For children under the age of seven in Tel Aviv, this week was probably the first time their parents had to wake them in a panic, rush to a bomb shelter, and try to explain what was happening.
Tal Morry, a lawyer and mother, pretended to her five-year-old son that there was a firework show. However, the ruse did not last long. “Other kids told him the truth,” she sighed.
Since the last war with Hamas in 2014, Israel’s commercial capital has largely avoided regular bouts of fighting. During the past few years, while no full-scale conflict has been declared, Israel has often bombed Gaza while militants have launched hundreds of rockets on Israeli towns and cities in the south.
Tel Aviv has a reputation as a place to go to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. When the lively Mediterranean city hosted the Eurovision song contest in 2019, contestants arrived and started rehearsals despite a three-day battle raging miles to the south in which 23 Palestinians and four Israelis were killed.
That sense of safety was fractured on Tuesday night when Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules inside Gaza, heavily increased its attacks on Israel by launching what it said was 130 “heavy rockets” 30 miles (50km) north towards Tel Aviv. Residents saw the night’s sky lit up by small, amber dots – dozens of rockets heading in their direction. Most were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, but some made it through.
Konstantin Kandaurov, a 48-year-old software engineer, was watching football on television in his living room when the air aid siren started blaring in Rishon Lezion, just to the south of Tel Aviv. He rushed to the basement but made it only to the stairwell when the rocket hit, shaking the ground.
Panicked, he ran back upstairs and looked out of the window. Normally, he would see a quiet, cobble-stoned suburban street filled with gated semi-detached houses, each with trees in front and a place to park. The house across the street, No 16, usually had a quad bike out front.
On Tuesday night, he could not see the street at all. “All I saw was fire,” he said. “Big fire.” Across the road, a rocket had struck directly in front of number 18, killing a woman who lived there and leaving a whole section of the street in ruins.
Hamas militants in Gaza are infamous for their simple homemade rockets, called the Qassem after the group’s Qassem brigades, but this was something much bigger. About 10 cars had been destroyed. One was barely recognisable, with only its blackened chassis and some wheel parts remaining, as well as the lingering smell of burnt petrol. Kandaurov’s own house lost its windows, part of its roof and was littered with gashes where shrapnel had embedded.
He barely had time to check on his family when sirens went off again. “The sound of bombing continued for 20 to 25 minutes,” Kandaurov said. “There was silence for one or two hours. Then again, every 10 minutes, a siren.”
Another resident said one woman living further down the street had died the same night but of a heart attack. On Wednesday, at her house, an old man walked out the front door to check on a car that had its back window smashed, littering the inside, including a baby seat, with glass. He waved away reporters before walking back indoors.
Israel’s military spokesperson, Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, said the Iron Dome had a roughly 90% interception rate and described the system, which the country had been using for a decade, as a “lifesaver”.
As the conflict intensified, it appeared that militants had tried to overwhelm or work around the system by firing dozens of rockets at once, all at the same area. Conricus denied the rockets were “outsmarting the Iron Dome” but said they were longer range and larger than those used in previous fighting.
The rocket attacks began on Monday, when Hamas launched a barrage towards Jerusalem, after weeks of boiling tensions that ended in riot police storming the city’s al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
Ilana, 76, who had lived in Tel Aviv since before Israel was established in 1948, described the events at al-Aqsa “as going against the whole Muslim world”.
“I don’t know who made these decisions,” she said, asking to give only her first name. “It’s due to stupidity, simply stupidity.”
Unresolved anger around Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its ever-deepening military grip over their lives has been bubbling in the holy city for months. More recently, a wave of evictions and demolitions, as well and police action to prevent people from gathering on steps outside the Old City during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, has inflamed the situation.
To many people in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem can feel far away – but not to all. The tension in the holy city has been felt acutely in Jaffa, a mixed Arab and Jewish neighbourhood in Tel Aviv. Jaffa, like many areas around Israel populated by its Arab minority, has seen near-nightly protests and intercommunal street attacks.
“I have not seen public anger like this,” said one coffee shop owner, Aziz al Azaa, 43.
Another resident, Abu Ibrahim Abu Halaweh, said many people in the neighbourhood were trying to ensure “hatred and violence” would not spread. “We live with each other whether we like it or not,” he said