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