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Tanya Avital Yehuda, 51, and Malachi Yehuda, 55, stand on an empty street in Ashkelon, Israel, on July 30, 2014. / Debbie Hill for USA TODAY

ASHKELON, Israel - When Americans Malachi and Tanya Avital Yehuda moved to Tel Aviv on July 21, they knew they would be entering a war zone.

Even so, when an air raid siren began to wail in Beersheva, Israel's largest southern city, within an hour of the couple's arrival at their immigrant absorption center the next day, it came as a shock.

"We were in our room, but it was too far to the bomb shelter so we ran to the stairwell for safety," Tanya Avital, 51, recalled a week after touching down at Ben Gurion International Airport. "I felt unprepared. I realized, suddenly, that if a siren sounded at night I'd have to have something close by to throw on in a hurry."

"(It) made my heart beat fast and I broke into a sweat," the retired New York City corrections officer said of the experience. "But it didn't make me want to leave. Just the opposite: Israel is our home, and we're committed to being here,"

The Yehudas, an Orthodox Jewish African-American couple from Riverdale, N.Y., are among the 546 Americans who have emigrated to the country since July 1, according to Nefesh B'Nefesh, an organization that navigates immigration to Israel for North Americans. Of those, 52 people have moved to the south, where the vast majority of the more than 2,600 rockets launched from Gaza since July 8 have hit, according to the Israeli army. Israeli forces, meanwhile, have hit 4,100 targets in Gaza, about one-third connected to the militants' ability to launch rockets at Israel, the Israeli military said in a statement.

On Wednesday, during an apartment-hunting expedition in Ashkelon, a southern coastal city hit especially hard by the rocket fire, Malachi, a 55-year-old former American serviceman, said he and his wife "never once considered" delaying their flight.

"We wanted to be in Israel. What better way to show the terrorists we aren't afraid, and that we stand with Israel 101%?" he said.

Longtime Ashkelon residents say the war - the third one with Hamas in six years - is wreaking havoc with their lives in ways that aren't visible to the outside world.

"Our children are traumatized from years of war. They can't sleep," said Yisrael Karisi, 35, the owner of a small eatery on one of the city's main streets. "They can't play outside because they don't have enough time to run to a shelter."

Since the war began, Karisi said, he has earned about $125 per day instead of the much higher sums he earns at other times. His wife can no longer work, he said, "because she needs to be home with the children."

Despite the challenges, Karisi insists Israel should not sign a cease-fire "until the army gets rid of every tunnel Hamas has built in order to kidnap and kill Israelis."

"More than 50 soldiers have died," he said, "and if there's another war in a year or two, they will have died for nothing."

At Karisi's restaurant for lunch, Shalom Kahelon, 74, predicts "there will never be peace here," then begins to cry softly.

"Shalom fought in four or five wars, and this latest war has brought up all the old traumas," his wife, Ora Kahelon, 74, explains, grabbing his hand and squeezing it.

"Our soldiers are dying, and the Arabs will never accept our right, the Jews' right, to live here," Shalom says.

"Whether they accept it or not," Ora says, "we are Israelis, we're here, and we're not going anywhere."

Contributing: The Associated Press



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Americans move to Israel in the middle of a war

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