Israel will continue to target attackers, Netanyahu tells Blair


Israel will continue to attack the groups that fire rockets on her citizens, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu's statement Monday morning during a meeting with Mideast Quartet envoy Tony Blair came after Israeli airstrikes targeted what the Israel Defense Forces described as “launching squads” in two locations in the northern Gaza Strip. Two Palestinian men were killed in the strikes. Hamas' military wing claimed one as a fighter and Islamic Jihad claimed the other as a fighter in its militia, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency. At least two others were reported injured.

The IDF said the attacks were in response to mortar shell fire at a routine IDF patrol on the border with northern Gaza, near the Israeli kibbutz of Nir Am.

“We've got Hamas, supported by Iran, firing rockets at us. They’ve fired again. We're not going to let anyone arm themselves and fire rockets on us and think that they can do this with impunity,” Netanyahu said. “They're not going to get away with it. We attacked them before, we attacked them after and we're going to prevent them from arming themselves. This is our policy.”

Also Monday, five Kassam rockets were fired at the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, with no injuries or damage reported, according to Ynet.

Since the beginning of this year, more than 500 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit Israel, including over 50 during October alone, according to the IDF.

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.

Israeli raid kills 3 Gazans, rockets fired at Israel


Violence has flared up between Israel and Gaza, with the Israeli air force killing three Palestinians and militants firing rockets deep across the border.

The latest fighting erupted on Thursday when an air strike on a car killed two militants, one of them from Gaza’s governing Islamist group Hamas, whom Israel accused of planning to send gunmen to attack it through the neighboring Sinai region of Egypt.

Palestinian militants answered Thursday’s air strike with a barrage of rockets, some of which landed near Beersheba, a city 35 km (30 miles) from Gaza. No one was hurt. Air-raid sirens summoned residents of southern Israel to shelters.

Another Israeli air strike followed before dawn on Friday, hitting a Hamas training camp in Gaza City. The blast flattened a nearby home, killing its owner and wounding his wife and six of their children, two critically, hospital officials said.

In a statement voicing regret for the civilian casualties, the military said Palestinian rockets stored next to the camp had stoked the explosion. Hamas accused Israel of a “massacre”.

“We are pursuing intensive contacts with several Arab and international parties, and we stress the necessity of this aggression being stopped immediately,” Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas administration in Gaza, told reporters.

Hamas spurns peacemaking with the Jewish state but has in the past proposed truces as it sought to consolidate control over Gaza and negotiate power-sharing with the rival, U.S.-backed Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Instability has spread in Sinai as Cairo struggles to restore order after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February.

Armed infiltrators killed eight Israelis on the border with Sinai in August. Israeli troops repelling the gunmen killed five Egyptian police, triggering outrage in Cairo that spilled over into the mobbing of Israel’s embassy a month later.

Israel apologized for the Egyptian deaths and Egypt’s interim military rulers vowed to mount security sweeps of Sinai.

Hamas’s standing has grown with the political rise of the kindred Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, formerly a suppressed though popular opposition group. Israel worries about the prospects for its landmark 1979 peace accord with Egypt, which secured the demilitarization of the Sinai.

“The State of Israel is in a bind,” defense analyst Alex Fishman wrote in the biggest-selling Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

“It can’t operate in Sinai in order to defend its sovereignty for fear of its relations with Egypt … and because it can’t beat the donkey, it beats the saddle—and Gaza suffers the blows.”

Some of the Palestinian rockets fired on Thursday and Friday were claimed by a Fatah-linked militia that lost one of its leaders, Essam Al-Batsh, in Israel’s air strike.

Israel said he had also been involved in a 2007 suicide bombing that killed three people in Eilat, a Red Sea port abutting Egypt. The Eilat area went on security alert this week, with the military citing fear of infiltration from Sinai.

Hamas had no comment on the rockets. It has kept out of some of the recent fighting in Gaza, much of which has been between Israel and Islamic Jihad, a different Palestinian armed faction.

The chief of Israel’s military, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, told parliament last month a new Israeli offensive in Gaza could be “drawing close” because of the rocket threat.

That stirred speculation that Israel, which launched a devastating war on Hamas in 2008-2009, might mobilize for a similar assault ahead of the possible installation of a new Islamist-led government in Egypt.

Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, warned that could backfire by providing an electoral boost to the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafis.

“An operation in Gaza is liable to play into their hands, with a kind of acceleration of political processes that you don’t want,” Eiland told Israel Radio.

Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Matthew Jones

Quiet ends in Sderot as rocket attacks resume


SDEROT, ISRAEL (JTA) –Elior Levy was trying to get some rest Monday night.

Living in Sderot, the working-class town on the front line of Israel’s battle with rockets from Gaza, Levy is no stranger to having his sleep interrupted by middle-of-the-night Qassam salvos. Usually a Code Red alert gives residents a 15-second warning to find shelter, but at 5 o’clock Tuesday morning, Levy heard a big crash — and this time there was no warning.

Fortunately, the rocket was not close and caused little damage. So Levy, 17, said he took a sip of water and went back to sleep. Some, particularly the town’s younger children, do not return to slumber so easily.

Residents of the hard-hit Mem-Shalosh neighborhood, on the city’s south side, had been sleeping better the last six months, due to the cease-fire with Hamas.

Until about two weeks ago, that is, when the Israeli army blew up a tunnel that Hamas was building. The army believes the tunnel was to carry out another kidnapping operation of the kind that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still missing.

Since the army operation, the region has been hit by a daily barrage of rockets — about a dozen Monday, more than 30 the day before. Sixty have fallen on Sderot alone so far this month, according to the town’s security officer. The situation essentially is returning to what it had been for much of the past eight years.

The residents of Sderot aren’t happy, but they’re also not surprised.

“We knew it would happen,” said Hadas Nir, who lives in nearby Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and attends Sapir Academy. That’s just what life is like in this area, she said.

“We wake in the morning with Qassams,” Nir said, “and we go to bed at night with Qassams.”

The situation is frightening, but she will deal with it.

“I don’t feel I want to leave the area,” she said. “We have to stay here.”

Rotem Yagel agreed. “If we leave, it is a prize for them,” he said, referring to the Hamas terrorists.

Yagel, 28, originally from Beersheba, is living in the Ayalim student village at Yahini, a moshav a few miles south of Sderot. It is a volunteer work-study program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel that also aims to populate the Negev and Galilee regions.

Itay Avinathan, his roommate in one of the caravans erected by the student volunteers, is staying put, too, even though he said the security risk “is always there.” Avinathan, 24, of Haifa said he wouldn’t have changed his mind about joining the program this fall, even if he had known the rocket fire would resume.

But it is the effect of the rockets on the area’s young children that concerns most people. That is why many of the aid programs for Sderot, funded by the Israel Emergency Campaign of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), are aimed at the youth.

Children like Tal Schneior, a 10-year-old with two sisters and a cat, “likes living in Sderot,” she said in Hebrew, “but there are too many Qassams and Code Reds.”

Others are not taking the situation with such equanimity. A 16-year-old named Ligmor told a visiting group of UJC leaders Tuesday about a close friend whose house was once struck by a rocket. Now every time a Code Red goes off at school, the friend cries inconsolably until her father reassures her by phone that everyone in the family is fine.

David Bouskila, who was elected Sderot’s mayor last week, frets that every child born in the town during the past eight years “doesn’t know any other life than this reality.”

During the past six months of relative quiet, “everything starts to be so nice,” he said. But now that calm has been shattered.

Bouskila, who takes office Dec. 2, is critical of how the government, headed by his own Kadima Party, is handling the situation.

“In the case of security, we have no government in Israel,” he said.

The government has initiated a program to fortify houses in Sderot, beginning with one-story structures. There are 1,048 of them, and just 200 have been completed, Bouskila said, adding that he expects the entire project will be completed in two to three years.

Meanwhile, a host of social services, funded partly by businesses and partly by U.S. federation dollars, have sprung up to make the best of a difficult situation. For example, some 5,000 children in Sderot take part in the Jewish Agency’s Enrichment Fund programs, which provide extracurricular activities during the school day. Parents in Sderot want to see their children return safely home immediately after school, so activities after school are not an option.

There is also the Net@ program, a unique partnership with Cisco, a U.S. company, and Tapuach, an Israeli computer firm, to train promising high school students to be computer network technicians. Upon completion of the rigorous and competitive program, they receive certification from Cisco that makes them marketable for high-tech jobs.

The residents of Sderot deeply appreciate the support — both moral and financial — that they receive from outsiders. But they do not want to be pitied or thought of as impoverished.

“We are not a city of poor people,” Bouskila told the visiting UJC delegation that had come from the group’s General Assembly taking place this week in Jerusalem. “We are a proud people that live in terrible stress.”

Sderot welcomes Obama


SDEROT, Israel (JTA) – At the New Age Beauty Salon in a run-down strip mall here, the manicurist and hairdresser swap opinions of Barack Obama, the latest in a series of high-profile visitors to come through this southern Israeli town.

“Is there a chance I’ll be able to give him a hug?” jokes Yaffa Malka, 44, the salon’s hairdresser and owner. “He’s cute, and besides that I trust him. I’m not sure why, but something about him seems genuine to me. He seems like one of us, someone who knows about difficult times.”

Her friend and co-worker Gila Vazana, the manicurist, says Sderot, the rocket-weary town adjacent to the Gaza Strip, can use all the friends it can get — especially if that friend might be the next U.S. president.

“We need America to be with us and for us all of the time,” says Vazana, her long blond ponytail falling down her back.

Soon after their conversation, Obama’s helicopter touches down in the Negev town.

The U.S. senator from Illinois’ first stop is the Amar family home, which was largely destroyed when a Kassam rocket crashed through its roof, injuring the mother with flying pieces of shrapnel. The family members, like many of their neighbors in Sderot, suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A crowd of some 100 people gathers outside the family’s new home during Obama’s visit, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for U.S. president briefly walks among them to say hello and shake hands.

Tours of Sderot have become part of the unofficial protocol of visits to Israel by both visiting dignitaries and tour groups wishing to show solidarity. Like any site of pilgrimage, rituals have developed.

The usual stops include a visit to a home damaged by Kassam fire, where a meeting is set up with the resident family. The tour then moves to the police station, where a makeshift Kassam museum has been set up with hundreds of the rockets on display, the dates they landed on or near Sderot painted on their sides.

Visitors also often are taken to a hill on the edge of town where they can see into Gaza. It’s nicknamed Kobi Hill after the town’s chief security officer, who rushes there after Kassams land to see from where they were fired.

It’s mostly quiet these days in Sderot following an Egypt-brokered truce deal between Hamas and Israel that is more than a month old. But most of those who live here assume the lull is temporary and that terrible surprises await from Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that rules Gaza.

Reporter Nissim Kanan, who covers Sderot and southern Israel for Israel Radio, says part of the excitement here surrounding Obama’s visit is the sense that he can bring change not just to America but also to Sderot.

Sderot is a working-class town of old-timer immigrant families from Morocco and more recent arrivals from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and many of them see Obama as a man of the people, he says.

“People see Obama as the underdog and McCain as an elitist,” he says, comparing Obama to his presumed Republican rival, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.). “People here like to see people in power that they identify with.”

“Obama? He’s a man of the people,” says Avner Chen, 38, a taxi driver taking his lunch at a falafel restaurant. “I hope he will see Sderot and remember us, what we are living with, and help us.”

During his news conference in the city, Obama seems to answer Chen’s call.

“I will work from the moment I return to America to tell the story of Sderot and to make sure that the good people who live here are enjoying a future of peace, security and hope,” he says.

Next door to the New Age Beauty Salon is the new office of The Israel Project, an organization that works to promote Israel’s security by providing resources to foreign journalists here. Its heavy glass doors and shiny new office equipment stand in stark contrast to the nearby stores, which have broken signs.

“This is a community in crisis, and that people should want to come and show their solidarity here is perfectly understandable and laudable,” says Marcus Sheff, the executive director of the Israel office of The Israel Project.

As Obama finishes his news conference at the Sderot police station, Mayor Eli Moyal brings him a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I Love Sderot.”

The word “love” is represented by a red heart, its Cupid’s bow replaced with a Kassam rocket.

Hamas celebrates one year in office


Gaza Raid Ignites Debate on Impact


As Israeli troops moved deeper into northern Gaza to put a stop to Palestinian rocket fire on the small Negev town of Sderot, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was confident that the huge military operation would radically change the situation on the ground.

However, his critics on the right and on the left, as well as some independent analysts, say it will prove yet another futile exercise. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank was at the center of the argument.

The prime minister hopes the operation, code-named Days of Repentance, will set back Kassam rocket production by the radical Hamas terrorist organization, put Sderot out of range by creating a nearly five-mile-wide rocket-free zone and convince Palestinian society that firing Kassams at Israeli civilians will cost it dearly and is not in its interest.

His opponents on the left, though, maintain that the large-scale operation will only exacerbate feelings of vengeance on the Palestinian side and, ultimately, lead to more violence.

The answer to the Kassams, said legislator Zehava Galon of Yahad-Meretz, should be to advance the timetable for withdrawal and, by leaving Gaza, reduce Palestinian motivation to carry out terror.

The prime minister’s right-wing critics, however, argue that the operation will have only a fleeting impact precisely because of Israel’s planned pullback.

National Religious Party leader Effie Eitam said, “The prime minister has already told the Palestinians they have won. You can’t fight a war when you say in advance that next year you intend to flee.”

Once the Israel Defense Forces units withdraw, he asserted, there will be nothing to stop the Palestinians from producing bigger and better rockets and firing them at Israeli civilians even further afield.

Operation Days of Repentance was launched Sept. 30, after months of almost daily rocket attacks on Sderot. For Sharon, the killing of two young Ethiopian children by rocket fire the day before was the final straw.

He convened the military and told it to do whatever was necessary to stop the shelling. The result was a large, coordinated land and air operation inside northern Gaza, with the IDF overrunning the Beit Hanun area, from which most of the Kassams had been launched, and entering the northern outskirts of the sprawling Jabalya refugee camp.

Sharon insisted that by launching a huge military operation, he is not being sucked into Gaza by the terrorists in a way that might subvert his withdrawal plan. On the contrary, he said the IDF has gone in to create conditions for an orderly withdrawal of settlers and soldiers, when the time comes.

According to military intelligence, the aim of Hamas rocket fire is to create the impression that the militants forced Israel to withdraw, and that when the withdrawal takes place, it will be seen to be occurring under fire. Sharon is determined to prevent them from plausibly making any such claim.

A week after launching the offensive, Sharon spoke of “important achievements.” And, to some extent, the results on the battlefield seemed to bear him out. The IDF plan was to locate and destroy Kassam launching teams, engage other Hamas militants and drive home to Hamas and the civilian population that there was a price to be paid for targeting Israeli civilians.

Sharon also wanted to send another message: Something on the scale of this operation would be the minimal Israeli response the Palestinians should expect if they continue firing Kassams after the withdrawal.

Within the first week of the operation, some of those goals had been achieved. At least seven Kassam launching teams had been spotted by Israeli helicopters or unmanned drones and destroyed. Over 75 Palestinians, most of them militants, had been killed. It was clear, too, that the civilian population was suffering.

However, the plan was not a total success. It did not lead to any significant Palestinian civilian pressure on Hamas to stop firing Kassams, as the IDF had hoped. On the contrary, as the operation wore on, support for Hamas on the Palestinian street seemed to grow.

The more Israel weakened Hamas’ military capabilities, Israeli analysts argue, the stronger it seemed to grow as a political organization. That was one of two major dilemmas Israel faced. The other was how to maintain a rocket-free security zone, while supposedly limiting its military presence in Gaza, not increasing it.

On this issue, Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim explained that the idea was to keep the Kassam launchers out of range, but that did not necessarily require a permanent Israeli presence in a security zone. The concept was more dynamic, with troops moving in and out of the five-mile swath as needed.

Some analysts argue, though, that the growing political strength of Hamas, precisely because of the blows it is taking, shows just how counterproductive the Israeli operation is. They say Hamas will do all it can to continue to fire Kassams, even as Operation Days of Repentance continues, in the hope that Israel will eventually be forced to withdraw by international or domestic pressure. Then Hamas will claim victory, as a forerunner to the claims it will make when Israel withdraws from all of Gaza next year.

Military analysts like Ze’ev Schiff of the newspaper, Ha’aretz, are not convinced that the military operation is reducing Hamas’ military capacity in any significant way. Schiff maintains that Hamas has many rocket-producing workshops in other parts of Gaza, well outside the limits of the present operation.

“If the entire infrastructure isn’t destroyed,” he writes, “it’s only a matter of time before Hamas increases the range of the Kassam rockets and is able to fire them from deeper inside the Gaza Strip.”

Sharon’s deeper strategic response is that once Israel withdraws from Gaza altogether, it will be able to create a deterrent balance, similar to the one that exists today between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

By withdrawing from Gaza and ending the occupation there, Israel will regain the moral high ground. If Hamas still continues to fire rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel will be able to respond even more powerfully than it has, with the support of most of the international community.

In Sharon’s view, Israel’s withdrawing might enable Hamas to increase its military capabilities, but it should reduce its motivation to attack. And if it doesn’t, Israel’s hands won’t be tied.

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