Daniel Bar-On / Reuters

Away from Gaza violence, a cautious Tel Aviv watches

While business and traffic is impacted by rocket threat, many Tel Avivians retain a sense of calm inevitability

TEL AVIV, Israel — While rockets rained down on Gaza and missiles sent southern town Israelis to their bunkers, residents in Tel Aviv eyed the escalating conflict with caution — but for some, not that much.

“People like to be scared, and they like the panic — it’s not really a real fear ... a few bombs won’t do anything,” explained Natan Grouper, owner of Café Meshulash, an upscale eatery that lies just five minutes from the Tel Aviv’s famed beaches.

To him, the hit on custom was more a concern: “It seems to happen every few years, and it's demolishing business.”

A few missiles were, indeed, sent to the city by Hamas and other groups during two days of bombings that left dozens of Palestinians dead and, as of Wednesday, showed no signs of abating.

But when long-range rockets were fired overnight into Tel Aviv, some 40 miles from where they were sent, Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system was able to intercept two, according the Israeli military.

An Israeli Iron Dome defense system missile intercepts a rocket fired from Gaza over the city of Ashdod, southern Israel, on Tuesday.
Abir Sultan / EPA

In contrast to Gaza — and to a lesser extent the handful of minor wounds reported from other Israeli towns — in Tel Aviv, the hospitals remained unaffected by the latest outbreak of violence.

Some headed to the shelters, but for others it was simply a matter of riding it out until the sirens stopped blaring.

Grouper was in the latter group. Asked if he had a shelter in the building, he replied “No: who gives a damn — people die more in car accidents. It’s just panic.”

“These are very primitive rockets – they won’t do any damage, when they start to do real damage, we will get worried,” the restaurateur added.

The view was not uncommon amongst others in Tel Aviv, a noted “bubble” city, noted for its golden beaches, streets lined with outdoor dining space and a lifestyle largely divorced from the realities of conflict nearby.

Nonetheless, according to Grouper, people in Tel Aviv were not coming out as much since code red sirens were sounded Tuesday night.

He said it was like this before, in 2008 and 2012, during previous Israeli incursions into Gaza and parallel rocket fire from groups like Hamas.

Certainly on Tuesday evening the calm of Tel Aviv felt some strain by the threat of missiles, but by-and-large people’s nerves appear far from popping.

Ilya, 24, a student in Tel Aviv, said that when sirens sounded, he was sitting in a restaurant on King George Street eating a burger.

“I didn’t have time to get into a shelter, we just went inside the restaurant … It was a bit scary, but not too much, we know that we’re protected. I’m not concerned about casualties on this side.”

A bomb shelter near Habima Square opens up out of the sidewalk.
Kate Shuttleworth

Yael, who is in her 70s and from the Ramat Gan neighborhood, donned bright pink lipstick, a fancy hair-do and her best outfit to venture out Wednesday despite the increased threat. She said a few rockets were not going to deter her from having a lunch date with her elderly male friend in Habima Square.

“Everybody is afraid, but what can you do? I just go downstairs in my house if I am at home,” she said.

But sophisticated safe-havens are nonetheless aplenty in case of bombardment.

In Tel Aviv’s main cultural square, Habima, a smattering of people sat in cafes, few knowing it houses one of the largest bomb shelters in the city.

A nearby underground shelter is made to hold up to 15,000 people and has a separate space to cater to 5,000 people in the case of a chemical weapons attack.

Its facility manager, Or Gabai, showed how the paving stones in Habima Square open up hydraulically. In just six minutes the cavernous womb that is the underground shelter is exposed to the world; the pavement pops out of the earth and stairs are exposed for the public to climb into.

“People don’t even know it. They just walk over it in peaceful time,” said Gabai.

 “This is really designed more for an attack from someone like Syria — the big ones — but the parking space is enough for these kinds of threats,” he said. "Mostly in summer I spend my time fending off homeless people from using these."

A view down tranquil Dizengoff Street, in Tel Aviv.
Kate Shuttleworth

Meanwhile, Gadi, the special events manager at Habima Theatre, Israel's national theatre, said that despite the rocket attacks last night, the show went on as scheduled, as Israeli President Shimon Peres was attending the premiere of a famous play.

“He told us that the easiest thing would have been to cancel it, but we decided to go on with the show and we won’t let these things interfere with our lives,” he said.

The auditorium was still full with 900 people, he said. “It was surreal, during the show there was again a siren and explosions, but in the auditorium we don’t hear anything so the show went on.”

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