Psychological Warfare with Missiles: Why Tel Aviv Matters

The city is not the capital of Israel nor even its most populous metropolis. But it is the symbol of a secular prosperity that rankles with many others in the region--and thus a ripe target for fearmongers.

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Daniel Bar-On / AFP / Getty Images

Israelis take cover in a bomb shelter in central Tel Aviv as sirens wail, Nov. 16, 2012.

Tel Aviv is not Israel’s largest city – Jerusalem is nearly twice the size — but Tel Aviv is much more than the 400,000 people who reside within its municipal boundaries. Both in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the name is shorthand both for what Israelis call “the center” —  the matrix of freeways and palm trees where half of the country’s population resides – and for a lifestyle enjoyed beyond the tensions that define “the conflict.”  It’s a sangfroid that galls more religious and ideological Israelis, and utterly enrages Palestinians who sense the despair of their own situation deepened by the lives being richly enjoyed in the center.

So the sickening wail of air raid sirens across  the tree-lined grid of the Mediterranean city on Thursday night was a significant development in the Gaza conflict, now a couple of days old. So were the reports of residents seeking cover under the tables of the cafes where they had gathered to begin the Israeli weekend, not that Tel Avivans gather anywhere else during the week. The conflict had finally come to Tel Aviv.

“Some of the places were empty last night,” Nadav Shoshan says in a café that, on a Friday morning at 10, usually requires a wait for a table. There was no waiting now.  Not half dozen customers sipped cappuccinos and browsed menus, weighing the merits of muesli versus shakshuka, an Israeli dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce. “It’s not a typical Friday morning,” the waiter says. The streets, while not empty, were far from crowded, and even farther from carefee.  In the Jaffa section, an older man escorting his wife into a mid-block crosswalk screamed at a driver who slowed to a stop a bit too slowly for his frayed nerves.  The driver rolled down the passenger side window to scream back. “Maybe we will die today,” a lawyer told her cleaning lady. The cleaner, a Third World national imported to fill the jobs done by Palestinians before Gaza and the West Bank were sealed off, laughed.  Everything is relative. But nothing is more contagious than fear, or less rational.

(PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire)

At the U.S. Embassy, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea that has swallowed at least two incoming missiles, including one of two fired Friday afternoon, a woman stood at the window reserved for American Citizen Services and urged the Foreign Service officer to hurry up. “Where are you coming from?” the officer asked.

“Modi’in,” the woman said, naming a planned city midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “But I don’t want to be in Tel Aviv now.”

“Here, you are safe,” the officer said.

“No,” the woman insisted. “Not safe in Tel Aviv now.”

On the television mounted on the wall behind her,  the co-hosts were seated glumly around the table of the Channel 2 morning show. As a guest offered tips on keeping the children calm, the male host reached under the table and produced yellow balls with smiles painted on.  The daily Ma’ariv wrote that by reaching Tel Aviv from Gaza, the militants “put another 1.5 million civilians into siren anxiety.” That no one was killed, or even hurt, did not seem to matter.  In military terms, the conflict is so lopsided that the most meaningful competition is for perception and psychology.  Hamas and its more extreme cohabitants in Gaza, including Islamic Jihad, scored by extending siren anxiety to Tel Aviv, especially after the Israeli military made a point of targeting their known inventory of the missiles capable of reaching the city, the Iranian-made Fajr-5s.  Hamas further irked the Israelis on Friday afternoon by aiming for Jerusalem – something few expected.  Jerusalem may be the the Jewish state’s disputed capital, but it is also home to several hundred thousand Arabs, as well as the Al Aqsa mosque, the third-most sacred site in Isalm.  The militants’ medium range rockets ended up falling on the West Bank, though in a region thick with Jewish settlements, and the detonations were audible in southern Jerusalem.

Israeli forces play an intimidation game as well. On Thursday, according to a report in the Hebrew press, an Israeli gunboat  fired a salvo near enough to the refugee camp home of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh to make a point.  The Israel Defense Forces also continued to publicize its preparation of ground forces, even naming the units that would participate: the Givanti Brigade, paratroopers, and an elite tank unit.

But for both sides, the main focus is on missiles, and their power to affect Israeli public opinion.  Gaza militants have perhaps 10,000 of them, and though Israeli jets and drones target missile launch sites relentlessly – “dozens” on Friday, according to the Israeli military – Gaza militants launched nearly 170 rockets between midnight and sunset.  Fewer than half reached Israel, while 99 were knocked out of the air by projectiles fired from Israel’s four Iron Dome anti-missile batteries.

The Iron Dome batteries calculate when a missile’s trajectory threatens a populated area, and leaves alone those headed for open space.  They work so well that the only three Israeli deaths were people who, instead of huddling in an interior stairwell with their downstairs neighbors, were killed on the balcony where they wanted to see the missile work.  But countless lives have been saved.  While Israeli intelligence redoubled efforts to locate the Fajr 5 missiles that could reach Tel Aviv, cities closer to Gaza continued to face barrages of smaller missiles that remain plentiful, like the Grad. In the last two days more than 70 have been aimed at Be’er Sheva, a city of 200,000 that in the past has produced many of the fatalities that inflame public opinion.  This round, scores of rockets had produced not even a critical injury.

“I’m from Be’er Sheva,” says Shashan, the Tel Aviv café waiter. “People there are really used to it.  People know how to respond.” They seek cover when sirens sound, and take the fear in stride.  Literally, it seems:  “I’m going there today,” Shashan says.

For the Israeli leadership, the additional public resilience provided by Iron Dome means its military has more time to prosecute the assault in Gaza, and punish militants for expanding the battlefield to Israel’s two largest cities.There were continuing concerns about Palestinian casualties, however. The fears Israelis face paled to those gripping the 1.6 million residents of Gaza, where explosions thundered around the clock.  Yet relatively low civilian casualties have helped assure that international opinion has broadly supported Israel’s assault so far. That could turn quickly if a Gaza school or hospital crumbled under an Israeli bomb.

“If we don’t make a mistake,”a senior Israeli officer tells TIME, “we have a lot of time to operate.”

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv