Image: Israeli children indoors
Sebastian Scheiner  /  AP
Volunteers dance with Israeli children and youths who are out of school and were called to stay inside a shelter in Ashkelon on Wednesday.
updated 12/31/2008 4:22:13 PM ET 2008-12-31T21:22:13

Banquet halls have canceled weddings, parents are holding makeshift day care centers in bomb shelters and motorists avoid driving during the day. As Hamas shells southern cities, hundreds of thousands of Israelis in rocket range are finding new ways of coping.

"This is the situation and we have to deal with it," Linor Eliav, 31, said Wednesday, a day after getting married.

Her wedding was supposed to have been just north of Ashkelon, a city being battered by Grad rockets fired by militants in the Gaza Strip. But after the banquet hall closed on short notice because of missile fears, she moved the event to a safe Tel Aviv suburb.

Mayor Benny Vaknin said 50 rockets had hit this city of 122,000 people in the five days since Israel launched its air campaign against Hamas targets in Gaza, 11 miles to the south. A laborer was killed Monday when a rocket slammed into his construction site in Ashkelon.

Several people have been wounded and many more are gripped by fear. In one close call, captured on video by a security camera, a missile hits just a few yards behind a man walking on a residential street. He ducks and runs, apparently unharmed.

Residents fleeing north
Israeli television estimated a fifth of Ashkelon's residents fled north to central Israel in recent days.

Along the city's downtown promenade, several clothing stores and shops were closed Wednesday. Repeated sirens and the sounds of distant explosions had emptied the street of pedestrians.

But Roger Hatav said he would never shut his coffee shop. He said he was one of the last havens for people looking to escape their homes for a brief respite. "People need their coffee, their espresso, in the morning," he said. "They can't stay inside all day long."

But even Hatav said he was adjusting his daily routine, especially after having to jump from his car during a recent missile attack.

"I try not to drive during the day anymore — just to work and back," said the 51-year-old bachelor. "I don't take women to the beach anymore either. It's not worth the risk."

Receptions halls closed
The Israeli military has ordered all reception halls within rocket range of Gaza to call off gatherings of more than 100 people. Halls must close down completely if they do not have a fortified roof or cannot usher all guests into shelters within 30 seconds.

Tzvika Kobari, who runs the Samson's Garden hall in Ashkelon, said he was allowed to stay open, but it didn't matter. All but one of nearly 20 bar mitzvahs and baby parties scheduled at the hall during the past week had canceled, he said.

Kobari said he expected no business until the rocket threat is removed. "No one from out of town will come here. And people are in no mood to celebrate, anyway."

Vaknin, the mayor, operates from a command center in a bomb shelter. He said schools would remain closed, but he hoped some classes could be arranged in bomb shelters. For other students, he said, City Hall was initiating a learning program over the Internet.

With many factories closed, some 20 percent of the city's residents don't have jobs to go to, Vaknin added.

Michal Ofri, a 33-year-old social worker, helped organized a makeshift day care center for the children of co-workers so the other mothers could work. In the underground play room, named "Freckles," some 20 kids danced and sang to loud music as a clown entertained them.

When a balloon suddenly popped, some of the grown-ups instinctively flinched.

"The children are protected here. It's safe for their bodies and it is safe for their souls," said Ofri, a mother of three. "They don't see the news, they don't hear the sirens, they don't hear the explosions. This is what they need now."

'Resilience can also be catchy'
In Beersheba, the largest city in southern Israel, which was attacked by missiles for the first time Tuesday, residents are slowly adjusting to their new reality. The local theater was evacuated and closed after a rocket hit nearby about 30 minutes into a performance Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, a missile slammed through the roof of an empty school in Beersheba. An order to close schools in the city had been issued just the night before.

Judith Stanglet, a Beersheba-based psychotherapist, said she has been dealing mostly with clients canceling their appointments.

She has worked with trauma victims in the rocket-plagued border town of Sderot in recent years, and says creative coping mechanisms are a natural reaction of people under siege.

"I think this shows the resilience that people have," she said. "Just like trauma can be catchy, resilience can also be catchy."

In Sderot, pizza shop owner Raz Elraz has even made it profitable. His rocket-shaped pizzas have been a hit, making him one of the few businesses to flourish in the town.

Eliav, the newlywed, also didn't give in to despair.

When she got word the night before her wedding that her banquet hall was shut down, she found a new venue near Tel Aviv and methodically informed 500-plus guests.

"Our friends got together and we just called everyone with the new location of the party. It was like a military operation," she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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