Mapping missiles keeps city safer

Linda Gradstein and Felice Friedson/The Media Line

ASHKELON, Israel — A city employee enters the underground bunker where most of this city’s municipal staff has been working for the past week.

“We’ve just had a rocket land near the Carlsberg factory,” he says. “No word of any injuries.”

Dr. Alan Marcus, the Chief Resilience Officer for the city of Ashkelon, opens his laptop and pulls up a detailed plan of the city. A native Bostonian who has lived here for more than 40 years, Marcus has developed GEARS, which stands for Geographic Emergency Analysis Response System. Within seconds, Marcus can tell which house has been hit by incoming rockets, and whether there are elderly inhabitants or anyone with special needs who might require emergency services.

Marcus put the system together in 2006 when Israel’s war with Lebanon began. Since then, there have been three rounds of conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip: 2008, 2012, and now.

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“It means we can get the right people in the right time to the right place,” Marcus told The Media Line. “For example, if I see that a rocket or missile falls near a house with Ethiopian immigrants, we can make sure to send a translator who knows Amharic to help.” 

The 140,000 citizens of this bucolic beach-side city include 40,000 Russians and 5,000 Ethiopians as well as a handful of French and English speakers. The town is in the middle of a building boom with new luxury hotels and high-end apartments and malls.

During the present crisis, the Iron Dome anti-missile system has shot down at least 40 incoming rounds of the total of 70 that have been fired at the city. Five rockets have landed inside the municipal boundaries and the rest in open areas or the sea. A 16-year-old boy from Ashkelon remains in critical condition after he was hit by shrapnel in a rocket attack this week. Marcus says he did not obey the orders for being caught outdoors in a rocket attack. The protocol calls for anyone outside to lie down on the ground and put his hands above his head. The teenager was standing up when he was hit. 

Marcus says the casualties in Ashkelon would have been much worse if the missiles that had been heading for Ashkelon had hit the city instead of being shot down by the Iron Dome system. 

“The Iron Dome is a modern Israeli miracle,” he says.

Despite the rocket attacks, many of the residents say that life is good here. The city is clean and the beach is gorgeous. The only drawback, some say, is the location: just five miles north of the Gaza Strip.

“The weather’s like Florida,” Nora Shepley, a painter who moved to Israel from the “Sunshine State” four years ago, told The Media Line. “But there’s also free medical care (for all citizens) and a lot of people speak English.”

She and her companion, Gary Mandel, from Toronto, live in an apartment with a view of Ashkelon’s marina where she paints large whimsical canvases. When there are rocket attacks, as there have been frequently over the past eight days, they go inside to the apartment. Although there is no bomb shelter inside the apartment, they go into a roomwithout windows and wait until they hear the thud of the rocket or the boom of the Iron Dome system intercepting the rocket. 

They say they continue their daily life as normal, despite the rockets, including frequently eating meals out. Some restaurants have closed as tourism to the city has dried up, but some have remained open, including a new restaurant called Tacos, which actually serves burritos, Mandel said with a laugh.

“As soon as we change our routine, they’ve won,” Mandel told The Media Line.

There are only two known Canadians in Ashkelon, and Mandel’s compatriot Unchel Ben Yosef, takes a different approach. When he hears the siren, he jumps into his car and goes rocket-hunting.

“I try to get to a spot where I can see it because it’s really exciting,” he told The Media Line. “The odds of it landing on me are really very small.” 

Yet, most residents say they’re not taking any chances. In a large bomb shelter in the Leonardo Ashkelon Hotel, a group of 25 children attend a summer camp. Most summer camps here have been cancelled for the summer, making life difficult for working parents. This camp was hastily organized by one of Israel’s HMOs for their employees.

“At least for half a day the children don’t have to think about the sirens or the rockets,” Michal Ofri, a social worker who also has four of her own children at the camp told The Media Line. “They say they’re a little afraid of the rockets but they seem to be doing fine.”

The children stay inside the bomb shelter all day playing games and doing art projects. It is not ideal, says Ofri, but at least it is safe.

Back at the municipality’s safe room, Alan Marcus has discerned that the rocket hit an open area outside the Carlsberg factory and there is no need to send any emergency teams. As Chief Resilience Officer for the city, Marcus is especially proud that Ashkelon has been chosen as one of the first 33 cities for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities Project, which rewards “cities who have demonstrated a dedicated commitment to building their own capacities to prepare for, withstand, and bounce back rapidly from shocks and stresses.” 

The designation means Ashkelon will receive grants for updated security systems and other needed equipment.