect a showdown with the proxies' masters in Tehran soon.
For if Iran acquired atomic bombs, the Gaza-based organizations that are armed and sponsored by Iran would become yet more brazen and life for the residents of Israel's south would become far worse.
Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers police and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.