ASHKELON, Israel — Alan Marcus still remembers the days, not so long ago, when he'd drive 15 miles from Ashkelon to Gaza City so he could help set up a computer center for Palestinian students.
These days, Ashkelon's director of strategic planning is spending his time in an underground command center, using computer mapping programs to chart the growing number of Palestinian rocket strikes on his city.
The militant Islamist group Hamas has put Ashkelon in its crosshairs. For the first time, Palestinian militants have repeatedly targeted the city of 120,000 about 10 miles from the Gaza border.
In the last six days, Marcus said, at least 16 longer-range rockets hit Ashkelon.
"The threat is something we've never experienced before," Marcus said Monday after two more rockets slammed into Ashkelon, causing minor damage but no serious injuries. "Things have changed."
Things have changed in the last six days.
Israeli forces, sent into Gaza to beat back militants who regularly fire crude rockets into southern Israel, have left more than 100 Palestinians, including 25 teenagers, dead. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the battles. And, for the first time in nine months, a Palestinian rocket strike killed an Israeli.
As the Israeli army wrapped up its operation on Monday, Palestinian demonstrators across the West Bank clashed with Israeli soldiers during volatile protests that are likely to flare up again this week.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has suspended peace talks with Israel.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is arriving Tuesday on an ill-timed diplomatic mission that's likely to be consumed by damage control and trying to get talks back on track.
There's a risk that Rice's visit will offer at best a brief respite from what a growing number of Israelis see as an inevitable military showdown with Hamas in Gaza.
"We have been turning our cheek for a long time now," said Marcus. "And now we have to have some kind of effective response."
The attacks of the past six days forced Ashkelon to plug into Israel's missile warning system, which gives residents about 20 seconds to find cover before a Gaza rocket strike. City workers spent Monday installing loudspeakers around Ashkelon to make sure everyone can hear the warnings.
Not far from city hall, residents flocked to see the damage done to a seven-story apartment building that was hit by a Gaza rocket early Monday.
The rocket splintered rows of solar panels on the roof and crashed into an apartment on the top floor.
"I was terrified," said Haya Abariel, a 34-year-old mother of two who lives next to the apartment hit by the rocket. "My legs buckled under me."
Sitting in the hallway of her building as workers carried away debris from the apartment next door, Abariel said Israel has to do more to stop the rocket fire.
"I think we have to blow them up from the air," Abariel said as she sat in stuffed animal slippers on a couch in the hall. "I hate to say it because they have kids too, but we have to do it."
One critical unknown is how many advanced rockets Palestinian militants have in storage.
Most of the rockets fired from Gaza are crude, unguided Qassams that pack little punch.
But Israel suspects that militants used January's border break with Egypt to smuggle in a stock of more advanced rockets that were fired at Ashkelon.
"We know they have the ability to keep launching and launching and launching," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli army.
To Marcus, the targeting of Ashkelon represents a grim turnabout for a place that once served as a sister city to Gaza City. Marcus said he hoped that diplomacy would halt the rocket fire. But he conceded that a major military operation might be inevitable.
"People here are willing to wait a few weeks to a month if there is going to be a solution," Marcus said. "What is intolerable is the uncertainty of knowing that any time of the day you could be killed by a direct hit."