ASHDOD, Israel — "The State of Israel does not bow its head to terror," read the handmade sign held up by the young boy on the television screen.
The child was one of 15,000 yellow-clad fans who packed the home arena of basketball powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv on Nov. 15 to take in the weekly EuroLeague game against the Spanish. A day earlier, Israel had begun Operation Pillar of Defense, a major offensive against militant groups in the Gaza Strip, who responded by launching barrages of rockets against towns and cities in Israel's south. Tel Aviv, too, was targeted by long-range missiles just a few hours prior to tipoff. High-pitched air-raid sirens went off, and the normally languid Tel Aviv locals ran for cover. It was the first time in 21 years that Israel's largest city had been under missile fire.
The basketball game, however, went ahead as scheduled.
Israel is once again at war, yet civilian life continues -- more anxious, more subdued, but unpanicked and resolute. At this point, 23 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the violence, and Israel is taking the first steps toward a ground invasion. Holding a basketball game in the midst of a war might seem flippant -- if not insane -- elsewhere, but not in Israel. The message on the young boy's sign could be considered a national ethos, and a point of stubborn pride.
In a sports kiosk in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, a few hardy regulars watched the basketball game on one television. A second television had the news on, providing running updates about the war taking place less than 20 miles to the south ("In the past hour the IDF bombed 70 targets in Gaza" read the headline at the bottom of the screen). Outside, the streets of Ashdod -- one of the primary rocket targets in recent years and especially in recent days -- were mostly quiet. The kiosk was one of the few places open in the city of 200,000 people, serving up coffee, beers, and betting forms to a trickle of customers.
At one point, an air-raid siren went off, indicating an incoming rocket. The half dozen customers unhurriedly walked inside within the allocated 45-second time frame prior to impact. A few took cover behind the counter, others in a little nook next to two customers playing slot machines. The two punters continued pumping coins into the slots, oblivious to the ensuing hollow boom overhead. The projectile had been intercepted in midair by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system -- there was no impact on the ground. Everyone went back to watching the game.
The customers, like others throughout Ashdod and Israel's south, weren't unconcerned, exactly -- just jaded. They were veterans of such rocket barrages and had been living with the threat for years: thousands of rockets from Gaza coming at them in periodic low-level escalations between the Israeli army and Hamas.
In Israeli minds, the rockets are the central reason for the current, elevated hostilities. Two such rounds of fighting had already taken place over the past month prior to Nov. 14's eruption.
"We will not accept a situation in which Israeli citizens are threatened by the terror of rockets," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on the war's first night. "It's a routine that we cannot live with," the mayor of Beersheba, the largest southern city and a lightning rod for rockets, said separately. One government minister summed up the attitude simply (and given the country's large Arab minority, who are also in harm's way, discriminatorily): "You can't kill Jews with impunity."