Out of rocket range, Tel Aviv bustles as war rages

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - An hour’s drive from the border of the Israeli-bombed Gaza Strip and an even shorter journey from Israeli towns hit by Palestinian rockets, bars and cafes are bustling in a Mediterranean city that never sleeps.

Tel Aviv is booming as usual, nearly three weeks into an Israeli military offensive just 60 km (37 miles) away and out of range of Hamas rockets that can fly only about two-thirds of that distance.

“There really hasn’t been any change. We’re seeing the same amount of customers,” said Shaul Edan from his bar in the city center. “In the past, we’ve had good business, even during wars.”

But the bubble of safety bursts as fast as a car can drive past gleaming skyscrapers into the danger zone of nearby towns, such as Yavne and Ashdod -- regarded as part of the central Israeli heartland anchored by Tel Aviv.

“It’s true, there’s the feeling that Tel Aviv is a country within a country and everything here is normal,” said Ruth Harel, who works as a taxi dispatcher.

But she said appearances could be misleading.

“I may not hear sirens and have to run for shelter every day, but I have a son who is a soldier fighting in Gaza. It reaches us all,” she said.

Rockets -- fired then from Iraq -- last hit Tel Aviv during the 1991 Gulf War. The city was also shaken by Palestinian suicide bombings before and during an uprising that began in 2000.

It was out of range of the more than 4,000 rockets that Hezbollah guerrillas fired into Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war. The city might not be that lucky if a new conflict with Israel’s Islamist enemy to the north ever erupts.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told parliament last November that Hezbollah now had 42,000 rockets in its arsenal and some could hit virtually any point in Israel.

A front-page report in Israel’s biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, this week quoted Israeli defense officials as saying Hamas might soon fire rockets into Tel Aviv. A senior intelligence official said there was a “low probability” the group had rockets that could reach that far.

Editing by Mark Trevelyan