Haredi Orthodox Jews riot to thwart arrest of draft dodger


Haredi Orthodox Jews rioted in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod when military police arrived to arrest a draft dodger.

Dozens of demonstrators overturned a military police vehicle and threw rocks during the protest between Monday night and Tuesday morning. No injuries were reported.

The military police had come to a haredi neighborhood in the city to arrest a man who failed to show up at an army induction center to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. Additional police forces arrived on the scene to extract the beleaguered officers and disperse the riot, the Israel Police said in a statement.

“The police view this incident with the utmost severity, and will use all the means at their disposal to locate those involved and bring them to justice,” the statement said.

Rockets fired from Gaza at southern Israel


Three rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, police said on Wednesday, after warning sirens were heard in Israeli towns near the border.

There were no casualties, police said. No militant groups in Gaza issued any claims of responsibility.

A week ago Gaza militants launched their deepest strike at Israel since a 50-day war of last summer, striking near the port city of Ashdod.

Israeli warplanes launched strikes in response at four targets and then the tensions subsided. Israel blamed Islamic Jihad militants for that attack and media reports said Hamas Islamists who dominate in Gaza had arrested militants behind that strike.

The latest rocket strike follows a Gaza shootout on Tuesday in which Hamas security forces killed an activist of a rival Islamist militant group.

Witnesses said the slain man in Gaza was active with a Salafist group, radicals supportive of struggles being led in the region by Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Israel, Palestinians pull back after Gaza exchange of fire


Israel and Palestinian militants appeared to be pulling back on Wednesday from further hostilities after Israel responded with air strikes to a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip.

No casualties were reported on either side of the border, and Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon blamed the rocket launching late on Tuesday on “elements in the Islamic Jihad” group in the Hamas Islamist-run enclave.

His comments followed Israeli media reports that infighting among Islamic Jihad militants may have precipitated the rocket firing without the permission of Hamas authorities.

The reports also said that Hamas, whose forces are dominant in the territory of 1.8 million Palestinians, had arrested Islamic Jihad members behind the missile strike, the deepest into Israel since the end of last year's 50-day Gaza war.

An Islamic Jihad spokesman was not available to comment. Hamas officials had no comment on the reported arrests.

The projectile struck near the Israeli port city of Ashdod, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Gaza frontier, Israeli security forces said, and hours after the attack there was still no claim of responsibility.

Israeli warplanes hit back early on Wednesday, striking four “terror infrastructures” in the southern Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said. Gaza residents said the targets included training camps used by Islamic Jihad militants.

No further fighting was reported, and it appeared that Israel chose to attack evacuated or open areas in a signal to Hamas that it hoped to avoid escalation.

It also issued a warning that further rocket strikes would draw a more powerful response.

“If there is no quiet in Israel, the Gaza Strip will pay a very heavy price, which will cause anyone planning to challenge us to regret their actions,” Yaalon said in a statement.

In comments posted on a pro-Hamas website, Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group, said Israel was responsible for “the escalation last night and it must stop these foolish acts”.

Last year, militants in Gaza launched thousands of rockets and mortar bombs into Israel during a July-August war in which Israeli shelling and air strikes battered the small, coastal Palestinian enclave.

The region has been largely quiet since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that halted seven weeks of fighting.

Strike shuts Israel’s Haifa port


Workers at Israel's state-owned Haifa Port went on strike on Monday, shutting one of the major trade gateways, over a government plan to build private, competing ports.

“Every hour of the strike causes heavy damage and weighs on Israeli exports and imports,” said Chamber of Shipping vice-president David Castle. His statement said it was not clear when the strike would end.

Nearly all Israel's exports and imports are transported by ship, making the port workers unions among the most powerful in the country.

Tensions have been high in recent years over government plans to open two privately-run ports along the Mediterranean next to Ashdod, which is also state-run, and Haifa in the coming years.

Officials at the umbrella union for public sector employees, Histadrut, were not immediately reachable for comment.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Janet Lawrence

Rocket crashes through roof of Ashkelon home, injuring 28


A rocket fired from Gaza struck a home in Ashkelon and injured 28 while damaging about 50 neighboring apartments.

The family living in the home was running to a safe room when the rocket struck early Tuesday morning; they were not injured. The rocket left a large hole in the roof and destroyed two rooms.

Israeli security forces said later that the warhead was exceptionally large and could be a new type of rocket, perhaps intended to travel longer distances, the Times of Israel reported.

Later Tuesday, a rocket from Gaza landed on the playground of a kindergarten in Ashdod.

Also Tuesday morning, the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted a rocket over Tel Aviv. The armed wing of Hamas claimed responsibility, saying it fired long-range rockets at Tel Aviv and Haifa in response to attacks on several buildings in Gaza overnight.

Israeli military aircraft fired on two residential towers in Gaza City early Tuesday morning, destroying the buildings. The IDF said they served as Hamas command and control centers.

The 16-story Little Italy complex, which also contained a commercial area, collapsed, as did the 14-story al-Basha building, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported.

Residents fled the buildings prior to the airstrikes after receiving phone calls with recorded warning messages from the Israeli military, according to Maan.

The Israel Air Force also attacked a boys’ school in Gaza City from where the Israeli military said the mortar that killed 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman was launched, The Associated Press reported. The displaced Palestinians sheltering in the school were warned to evacuate before the attack.

Gaza rocket strikes Israeli synagogue, wounding several people


A rocket fired from Gaza hit a synagogue in the Israeli city of Ashdod on Friday, wounding three people, police said.

“There is damage at the scene and a number of people were injured by shrapnel,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The attack came shortly before evening prayers ahead of the Jewish Sabbath. Ashdod is around 30 km (20 miles) from Gaza.

Hamas and other militant groups fired more than two dozen rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring two other people, with no signs of a let up in the six-week war.

Israel carried out 25 air strikes on Gaza, killing four people, Gaza health officials said.

The Israel-Gaza conflict through the eyes of a teen


My name is Shiran, I'm 17 and I live in Israel, in a city named Ashdod. Although summer vacation has started a month ago, I'm closed in my home, instead of going to the beach or meet with friends. Not because I did something wrong, but because I'm an Israeli Jew.

In the 21st century, even in Israel, there is a constant danger of Jewish people's lives. Every few months, 5 million Israelis shut themselves in their homes because of rockets, which launched from Gaza by terrorist organizations like Hamas. This isn't a movie script, but a reality of life. You take a risk if you go shopping, meet with friends or go to the beach, because at any moment the Palestinians can launch missiles over your city and you will have only 15 seconds to run for your life. The city where I live, Ashdod,  is under missiles attacks since I was 12. Since I was 8, I read newspaper every day, because in Israel it's very difficult not to have knowledgeable about politics and security.

The summer vacation has started and this is the time to meet with friends, play tennis or watch the World Cup at a restaurant like any teenager in the Western world.  But I have to stay at home and give up the pleasures of the vacation. I waited for the moment when the summer vacation will start, but all plans were disrupted. Very simple things like sleeping in your room and not next to shelter, or taking a shower any time you want are almost impossible. Hamas launches rockets to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel's biggest cities. Imagine that New York and Los Angeles were under similar attack. What would you do?

Why is this happening? Because after 6 million Jews were brutally killed in the Holocaust, Jews got a country. Just little one in this huge world. The United Nations decided after the Holocaust that Jewish people deserve a state of its own. The Palestinians didn't like the decision, so 66 years they're trying to harm us in any possible way, such as: kidnapping and launching missiles toward innocent civilians. What have I, Shiran, done to the Palestinians? Did I hurt someone? Why every few months they launch rockets to kill innocent Israelis, including me? I wasn't born to live in danger. I was born to live just like any German, British and Canadian teenager. I'm not different.

I tried to contact with Palestinian teenagers my age, in order to understand how they see the conflict and if they believe that may be a soul-friendship between Israeli and Palestinian, but as soon as I wrote that I'm Jewish who lives in Israel, they wrote horrible things, praised Hitler and sent fake images of massacres in Syria and Iraq in order to say that they were photographed in Gaza. I thought that the chance for peace will come from the Palestinian people itself, but they believe the lies of Hamas. I was disappointed to discover that the hatred towards Jews is rooted in their blood.

There is one thing I'm sure about: As long as terrorist organizations, calling for the destruction of Israel and Jews around the world, will not disappear, peace won't come. While the IDF is working for peace, a lot of people still confident that the IDF does crimes. If  Russia were in this situation instead of Israel, Gaza would deleted completely. But the IDF, unlike the Red Army in his wars against Chechnya, does his best to kill terrorists only. Gaza is the most crowded place in the world, so the chance to hurt only criminals is very slim. In addition, Hamas launch the rockets from civilian neighborhoods. Palestinian terrorists launch rockets near schools, kindergartens, mosques and buildings in Gaza. The reason that on our side there a low number of deaths is because we have a defense system, the “Iron Dome”. The number of casualties could reach 200 if the “Iron Dome” were not exist. One more fact is that Hamas hides behind Palestinian civilians instead of protecting them. Our army does all it can to protect us, as well as my life. Hamas cares about our death more than about the Palestinian's lives. With the current Palestinian government, which including Hamas, it will be impossible to achieve peace.

My family lived in Europe during the Holocaust, and many of my relatives were killed. Even after the Holocaust there was a metaphorical border between Jews and Christians. After 40 years, my family decided that our home is in Israel, despite of all the difficulties. I'm, Shiran Katsnelson, proud and happy to be a Jew who lives in Israel, although I'm a target of the Palestinians. I will continue to pray for peace. This is the time to understand that the 21st century is here, and religion is no more at the center of attention as it was. This is the time to consolidate feelings about people just because of who they really are and not because of their religion or origin.


To contact Shiran Katsnelson, email him at shirankatsnelson@gmail.com.

Ashdod bomb shelters ordered not to engage in gender segregation


Several bomb shelters in Ashdod were ordered to remove signs indicating they are for men only.

In response to a complaint lodged by Knesset member Stav Shaffir, the Rabbinical Courts Administration ordered the removal of the signs, the Times of Israel reported.

“The thought that women who sought a secure refuge from rocket fire and encountered a closed door just because they were women is unthinkable,” Shaffir said in a news release issued Thursday.

In her complaint to Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, Shaffir demanded they ensure that gender segregation not be practiced with regard to bomb shelters or secure rooms anywhere in Israel.

The Times of Israel said Hebrew media outlets were reporting that the Rabbinical Courts Administration blamed the signs on “the private actions of an employee without the knowledge of the management,” and said it would take disciplinary steps against those involved.

“In practice, gender segregation was not implemented, nor will it be implemented when [it comes to] entering bomb shelters,” the administration said.

Reflections on being in Israel


It's different this time.  Even though it seems that Israel has faced this kind of situation before with Gaza. It is different this time.  The people of S'derot, Ashdod, and even Beer Sheva have bravely faced the barrage of rockets.  Living and courageously carrying on their lives under the dangerous skies.  Their normal is not normal. And no one we know in Los Angeles would be as brave as these communities have been. 

But it's different this time because Hamas has amassed more sophisticated missiles and rockets.  Nowhere in the country is free from the terror and the threat of hearing Red Alert Sirens. 

I have been in Jerusalem for two weeks now.  In part to attend the annual Rabbinic Torah Seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute and then joining the first ever Rabbinic Mission to Israel sponsored by AIPAC. This has been an eye opening and heart wrenching time for me here in Israel.  My Red Alert app chirps continuously warning me of incoming missiles and rockets.

When I arrived Eyal, Naftali and Gilad were still missing.  And then within a day their bodies were finally discovered by the IDF, murdered in cold blood.  I listened to the chilling Moked 100 call, Israel's 911,  made by Gilad Shaar,jumping out of ,y own skin as the gun shots rang out silencing the three teens forever.  Israel was a country in deep mourning with a million questions. For 18 days from their kidnapping to the discovery of their bodies their parents and the country and the world prayed for their safe return and believed they were still alive and yet all along the government had a tape with the sound of the gunshots that killed them.  Both their deaths and the Moked 100 tape brought the country into deep mourning. The trauma and brutality of their deaths and the grief of their family and the nation left all here reeling.  Including many questions a bout whether the government and military knew they were dead as they went door to door in Palestinian towns and villages.

And then the unthinkable.  The results of ever increasing hate speech and racism from Jews led Jewish thugs to try and take things into their own hands.  First they tried unsuccessfully to abduct a nine year old but then they kidnapped and burned alive Muhammed Abu Khadeir.  He was just sixteen.

His brutal murder just days after the funeral of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad sent the country into a second wave of trauma.  Revenge? The murder of teenagers?  These are the kinds of questions Israelis were asking themselves.  And we too as the Jewish people mus ask ourselves. Whether on the right or the left, secular or religious, questions about the moral core of Judaism and the values that we hold dear are measured against this horrible moment.  Cold blooded murder is not part of a Jewish equation of revenge or an eye for an eye.  The Rabbis of our Talmud long ago proved to us that this is inhumane.

And the rockets began to fall with even more intensity. I have spent much time in Israel. I lived in Jerusalem during the first Lebanon War.  I came regularly leading trips during the worst of the Second Intifada, sometimes my delegation was the only one in the hotels.  I spent the summer of 2006 in Israel during the second Lebanon War and have been here often during tense times.  But this time, the time of the murder of Eyal, Naftali, Gilad and Muhammed and Operation Protective Edge there is a feeling of sadness, grief, intensity, introspection, hurt, trauma, fear, and hopelessness for any kind of peace or reconciliation in the future. Several speakers warned that peace is far off.

The sirens blaring in Jerusalem, Red Alert, Red Alert beeps on my phone app, and we try to take cover in the stairwells of the hotel.  Buses empty, and a few minutes later as the all clear is given life returns to a kind of weird normal.  And the country as a whole knows what S'derot has known and lived with for so long.  Anxiety is palpable, the chattering talking heads on television talk to try to analyze the next steps, to predict the future but no one knows what lies ahead.  Troops are called up. And the debate rages about whether the ground war in Gaza should happen.  Is this the time Hamas should be finally trampled?

Israel as a nation is at a precarious moment in its 66 years.  The Middle East is melting around it.  Syria is aflame,  Iraq is no longer whole as ISIS has declared a new Caliphate. Lebanon is weaker than its ever been. Al-Sissi in Egypt would like to see nothing better than Israel get rid of Hamas as he consolidates his power and Jordan is overwhelmed by Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

And yet, here in the midst of the Zionist project, our beautiful Israel, our family and friends try to go on living life, one day at a time. They duck for cover as rockets fly. And even if not religious, pray for their children's safety as they are called back to military duty.

It is easy to sit in front of CNN or a Fox News account and dictate what Israel should do.  Make peace not make peace. Withdraw from Judea and Shomron or annex it.  But here there is only one thing to do. Continue to build. To build the Jewish state as a strong Jewish and Democratic  nation and live each day. 

But let us not confuse strength only with weapons of war. Strength is  also the need to live by our values.  To learn to love our neighbor as ourself and at the same time Hate Evil and Love what is good.  Both are our Jewish values.  Our challenge as Am Yisrael and the Jewish people is to learn to live them both at the same time.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami. She is a past President of the Board of Rabbis and President Elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Follow her @deniseeger on Twitter or on her blog  www.rabbieger.wordpress.com.

Israel shoots down UAV sent from Gaza


Israel shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle launched from Gaza after it crossed into Israel’s airspace.

The drone was shot down Monday morning by a Patriot missile near the port of Ashdod.

The drone set off sirens in Ashdod before it was shot down. It is not known if the UAV was carrying explosives. Hamas told Reuters that it has sent several drones into Israel to carry out what it called “special missions.”

Later on Monday morning, an 8-year-old Israel boy was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket fired from Gaza that landed in Ashdod.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Monday said that Israel continues “to smash Hamas and its infrastructure. They have suffered great damage.”

“When Hamas comes out of their hiding places they will discover the extent of the destruction and the damage that we caused the organization that will cause them to regret that they entered this round of fighting against Israel,” he told an IDF briefing.

Also on Monday, several rockets were fired from Lebanon into northern Israel. The IDF responded with artillery fired toward the source of the rocket launch. Israel has notified the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or  UNIFIL, of the incident, according to the IDF.

The IDF targeted over 12 terrorists involved in launching rockets at Israel on Sunday night and Monday morning, and Israel Air Force planes bombed more than 40 “terror sites” in Gaza overnight, according to a statement from the IDF.  On Sunday, more than 130 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, 22 were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and more than 100 landed on Israeli territory, according to the IDF.

Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge seven days ago, more than 980 rockets have been launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel. About 760 have hit Israeli territory, and another 200 have been intercepted by Iron Dome. IDF forces have struck some 1,470 terror targets across the Gaza Strip.

At least 172 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and more than 1,200 wounded since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.

On Sunday, the IDF allowed into Gaza over 500 donated portions of blood for civilians in Gaza. In addition, the IDF has facilitated the transfer into Gaza for its civilians 260 trucks containing over 4,400 tons of food, as well as about 900 tons of gas, about 3.2 million liters of diesel fuel and about 500 thousand liters of gasoline, according to the IDF.

Man seriously injured in rocket explosion near Ashdod


A rocket hit an oil truck near the coastal city of Ashdod and its explosion seriously wounded a man.

At least eight Palestinians, including a 10-year-old girl were killed overnight Friday in air strikes, international media reported, quoting Palestinian emergency care officials.

The explosion near Ashdod was the result of a volley of eight rockets launched from Gaza on Friday at Israel’s southern coastal plain. The man sustained life-threatening injuries to his legs from the explosion, which happened near a gas station, Army Radio reported. Another two people were injured from shrapnel from the same explosion.

Earlier on Friday, militants in Lebanon fired mortar rounds into Israel as it entered the fourth day of its offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The rounds exploded near Metula at the northern tip of the Galilee early on Friday, but resulted in no casualties and no damage to property, Army Radio reported. It was the first time since the launch of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza that Israel was targeted from the north.

The Israel Defense Forces fired back into Lebanon, hitting an area close to the Lebanese village of Hatzbiyah. Lebanese media reported that blood was found at the site from which the fire was launched into Israel, suggesting casualties from the Israeli response.

Also on Friday, projectile detection systems set off alarm sirens in Haifa for the first time since the start of the operation, which began earlier this week after Hamas militants launched dozens of rockets into Israel’s south. No hits were detected. Haifa City readied and opened its shelters on Wednesday, as Hamas fired rockets at Zichron Ya’akov, a suburb of the northern city.

A woman in her seventies collapsed and died on Friday of heart failure while running to a shelter in Wadi Nisnas, a neighborhood in downtown Haifa with Jewish and Arab residents.

Approximately 350 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel, 90 of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome projectile defense system, which engages inbound objects only if their trajectory is likely to result in impact in populated areas.

The Israel Air Force has carried out approximately 900 strikes in Gaza during the operation, Israel Radio reported. Palestinian officials said the strikes resulted in the deaths of close to 100 of Palestinians, including civilians.

Of the eight killed overnight, the New York Times reported, five were members of a single family in the southern city of Rafah, and one was a ten year old girl in the same town.

Hamas rockets land deep in Israel as it bombards Gaza


At least 20 people were killed across Gaza on Tuesday, Palestinian officials said, by a bombardment Israel said may be just the start of a lengthy offensive against Islamist militants whose rockets reached hit unprecedented depths of its interior.

Israelis ran for cover as air-raid sirens sounded in the business capital Tel Aviv and the holy city of Jerusalem, both of which were hit in the previous Gaza war of November 2012.

Hamas said it also fired at rocket at northern Haifa, 140 km (88 miles) away, and though this was not confirmed Israel said a rocket had landed in Hadera, 100 km (60 miles) from Gaza – further than had previously been reached.

While the Israelis reported no casualties, the long-range salvo was celebrated by the outgunned Palestinians as proof of their resolve in hostilities that flared three weeks ago after the abduction and murder of three Jewish seminary students.

The rocket strikes could, however, draw an Israeli invasion, something officials have said is a possible option.

In densely populated Gaza, explosions echoed day and night, shaking buildings and sending up plumes of smoke. At least 12 civilians, including five children, were among the 20 dead, Palestinian officials said. On the Israeli side, at least two people were wounded, medics said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Israel's Iron Dome interceptor shot down a rocket fired at Tel Aviv by Gaza faction Islamic Jihad.

“We will not tolerate rocket fire against our cities and townships, and therefore I ordered a significant broadening of IDF (Israel Defence Force) operations against the terrorists of Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.


Beach goers take cover against the wall of a hotel as air raid sirens sound in Tel Aviv on July 8. Photo by Daniel Bar-On/Reuters

He called on Israelis to rally together and “show resilience, because this operation could take time”.

Israel has threatened to invade Gaza if the rockets persist.

In a bold infiltration, gunmen from Hamas landed on the shore near Zikim, where a kibbutz and an army base are located, just over the Gaza border. Israel's army initially said it killed five gunmen, but later put the death toll at four.

ABBAS TALKS TO EGYPT

U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and entered a power-share with Hamas in April after years of feuding, said he had spoken to regional powerbroker Egypt about the Gaza crisis.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Cairo has tightened closures on the Egyptian-Gaza border, increasing economic pressure on Hamas from a long-running Israeli blockade.

“Sisi stressed Egypt was interested in the safety of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and sparing this grave assault,” a statement from Abbas's office said, adding that Cairo would “exert efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire”.

Washington backed Israel's actions in Gaza while the European Union and United Nations urged restraint on both sides.

“We strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire inside of Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organisations in Gaza,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

“No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians and we support Israel's right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.”

The surge in violence along the Gaza border – the worst since an eight-day war in 2012, when Tel Aviv was also targeted – followed a chain of events begun by the abduction of three Jewish seminary students in the occupied West Bank on June 12.

Blaming Hamas, which neither confirmed nor denied a role, the Israelis arrested hundreds of its activists in their search for the teenagers who were eventually found dead, as was a Palestinian youth abducted in Jerusalem last Wednesday in a suspected revenge murder.

Palestinians have since launched more than 200 rockets from Gaza, Israel says.

While threatening an “earthquake” of escalation against Israel, Hamas said it could restore calm if Israel halted the Gaza offensive, recommitted to a 2012 Egyptian-brokered truce and freed prisoners it detained in the West Bank last month.

“The enemy must not think about enjoying security unless these terms are met,” the Hamas armed wing spokesman said.

The Israeli military said on Tuesday that, to support regular forces, it had called up 1,000 reserve troops out of a pool of 40,000 approved on Tuesday by the security cabinet. Some 1,500 other reservists have already been mobilised.

One Israeli attack overnight destroyed the house of a Hamas member's family, killing six people inside, locals said. The Palestinian Interior Ministry said the family had received a telephone call from an Israeli officer telling them to leave.

Locals said people had been urged to gather there as “human shields” to deter a second attack after it was hit earlier.

Another strike killed a Hamas commander, identified as Mohammed Shaaban, and three others travelling in a car together, a pro-Hamas website said.

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and by Mark Felsenthal in Washington; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Israel denies ceasefire agreement, strikes back at Gaza


More rockets from Gaza struck southern Israel a day after a barrage from the coastal territory that left thousands of Israelis in bomb shelters.

Four rockets were fired Thursday morning at Ashkelon and Ashdod, with two landing in open fields between the cities and one intercepted over Ashkelon by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Ashdod closed schools without rocket-proof shelters following the attacks.

Hours later, Israel’s Air Force retaliated by targeting seven “terror sites” in the southern Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue to respond militarily to the attacks.

“Our policy in the South is clear — we attack anyone who attempts to hurt us and we will react with a powerful force,” Netanyahu said Thursday morning. “I want to clarify that whoever tries to hurt our Purim celebrations, we will respond with force.” Purim begins on Saturday evening.

Israel’s security Cabinet was set to meet Thursday morning to discuss the escalation in attacks from Gaza.

On Wednesday evening, the Islamic Jihad terror organization fired dozens of rockets at southern Israel, with 41 landing in Israeli territory, including five in residential neighborhoods. Iron Dome shot down at least three of the rockets.

The IDF responded by hitting what it called in a statement 29 “terror locations” in Gaza with artillery fire. Israeli residents were instructed to remain within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter overnight.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks and urged restraint from all sides. The U.S. State Department earlier condemned the rocket attacks and said Israel has a right to defend itself.

Wednesday’s attack was the largest on Israel since the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF said.


Egypt brokered a ceasefire on Thursday aimed at ending a flare-up of rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli towns and Israeli air strikes in the Palestinian enclave, the Islamic Jihad militant group said.

Israel denied the agreement, but a senior Defense Ministry official said earlier in the day he expected the fighting to die down soon.

“Following intensive Egyptian contacts and efforts, the agreement for calm has been restored in accordance with understandings reached in 2012 in Cairo,” Khaled al-Batsh, an Islamic Jihad leader, wrote on Facebook, referring to a truce that ended an eight-day Gaza war two years ago.

Batsh said Islamic Jihad, which began launching rockets into Israel on Wednesday after Israeli soldiers killed three of its fighters a day earlier, would hold its fire as long as Israel did the same.

Minutes before Batsh posted word of the truce on Facebook, Israeli aircraft struck targets in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip near the border with Egypt, wounding three Palestinians, witnesses said. The Israeli military said “seven terror sites” had been hit.

Hours earlier, sirens sounded in the southern Israeli towns of Ashkelon and Ashdod. Police said rockets had landed in open areas, causing no casualties.

On Wednesday, the Israeli military carried out 29 air strikes and fired tank shells at militant targets in Gaza after Islamic Jihad launched 60 rockets towards Israel in the heaviest such barrage in nearly two years.

No casualties were reported on either side of the frontier in Wednesday's incidents.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that Israel would “hit back with increasing force” against anyone who tried to ruin celebrations over the next few days of the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Palestinian sources noted that Gaza's ruling Hamas Islamist movement had not joined in the rocket attacks – a sign that it hoped to avoid widening the conflict.

But, the sources said, Hamas also had not moved immediately to try to stop the launchings, apparently concerned it would be seen by Palestinians as less committed than Islamic Jihad to confronting Israel.

Islamic Jihad has strong ties with Israel's arch-foe Iran and is the second largest faction in the enclave.

Last week Israeli forces seized a ship in the Red Sea which it said was carrying missiles to armed groups in Gaza. Officials said the arms may have been intended for Islamic Jihad.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Ralph Boulton

Israeli military calls up reservists on second day of Gaza rocket barrage


The Israel Defense Forces called up a limited number of reservists following a second day of rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel.

The reservists — for air defense, according to the Israel Defense Forces — were summoned on Thursday, when 17 rockets were fired at Israel. Seven landed in Israel and two were intercepted by the Iron Dome system. The remainder hit Palestinian areas. Another rocket struck southern Israel after the announcement was made but caused no damage.

At least seven rockets were fired at southern Israel shortly after the Islamic Jihad terrorist group in Gaza said it would abide by the cease-fire mediated by Egypt in 2012 amid an Israeli operation to stop rocket attacks.

Four rockets were fired Thursday morning at Ashkelon and Ashdod, with two landing in open fields between the cities and one intercepted over Ashkelon by Iron Dome. Ashdod closed schools without rocket-proof shelters following attacks.

Hours later, Israel’s Air Force retaliated by targeting seven “terror sites” in the southern Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue to respond militarily to the attacks.

“Our policy in the South is clear — we attack anyone who attempts to hurt us and we will react with a powerful force,” Netanyahu said Thursday morning. “I want to clarify that whoever tries to hurt our Purim celebrations, we will respond with force.” Purim begins on Saturday evening.

Israel’s security Cabinet met Thursday morning to discuss the escalation in attacks from Gaza.

The previous evening, Islamic Jihad fired dozens of rockets at southern Israel, with 41 landing in Israeli territory, including five in residential neighborhoods. Iron Dome shot down at least three of the rockets. The IDF responded by hitting what it called in a statement 29 “terror locations” in Gaza with artillery fire. Israeli residents were instructed to remain within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter overnight.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks and urged restraint from all sides. The U.S. State Department in its condemnation of the attacks said Israel has a right to defend itself.

Wednesday’s attack was the largest on Israel since the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF said.

Seaport battle looms as Israel plans new competition


Israel is betting its economic future on high-tech exports but faces a low-tech bottleneck in state-owned seaports subject to work stoppages and slowdowns because of the enormous strength of their unions.

All that may be about to change.

The government, for years unwilling to risk a confrontation that could paralyse trade given that 99 percent of exports and imports are transported by ship, last month pledged to end the monopolies of the two main ports of Ashdod and Haifa.

By introducing private piers to compete with the two ports, service would improve and prices would drop across the board, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

The port unions — possibly the most powerful in the country with just 2,400 workers earning double the average public sector salary — are likely to be severely weakened and may have to make concessions or face layoffs.

At a time when the middle class is squeezed by slow economic growth and high costs, there is little sympathy for their plight among average Israelis, let alone businessmen.

“Labour unions in the ports are very strong, very belligerent, very egotistical and are using their control of a key state property against the state,” said Uriel Lynn, president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce.

The unions declined to speak with Reuters for this article and referred questions to the umbrella Histadrut labour federation.

But in a rare television interview in January, the head of the Ashdod union Alon Hassan defended the role of collective bargaining and the right to strike, protected by law, and said the port workers were misunderstood.

“I have no criminal background, and sadly, they point at me in the streets like some mafioso,” he told Israel's Channel 10.

“I see and hear and read that on the outside they don't like us, the port workers, and me specifically. That they paint me as an extortionist, a problematic person. Something I am not.”

The unions will not budge, he said: “I am protecting the workers' agreements that have been signed for tens of years. Fanatically. I am not open to unilateral attempts to breach such agreements.”

Cranes at the port of Haifa. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Articulating the government's position, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said simply: “Let there be war.”

NETANYAHU'S MANDATE

Netanyahu was reelected in January with a mandate to do whatever it takes to fix the moribund economy, which grew 3.2 percent in 2012, its slowest pace in three years. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis staged unprecedented nationwide protests in mid-2011 over high housing costs and soaring prices.

Netanyahu has placed the blame for the high cost of living on monopolies and cartels that prevent competition and began cracking down, starting with the country's most vital services.

On April 21 the government approved an open skies deal that liberalises aviation between Israel and Europe and is expected to bring in more foreign airlines and lower air fares. A two-day strike at flag carrier El Al and two smaller Israeli airlines ended with the government agreeing to pay a higher portion of the airlines' security costs.

Car importers and television operators are also in Netanyahu's sights.

Few groups wield as much power as the port workers, as gatekeepers for Israel's international commerce, however.

The Manufacturers Association of Israel said the country lost 25 million shekels ($7 million) directly and tens of millions more indirectly in a dispute at Ashdod port in April.

The workers, who held a 10-day slowdown in protest at a new rule requiring port navigators to stay on site throughout their shift even at quiet times, forced 32 cargo ships to wait hours off the coast.

Five ships were eventually redirected to Haifa about 80 miles (130 km) to the north and five others simply “took off”, the manufacturers' group said.

OLD FOES

Netanyahu has faced off with the port workers before. A decade ago, when the ports were run by a single government-owned company, ships wanting to dock in Israel were delayed an average of 17.4 hours, according to government statistics.

Then finance minister, Netanyahu in 2005 pushed through a reform that broke the ports into three units and a separate managing body called the Israel Ports Co, all still government-owned. The unions stopped work for one month before agreeing to the change.

The government at the time made clear this was considered only the first step toward total privatisation of the port system and two years later, Israel Shipyards began operating a small private port on a floating dock in Haifa.

Service has since improved. Container vessels in 2012 waited on average 3.7 hours to dock in Haifa, which handled 24 million tonnes, and 6.5 hours in Ashdod, which received 19.5 million tonnes. Israel Shipyards handled another 1.3 million tonnes.

But the wait time is still high by international standards.

Containers at the port of Haifa. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

“In most ports in world, the quays wait for the vessels and not the vessels wait for the quays. So anything above zero would not be acceptable,” Dov Frohlinger, chief operating officer of Israel Ports Co, told Reuters.

“What will happen to the waiting time in the next five to six years as cargo grows?”

Rafi Danieli, chief executive of Israel's biggest shipping company Zim, agreed the situation was substandard.

“In central and efficient ports in the world you work according to windows. You know exactly when to arrive and when to enter … In Israel, less so,” he said.

PROTECT THE WORKERS

In February, the state sold the rights to manage and operate the small Red Sea port of Eilat, which handles just 5 percent of the country's sea trade. Israeli firm Papo Maritime paid 120 million shekels for a 15-year deal, and it has the option to pay 105 million shekels more for an extra 10 years.

But in an example of the inflexibility of the system, negotiators had to reach an agreement with every one of the port's 120 workers, a government official told Reuters. Papo Maritime was the only bidder to hang on to the end.

Shortly after Eilat was privatised, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz outlined the rest of the plan: “Opposite each port, a private, competing pier must be built.”

The plans to build the piers, which will cost a little more than 4 billion shekels each, is awaiting final government approval. But Meir Shamra, who heads the Finance Ministry's privatisation unit, said the government was determined to make it happen.

Although no talks are currently underway, preliminary checks showed investors will come when the time is right, he said.

Avi Edri, who represents the port unions among the 800,000 public sector and other workers at the Histadrut federation, said his constituency “would never let it (competing private ports) happen”.

The unions want to explore the idea of forming a private company in which workers could own a minority stake, which would give them an incentive not to strike, Edri told Reuters. Shamra said the government might be open to the idea.

But the right to strike must remain inviolate, Edri said.

“Even if they gave a million shekels to each worker, the right to strike, or the right to unionise, or the right to protest is holy,” he said. “It is above all the money in the world.”

A worker sits as a crane unloads containers from a ship at the port of Haifa. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

$1 = 3.65 shekels. Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Man behind Iron Dome addresses Milken students


Milken Community High School's middle and upper school students and teachers got a unique glimpse into the inner workings of some of the Israeli military’s most cutting-edge technology on March 7.

The best part? It was delivered by someone who had an integral role in bringing it into being: retired Brig. Gen. Daniel Gold, the mind behind the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system.

Speaking with the assurance of a military veteran, Gold smiled with pride as he described to a packed auditorium the mechanics of Iron Dome and the breathing room that it gives to Israeli citizens, soldiers and politicians by defending Israeli cities from most of the rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, as it did in November.

“We have systems, sensors, eyes all over Israel that monitor what is going on in our neighborhood. We know every launch, where the launch point is, where they are shooting from and where the landing point is,” Gold told the audience.

Iron Dome works as follows: Radar units across the country detect incoming rockets and calculate information about their speeds and trajectories. Those data are then relayed to the control center, or “brain,” as Gold put it.

The brain decides which rockets, if any, will hit civilian areas. It sends that information to soldiers in a command center, who in turn launch missiles from one of five deployed mobile launchers, each of which can hold up to 20 missiles. The intercepting missile — receiving updates from the control center and its own internal radar — then launches into the sky, tracking down the enemy rocket.

Gold played video footage of the Iron Dome intercepting rockets in November’s weeklong Operation Pillar of Defense. More than 1,400 rockets were launched into Israel during the conflict, threatening civilian centers such as Ashdod, Sderot and Beersheba. A few even made it as far as Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and economic hub.

Most of the rockets landed harmlessly in open areas, a handful evaded Iron Dome and hit Israeli cities and many — 421 to be precise — were shot down by Iron Dome missiles before hitting their targets, according to the Israeli military.

As they watched clip after clip of Iron Dome blasting Hamas rockets out of the sky, students and faculty burst into applause each time a ball of fire appeared, indicating that the target was hit.

Although Iron Dome wasn’t implemented until 2011, Gold made clear that it would have been useful during the 2006 Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, when thousands of Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon killed more than 40 Israeli civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.

When Hezbollah terrorists fired rockets from a “civilian area site,” he said it was not the “Israeli way” to send in fighter jets. And a ground operation wasn’t ideal, especially if the rockets were deep into Lebanese territory, because of the risk it posed to Israeli soldiers.

Shying away from aerial bombings and ground operations left an obvious choice — anti-rocket missile defense. Although Iron Dome is now admired as a game changer for Israel, the Pentagon and Israeli military officials at the time didn’t take seriously a science-fiction type machine, one that could simply track down rockets — rockets that travel faster than bullets — and blast them to pieces.

As early as 2005, Gold and his team in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv conjured up the idea that is now Iron Dome. He told a group of Milken math and science students after his speech that when the government refused to fund the research and development, he “bypassed” the Israeli bureaucracy. A 2009 report submitted by Israeli State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss accused Gold of moving ahead with the project without first receiving the required government approval.

When asked whether he was concerned about getting in trouble, he said confidently that his team completed its mission “very fast” and that he had worked around the bureaucratic process “15 times before.”

One of the advantages of Iron Dome is that in addition to shooting down dangerous rockets, it knows to not bother shooting down the harmless ones, missiles that Israel’s control center projects will land in the sea or in open fields. That becomes significant given that each interceptor missile costs between $50,000 and $100,000 (depending on the size of the purchase).

Of course, Gold told a group of students that there’s more to consider than the price tags or even the money saved by not resorting to an invasion.

“The calculation is not one-on-one,” he said. “What is the damage that you prevent? Because you prevent billions of dollars of damage [to] properties.”

One student asked Gold what role America plays in the Iron Dome. Gold responded by saying that only after Israel completed the research and development on its own did it request American aid to purchase mobile launchers and missiles. Since 2010, Congress and the Obama administration have provided nearly $300 million in Iron Dome funding, with an additional $211 million committed for this fiscal year.

Gold’s time with the students concluded with remarks from Metuka Benjamin, the organizer of the event and the president of Milken Community High School.

“I hope you feel as I do — proud of Israel to come up with such an invention that saves people’s lives,” she said. 

As it pummels Gaza, Israel faces a Hamas with stronger missiles and closer allies


In some ways, Israel’s latest confrontation with Hamas looks like past conflicts in the Gaza Strip. Operation Pillar of Defense has left some key Hamas leaders dead, depleted weapons supplies and hit more than 1,000 targets in Gaza.

“We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organizations” in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at his Sunday Cabinet meeting.

But there are also some important — and more worrisome — differences that Israel is seeing in Hamas this time around. The terrorist organization that rules Gaza is using more powerful missiles, with a range that can reach the Israeli heartland, and Hamas has closer and stronger allies at its side.

In the past, Hamas rockets threatened only Israel’s South. At their farthest, the projectiles could reach the desert metropolis of Beersheva and the southern coastal cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.

This time, however, the rockets have flown nearly 50 miles, reaching the densely populated center of the country: Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, making Hamas’ rockets no longer just a problem for Israel’s “periphery.” Taken together with Hezbollah’s increasing firepower from Lebanon, terrorist missiles can reach virtually all of Israel.

Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which shoots incoming missiles out of the air, has helped limit the damage from Hamas' rocket attacks. The system is deployed to eliminate missiles headed for Israeli population centers, and Israeli officials say the interception rate is near 90 percent. As of Monday, Iron Dome shot down 350 of 1,000 missiles overall aimed at Israel; most landed in unpopulated areas and were not targeted by Iron Dome.

Complicating matters further for Israel, Hamas has a steadfast ally in Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Last week, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil visited Gaza and voiced support for Hamas. Egypt also recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv after the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, which marked the beginning of the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Pillar of Defense.

On Saturday, Hamas hosted Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, who during his visit to the Gaza Strip condemned “blatant Israeli aggression.”

Cairo’s sympathies make the conflict especially complicated for Israel, which hopes to safeguard its treaty with Egypt even as it attempts to subdue Hamas. So far, the government of Egypt is playing the role of mediator between Israel and Hamas as the two sides discuss a possible cease-fire.

By Monday, the conflict had claimed three Israeli fatalities — from a missile strike on an apartment building in the town of Kiryat Malachi — and dozens of injuries. In Gaza, about 100 Palestinians were reported dead and more than 600 injured.

Even as cease-fire negotiations took place, some 75,000 Israeli reserve troops were activated, and military personnel and equipment arrived at the Gaza frontier in preparation for a possible ground invasion. On Saturday night, rows of military jeeps and armored cars sat parked at a gas station near the border while dozens of young soldiers in full uniform — some with helmets and others with vests — stood in groups or clustered with middle-aged officers around tables. For many, the immediate concern was about where to find some food.

“There’s nothing open,” one soldier complained as he watched a nearby restaurant shutter its doors.

Chaim, a soldier who did not give his last name due to IDF restrictions on speaking to the media, told JTA that Israel should act forcefully.

“Everyone wants to go in,” he said of a ground invasion. “We’ve waited too long. I’m calm. We have a father in heaven.

“We need to keep going,” he said, until the terrorists “don’t exist.”

Yossi, a soldier from Ashkelon, a frequent target of Gaza’s missiles, said he’s excited to serve.

“I take it,” he said of the rocket fire, “and I also defend.”

Polls show Israelis are strongly supportive of the operation in Gaza, and Netanyahu’s political opponents have lined up behind him, notwithstanding the elections in January.

“Israel is united in the war against terror,” Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, a Netanyahu rival, wrote last week on her Facebook page. She called Jabari an “arch-terrorist,” writing, “His assassination is right and just.”

The Obama administration also supported the Israeli operation.

“There’s no country in the world that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” President Obama said at a news conference Sunday. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces, and potentially killing civilians.”

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Gaza militants use Egyptian-brokered ceasefire to launch 21 rockets into Israel


Palestinian militants reportedly fired 21 rockets from Gaza into Israel during a unilateral ceasefire called by Israel to facilitate a visit to Gaza by Egypt’s prime minister.

Israel briefly suspended its attacks on Gaza on Friday — the third day of Israel’s operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas — at the behest of Egypt ahead of an impromptu solidarity visit by Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil, an Israeli official told the news site Ynet.

Four of the rockets fired during the Egyptian premier’s visit were intercepted over Ashdod by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The remaining 17 landed in and around Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat, Ynet site reported. Israeli aircraft resumed their attacks late Friday morning.

So far, the exchanges have killed 19 Palestinians, including two children and Ahmed Jabari, a top terrorist chief, and three Israelis. Israel launched the operation in retaliation for intensified rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

According to Ynet, the Israeli defense ministry will deliver a fifth Iron Dome battery to the Israel Air Force for deployment on Saturday. Iron Dome intercepted 140 rockets since the operation began on Wednesday, according to NRG, the news site of Ma’ariv.

Early on Friday morning, before the visit, two Katyusha Grad rockets from Gaza hit Ashdod and another exploded in a house in Sha’ar Hanegev regional council, NRG reported. No one was injured in the barrage. Iron Dome intercepted five Katyushas destined for Be’er Sheva and another five hit unpopulated areas.

Later Friday, two rockets launched from Gaza reached the Tel Aviv area, at least the third and fourth to do so since Wednesday. There were no reports of injuries or damage. Hamas claimed responsibility for firing the rockets.

On Thursday evening, Israel Air Force aircraft hit some 250 targets in the Gaza Strip. One of the targets, according to the Jerusalem Post, was the home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. He was reportedly not hurt.

The IDF is drafting 16,000 reserves troops in possible preparation for a ground incursion into Gaza, Army Radio reported. According to previous reports, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had asked the cabinet to approve drafting 30,000 troops.

Since operation Pillar of Defense began on November 14, the IDF killed 15 Palestinians in Gaza, including three children and seven militants, AP reported.

On Friday, Israel deployed thousands of police officers at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a dite holy to both Muslims and Jews, in preparation for disturbances during Friday prayers by Muslims.

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv under rocket fire, Netanyahu warns Gaza


Palestinian militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades on Friday and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day, in a stinging challenge to Israel's Gaza offensive after an Egyptian bid to broker a truce.

The attacks came just hours after Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the Gaza Strip and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.

Although Israel had endured months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza, the violence escaleted on Wednesday when Israel retaliated with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.   Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.

Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, on Friday.

It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which is also Israel's capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day old air war against militants in Hamas-run Gaza.

Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv on Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out on Friday when the commercial centre was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.

The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have so far caused no casualties or damage, but could be political poison for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, favored to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu, signaling a possible ground campaign, said hours earlier.

A Hamas source said the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.

Officials in Gaza said 22 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

The Palestinian dead include eight militants and 14 civilians, among them seven children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold. Israel said more than 35 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory and 86 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel denied Palestinian assertions that its aircraft struck while Kandil was in the enclave.

TEL AVIV ROCKET

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defense preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Mursi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Meanwhile, Israel has begun drafting 16,000 reserve troops, a possible precursor to invasion. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area of Friday.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis also died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

 

JewishJournal.com edited this story.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Ari Rabinovitch, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Peter Graff

Barak: Current episode with Gaza ‘not over’


Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the current episode of rocket fire from Gaza is not over, during a visit to the border with Gaza.

Barak on Tuesday held a security analysis with the Israel Defense Forces chiefs in the area, including Gaza Division Commander Brig. Gen. Mickey Edelstein; Commander of the Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo; and Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh.

“Hamas and the other terrorist organizations are suffering as a result of intense strikes [by the IDF] in Gaza. But it is certainly not over and we will decide how and when to act if necessary.  I do not want to address either timing or means [of operation]; it would not be right to provide this information to the other side,” Barak said, according to a statement from the Defense Ministry.

“We do not intend to allow – in any shape or form – the continued harming of the day to day life of our citizens.   And we intend to reinforce the deterrence – and strengthen it – so that we are able to operate along the length of the border fence in a way that will ensure the security of all our soldiers who are serving around the Gaza Strip.”

Barak added that even if other Gaza terrorist organizations are shooting some of the rockets, that Israel holds Hamas, which is in charge of Gaza, responsible for all of the attacks. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the security cabinet on Tuesday morning to discuss possible responses to the attacks from Gaza.

A long-range Grad missile fired from Gaza on Tuesday morning struck Ashdod, but did not cause any injuries or damage. Early Tuesday morning, Israel Air Force aircraft fired at and struck a weapon storage facility in the central Gaza Strip, and two launching sites in the northern Gaza Strip, according to the IDF.

On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Gaza terrorists for the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. He also called on Israel to be restrained in its response.

“The secretary-general reiterates his call for an immediate cessation of indiscriminate rocket attacks by Palestinian militants targeting Israel and strongly condemns these actions,” Ban’s spokesman said in a statement. “Both sides should do everything to avoid further escalation and must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure the protection of civilians at all times.”

At least 160 rockets have been fired at southern Israel from Gaza since Saturday night, according to reports.

Israel seizes pro-Palestinian activist ship, Estelle off Gaza


The Israeli navy seized an international pro-Palestinian activist ship on the Mediterranean high seas on Saturday to prevent it breaching Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, a military spokeswoman said.

She said no one was hurt when marines boarded the SV Estelle, a three-mast schooner, and that it was rerouted to the Israeli port of Ashdod after it ignored orders to turn away from the Hamas-governed Palestinian enclave.

The Estelle was carrying 30 activists from Europe, Canada and Israel, humanitarian cargo such as cement and goodwill items such as children's books, a mission spokesman said on Saturday.

Shipboard activists could not immediately be reached for comment on the interception, which was carried out in international waters as they were on their final Gaza approach.

Greece, five of whose citizens were among the activists, said in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Athens that all of the Estelle's passengers were in good health.

Citing a need to stem arms smuggling to Hamas and other Palestinian militants, Israel maintains a tight naval blockade of Gaza. Israel and neighbouring Egypt also limit overland traffic to and from the territory.

Palestinians describe the curbs as collective punishment for Gaza's 1.6 million residents, and their supporters abroad have mounted several attempts to break the blockade by sea. Most were stopped by Israel, and detained foreign activists repatriated.

In a May 2010 interception, Israeli marines killed nine Turkish activists in clashes aboard their Gaza-bound ship.

An inquiry into that incident commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon found the Gaza blockade legal but faulted the Israeli navy for excessive force.

With rocket fire continuing, southern Israeli schools are closed


Schools were closed in southern Israel again as rockets fired from the Gaza Strip continued to strike despite a cease-fire.

The cities of Beersheba, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Kiryat Malachi and Gan Yavne canceled classes for Thursday after several rockets targeted Beersheba the day before. Schoolchildren in Netivot were sent home Thursday after a rocket landed next to a school that morning while it was in session.

At least half a dozen rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel by mid-afternoon Thursday. Two rockets fired at Beersheba were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Islamic Jihad has denied responsibility for Thursday’s rocket fire, according to Haaretz. The military believes small, radical factions are firing the rockets.

Early Thursday morning, the Israel Defense Forces said it struck a rocket-launching site and what it called a “terror tunnel” in Gaza. “The targeting of these sites is in direct response to the rockets fired at Israel,” including rockets fired Wednesday night against Beersheba, an IDF statement said.

“Hamas uses other terror organizations to carry out terror attacks against the State of Israel and will bear the consequences of these actions in any future operation embarked upon by the IDF in order to eliminate the terror threat and restore the relative calm to the area,” the statement added.

Terrorist groups in Gaza began launching a barrage of rockets at Israel on March 9 after Israel assassinated Zuhir Mussah Ahmed Kaisi, leader of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The IDF believed Kaisi was planning a terrorist strike in Israel.

Since the violence began, more than 200 rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip. Tens of rockets have hit Israel since an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire was announced at 1 a.m. Tuesday.

Rockets land in Israel despite reported cease-fire


At least seven rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza exploded in Israel after reports of an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.

Egypt announced that a cease-fire between terrorist groups in Egypt and Israel came into effect at 1 a.m. Tuesday.

“We are still following the situation in the South and we need to see how it develops and whether the [rocket] firing really stops,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz said Tuesday. “It’s not over until it’s over. Quiet will be answered with quiet, and fire will be answered with fire.” 

A Reuters report late Monday quoted unnamed Egyptian officials as announcing the cease-fire. Neither Hamas nor Israel would confirm the report, and the terms of the truce were unclear.

Terrorist groups in Gaza launched a barrage of rockets at Israel March 9 after Israel assassinated Zuhir Mussah Ahmed Kaisi, leader of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces believed Kaisi was planning a terrorist strike in Israel.

Since the violence began four days ago, more than 200 rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip. The Iron Dome anti-missile system has intercepted 56 and the IDF has carried out 37 strikes inside Gaza against rocket launchers and weapons storage facilities and factories.

Israeli authorities said Iron Dome had intercepted 90 percent of the long-range missiles targeting major Israeli cities such as Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon.

At least 26 Palestinians, including a 14-year-old and three other civilians, were killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza. The majority of those killed were terrorists, including 14 from Islamic Jihad, according to the IDF.

At least seven Israelis and foreign workers in Israel have been wounded, two seriously, and dozens have been treated for shock, according to reports.

The IDF Home Front Command ordered schools closed again Tuesday in cities and towns located up to 25 miles from the Gaza border, affecting about 200,000 children. It was the third day that classes have been canceled. Classes at colleges and universities in the area also were closed.

Netanyahu pledges decisive response as rockets slam southern Israel


As southern Israel was barraged by rockets for a fourth straight day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was hitting back “strongly and decisively,” and its Iron Dome anti-missile defense system was intercepting many of the rockets coming from the Gaza Strip.

“The IDF is continuing to—strongly and decisively—attack the terrorists in the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said Monday at the Knesset. “Whoever intends to harm our citizens, we will strike at him.”

Israel has responded to the barrage of missiles with more than 30 attacks on rocket-launching sites and weapons facilities. At least 20 Palestinians, including two civilians, have been killed since the recent violence began. Several dozen Palestinian civilians, including several children, reportedly have been wounded in the strikes.

More than 200 rockets have been fired at Israel since Israel assassinated a terrorist leader from the Popular Resistance Committee. Israel’s military said the PRC leader, Zuhir Mussah Ahmed Kaisi, was planning an attack on Israel through the Sinai.

At least eight Israelis have been injured, two seriously, in the attacks by the PRC and Islamic Jihad. Hamas, which rules Gaza, has not launched missiles in the latest round of attacks.

At least two dozen rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel on Monday. The Iron Dome system intercepted at least eight fired at Beersheba and five at Ashdod.

One rocket fired Monday struck an empty kindergarten building, a day after a rocket landed in a school courtyard. One rocket Monday struck Gadera, located 24 miles south of Tel Aviv.

Also Monday, rockets fired from Gaza struck the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza, which has remained open throughout the hostilities. The crossing was closed for about half an hour before operations were continued. A truck and a van on their way to deliver goods to Gaza were hit, according to a statement by Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories.

“Despite the continuous barrage of mortars and artillery shells from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, the IDF and COGAT continue to honor Israel’s commitments to transfer goods through the Kerem Shalom crossing to the people of Gaza in an efficient and secure manner,” the statement said.

Schools were closed for a second day on Monday in cities and towns located up to 25 miles from the Gaza border, affecting about 200,000 children. Classes at colleges and universities in the area also were closed.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that he is “very concerned” by the new round of violence, saying that civilians on both sides are paying a heavy price.

Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel remains on alert against an attack from Sinai. The prime minister commended the security and intelligence services in the airstrike that killed Kaisi and another member of the Popular Resistance Committee.

“We have exacted from them a very high price,” he said. “Naturally we will act as necessary.”

Netanyahu praised the Iron Dome missile defense system, which according to the IDF has intercepted 90 percent of its targets.

“We will do everything in our power to expand the deployment of this system” in the months and years ahead, he said.

Netanyahu also lauded the residents of the southern Israeli communities for their resilience in the face of the rocket barrage. He met Sunday with with 30 municipal leaders from the area and received their staunch backing.

“In the end, the strongest force at our disposal is the fortitude of the residents, of the council heads, of Israelis and of the government,” he said.

On Sunday afternoon, a rocket that landed in a residential neighborhood of Beersheba damaged 15 homes; another rocket that landed near a Beersheba school caused damage to the structure. Pieces of a rocket intercepted by Iron Dome also hit a car and a water pipe in the city, according to Ynet.

The United States said it was “deeply concerned by the renewed violence in southern Israel,” U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said in a statement issued Saturday. “We condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza by terrorists into southern Israel in recent days, which has dramatically and dangerously escalated in the past day. We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts.

“We regret the loss of life and injuries, and we call on both sides to make every effort to restore calm,” the statement concluded.

Egypt’s ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Othman, told the Palestinian Ma’an news agency Sunday that Egypt was working to halt the escalation of violence between Gaza and Israel. He said his country was in contact with both sides in an attempt to stop the violence in order to “to avoid undesirable developments.”

Othman called Israel’s offensive “unjustifiable and a breach to the truce sponsored by Egypt.”

The Popular Resistance Committees promised revenge for Kaisi’s assassination.

“All options are open before the fighters to respond to this despicable crime,” said Abu Attiya, a PRC spokesman. “The assassination of our chief will not end our resistance.”

It is believed that the short-range rockets are being launched by the Popular Resistance Committee, according to the IDF, while the long-range and midrange rockets are being launched by Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaina said that “Israel’s escalation creates a negative atmosphere and increases the tension, which leads to the increase in violence in the region,” according to CNN.

The IDF issued a statement saying that it holds “Hamas responsible for the recent incidents since the terror organization currently has jurisdiction in the area [Gaza].” The statement said that “The Hamas movement, although not the one performing the launchings, is not doing anything to prevent it either.”

Egypt negotiating between Israel and Gaza factions for ceasefire, diplomats say


Egyptian intelligence officials have been leading efforts to mediate between Israel and Hamas in the last few days, in order to calm the escalation on the Israel-Gaza border.

Egyptian diplomats said that there is an effort to bring about a ceasefire by Tuesday morning.

“We hope that we will succeed to reach quiet tonight,” said one Egyptian diplomat.

Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that Hamas approached Egyptian intelligence and asked to pass a message to Israel regarding the renewal of calm.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Kassams strike southern Israel


At least four Kassam rockets fired from Gaza struck southern Israel.

Three rockets hit Wednesday night, according to the Israel Defense Forces, though some Israeli news reports put the number at five. An additional rocket hit about three hours earlier. No damage or injuries were reported.

In the last month, 29 rockets fired from Gaza have struck Israel, according to the IDF.

Grad rocket explodes near Ashdod as Gaza tensions spiral


A Grad rocket fired from Gaza exploded south of Ashdod on Tuesday after a day of escalation along the border. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

At least seven Palestinians, including four civilians, were killed earlier Tuesday during heavy exchanges of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip, in one of the most serious rounds of fighting near the Strip since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009.

At around 4 P.M., four mortars were fired at kibbutzim Alumim and Sa’ad, landing in open areas and causing no injuries. The IDF fired mortars at the launching point, apparently hitting the Palestinians behind the launches but also hitting 12 Palestinian civilians, killing at least four.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Eight members of the Levi family adjust to rockets in Ashkelon


ASHKELON, Israel (JTA) — Another rocket warning siren wails and eight members of the Levi family, including a grandmother and a newborn baby, quickly cram into the small bedroom made of reinforced concrete that serves as the family’s bomb shelter.

“Come on, come on! Get in!” they shout. Just before the heavy metal door slams shut, the family dog, Pick, quickly is whisked inside.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, they listen as the sound of the siren’s wail trails off, replaced by the thud of the rocket landing. Returning to the television news a few minutes later, they see it has landed a few blocks away at a local soccer stadium.

Earlier in the day, another rocket landed much closer — just across the street.

The Grad-type missile hit a construction site, killing Hani el Mahdi, a 27-year old construction worker from a Bedouin town in the Negev, and injured several other workers at the scene, some of them seriously.

“After hearing the boom this morning I’m just not myself,” said Geula Levi, 50, whose house quickly filled up with family members. “I’ve been trying to make lunch but I simply can’t seem to get anything together.”

Since the fighting began over the weekend, two of Levi’s adult children have moved back in, one of them bringing his wife and their 2-month-old daughter. The baby never leaves the reinforced room. Her mother, Vered, ventures out only to get food from the kitchen.

About 60 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel on Monday. Many landed in Ashkelon, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. Some reached as far as Ashdod, some 20 miles from Gaza, killing one woman as she bolted her car to take cover at a bus stop.

This week marks the first time these two major coastal cities have been subject to ongoing rocket barrages from Gaza. Ashkelon, home to some 120,000 people, had been targeted before, but hit only rarely. Ashdod had been considered out of range of Gaza’s rocket fire, but Hamas’ newly imported missiles — thought to be smuggled into the strip from Egypt during the six-month cease-fire that officially ended Dec. 19 — have increased the range of Gaza’s rockets.

Geula Levi said she was fully supportive of the army’s operation in Gaza, which by late Monday had killed 350 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them Hamas militiamen, according to reports.

“They learned their lessons from the Second Lebanon War so I think this time things will be conducted more intelligently,” she said of Israel’s military leaders.

“We’d rather suffer with the missiles now than become like Kiryat Shemona, which suffered for years,” said her eldest son, Avichai, 27.

Outside, the sound of Israeli artillery being fired into Gaza echoed in the streets, which were quiet and mostly empty. Staring out into the eerie emptiness were campaign posters for the upcoming election, including a billboard with a photograph of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni next to the words, “The courage to say the truth.”

Livni’s party, along with those of her main rivals, canceled campaign events scheduled for this week.

At the entrance to Ashkelon, one of those rivals, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the architect of the Israeli strike on Gaza, had his own image up on a billboard with the slogan “Looking truth in the face.”

For the people of Ashkelon, who are living their leaders’ “truths,” there was stoicism mixed with fear.

“It is miserable but it will go on for a while,” said Capt. David Biton, the police commander who oversees the southern district that includes half a million people and stretches from Ashdod to Sderot — all now within range of Gaza’s rockets.

Galit Ben-Asher Yonah, 37, said it was “the shock of my life” to discover that her home in Gan Yavne, a bedroom community near Ashdod, now has come under attack.

Gan Yavne was hit for the first time Sunday, and two more rockets fell Monday. It is the farthest point north that the rockets have reached to date.

Yonah, originally from Los Angeles, is the mother of two young daughters and a newborn son. She says she will be keeping all her children at home for the next few days.

“Never in my life did I think I would have to explain to my 5-year-old that we have to go to the basement because a bomb was falling,” she said. “And there she was guiding me, telling me to cover my head with my hands and stay away from the window as she was taught in nursery school.”

Tal, her 5-year-old, also brought down a snack of bananas and cookies for them after the first rocket fell, telling her in a serious but calm voice that they might be sitting in the basement, which is reinforced against rockets, for a while.

In nearby Nitzan, where many of the families who were evicted three years ago from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza live in temporary homes, there are no protective rooms to which to flee.

“We left the Kasssam rockets to get Katyushas instead,” said Yuval Nefesh, 41, referring to the longer-range Katyusha rockets now striking Israel from Gaza. Before, Palestinians relied almost exclusively on the Kassam, a crude rocket with a range of 10 miles and poor accuracy.

He shrugs when asked how the people are coping. “We pray,” he said.

Nefesh is still in touch with some of the Palestinians from Gaza he met while living there, and he said he has been talking to them by phone since the Israeli air assault began.

Outside, the Elikum Shwarma and Kebab restaurant was one of the few bustling businesses in Ashkelon on Monday. Delivery people were busy ferrying orders to the thousands of people staying indoors.

Avi Zarad, working the cash register, tried to maintain a cheerful atmosphere.

“We can’t send out a message of being stressed out,” he said. A few minutes later a siren sounded and, with no shelter to run to, the customers continued eating calmly.

The soccer stadium where a rocket fell an hour earlier is just across the road.

“We are getting used to it, but it’s a horrible reality,” said Kinneret Cohen, a restaurant worker preparing salads in the kitchen. “We just breathe deeply knowing we have to give the army time to do its work.”