ASHKELON, ISRAEL—Setting foot into the southern Israeli coastal city mall hit four days earlier by a Palestinian rocket, the natural expectation was to see ravaged shops and smashed kiosks. There were none.
Stepping out of the elevator into the health clinic on the third floor, however, all around was a tangled mess of plaster, broken tiles, shattered glass and exposed wiring. And this was after four days of nonstop clean-up efforts by over twenty people.
That no one died in this attack is no ordinary miracle. So many factors coalesced—from the exact location and timing of the impact to one doctor’s smoking habit—that even slightly different circumstances could have produced far deadlier results.
Minutes before 6pm, as President Bush was meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister in Jerusalem, a Grad rocket slammed into the mall’s roof—roughly 20 feet away from where an obstetrician was examining her patient. The roof instantly came crashing down on them. Though trapped underneath the rubble, Dr. Mirale Sidrer, 52, was able to reach a phone and call her husband, Moshe, also a doctor. But because of the quick medical response, she and her patient had already been evacuated by the time he had arrived just minutes later.
Moments after he saw his wife at the hospital, Mrs. Sidrer fell into a coma. When she regained consciousness two days later, the first words out her mouth were, “How is my patient?” This concern helps explain why she was trying to tend to her patient even as the paramedics were trying to transport her from the scene.
Her patient, a 24-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman, has been married one year and she and her husband are trying to get pregnant. The young woman suffered severe internal injuries—in and around her stomach. Doctors cut out part of her abdomen and liver.
Though not guaranteed, it looks like she still will be able to get pregnant. No small miracle, indeed.
Just as miraculous was the survival of a young mother and her 2-year-old daughter who were in the waiting room, just ten feet from where the rocket hit. Both had shrapnel in their heads and were airlifted to Sheba hospital just outside of Tel Aviv, some 50 miles away.
The medium-range Grad rocket with approximately 20 kilograms—or over 40 pounds—of high-powered explosives smashed into perhaps the ideal spot: the roof’s support beam. Had it entered the building even a few feet lower, it almost certainly would have gone through the floor and into the crowded shopping areas below.
Given the early evening hour, stores were doing brisk business with people just off work—and the health clinic was not nearly as full as it had been just hours earlier. A doctor who worked near the one directly hit was actually outside smoking at that very moment. With typically dark Israeli humor, that doctor has been heard by many remarking, “Who says cigarettes kill?”
Most remarkable is Israeli resilience. Israelis don’t like to be victims. In a show of perseverance, the shopping areas of the mall re-opened the very next day. The health clinic was set to re-open within just one and a half weeks.
Even the victims don’t act like victims. Dr. Sidrer plans to return to the health clinic once she is healthy, though that won’t be anytime soon. The husband of the young mother injured in the waiting room was quoted in Ynet News expressing his determination not to abandon Ashkelon: “We’ll go back to Ashkelon for now. The city needs our support. We don’t believe running away is the solution, like we're seeing in Sderot. It only encourages terrorism.”
Sderot is the development town less than a mile from Gaza that has been barraged with literally thousands of Qassam rockets since Israel pulled out of the Palestinian territory in 2005. Ashkelon is thankfully beyond the reach of Qassam rockets—but not of the longer-range Grads or the Katyushas favored by Hezbollah. Which means that if Palestinian terrorists upgrade their weapon capabilities, then this picturesque coastal city of 120,000 people could soon be subjected to rocket attacks as part of daily life.
Anger with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is palpable on the street and in cafés across the country, as ordinary Israelis feel that their leader, who is in enmeshed in a very serious corruption probe, is doing far more to save himself than to protect them.
But in the Barzilay hospital in Ashkelon, the victims and their family members are just trying to grapple with the physical and psychological trauma that won’t soon fade away. Absent is any bloodthirst or desire for revenge. Not from the victims, nor from their loved ones. Not from the broader Israeli public, either. CNN referred to the rocket attack as part of “tit-for-tat violence,” but Israel didn’t respond by hitting a Palestinian medical clinic or any other civilian target, for that matter.
In the very same Ashkelon hospital, in fact, there are many Palestinian and Israeli Arab patients, treated side-by-side with Jews. Barzilay treats Gazans unable to receive adequate care locally, meaning everyone from cancer patients to victims of Hamas violence. One thirty-something Palestinian man just down the hall from the victims noted, “There is no difference between how doctors here treat Arabs and Jews. There are no politics in the treatment.”
A little overwhelmed that none of the women or the little girl in the immediate area of the rocket strike died, hospital spokeswoman Lea Malul resorted to quoting the late, great Israeli playwright and satirist Ephraim Kishon. “Israel,” she said, “is a country where nobody expects miracles, but everybody takes them for granted”