Palestinian-fired rockets continued to fall on Israel's southern cities yesterday, even as Israeli troops withdrew from the Gaza Strip after a five day operation designed to bring a halt to the incessant attacks.

The coastal city of Ashkelon was the hardest hit in the latest phase of the ongoing war perpetrated by terrorists aiming explosive- and shrapnel-filled rockets at Israel's population centers. The southern port had escaped relatively unscathed in the months since rocket crews in the Gaza Strip took to firing Kassam rockets, but a barrage last week of Iranian-made Grad rockets broke the city's calm.

According to Rabbi Tzemach Menachem Mendel Lieberman, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Ashkelon, residents don't know what to do and children are hysterical.

"This is a very difficult war," said Lieberman. "People are petrified."

But despite the chaos – which has seen whole classrooms relocated to bomb shelters and families huddled together in bomb-proof safe rooms at night – a group of volunteers from the Chabad House still sets out daily to visit Israel Defense Force personnel stationed all around the Gaza Strip. On Sunday, they went to the Erez Crossing at the coastal strip's northern border to offer spiritual support and camaraderie to troops, many of whom had just hours before been battling with Hamas-led forces on the other side. Several of the soldiers took the opportunity to don tefillin and offer thanks to G‑d for their safety.

The Chabad House delegation also visited shell-shocked families at Netiv Ha'Sarah, a community just kilometers from the border, and the emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.

"We're there to console them," explained Rabbi Moshe Velenkin. "We hand out books of Psalms and offer spiritual help."

Help for the region's residents has come in more tangible ways as well: The Chabad house has increased its distribution of free meals to needy families who are too scared to leave their homes to go to the local soup kitchen.

"When people walk around the city," said Lieberman, "they don't know if they will get home."

On Tuesday, Israel's military censor allowed news organizations to report that one rocket hit near the home of Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter.

Life has been uncertain for the city's children as well. Since Ashkelon was first attacked last week, Chabad officials have been working on transferring the boys' school's 200 students to other cities. The school doesn't have reinforced walls, making the building especially hazardous in the event a rocket strikes. Its bomb shelter is not equipped to handle classrooms full of students for an extended period of time.

"I have a son there," said Velenkin, a father of five. "On the one hand, studies must continue, but we must find a satisfactory solution."

On Monday, Lieberman was discussing sending students to nearby Ashdod or Kiryat Malachi, or even further to the village of Kfar Chabad in the country's interior.

It's a problem faced by Ashkelon's other educational institutions. All throughout the city, recess has been banned; psychologists made special site visits on Sunday to counsel children and their teachers. Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and volunteers delivered toys and board games to give the frightened students something to take their minds off of the explosions.

At the Chabad girls' school, classes were moved to the bottom floor of the school's three-story building. Forbidden from going outside, students jumped rope in the hallways during breaks between classes.

"The girls are learning in the library, computer room, even the principal's office," said Lieberman.

Echoing the experience of other residents, Velenkin noted that all of his children now sleep in their apartment's only reinforced room.

No Where to Go

Assisted by a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, a resident of Ashkelon, Israel, puts on tefillin after a series of Palestinian rocket attacks paralyzed the coastal city.
Assisted by a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, a resident of Ashkelon, Israel, puts on tefillin after a series of Palestinian rocket attacks paralyzed the coastal city.
In nearby Sderot, worry has become part of the routine. Rocket barrages sent residents packing months ago; the few who remained behind remain holed up indoors. The city has the feel of a ghost town.

"When [dozens of] Kassams hit in one day in a city of 20,000, everyone feels it," explained Chagit Asulin, a widow and mother of two.

Asulin's daughter has a National Service job in Ashkelon, but the mother will not let her go, despite the fact that their Sderot home – like many in the city – lacks a safe room.

"My son is really suffering," she said. "He lost his father three-and-a-half years ago, and now he has to deal with the Kassams.

"He has fear on top of fear."

Asulin said that if it wasn't for Sima Pizem, the co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Sderot and wife of Rabbi Moshe Ze'ev Pizem, she and her children would be completely alone.

"We meet every week," said the woman. "They've really helped at the most difficult time for us" by coming to visit and delivering food.

Sderot resident Alex Riman added that he and his neighbors look to the Chabad House for an injection of joy into a desperate situation.

Through it all, "there are always celebrations, birthdays and bar and bat mitzvahs at the Chabad House," said Riman.

He added that regular visits from rabbinical students based in Lod who come to check on people's mezuzahs help reenergize people's faith in G‑d.

"The residents really appreciate it," he said.

Further south in the city of Netivot, Rabbi Avraham Yifrach, program director for Chabad-Lubavitch of Netivot, chose to see through the haze of the attacks and identify a miracle. On Sunday, a Grad rocket struck just meters from the tomb of the Baba Sali, a Moroccan Jewish sage and Kabbalist who passed away in 1984.

Said the rabbi: "People saw it as a revealed miracle that nobody was injured."