Re­lax­ing on rocket-free beaches Last sum­mer, rev­ellers were tak­ing shel­ter in Tel Aviv as war raged

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - WORLD - By Wil­liam Booth

TEL AVIV, Is­rael — For many Is­raelis, es­pe­cially those who live be­side the Mediter­ranean Sea, go­ing to the beach is a sum­mer rit­ual, a time for se­ri­ous bronz­ing and end­less pad­dle­ball — and for es­cape.

Last sum­mer, Is­rael fought its third war in the Gaza Strip in six years, and for 50 days, Is­rael’s de facto cap­i­tal of fun and sun was within range of Ha­mas rock­ets. Is­raelis heard the air-raid sirens, dropped their wa­ter­melon slices into the sand and ran to sea­side bomb shel­ters in string biki­nis and flip-flops.

“Last sum­mer, there were peo­ple all over the beach. I watched a rocket fall into the wa­ter just over there,” said Ruth Bar, 48, a shoe shop man­ager who has been sun­ning here for more than 40 years, three times a week — four if she can squeeze in an ex­tra af­ter­noon.

Bar is as cop­pery-brown as a Med­jool date, en­sconced on her chaise, mu­sic play­ing, green sun­glasses on. She re­mem­bers the sirens.

“Peo­ple ran to the shel­ters, but there’s re­ally not enough time,” she said this week.

She shrugged. “This coun­try has wars. We get used to it.”

Un­der a nearby um­brella, Na­dine Po­rat was lis­ten­ing.

“Peo­ple were scared. Don’t be­lieve her. They say, ‘Oh, ev­ery­one was on the beach. Ev­ery­thing was fine,’ be­cause they want to be brave, to show the world the Is­raelis were not afraid. But last sum­mer was ter­ri­ble,” said Po­rat, a French-Is­raeli pen­sioner who spends sum­mers in her Tel Aviv apart­ment by the sea.

The war came to Tel Aviv last sum­mer. Many Is­raelis call this city “the bub­ble,” a place apart — it is youth­ful, high-tech, dy­namic — Mi­ami on the Med, with the coun­try’s best restau­rants and nightlife. The city is fa­mous for its café so­ci­ety and its huge gay pride pa­rade. In re­li­gious Jerusalem, women cover up; in sec­u­lar Tel Aviv, there is skin.

While the north and south of Is­rael have been fre­quent tar­gets of the Le­banese mili­tia Hezbol­lah and the Is­lamist mil­i­tant group Ha­mas in past con­flicts, Tel Aviv was usu­ally just out of range. Not last sum­mer.

Nerry Stern­berg, 55, was whack­ing a pad­dle­ball — matkot in He­brew — with a fe­male friend, who served in the army dur­ing the Gaza war. Stern­berg said he was here last sum­mer, do­ing the same thing. He con­fessed that when he heard the air-raid siren, he stayed on the beach.

“The point is, the harder it gets for Is­raelis, the more free we feel,” said the swing dance in­struc­tor and DJ. “I’ve spent my life in this sand.”

Stern­berg said Is­raelis are more con­cerned these days with the Iran nu­clear deal than with Ha­mas or Hezbol­lah.

Last sum­mer’s war with Ha­mas killed more than 2,100 Pales­tini­ans, in­clud­ing more than 500 chil­dren, four of whom were killed by two Is­raeli mis­siles on a beach like this one, but a few dozens of kilo­me­tres south (a tragic er­ror, the Is­raeli mil­i­tary con­cluded). Gaza was pounded by Is­raeli ar­tillery, and tens of thou­sands of hous­ing units were de­stroyed. Re­build­ing has been slow, and the peo­ple of Gaza live among the ru­ins and mem­o­ries.

On the Is­raeli side, 72 peo­ple died, most of them sol­diers killed in Gaza; six civil­ians were killed, in­clud­ing a four-year- old boy. Ha­mas and other armed Pales­tinian fac­tions fired 4,500 rock­ets and mor­tars at Is­rael. They did lit­tle dam­age, and most Is­raelis quickly put last sum­mer’s war be­hind them.

“Oh, man, don’t take us back to the war. Please. It’s a beau­ti­ful day,” said Dan Co­hen, 26, a Tel Aviv pho­tog­ra­pher who was kick­ing a soc­cer ball around with friends at wa­ter’s edge when asked about his mem­o­ries of last sum­mer. “Go away,” he joked. “We don’t like war. We don’t want to hate any­one. We love the beach and the sun; this is the real Is­rael,” said Gal Levi, 26, an ac­count­ing stu­dent who served in the Is­raeli army and is now a mem­ber of the re­serves.

Ari Shavit, au­thor of best­selling his­tor­i­cal memoir My Promised Land, wrote in the news­pa­per Haaretz ear­lier this month about how Tel Aviv has re­bounded, how life is sweet again.

“There are more tourists, more young peo­ple and more fun,” he wrote. “The restau­rants are burst­ing, the beaches are crowded. It’s re­ally good here, ac­tu­ally.” Then the punch­line. “Ex­cept for one small thing: the fu­ture,” he warned, al­lud­ing to Is­rael’s 48-year oc­cu­pa­tion of lands Pales­tini­ans want for their own state.

Up and down the beach this week, happy dogs were run­ning around off their leashes. Guitar play­ers gath­ered at sunset; surfers watched the waves; kayaks rode the break­wa­ters. Ev­ery­body looked like they ate noth­ing but salad; they were ei­ther young or ath­letic. The wait­ers were busy at a pop­u­lar sea­side bar and café called La La Land.

Near the beach vol­ley­ball nets, Hagit and Dor Pe­les stooped be­fore a me­mo­rial to their son. They were fill­ing pa­per bags with beach sand and plac­ing can­dles in­side.

Their son, Is­raeli army of­fi­cer Lt. Roy Pe­les, 21, was killed by an anti-tank mis­sile in the north­ern Gaza Strip one year ago. He lived a few blocks from here.

“He grew up on the beach,” his mother said. He was a fa­mously good vol­ley­ball player.

By the out­door showers, near life­guard sta­tion No. 11, the sign read in He­brew, Ara­bic and English, “Go in peace.”

DAVID VAAKNIN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Is­raeli women sun­bathe on a Tel Aviv beach last week. A year ear­lier, rock­ets fired by Ha­mas struck the wa­ter. The city is nor­mally out of rocket range.

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