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.

Israel hits Gaza terror base after Kassams strike Sderot

Israel's Air Force struck a terrorist base in Gaza hours after Kassam rockets fired from Gaza struck Sderot.

The Israeli airstrike on Wednesday morning hit a Hamas-sponsored Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades base in northern Gaza Strip, according to reports citing Palestinian sources.

The rocket fired Tuesday night by Palestinian terrorists did not cause any injuries or damage. Earlier in the day, two rockets fired from Gaza fell in the backyard of a private home south of Ashkelon.

Since the beginning of 2012 more than 505 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit Israel, including over 45 during October alone, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Egypt brokering cease-fire between Israel and Palestinians

As rockets continued to fall on southern Israel, Egypt reportedly was working to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.

There was little information reported about Thursday’s cease-fire talks, which are aimed at stopping the terror groups’ rocket attacks on southern Israel and retaliatory strikes by Israel.

Elementary schools, in session until the end of the month, were closed in Ashkelon on Thursday after two rockets were fired at the southern city early that morning. One was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Several mortars and Kassam rockets also were fired at Israel on Thursday.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, claimed responsibility for firing eight rockets at Israel before midnight on Wednesday, according to the Palestinian Ma’an news service.

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade said it would cooperate with Egyptian mediation efforts, but only if Israel halts its retaliatory airstrikes on Gaza.

Hamas also said it would not disassemble its launchers and is ready to “defend and attack,” according to Ma’an.

At least 70 rockets hit southern Israel on Wednesday; 120 have struck Israel since Monday, when the cross-border attacks began.

Kassam rockets fired from Gaza hit Israel

A Kassam rocket fired from Gaza struck southern Israel for the second time in two days.

Both rockets, one fired Monday morning and one fired Sunday afternoon, struck open areas in the Negev. No injuries or damage was reported.

The changing face of Israel’s war on terrorists

If Israel has its way, this is how future conflicts with Gaza-based terrorists will unfold: Israeli aircraft launch surgical strikes on rocket launchers; terrorist leaders are assassinated as necessary; Israeli civilians along the southern frontier are protected by advanced technology that shoots enemy rockets out of the sky; and the world, preoccupied with other matters, is too distracted to object.

The clashes last weekend weekend provide a glimpse of what this brave new world of war craft might look like. They were precipitated by the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) bombing of a car that carried Zuhair Qaisi, leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in the Gaza Strip, and another top PRC terrorist released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.

As Israeli leaders expected, Islamist terrorist organizations responded with a barrage of mortar shells, Qassam rockets and Grad missiles aimed at the million or so Israelis living within firing range of Gaza. But Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system performed admirably, foiling dozens of deadly hits and providing Israel with cover to go after terrorists it considers valuable targets.

Israel also has been able to act decisively without causing widespread carnage and inviting a broader retaliation. As of March 12, Israel Air Force strikes had resulted in few civilian deaths among the more than 20 Palestinians killed — most of the casualties were members of terror groups. And with the world largely distracted by the violence in Syria and a looming confrontation with Iran, it seems that Israel’s leaders viewed this as an opportune moment to strike.

“The Americans are busy with presidential elections; Syria is involved in a civil war, which means that its proxy in Lebanon — Hezbollah — has been weakened; and Egypt is dependent on the U.S. and is in no position to do anything,” said professor Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “Most of the world would be relieved that Israel is tied down in Gaza and not planning an attack on Iran.”

On the Palestinian side, a different set of considerations is driving Hamas, the controlling power in Gaza, to refrain from taking an active part in the attacks against Israel and confronting more extremist organizations.

Hamas is keen to show it can ensure quiet in Gaza and avoid provoking Israel, but it also wants to preserve its position with Gaza’s young and radicalized population by avoiding a clash with the PRC and Islamic Jihad. Both groups are so-called muqawama, or rejectionist, terror groups, funded and backed by Iran, and oppose what they see as Hamas’ “pragmatic” approach. They advocate a commitment to violent struggle against Israel.

“Hamas is in transformation, moving away from its old alliance with Iran and Syria, and attempting to align itself with Sunni states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” said Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hamas has a vested interest in showing that it is capable of maintaining stability in Gaza.”

The decision to pursue Qaisi was driven by the IDF’s belief that he was in the process of planning a terrorist attack from the Sinai Peninsula, a swath of land measuring 23,000 square miles that is only nominally under Egyptian control. Qaisi already had succeeded in launching such an attack, last August, which left eight Israelis dead. The ensuing fighting along the border also claimed the lives of three Egyptian soldiers, prompting thousands to storm Israel’s embassy and souring relations between Jerusalem and Cairo.

Avoiding such an eventuality appears to be shared on the opposite side of the border. Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime has been replaced with a parliament controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood — an Islamist organization with close ties to Hamas — might be compelled to react in the face of widespread civilian deaths in Gaza, Yaari said. But given the country’s relative instability and lack of clear leadership, all factions of the country’s government would like to avoid a Gaza crisis and a further deterioration in relations with Israel.

Egypt’s intelligence chief, Murad Muafi, is playing a major role as a liaison between Hamas and Israel to bring about a cease-fire in Gaza.

Israel’s ability to act narrowly in Gaza — avoiding the threat of an Egyptian retaliation while reducing the likelihood of high civilian casualties that would have generated intense pressure for a wide-scale assault — was enabled by the technological wizardry behind Iron Dome, a potential game-changer in Israel’s continuing struggle against cross-border terrorism, even if it leaves the region’s underlying dynamics unchanged.

The technology, first deployed in southern Israel in March 2011, is capable of downing rockets with a range of between 2.5 and 43 miles. In the latest round of clashes, it has intercepted more than 90 percent of incoming rockets, according to the Jerusalem Post, up from 75 percent a year ago. So far, only one Israeli civilian has been seriously wounded — a 40-year-old worker from Thailand who was hit by shrapnel.

The much-reduced risk of civilian casualties on the Israeli side protects the political leadership from pressure to undertake a full-scale assault on Gaza, as happened during Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day military incursion into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that began in December 2008 and left 1,166 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

“Under the circumstances,” said Yoram Schweitzer, a terrorism expert at the Institute for National Security Studies, “when the chance arose to take out Qaisi, we took advantage of it.”

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

Israel shuts West Bank for holiday, rockets strike Israel

The Israeli military announced a closure of the West Bank for Rosh Hashanah as two rockets fired from Gaza hit southern Israel.

The closure began Tuesday night and will last until Saturday night following the two-day holiday and Shabbat. Exceptions will be made for medical emergencies and the passage of humanitarian aid, as well as doctors and medical personnel, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

“The IDF will continue to operate in order to protect the citizens of Israel while maintaining the Palestinian everday life,” the IDF said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Kassam rockets fired from northern Gaza landed in southern Israel Tuesday night. One hit a power line near a kibbutz, causing a blackout. The Color Red alert system sounded before the rockets hit.

They are the first rockets to hit Israel from Gaza in several weeks.

Kassam from Gaza injures woman, IDF responds

Israel’s Air Force bombed two targets in Gaza after a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza struck southern Israel and injured a woman.

The Israeli aircraft struck what it called a terror activity site in northern Gaza and a smuggling tunnel in southern Gaza in an early Tuesday morning raid, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The raid was in response to a Kassam rocket fired from Gaza at southern Israel on Monday, which injured a 50-year-old resident of Hof Ashkelon. Several others were treated for shock.

The IDF “will continue to respond with determination to any attempt to use terror against the citizens of Israel,” said a statement from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

Israel, Gaza terrorists enter cease-fire

Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza reportedly agreed to a cease-fire.

The agreement came late Sunday night and was followed by a Kassam rocket fired on Ashkelon and ten mortar shells that hit southern Israel. Israel did not respond to the rockets, showing that the cease-fire was holding, according to reports.

The agreement came hours after government ministers ordered the army “to continue to act against those responsible for terrorism.”

The cease-fire came after a weekend in which more than 120 rockets were fired at Israel, including one that struck a school bus seriously injuring a teen, and in which Israeli retaliatory strikes on terrorism sites killed 19 Gaza Palestinians.

“We will judge the other side over the next few days. The extent to which Hamas controls the other militant groups will affect the way we choose to act,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.

A senior Palestinian source quoted in the international Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Aswat said that Egypt is working to seal the current unwritten cease-fire and asked the United Nations envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry to help in negotiations

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday decried the ceasefire, telling Israel Radio that “Hamas is fighting a war of attrition against us. We won’t come to terms with a situation in which they decide when there’s quiet and when the area heats up.”

He accused Hamas of taking advantage of the recent months of relative quiet to smuggle in more and farther-reaching rockets.

Israeli military strikes on Gaza began April 7 after Hamas fired an anti-tank rocket at a school bus, critically injuring a teenage boy and the bus driver.

Eyeless in Gaza

First I saw a young protester telling a CNN reporter in Trafalgar Square, “Every single day, as soon as we turn on the TV, we see children there die in the hospitals, adults dying, children dying on the floor. Why, why, why? Why do children have to die? Why do innocent children have to die on the floor? Why?”

And I thought, She’s right, those children in Gaza are innocent, every human life is precious, civilians aren’t combatants. Doesn’t everyone deserve basic human rights like food and water and life itself?

But then I thought, Where was she when 80 or 90 Hamas rockets a day were raining down on Israel? Where were all the television cameras when innocent children in Ashkelon and Sderot were being maimed and killed?

But then I saw pictures of massive devastation in Gaza on the front pages of the newspapers, and I thought, What good does it do if Israel appears to act like its enemies?

But then I heard Shimon Peres tell George Stephanopoulos that Hamas “did things which are unprecedented in the history even of terror. They made mosques into headquarters. They put bombs in the kindergartens, in their own homes. They are hiding in hospitals.” Where were all the people of Gaza rising up in outrage when Hamas used them as human shields?

Then I heard Palestinian negotiator Hannan Ashwari say that Gaza was a secondary issue, that the real imperative was to reach a lasting political agreement, not a temporary military outcome, and I thought, She’s right, there will be no peace and security for Israel unless a viable two-state solution is reached.

” alt=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ title=’Complete Gaza Coverage’ vspace = 8 hspace = 8 border = 0 align = left>But then I read a blog by Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg recounting his interview with Nizzar Rayyan, the Hamas leader who was killed by Israeli bombs last week. “This is what he said when I asked him if he could envision a 50-year hudna (or cease-fire) with Israel: ‘The only reason to have a hudna is to prepare yourself for the final battle. We don’t need 50 years to prepare ourselves for the final battle with Israel.’ There is no chance, he said, that true Islam would ever allow a Jewish state to survive in the Muslim Middle East.

‘Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God… You [Jews] are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah…. Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him. All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God.'”

And I thought, How can you negotiate with people who reject your nation’s right to exist, and whose version of religion calls you a murderous race? If someone claimed that the best way for America to deal with Bin Laden is to reach a political agreement with al-Qaeda, I’d say that they’re nuts, that there can be no negotiation or accommodation with people lusting for a final battle to rid your people from the earth.

But then I heard an Arab diplomat railing against Israel’s continuing tolerance of illegal settlements, and I thought, As long as Knesset coalition governments are dependent on ultra-Orthodox parties who have no respect for the law, how can anyone expect Arab moderates to gain enough political power for Israel to negotiate with them, when Israeli moderates can’t muster that clout either?

Then I reminded myself that the people of Gaza overwhelmingly voted for Hamas in a democratic election, and I thought, What good is democracy, if it can put terrorists in charge of governments?

But then I read that tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs in the Israeli town of Sakhnin had rallied against Israel’s Gaza offensive, and I thought, What Middle East nation except Israel would ensure that anti-government protesters had the right to hold such a demonstration?

And then I remembered reading that former Israeli army chief Moshe Yaalon warned Israelis not to delude themselves about Israel’s Arab population, that Israeli Arabs — a fifth of Israel — constitute a potential fifth column.

Then I saw a Teleseker Institute poll saying that 95 percent of Israeli Jews support Operation Cast Lead against Hamas. But then I saw a Rasmussen poll saying that while 44 percent of Americans think Israel should have taken military action against the Palestinians, 41 percent say it should have tried to find a diplomatic solution — essentially a tie, within the poll’s margin of error. And I wondered, How long does diplomacy have to keep failing, how many bombs have to keep dropping, before self-defense finally trumps talk?

I wish I didn’t believe that the events now unfolding in the Middle East are too complicated for unalloyed outrage. I wish the arguments of only one side rang wholly true to me. I am the first to accuse myself of paralyzing moral generosity — the fatal empathy that terrorists prey on. But ambivalence is not the same as moral equivalence, and holy war, no matter who is waging it, makes my flesh crawl.

In Milton’s poem “Samson Agonistes,” Samson — blinded, in chains — cries out, “Promise was that I/ Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;/ Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him/ Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves.” But when Samson shows the strength to shun Delilah, God restores his power, enabling him to pull down the temple and kill the Philistines, though along with himself.

What makes “Samson Agonistes” a tragedy is the self-destruction that victory entails. I passionately assert Israel’s right to exist in peace with its neighbors and within secure borders. But I can’t help fearing that its military success in Gaza, should it come, will also entail a tragic cost.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly; the views he expresses are his own. Reach him at

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.”

Kassams land near mayor of Sderot’s house; Interfaith fellowship group denies missionary ties

Qassam Lands Near Sderot Mayor’s Home

A Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in a residential neighborhood of Sderot.

The rocket landed Sunday not far from the home of Mayor Eli Moyal, Ynet reported, and started a fire that was extinguished quickly by firefighters. No injuries were reported.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered all Israel-Gaza border crossings closed Monday in response to the attack.

An Egyptian-mediated cease-fire between Israel and the terrorist Hamas-run Gaza Strip has been breached by rocket attacks more than 36 times in the past three months.

“Everything is all right at home,” Moyal told Ynet. “The problem here is not a personal one but a political one. People are under the impression that there is a cease-fire, but a few dozen rockets have been fired at Israel since the truce went into effect.

“During the months of the cease-fire the Palestinian groups have armed themselves with thousands of more rockets.”

Eckstein Denies Group’s Money Used to Missionize

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein denied a report suggesting that some money raised by his interfaith group was used to missionize Jews.

The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Monday that Eckstein’s organization, the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, gave $10,000 in 2007 to an evangelical group in Jerusalem that proselytizes Israeli Jews. It also reported that the fellowship sent money to a Protestant group in Massachusetts that Ma’ariv called “a controversial Christian cult.”

Eckstein, the fellowship’s founder and president who has raised tens of millions of dollars for Israel from American evangelicals, insisted the story misrepresented the facts. He said the report was simply a continuation of a smear campaign against him and the information was fed to the newspaper by a source with an axe to grind.

Eckstein said the fellowship used the Jerusalem group, King of Kings, to pass $10,000 to a church in Bethlehem to help provide humanitarian aid to local Christians before Christmas.

“We were informed last year about the dwindling Christian community in Bethlehem, which has been persecuted by the radical Muslims there to the point that most of them have left. And the Protestant church there and the people there needed funds for basic needs — food, clothing, medicine, heating fuel,” he said. “We didn’t hesitate to respond with a modest gift — at least for us. The only place that could deliver that was this group, King of Kings.”

As to the gift to the Massachusetts group, the Community of Christ in Orleans, Eckstein said it was a $750 donation by the fellowship to the group’s choir after canceling on an event there.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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

Cease-fire with Hamas appears imminent

JERUSALEM (JTA)—A six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, due to go into effect Thursday, could help create conditions for wider peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

But there are two huge potential stumbling blocks: Israeli generals doubt whether the “tahadiyeh,” or truce, will hold and the chances that Hamas and the more moderate Fatah, which controls the West Bank, will work in tandem for a wider peace deal are remote.

When Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip a year ago, Israeli and American leaders saw a window of opportunity for peacemaking with the relatively moderate Fatah leaders.

The idea was that with Hamas out of the way, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finally could negotiate the two-state deal Israel and the Palestinians have been trying to close ever since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.

A year later, the situation is more complicated.

Abbas hasn’t had the authority or power to deliver on a deal that would include only the West Bank, let alone a full-fledged peace-abiding Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

After some 2,000 Kassam rockets and mortar shells blasting Israel’s southern towns, it has become clear that as long as Hamas controls Gaza, it can scuttle any deal by rocketing Israeli civilians.

Egypt announced Tuesday that the cease-fire deal it has been brokering between Israel and Hamas would go into effect Thursday morning. Israeli forces will stop initiating attacks in Gaza and Hamas will ensure an end to cross-border shelling from the territory, Egyptian mediators said.

Hamas confirmed the truce schedule. Israel said only that it was sending a senior defense official, Amos Gilad, to Cairo for a new round of talks.

Israeli officials had said earlier a truce was imminent and that in addition to a suspension of hostilities, it would involve easing a blockade on Gaza.

But Israel has demanded progress in talks on the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a soldier held hostage by Hamas, for Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt to open.

For weeks, Egypt has been mediating a temporary lull in hostilities between Israel and Hamas. In a breakthrough a few days ago, both sides agreed to make major concessions. Hamas dropped its insistence on linkage between a cease-fire in Gaza and one in the West Bank, and Israel gave up its demand for Shalit’s release as part of an initial cease-fire deal.

Hamas’ compromise on the West Bank, where Israel insists on freedom of action against radical militants, constitutes a major retreat. The implication is that Hamas does not speak for the Palestinian people as a whole but only for Gaza.

Israel agreed to decouple the cease-fire and Shalit’s release on the understanding that immediately after the lull takes hold, the parties will begin intensive negotiations through Egypt on a prisoner exchange.

Although neither recognizes the other, Israel and Hamas for their own reasons have agreed to stop shooting after a year of relentless hostilities. Both sides have much to gain from the cease-fire.

Over the past few months, Hamas and other militant groups have been taking a pounding from the Israel Defense Forces, losing an average of four members a day. That pounding continued Tuesday, even as the cease-fire was announced.
Moreover, without a cease-fire, Hamas leaders know they face the prospect of a major Israeli ground incursion that could deal a crushing blow to their military infrastructure.

They also hope that if the lull holds, Israel will lift its economic blockade and open border crossing points, including the Rafah crossing into Egypt.
For Israel, a cease-fire would enable it to avoid the inevitable casualties of a major ground operation, ensure quiet for civilians in the Gaza perimeter who have been under constant rocket attack for more than seven years and create conditions for Shalit’s release.

Hamas attacks in recent weeks have become more intense after the militiamen received Iranian 120mm mortars, which are more accurate, more deadly and have a longer range than the homemade Kassam rockets they had been using.

Israel, however, does have some major concerns.

Israelis are worried that Hamas will use the lull to bring in heavy weapons, build bunkers, move up forces and lay mines close to the border fence. In short, Hamas will be able to make major strides toward what the Israelis call the “Hezbollization of Gaza”—the creation of a military infrastructure similar to that of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

They are worried as well that the Egyptians, even with special new American equipment for locating tunnels, will not prevent large-scale weapons’ smuggling into Gaza during the lull. Moreover, the Israelis are not sure that Hamas can be trusted, once the military pressure is off, to make a deal on Shalit.

The Israeli Cabinet, because of the cease-fire’s potential downside, has been divided. Defense Minister Ehud Barak resisted pressure from Kadima Party leaders—including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his would-be successors, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz—to launch a major ground attack. But the real threat of a ground action may have been a factor in Hamas’ decision to support the cease-fire.

If the cease-fire does hold, it could help create the conditions for an agreement between Israel and the more moderate West Bank leadership.

The answer to Abbas’ perceived weakness has been what the parties are calling a “shelf agreement”—Israel and the moderate Palestinians, with American help, are trying to reach a deal on Israeli-Palestinian peace that remains “on the shelf” until conditions are ripe for its implementation.

This suits Israel because it shows the international community how far the Jewish state is prepared to go for a peace deal without actually having to make any concessions. And it suits the Palestinians, who intend to pocket whatever concessions Israel makes on paper as a point of departure for further gains if and when implementation becomes possible.

The more moderate West Bank Palestinians have been pressing for Israel to start putting down on paper the agreed elements of a peace agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Israel, her sixth since the Annapolis peace conference last November, was intended to help this process.

With the December target date set by President Bush for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement only six months away, the U.S. administration is urging both sides to make quicker progress. Rice seems to be rapidly approaching the point where she will prepare to start exerting pressure on both sides. This week she was highly critical of new Israeli construction projects in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On the face of it, the cease-fire with Hamas and the new urgency on the moderate Palestinian track could pave the way for a wider Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

But Fatah and Hamas are locked in a mortal struggle for control of the Palestinian movement. The chances of them getting together and presenting the united front that would make a wider peace deal possible are remote.

In Sderot

I don’t make a habit of putting myself in harm’s way. I buckle up, I don’t smoke, I’ve started on Lipitor and wherever there’s a town that’s being pounded by randomly fired rockets and mortars each day, I stay away.

But I couldn’t stay away from Sderot.

We’ve been running stories about this town in southern Israel for many years. In March 2001, Hamas terrorists in Gaza launched their first crude, deadly, homemade rocket, called a Qassam, into Israel. It landed on a cowshed on Kibbutz Nahal Oz, between the Gaza border and Sderot.

Since then, some 7,000 rockets and mortars have struck the region. They have killed 16 people and wounded hundreds more. Some days no rockets fall, others several dozens rain from the skies. A siren, which Israelis call a “red alert,” precedes each attack. That gives residents 15 to 30 seconds to run for shelter.

The attacks have abolished normal life for the 20,000 residents of Sderot and the thousands who live nearby. About one-third to one-half of the population has moved out of Qassam range. The people who remain are tethered to their homes, either because they can’t afford to leave, or because they, or their parents, refuse to give in.

I wanted to see for myself what life is like there, in a battle zone that is both active and actively overlooked — even within its own country.

United Jewish Communities (UJC), which funds programs to help alleviate some of the problems residents face in Sderot, offered to fly me over with a bunch of other journalists to take a look. I swallowed and said sure. I told my family I would wear my tennis shoes and sprint for the bomb shelter, no matter whom I had to push aside to get there first. I was kind of joking, of course. But I did pack my Lipitor.

Sderot Attack Interrupts Villaraigosa’s Call

On Thursday, July 6, at 9 a.m., Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of Israel, was interrupted twice in attempts to place a call to Eli Moyal, mayor of the Israeli city of Sderot.

Palestinian terrorists have been attacking the city almost daily with Kassam rockets in recent weeks. Moyal had to interrupt both calls because of rocket attacks.

Villaraigosa wanted to reach out to the people of the Jewish state, and he chose Sderot, just outside Gaza, which has a population of 20,000, after conferring with local Jewish leaders. On hand for the pre-planned call were City Councilman Jack Weiss, Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel, Simon Wiesenthal Center Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch.

The conversation barely got beyond the introductions.

Just as Villaraigosa began to move to substantive matters, Moyal interrupted, saying: “I’m sorry. We’re going to have to have this conversation some other time. We’ve just been attacked by seven Kassam rockets,” he said over speaker phone.

Five to 10 minutes later, Consul General Danoch called Moyal a second time and reached him on his cell phone. Just as Danoch was about to push the speaker phone button, Moyal again cut the conversation short because of another barrage of rockets.

“This experience shook all of us to our core,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “I have tremendous respect for Mayor Moyal and the people of Sderot, who live their lives in the shadow of terror. It makes you grateful for the peace and safety that we have here in Los Angeles.”

The attempt by the mayor of America’s second-largest city to reach out to the people of a nation he so admires became a lesson in the explosiveness and unpredictability of the Middle East.

Weiss said that the immediacy of the circumstances behind the termination of Villaraigosa’s call with Sderot’s mayor “really brought home the suddenness of terrorism.” Weiss represents Los Angeles’ Fifth Council District, which includes such heavily Jewish areas as West Los Angeles and parts of the San Fernando Valley.

The Kassam attacks also underscore the escalation of Palestinian attacks on Sderot and elsewhere in the region, and the dangers these attacks represent to Israeli citizens, Fishel said.

“Most folks here in Los Angeles don’t necessarily understand Israel’s geography and how close Sderot is to [Gaza] and the attacks’ impact on the normalcy of the lives of men, women and children,” Fishel said.

Sderot, which is located less than a mile from the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, has seen an upsurge in attacks since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last year. The targets have recently included schools during school hours, Jewish Telegraphic Agency has reported, causing Sderot’s student population to drop by more than 15 percent over the past year.

In response to news of the call, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Southern California Chapter said that Villaraigosa has every right to call city officials around the world to express his solidarity with them, especially when they face the consequences of war and natural disasters. But given that the mayor has called Israeli civic leaders, he has an obligation to call Palestinians, Ayloush said.

“When it comes to the Middle East, it is important to remember that there are two sides who are suffering due to this conflict,” Ayloush said. “But there is one side that’s suffering even more: that is the Palestinians, because of the occupation.”

To date, Villaraigosa has not yet called any Palestinian officials but hasn’t ruled out doing so in the future, spokesman Ben Golombek said.

Los Angeles’ mayor has twice visited Israel and hopes to make another trip there again soon.

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.