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Wake-up call for Israel's city that never sleeps

TEL AVIV, Israel -- If it is in hardship that you can take the measure of a man or woman, apparently the same goes for a town.

Tel Aviv, long described as a bubble by other Israelis for its laid-back style and alleged intellectual distance from the country's daily tribulations, got a wake-up call Thursday night.

For the first time since the Iraq war in 1991, the sirens screamed, warning of a rocket attack, this time from the Gaza Strip.

The bubble burst big-time, if only for a moment, and if only for some.

Children, rushed to the shelter by their anxious parents, burst into tears. People slammed on the brakes of their cars and raced to find a bomb shelter. Others, caught in the open, lay flat on the ground with their hands covering their heads.

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The warning time for a Fajr 5 missile carrying a 165-lb. warhead rocketing the 50 miles from Gaza to Tel Aviv is 90 seconds. That is a minute-and-a-half to understand what is happening and find safety -- better than some of the towns in the south, which have only a 15-second warning.

But the 400,000 residents of Israel's largest city got off lightly. One rocket fell harmlessly into the sea, and two more landed in open areas. People in the coastal city said the booms were horrific.

At least on other missile fired from Gaza toward Tel Aviv landed off the city's coast on Friday, police said.

A light response

Still, Tel Aviv being what it is, a lighter response prevailed. Newspapers were full of anecdotes along the lines of: Where were you when the bomb did not fall?

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A cafe owner told NBC News that half the customers ran for shelter, the other half took photos.

One mantold Haaretz he came from the south to Tel Aviv to escape the danger, and as soon as he arrived the siren sounded so he turned around and drove home again. Residents of hard-hit Ashkelon offered to host frightened Tel Avivians.

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Residents of Tel Aviv appeared to resume normal life in the immediate aftermath of this week's air raid sirens. Here, Israelis enjoy the beach on Friday only after alarms warning of rocket attacks from Gaza had sounded across the city.Abir Sultan / EPA

A woman told a tourist the whole history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported. Others argued about where the missile fell and finally agreed it was at the corner of Herzl and Yigal Allon streets -- until someone pointed out the streets did not actually meet, the paper said. One man asked whether the public bomb shelters served espresso.

But there were serious concerns, too.

A shift?

As soon as the siren stopped most people dialed their loved ones on cellphones, only to find they did not work. All they got was a dial tone from the instantly overwhelmed system. Rumors, which later proved to be true, spread that reserve soldiers were being called up. Orders were given to okay 30,000 reserve call-ups.

Two sides exchange deadly airstrikes, rocket attacks.Amir Cohen / Reuters

It was always said that as long as Hamas only rocketed towns in the south of Israel, generally poorer and far from the centers of power, their low-intensity provocations could continue for years. But after one siren in Tel Aviv, that could change.

Friday morning, after the siren, Tel Aviv woke to the news that 16,000 reservists had been ordered to report to their units immediately, in preparation for a possible ground invasion of Gaza.

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And this morning, the boulevard cafes were full again with conversation focused on key questions like: Will Israel really invade Gaza? Where is the nearest bomb shelter?

And critically, does it serve espresso?

NBC News' Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List," "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel."

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