An Iron Dome launcher fires an interceptor rocket in this Israeli Defence Force (IDF) handout image received on November 28, 2017 showing the operationalization of the Iron Dome missile interceptor system firing from navy ship Sa'ar 5-corvette INS Lahav. Courtesy of IDF Spokesperson Unit/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Gaza Rocket Explodes In Sderot

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip exploded in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Friday, the third one from Gaza in the past couple of days.

The rocket fell onto a street, causing damage to the road as well as multiple vehicles and houses in the vicinity of the rocket. No one was hurt, although three people were hospitalized for anxiety and shock as a result of the fallen rocket.

Ahfad al-Sahaba-Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, an ISIS affiliate, declared that they were responsible for the rocket, as they were retaliating against Hamas for arresting multiple terrorists in the group.

“Oh you cowardly Jews: You don’t have safety in our land,” the ISIS affiliate taunted.

Prior to the fallen rocket, two rockets had been launched from Gaza into Israel, neither of which made it into the Jewish state. One was shot down by the Iron Dome, the other simply failed to reach its target.

Tawhid al-Jihad, an al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for those two missile strikes; Israel responded with six strikes against Gaza, two targeting Hamas and four targeting Islamic Jihad. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, at least 25 people were injured from Israel’s strikes.

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) said in a statement, “The IDF holds Hamas responsible for the hostile activity perpetuated against Israel from the Gaza Strip.”

The rocket fire from Gaza amidst the “Days of Rage” protests throughout Gaza and the West Bank in response to President Trump announcing that the United States will now recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Hamas specifically called for “Intifada of Jerusalem and the West Bank’s Freedom” and the Palestinian Authority is organizing some of the protests.

Confrontations between the protests and the IDF resulted in two Palestinians being killed and 98 others injured on Friday.

IDF carries out dozens of air, artillery strikes on Gaza

The Israel Defense Forces carried out dozens of air and artillery strikes on Gaza, but said it did not intend to escalate violence between Israel and Hamas.

Some 50 strikes on Sunday night and early Monday morning came in response to a rocket attack from Gaza earlier in the day on the southern Israeli city of Sderot. The attack, which struck a residential neighborhood near the city’s train station and Sapir College, caused no casualties.

IDF spokesman Peter Lerner said the strikes targeted Hamas positions in Gaza.

“When terrorists in Gaza attack people during summer vacation, their intentions are clear — to inflict pain, cause fear and to terrorize,” Lerner said.

Unnamed IDF officials described as “high-ranking” told Ynet: “While these strikes are unusual, we have no intention to escalate. There are still 1,000 trucks full of goods slated to enter Gaza today.”

Ynet quoted an official as saying that the hits Hamas took on Sunday night were “the hardest they’ve taken since Operation Protective Edge,” the IDF’s 2014 effort to stop rocket fire from Gaza that escalated into a conflict with the terrorist group that lasted nearly two months. The official said the sites were predetermined and it was not known how much damage they caused.

Earlier Sunday, Israel responded to the Sderot rocket with strikes on two targets in northern Gaza. The military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack on Sderot.

“We hold Israel responsible for the escalation in the Gaza Strip and we stress that its aggression will not succeed in breaking the will of our people or dictate the terms of resistance,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

On Sunday, Hamas held an anti-Israel military parade through the streets of Rafah in southern Gaza. Hamas military leaders said they would renew hostilities against Israel and that Israeli prisoners held by Hamas will receive the same treatment as Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Two Israelis — Avraham Mengistu and Juma Ibrahim Abu Anima — who entered Gaza on their own in 2014 have not been heard from since and are believed to be held by Hamas. In addition, the remains of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed in the 2014 Gaza war with Hamas, are being held in Gaza.

‘Red Zone’ filmmaker on finding romance under rockets in Sderot

Filmmaker Laura Bialis had always felt a strong connection to Israel and had traveled there many times before, most recently for her 2007 documentary, “Refusnik,” about the persecution of Soviet Jews. But when she returned that same year to make another film, “Rock in the Red Zone,” her life changed in ways she never expected.

Bialis, a Los Angeles native, took note of news reports about the Negev city of Sderot, where residents, mainly descendents of Jewish refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, had been living under constant rocket fire from Hamas in nearby Gaza for the past seven years. Investigating further, she learned of Sderot’s thriving music scene, full of artists turning their experiences about living under siege in a virtually forgotten town into song. 

Entrance to an underground bomb shelter in Sderot. Photo courtesy of Foundation for Documentary Projects

“What was it like for musicians to make music in a war zone?” Bialis wondered. A month later, she was on a plane to Israel. “It was a passion project. I had no funding, but I had to go. It was like a fire under my tush,” she said.  

Bialis spent three weeks interviewing musicians but realized she needed to live there for a while to weave together the kind of story she wanted to tell. 

“Music,” she learned, “is part of their DNA. In that city, music has been a source of joy and pride for the last 30 years. How can you write love songs to a place that kicks you in the head all the time? I went in with fresh eyes and saw the beauty of the place. It’s a place with a lot of soul and has its own kind of magic that comes through, I think, in the movie.”

One of the featured artists is Avi Vaknin, who refused to participate in her film at first. “He was very skeptical. He felt the way Sderot had been portrayed in the Israeli media was very stereotypical and exploitative, showing traumatized, screaming people in a Qassam rocket attack. He didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” Bialis said. “We had to convince him.”

She enlisted Vaknin’s help in finding a place where she could live. “He was also looking for an apartment, and when we found this huge house, I thought, ‘If he was my roommate, I could film him all the time. This is great.’ We started off as friends and connected on a very deep level creatively. He was like my muse. And then it became romantic,” she said.

Vaknin proposed to Bialis in June 2008, inside one of the bomb shelters that are a necessity on every block in Sderot. “No Qassams were falling at the time,” Bialis said. They married that September, and their daughter, Lily, was born in May 2010 in Tel Aviv. The family moved there so Vaknin could pursue wider opportunities — he now runs a recording studio in Tel Aviv, although they visit his clan in Sderot often.

A self-described adventuresome person who doesn’t shy away from challenging environments, Bialis was not fearful living in Sderot at first. “It actually took living there for two years and knowing Avi and his family to understand the terror of it,” she said. 

“A Qassam has fallen on every inch of that place. There was footage that was too gruesome to put in the movie. If it were not for the bomb shelters and alarms, there would be mass casualties.” Once she had a child, she said, “I had the terrifying realization that this is what I’ve got to protect a kid from.” 

Bialis acknowledged that many others, with the means to do so, leave Sderot. 

“But it is complicated because families are large. It’s a very strong root system, and it’s hard for people to extricate themselves,” she said.

For those who stay, living under constant siege has varying effects. “In some ways, it makes people more resilient. Some totally fall apart from it. Some become stronger. It certainly puts your life in perspective,” she said. “It makes you realize what’s important and not important.”

Bialis, a second-generation Angeleno with family roots in Hungary, Germany, Russia and Poland, grew up in Bel Air near Stephen Wise Temple, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah. She lived in Pacific Palisades as a teen before her family moved to Santa Barbara when she was 16.

She has fond memories of Jewish holiday celebrations, Friday night Shabbat dinners and reading about Jewish history. “I feel that being Jewish is almost the defining identity for me. I was interested in making aliyah even before I met Avi,” she said. 

Bialis is Reform and Ashkenazi, and her husband is from a traditional Moroccan-Jewish family, but they find common ground, she said, aware that if it were not for the movie, they’d have never met. “We always felt that it was meant to be that we’re together, and we still do.”

Although she isn’t religious, her Jewish identity is strong. “For me, it’s all about Judaism as a civilization, about values, about family coming together, the rituals our people have done for thousands of years,” she said. “I feel very connected to the land of Israel and the Jewish people in a way that I really can’t describe or explain.”

“Rock in the Red Zone” is currently playing at Jewish film festivals around the country, including a screening Nov. 23 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. 

Bialis said her family will be spending the next 10 months in California while she travels to promote the film. Complicating her journey, however, is that Bialis is now five months pregnant. “It’s a boy,” she said. “I’m so excited. It’s a total blessing, because I’m 42.” 

But as much as she’d love to take time off, she has work to do. “I put eight years of my life into this,” she said of the film. “If I’m not out there making sure it gets into schools and universities and communities in the U.S. and around the world, nobody will.”

When the film screened in Sderot last winter, audiences expressed gratitude to Bialis. “It got a 10-minute standing ovation at the premiere there. Some people said, ‘I can’t believe I live here.’ To see all the events that had happened to the city at once, it was kind of shocking for them,” Bialis said. Others told her, “ ‘You captured the way we feel,’ which was a huge honor. I had gotten it right,” she said.

Elsewhere in Israel, the reaction was surprise, she said. “Wow! We had no idea what Sderot was like and what was going on there,” friends in Tel Aviv told her. 

Bialis hopes to continue to open eyes about Israel and Sderot. “A lot of people don’t know what it’s really like in Israel. There are a lot of stereotypes about it,” she said. “I wanted to introduce people to the life and the people there. There’s something amazing about that in the story, and that’s what I want people to leave with.”

“Rock in the Red Zone” will have a preview screening sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 23 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. It opens at the Music Hall and the Laemmle Town Center 5 in Encino  on Dec. 2.

Israel retaliates for rockets fired from Gaza

Israel in retaliatory airstrikes targeted what the military called “three terror sites” in Gaza.

The Saturday morning strikes came in response to rockets fired the previous evening from the Gaza Strip on southern Israeli communities. One rocket landed in Sderot, reportedly damaging a bus and a private home. Later that night a rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system over Ashkelon.

There reportedly were no injuries in either the bombings from Gaza or Israel’s reprisal.

A Palestinian Salafist group affiliated with the Islamic State, called the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, took responsibility for the rocket attacks.

Code red alarms sounded in southern Israel in advance of the rocket strikes, sending residents running for bomb shelters.

An Iron Dome battery had been moved to the Ashkelon area late last week after a defense situation assessment found that the recent upsurge in violence on the Temple Mount and in other areas of Jerusalem, as well as the rearrest of recovered Palestinian hunger striker Mohammed Allaan, could set off a new round of rocket attacks from Gaza.

The rocket that struck Sderot was the 11th rocket to hit Israeli territory since January.

At least two rockets fired from Gaza early Sunday morning failed to cross the border with Israel and landed in Gazan territory, according to reports.

Rocket fired at Israel from Gaza near end of Independence Day

(JTA) — A rocket was fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip in the final hours of the country’s Independence Day.

Sirens blared in the Sderot region for the first time in months due to Thursday’s rocket, which caused no injuries or damage. It landed within Israeli territory in an open area of the western Negev.

Since the August cease-fire that ended last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces has reported several instances of weapons testing within the Gaza Strip that have set off false alarms in Israel, according to the Times of Israel.

For Israelis in the western Negev, each day is ‘Russian Roulette’

When the tzeva adom, red alert, screams its siren as Yasmine Parda eats out in Ashkelon at her favorite restaurant, she waits and hopes for the best—no rocket shelters are reachable by foot within the siren’s reported 15-second warning interval.

“We sit in the restaurant and wait,” said the 27-year-old secretary as she stopped for a few moments along Yig’al Alon Street in Sderot on Aug. 14, the morning after a five-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was announced.

Paya Amirov, Parda’s friend, described her life as a game of “Russian Roulette”—she can’t know whether the next minute, hour, or day will be quiet or chaotic, with the ever-present possibility of needing to drop everything and run from scorching metal and shrapnel that falls from the sky shortly after being fired from the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Michal Tweeto, who lives on Moshav Tkuma, a community next to Gaza, with her husband and three children, brought two of her kids—Tova, 5, and Avraham, 3—to a massive indoor playground and community center in Sderot so they could enjoy some respite for the day. In recent weeks, the kids have barely been able to leave the house. And even during this ceasefire, there’s no guarantee of safety.

“My kids are afraid. That’s the biggest problem for me,” Tweeto said. “I’m more afraid from the trauma than from the rockets.”

At the $5 million, 21,000-square-foot facility, which was built by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 2009, recreation rooms and play areas double as bomb shelters, giving parents like Tweeto the peace of mind that they enjoyed before 2001, when rocket fire from neighboring Gaza became a regular occurrence.

Located in an old warehouse on the eastern edge of Sderot, the facility has basketball courts, a café, computers and a small movie theater. On a recent visit, the happy screams of children playing rang through the air as parents sat at tables and socialized with each other.

This $5 million, 21,000 square foot indoor rec center in Sderot was built by the Jewish National Fund in 2009 as a response to rocket fire.

Just one mile away from the indoor playground, another stark reminder of life here, particularly for children, is made apparent by a large structure on an outdoor playground on Ha-Rakefet Street. Artfully built into the playground, the structure looks like a large friendly snake with a hollowed out interior play area.

This snake-like structure on an outdoor playground doubles as a bomb shelter.

Approaching it, though, a sign on it reads in Hebrew: “When the tzeva adom sounds, you have to enter under my protection beyond the orange line.”

This sign at an outdoor Sderot playground tells children to enter the inside of what is a playful looking snake if they hear the “red alert” siren.

Moshe and Linor Barsheshet, Netivot residents who came for the day to the indoor JNF playground with their two children, Haddas and Yonatan, left home for Beit Shemesh during the war and returned during the first cease fire two weeks ago.

Government officials asked residents in the south to return home, expecting that the cease-fire would hold—Hamas broke it on the morning of Aug. 8, firing a volley of rockets over the border and further shattering the confidence of many locals.

“It’s impossible to leave the house,” Moshe said.

Arnold Rosenblum, who came to Israel five years ago from Russia, recently moved to Sderot to enroll at Sapir College. Walking in the downtown shopping area, Rosenblum, 23, sat down for a few minutes to speak with a reporter.

“What can I say?” Rosenblum said, asked how the rockets and sirens have impacted his life. “We are getting used to this. First time is very hard and you really think maybe you should leave Sderot.”

After that initial shock, though, he said, the regular interruptions just become normal. “I say like this: if I made a choice to live here, no Hamas, no someone else can make me change my choice.”

During parts July and August, when classes at Sapir were cancelled due to the war in Gaza, Rosenblum worked at a plastics factory in town. He said that, during work, if the siren rang, people would have 13 seconds to find the nearest bomb shelter—he said that by the time the red alert goes off, two seconds have already been shaved off from the 15.

When he is home during the siren, he said his two and three-year-old nephews and nieces panic amidst the rush to get to a shelter.

“Everyone is screaming. Everyone is crying,” Rosenblum said, adding glumly when asked about the current lull in fighting: “It’s very sad.”

Hesitant to offer his opinion on the war and on the government’s decision, for now, to halt its operation, Rosenblum instead offered some dark humor:

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin asks God, ‘What do you think? When is it going to be the end of terrorism in Chechnya?”

“Not in your [presidential] term,” God said.

“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu asks God,” said Rosenblum. “‘What do you think? When is it going to be quiet in Gaza?’”

“God said, ‘Not in my term.’”

Train service in southern Israel suspended over security fears

Train service between Ashkelon and Sderot in southern Israel was halted due to security reasons.

Sunday night’s halt to service on the line that runs near the border with Gaza — a day before the end of a five-day cease-fire with Hamas and other groups in Gaza — was “until further notice,” Israel Railways said on its website.

The Defense Ministry reportedly ordered the cessation of train service and told the rail service to fortify the line against anti-tank fire from Gaza.

Train service between Ashkelon and Sderot was closed during large portions of the recent conflict in Gaza.

The Transportation Ministry will add buses between the two southern Israeli cities in the meantime, according to reports.

What a dying business in Sderot looks like, even during cease-fire

In a narrow alleyway just next to Begin Square in the center of this Israeli city, shops, cafes and bakeries are so tightly packed together that with every few steps brings a new business.

These merchants have, for years, been accustomed to the inhospitable reality of life in Sderot. By virtue of its proximity to Gaza (Begin Square is two miles from the border), normal daily activities are routinely interrupted by a screeching siren that gives residents a 10 to 15 second warning to shelter themselves from a rocket that was fired seconds earlier from within the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Those interruptions, which have made life here grim, have made doing business here nearly impossible for many shopkeepers. On Thursday, even as the city was enjoying its fourth day of calm—with a new cease fire possibly ensuring an additional five—the sight of gray metal shutters in front of nearly every shop in this alleyway was a stark reminder that this city’s store owners know better than to think that temporary quiet will soon bring customers back.

“I can’t continue like this. It’s hard,” said Moshe Yifrach, 21, who helps manage his family’s image and photography store, “Agfa Image Center.” He was one of the few shopkeepers who decided to remain open into the mid-afternoon and was the only person in the store. But, with little or no business up to that point on Thursday, his decision to keep the lights on may not have particularly mattered.

The Yifrachs produce photographs, create albums and assist with images for passports, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Behind the counter on shelves sat rows of albums and frames in varying colors

Moshe Yifrach helps his father run the family's Sderot store. He said sales have dropped 70 percent this summer.

When life in Sderot is relatively normal, Yifrach said that his family serves between 50 to 70 customers and earns about 3,000 to 4,000 thousand Shekels per day. This summer, though, during Israel’s most recent battle with Hamas, in which nearly 3,000 rockets have fallen in and around Israeli cities, he said sales have dropped by about 70 percent and customers have come in at a trickling pace.

Some residents here left amidst the chaos for some respite in towns further north and many simply no longer feel confident in venturing into the city. Tourism, meanwhile, has plummeted, with most visitors coming from abroad on solidarity missions, not nearly enough to compensate for the many Israelis who no longer travel south for a few pleasurable days in the country’s southern desert region.

The family has two other stores, in Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so Yifrach said he, his parents and 11 siblings could get by without their Sderot store.

“We have other places, so we have it easier than others,” Yifrach said. “But the ones that have only here and nowhere else, it’s very hard.”

Even during the height of the war in July and early August, Yifrach’s father kept the store open. When a red alert siren blared, whoever was in the shop would shelter in the doorway or underneath the awning that encloses the alley outside—the nearest shelter is more than 15 seconds from the store, not enough time for him or any customers to safely reach before the Qassam makes impact.

While a cease-fire that produces calm for an extended period would likely improve business for the Yifrachs if residents and tourists begin to return, he sees no long-term relief for his family’s business.

Agfa Image Center

Yifrach, like so many Israelis, particularly in the south, wants the government to order the military to destroy Hamas and end the rocket attacks. That step appears increasingly unlikely, though, following the complete removal of ground troops on Aug. 5 and the moderate progress of truce negotiations in Cairo.

“There’s no solution,” Yifrach said. “If you want to have a cease fire, so for a year it will be fine and everything will be good. [But] slowly, slowly [Hamas] will advance.” He predicts that the terrorist group will use the calm to improve its rocket arsenal to create Sderot-like situations as far north as Tel Aviv and Haifa.

That, Yifrach said, is one reason he sees no point in moving further north. “I don’t think that in the north it’s much better because there too you have Hezbollah,” he said. The quasi-governmental Lebanese terrorist organization has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets and has the capability to reach Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, approximately 15 Haifa residents were killed in missile and rocket attacks.

“I will stay in the south. This is my house and here I’m going to stay,” Yifrach said briskly.

Asked, though, how much longer his family’s store can survive in Sderot under current conditions, he responded, “Half a year, no more.”

Amid strife of Gaza-Israel conflict, some tales to warm the heart

Perhaps with the worries about rockets flying and death tolls mounting during the Gaza operation, many lost sight of the myriad heartwarming stories from the conflict. Here are some you may have missed in recent days.

Meet Lt. Eitan, hero

Israelis held their collective breath last week after learning that an Israeli soldier was believed to have been taken captive through one of the tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel.

Lt. Hadar Goldin was later declared dead based on several factors. One consideration included the partial remains that had been snatched from the kidnappers by a soldier identified as 2nd Lt. Eitan.

At risk to his life and well aware it was against protocol, Eitan chased the kidnappers through the Gaza tunnel that his Givati Brigade company was in the process of destroying when confronted by the terrorists.

His actions prevented Israel from being caught in a new hostage situation, like the one with soldier Gilad Shalit, for whom the government traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Eitan left Gaza when the 72-hour cease-fire began and visited Goldin’s home to pay a shiva call even before returning to see his parents, emigres from New York, in Jerusalem.

One person at the meeting described it to Ynet as “chilling and emotional” as Eitan returned to Hadar’s parents some of his personal effects, including his siddur, tefillin and cellphone. Eitan told the parents about the events leading up to their son’s death and that Goldin was a valued officer.

The parents thanked Eitan for the information and for putting his life in danger in the tunnel to retrieve their son.

Personal thanks from soldiers

Israeli children sent thousands of letters to soldiers serving in and around Gaza to raise their spirits.

Late last month, an army jeep stopped in front of a home in central Israel looking for the family’s 9-year-old daughter. The concerned family asked what the solders wanted. They replied that they wanted to thank the girl personally for the letter she had sent.

The soldiers met the girl and left with as many baked goodies from the house as they could carry.

My soldier watches over me

A 5-year-old boy named Gabi from Karmiel sent a letter accompanied by an action figure to a soldier serving in Gaza.

“I’m sending you my soldier,” said the letter, which was posted on Facebook. “He watches over me at night so I won’t be afraid, but you have it much harder, so I am sending it to you so that he will watch over you guys. If you get sad, you can also play with him. Thank you for protecting me and my family. When I’m older I’ll protect you.”

The soldier is trying to locate Gabi to thank him personally.

Powering up

The soldiers serving in Gaza could not call home from the combat zone, but even when they could leave the area and make a call, they often found their cellphone batteries were dead with no way to recharge them.

Tzohar, a religious Zionist rabbinical organization in Israel, purchased the stock of 4,000 cellphone stick chargers from the one Israeli company that provides them already fully charged and sent them to the front lines last Friday. It allowed the soldiers to call home before the Sabbath and alleviate the anxiety of their families.

“Being able to call home to wish a Shabbat Shalom to my mother will not only make her feel better, but renews my strength in this important mission,” Ophir, an officer in the Golani Brigade, said upon receiving a charger, according to Tzohar. “You have no idea how much this means to us.”

Hear the one about …?

American comedians Ari Teman and Danny Cohen brought their talents to Israel to cheer up civilians in bomb shelters and neighborhoods in southern Israel.

The comics called their week of stand up shows Rocket Shelter Comedy.

They also performed free shows in Tel Aviv, Modiin and Jerusalem joined by Israeli comedians Benji Lovitt and Yossi Tarablus, though they requested donations for lone soldiers.

Supporting the South, feeding the needy

Leket Israel-The National Food Bank purchased hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of food products from vendors in southern Israel hard hit by the conflict and delivered the goods to people living in communities surrounding Gaza.

While providing the needy with basic necessities, the organization was supporting businesses in the South that have been slammed financially by the barrage of rockets fired on their communities in recent weeks.

Leket Israel, also the country’s largest food-rescue organization, bought the goods from vendors in Sderot, Ofakim, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Nitzan and Netivot, some of the areas hit hardest by the conflict.

One was Solomon Cohen, the owner of Super Cohen, a mini-market in Sderot.

“Because my shop is located on the outskirts of Sderot, where mostly young families live, we have been suffering terribly since more than 70 percent of the community left at the beginning of the war for the center and the north of the country,” he said.

Cohen has lived in Sderot for 55 years, since making aliyah from Morocco, and said he could not recall a time as difficult as the past few weeks.

The kindness of strangers

Israelis love their soldiers, especially during conflict. During Operation Protective Edge, Israelis went above and beyond in sending food, goodies and toiletries to the soldiers at the front — even socks and underwear! The public also sent thousands of pizzas and bottles of soda.

Communities, municipalities and volunteer committees delivered challahs or flowers or cakes to the thousands of families who had a father or son called up for the war effort.

In fact, so much stuff was sent that the Israel Defense Forces called on the public to stop, saying it “could interfere with operational alertness or the fighters’ health.” The donations were directed to the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers or the Libi Fund.

Some $4.6 million was donated to the association throughout the operation, and $725,000 to other funds.

Wounded soldiers were swamped with love, including an overwhelming number of hospital visitors who were mostly unknown to them.

Soldiers in uniform throughout the country also reported being treated to cups of coffee, breakfasts and other treats, also by strangers.

Looking out for the women left behind

Two soldiers who were killed last week in the Gaza operation were to be married in the coming weeks. Their fiancees stood with the soldiers’ families at the funerals and shivas.

Several other slain soldiers left behind longtime girlfriends who were devastated by the deaths.

These women deserve recognition and support from the Defense Ministry, lawmaker Aliza Lavie of the Yesh Atid party said this week.

The Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry show support and tend to the families of the fallen soldiers, and must do the same for the fiancees and girlfriends, Lavie asserted in a letter to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, whose cousin, Hadar Goldin, was engaged to be married.

Lavie said officers should visit the women to tell them of their loved one’s death, just as they do for the immediate family, and employers should be required to provide time off to attend the shiva. Psychological assistance should be provided as needed, too.

Twenty-seven of the girlfriends of fallen soldiers in the Gaza operation are soldiers themselves, Lavie noted, and should have had an official escort from their company to the funeral.

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

Israel debates efficacy of military ground operation

This story originally ran on

Standing in a well-furnished bomb-shelter in the southern town of Sderot, former deputy Israeli army chief-of-staff Uzi Dayan says that a large-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip is the only way to ensure that Israel completes its mission of ending rocket fire once and for all while striking a heavy blow to the Islamist Hamas movement.

“We should not only attack Hamas’s facilities and infrastructure, but we must dismantle Hamas as an organization,” Dayan told a group of visiting journalists. “(Hamas leader) Ismail Haniyyeh will no longer be the ruler of Gaza.”

In fact, Haniyyeh is no longer the official rule of the Gaza Strip since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took over that role when he became the head of a new unity government last month that is supposed to pave the way for Palestinian elections. While that government has not been officially dismantled, it seems unlikely that it will be able to continue given the current fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, but has maintained control over the entry and exit from the coastal enclave, except for the Rafah crossing into Egypt. Some Israeli analysts have said that the main reason that Hamas initiated the current conflict with Israel by stepping up rocket fire is to force a new cease-fire which would include the re-opening of the Rafah crossing point.

In Israel, 48,000 reserve soldiers have been called up, and many of them are waiting on their side of the border for the political echelon to signal the start of a ground invasion of Gaza. A small force of Israeli marines made their first limited incursion on Sunday on a mission that destroyed a facility housing some of Hamas’s longer-range missiles. Four commandos were slightly wounded in the action.

Dayan said a significant ground operation would require two divisions, meaning 16,000 soldiers, and that the army should be prepared to stay in Gaza as long as needed in order to neutralize Hamas’s ability to produce rockets.

“I’m not saying we have to take over every street and alleyway in Gaza,” Dayan told The Media Line. “But there are areas that if we control them, we can put pressure on Hamas. If we don’t do that, they will continue to fire rockets.”

In the past week since Operation Protective Edge began, Hamas has fired at least 800 rockets at Israel including dozens aimed at  central Israel. There has been only one death on the Israeli side: an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack while running to a bomb shelter. In Gaza, thought, at least 165 people have died and more than 1,200 have been wounded.

Uzi Dayan, who is the nephew of the famed Israeli military hero Moshe Dayan, said that terror organizations have an advantage in that they can win a conflict “just by surviving.” In order for Israel to win, he said, Israel must change the rules of the game so that Hamas no longer has the ability to fire on Israel.

Not all military strategists agree. Some argue that a ground operation also has disadvantages, including more casualties on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Retired General Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) says the cost of sending ground troops in outweighs the benefits.

“A ground invasion is justified if there are clear military objectives connected to a strategy to end this conflict,” Brom told The Media Line. “If we wanted to cause real damage to Hamas, it would be quite a widespread ground invasion which would mean taking control of a large part of Gaza and searching for rocket storage areas, sites and tunnels.”

In its media, Hamas has said it wants to capture more Israeli soldiers like it did when it took Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held him captive for five years. Shalit was eventually freed in exchange for 1,027 Hamas prisoners released from Israeli jails. One of Hamas’s conditions for a cease-fire now is that Israel release all of those who have been re-arrested for security-related issues during the past few weeks.

Brom says it is almost impossible to control the collateral damage from the air strikes among Gaza’s 1.8 million people and there will be heavy civilian casualties, which will provoke international criticism.

“We will be pulled into reoccupying Gaza and that is not in our interest,” Brom warned. It would mean, among other things, that Israel would once again be responsible for the economy of the Gaza Strip, where unemployment stands at 40 percent, and half of the population is below the age of eighteen.

Amid rocket barrage, southern Israelis told to stay near shelters

At least 15 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel over the course of an hour.

Hours after Hamas’ military wing threatened Israel, Thursday’s barrage struck buildings and caused fires, and a soldier was injured from shrapnel. Residents of Israeli communities near the Gaza border were instructed to remain within 15 seconds of a bomb shelter.

As Israeli troops moved toward the Gaza border, a spokesman for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades told reporters in the coastal strip, “The threat of an Israeli military action against the Gaza Strip does not scare us. It only hastens the hour of our revenge against Israel, and an opportunity to teach it a lesson.

He added, “I promise you that one stupid move by your leaders will be enough to make us turn all of your communities, even those you might not expect, into targets and burning coals,”  he said.

Some high school students in Sderot on Thursday sat for their matriculation exams as the rockets fell on the city.

More than 30 rockets have hit Israel in the 24 hours since Wednesday evening, according to the Israeli military.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the residents of southern Israel for their fortitude in the wake of the onslaught of rockets.

“The strength you are demonstrating allows us to act determinedly and responsibly towards one goal – your security, all our security,” Netanyahu said Thursday evening at an Independence Day celebration at the home of the U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Netanyahu spoke of two possibilities in southern Israel, including the end to rocket fire from Gaza.

“The second possibility is that the firing at our communities in the South will continue and then the reinforcement forces that are located in the field will act forcefully,” he said.



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.

Barrage of rockets from Gaza hits southern Israeli cities

At least 20 rockets and mortars were fired from the Gaza Strip at communities in southern Israel.

One rocket is reported to have landed in a residential neighborhood in the Wednesday evening attack.

Most of the rockets were fired at Sderot and Netivot.

The Code Red siren was sounded in several southern Israeli communities. Residents have been instructed by the Israel Defense Forces to remain in bomb shelters.

A rocket fired from Gaza landed in southern Israel overnight on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, a retaliatory strike on a terror cell in Gaza, that had fired mortars at Israeli troops performing routine work in the border area, killed three members of the Islamic Jihad terror organization.

Israel in retaliatory attacks slams Gaza rocket launchers

Israeli airstrikes destroyed concealed rocket launchers in northern Gaza in retaliation for attacks on southern Israel.

The attacks early Wednesday morning were in response to rockets launched at Israel the previous evening as Palestinian prisoners being released by Israel were being transported to the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“This is an absurd situation that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the world,” Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said in a statement issued Wednesday. “The IDF is charged with and will continue to operate in order to safeguard Israel’s civilians, and combat terror and its infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.”

One rocket fired Tuesday night at Sderot fell short of its target and is believed to have landed inside Gaza. A second rocket landed in the nearby Sha’ar Hanegev region in an open area. A jihadist group linked to al-Qaida took responsibility for the attacks.

A day earlier, a long-range Grad rocket was fired at Eilat by a jihadist terror group in the Sinai and intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In the prisoner release, 26 Palestinians were transported in vans to crossings into the West Bank and Gaza. They crossed the border at midnight. Israel agreed to release the prisoners in order to bring the Palestinians back to the peace negotiating table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the 11 prisoners freed to the West Bank at a celebration in Ramallah at the site of the Mukata, the presidential palace.

“We welcome our brothers who have left the darkness of prison into the light of freedom and tell them they are the first, but that there are other brothers who too will leave soon. We shall not rest until they are all with us,” Abbas said at the ceremony.

The prisoners first visited the grave of the late P.A. President Yasser Arafat.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza ordered the rival Fatah party to refrain from holding celebrations welcoming home the prisoners, saying it would hold an official ceremony later in the week.

Eventually 104 prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords will be released in phases over the next eight months, pending progress in the renewed peace talks, which began Wednesday in Jerusalem under a media blackout.

As prisoner release begins, rockets fired at Israel

Rockets were fired from Gaza at southern Israel as Palestinian prisoners being released by Israel were being transported to the border.

One rocket fired Tuesday night at Sderot fell short of its target and is believed to have landed inside Gaza. A second rocket landed in the nearby Sha’ar Hanegev region in an open area.

A day earlier, a long-range Grad rocket was fired at Eilat and intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In the prisoner release, 26 Palestinians were transported in vans to crossings into the West Bank and Gaza. They are scheduled to cross the borders at midnight.

Israel agreed to release the prisoners in order to bring the Palestinians back to the peace negotiating table.

The Hamas leadership in Gaza has ordered the rival Fatah party to refrain from holding celebrations welcoming home the prisoners, saying it would hold an official ceremony later in the week.  Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will meet with the prisoners returning to the West Bank.

Eventually 104 prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords will be released in phases over the next eight months, pending progress in the renewed peace talks.

The talks are scheduled to resume Wednesday in Jerusalem following a three-year freeze, but the Palestinians have threatened to skip the meeting in protest over the order in which the prisoners are being released as well as the announcement of new construction in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, according to reports.

From schools to bomb shelters, Israel lagging on promise to disabled

A thick concrete bomb shelter sits by the side of a central street in this embattled southern Israeli town, but Naomi Moravia can’t get inside.

Shelters like this one are crucial in Sderot, which is located about a mile from the Gaza Strip and is the frequent target of cross-border missile attacks that send residents running for cover.

But Moravia can’t run. She can’t even get up on the sidewalk.

Pushing a lever on her wheelchair, she rolls down the street looking for a ramp or a dip in the curb that she can ascend without tipping backward.

If she can manage to reach a shelter in time, she often won’t fit inside, stymied by tight corners impossible to negotiate in a wheelchair. Of five shelters in Sderot’s central district that Moravia tried to enter recently, only one was accessible.

“If there’s a siren and I’m not in a protected room, all I can do is sit in my wheelchair and pucker my butt,” said Moravia, the chairwoman of the Israeli activist group Struggle for the Disabled. “I just wait to hear the boom. There’s nothing I can do.”

The dearth of wheelchair-accessible shelters in Sderot, officials and activists say, is emblematic of Israel’s sorry record in providing for a disabled population estimated by the government to be 1.5 million.

Despite the 1998 passage of Israel’s Law of Equal Rights for Disabled People, which promises the disabled “active and equal participation in society in all areas of life,” Israel has been lax on regulation and enforcement. Public buildings and buses often are inaccessible to those in wheelchairs. Disabled children face an unresponsive education system. And the Defense Ministry has yet to formulate regulations to accommodate the needs of the disabled.

Part of the reason is that the government agency tasked with enforcing the equal rights law, the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has an annual budget of just over $2 million and a national oversight staff of 11.

Israel has “very nice laws that will not be applied,” said Ahiya Kamara, the commission’s head.

“If we rely on enforcement, woe unto us,” said Ilan Gilon, a Knesset member from the Meretz party who helped draft the equal rights law. “A state needs to be accessible to its citizens.”

For disabled Israelis, the challenges can begin early. Elad Cohen, now 10, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome as a toddler. As a result, his Tel Aviv public school refused to readmit him in 2006 and Elad’s mother, Revital, had to pay out of pocket for a caretaker in a private preschool.

When Elad transferred back to public school, the state offered to pay about $5 per hour to a caretaker, enough for someone with only a high-school education — a similar standard as exists in some U.S. states.

“The state wants to do two things: not tell you what your rights are, and if you know what your rights are, find any way to deny them from you,” said Revital, who consults privately for parents of disabled children.

A series of recommendations endorsed by the Education Ministry in 2009 would have afforded nearly all disabled children the right to integrate into general classrooms at public expense. But the government has applied those recommendations in only three school districts and has no timetable for implementing them nationwide.

The ministry’s director of special education, Ra’aya Levy-Goodman, told JTA the goal is for every child who would benefit from integration — and not have a detrimental effect on their classmates — to attend public school. Since 2011, she said, the number of severely disabled children integrated into regular classrooms has tripled, from 300 to 900.

“Every child who wants and who can should be in general education,” she said. “But special education isn’t a punishment, it’s a right. And there are children who need it.”

The challenges facing the disabled continue well beyond their school years. Until 2011, no regulations existed to make public buildings handicap accessible. Regulations adopted by the Ministry of Housing and Construction that year set standards for bomb shelters in a range of public structures, but full implementation was not required until 2021.

Israel’s limited but growing railway network is handicap accessible, but the more extensive bus system is not. Transit Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia told JTA that suggestions for improved accessibility have been solicited from advocacy groups.

Home front security, though, remains the biggest gap in special needs regulations. Disability rights activists worry that the state’s intense focus on protecting its citizens has not been fully extended to the disabled, though they cannot recall any deaths due to a lack of accessibility among the more than two dozen Israeli civilians killed by rockets since 2004.

Under a provision of the equal rights law added in 2005, the state has until 2018 to implement an emergency services accessibility plan. But Israel’s government has passed an austerity budget, which could make implementation less likely.

In the meantime, the Home Front Command’s website suggests that in case of emergency, the disabled should make sure to stay in a shelter with “other people.” For assistance, the disabled are directed to turn to “relevant organizations” and their local municipalities.

As a result, much of the burden of assisting disabled Israelis in wartime has fallen to nonprofits. When Hezbollah began raining missiles on northern Israel in 2006, volunteers from the Struggle for the Disabled evacuated 500 disabled Israelis to southern hotels. The organization paid for the service through donations.

“They turned to the Welfare Ministry, and everyone from the Welfare Ministry had left their office,” said Yisrael Even Zahav, a former government consultant who coordinated the volunteers. “They were left alone.”

A Welfare Ministry spokesperson told JTA that the ministry “works extensively, without connection to regulations, to make emergency services accessible” in conjunction with government-funded group homes and regional councils.

Some activists hope that Israel’s adoption last year of the nonbinding U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will lead to further legislation. But many are skeptical.

“It’s like a yahrtzeit,” Gilon said of the convention. “They talk about it one day and 364 days they forget about it. It doesn’t matter to most people.”

Rockets fired on Israel from Gaza for third day

A rocket fired from Gaza struck southern Israel, the third day in a row that rockets have been fired at Israel from the coastal strip.

Several rockets were fired from Gaza on Thursday morning, but only one landed in an open area in southern Israel. The rest exploded within Gaza's borders. No damage or injuries were reported.

On Wednesday morning two rockets fired from Gaza landed near Sderot as children were making their way to school on the first school day since the Passover holiday. Wednesday's attacks came after Israel on Tuesday night struck what the military called   “two extensive terror sites” in the northern Gaza Strip, following the firing of three mortar shells on Israel from Gaza on Tuesday,

Four rockets also were fired on Israel during President Obama's visit last month. One was found Tuesday crashed into the roof of a kindergarten building.

There have been a handful of rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel since an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire ended the Gaza conflict, Israel's Pillar of Defense operation, in November.

Obama’s Middle East visit: 50 shades of gray

On March 21, four days before Pesach, Sarah Chazizza was at home in Sderot, doing what people do before Pesach. She was cleaning. It was still early in the morning, but the weather was getting warmer and the windows were wide open to let the dusted furniture breath. So the sound of the siren, and then the sound of an explosion, could not be missed inside Sarah’s home. Not that she ever missed it. 

She knew it was coming; she knew it was coming, she said later. As soon as President Barack Obama landed, she knew it was only a matter of time until someone in Gaza would send the American president a message by way of targeting her family. Luckily, no one was hurt this time. But after the first 24 hours of celebratory mood, hyped by the usual media frenzy, that sound of a siren was a wake-up call for everyone: As nice and as friendly as the president might be, the Middle East doesn’t change as a result of eloquent speeches and cheery ceremonies. It doesn’t change by making people more trustful of faraway leaders’ promises to have one’s “back.” It doesn’t change by leaders being nice to one another. 

That same Thursday morning, a telling caricature appeared in the pages of the Maariv daily newspaper. It was the familiar scene from “Casablanca,” with Netanyahu playing Bogart and, shown from the back, he is telling Obama, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In the caricature, though, unlike the movie, Obama’s response makes the punch line: “Let’s not overdo it.” Obama and Netanyahu went out of their way to make Obama’s first visit to Israel as a sitting president a success, to keep up spirits and open a new page of better relations. In many ways, it truly was a success (or so it seems as I write this from Tel Aviv, when Obama hasn’t yet left the country). A better mood makes it easier for both leaders to communicate; it reduces the level of mutual suspicion; it gives both leaders’ aides some breathing room.

That Obama was finally able to make this trip and take this must-visit burden off his shoulders barely changed any well-established realities. This three-day visit was meant to make it easier for the two leaders to navigate the coming three years — or maybe four (Obama will be in office until January 2017, Netanyahu publicly talked about the next “four years,” meaning he doesn’t quite buy the gloomy projections for his new coalition’s longevity). And surely, having an open and tension-free dialogue between Obama and Netanyahu can help. But even while Obama was still here, still trying to be nice, disagreements were evident and the potential for future trouble obvious.

It begins with priorities. Netanyahu made sure to begin his part of the shared press conference by talking about Iran, and left the Palestinian issue for the end of his speech. Obama began with Israel’s security needs and then turned to the Palestinians. He left Iran for the end, and on Iran the president had little to offer. “We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran,” Obama said. This is present tense — still leaving the door open to future decision that, had the diplomatic course been a failure, it is better to turn to containment rather than military action.

Obama, as expected, reiterated the worn-out “all options on the table” formula. It’s old news, and overly vague. All options can mean war, or containment. If Netanyahu believes — as he was adamant in repeating — that only a “clear and credible threat of military action” will make diplomacy useful, that “threat” was nowhere to be found in Obama’s words. The president said, “There is not a lot of light, a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now.” However, there’s clearly daylight between the prescriptions the two leaders have for the road ahead. Netanyahu would like to see a threat that America refuses to provide. All Obama has given him is: “I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country — any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.” In other words: You can go it alone for all I care, the United States still doesn’t see the Iranian threat as one for which it is currently willing to commit to war.

Obama speech in Israel

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast policy on March 21 at the Jerusalem Convention Center. Photo by REUTERS/Jason Reed 

A lot of advice was given to Obama as his visit began, framed in ways such as how to “speak Israeli” (Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic) or “The Ten Commandments of Visiting Israel” (Oren Kessler, Foreign Policy). While offering some great advice, all this still takes a somewhat dim view of the Israeli mind — as if what motivates Israelis to dislike of Obama (just 12 percent saying he is “pro-Israel” on the eve of his visit) is his inability to kindle the magic by sending soothing messages to “the people.” As if a couple of nice speeches and warm receptions could make all disagreements go away and be forgotten. Dignifying Israelis with more rational motivations would be proper at this moment. Israelis might exaggerate the extent to which Obama is cool toward Israel; they might not give him enough credit for the many great things he has done to help Israel. However, they also might have a legitimate case for remaining skeptical with regard to his policies — policies that no speech can hide and no smile can erase. 

Good things happened though during Obama’s visit here, and not just between him and the prime minister. He made clear his unwavering commitment to an Israel that is “Jewish”; his acknowledgement of the historic ties of Jews to Israel stand out, correcting somewhat the erroneous message of the president’s Cairo speech in 2009. “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here,” Obama acknowledged right when he landed on the afternoon of March 20 at Ben-Gurion Airport. Truly, this wasn’t the first time that Obama has amended his previous message, however doing so in Israel, as he was going to visit the burial site of Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, made it noteworthy. 

To have had such a friendly visit is important, not just for the sake of diplomacy but also for political reasons: to calm the Israeli opposition’s talk of the government ruining relations with the United States and possibly, hopefully, sending a clear message Obama’s supporters at home. Last week, in one of a series of Israel-related analyses released by Gallup, an emphasis was put on the gap between Republicans and Democrats regarding Israel. It is — not for the first time — one of a handful of countries on which the gap is widest. “The current 18-point gap in views of Israel, with Republicans’ 78 percent favorable rating compared with Democrats’ 60 percent, is the only double-digit difference in which Republicans are the more positive group.” A positive Obama visit, and a positive Obama message are important, if one believes that nudging Israel into a partisan corner doesn’t truly serve the nation’s long-term interests.

Whether Obama can change Democratic perceptions though is unclear, considering the results of a previous Gallup analysis showed that Republicans want more American pressure on the Palestinian side (net “more pressure on Palestinians” +47 percent), while Democrats want something Obama didn’t quite provide: more pressure on Israel (net pressure on Palestinians -4 percent). In a shared press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday afternoon, Obama acrobatically avoided any harsh criticism of Israeli settlements and made very clear that he sees no point in a continued Palestinian insistence on a settlements freeze as a precondition to future Israeli-Palestinian talks. In that, he made good on keeping differences with Israel tamed and refrained from reigniting the debates that marked his first term. He also told the Palestinian leadership that it’s time to climb down from the tree on which they’ve been sitting to a large extent because of their belief that the American president would coerce Israel into more concessions.  

Obama and Abbas

President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authorty President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 21. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

Minutes after the Obama-Abbas joint appearance, Israel’s deputy foreign minister – the newly appointed Likud hawk Ze’ev Elkin — made no attempt to hide his satisfaction. When he was reminded that Netanyahu had renewed his commitment to a two-state solution during the visit, Elkin appeared barely disturbed. Do you support it, he was asked. Now it was his turn at the acrobatics-linguistic machine. “Personally,” he still opposes the two-state solution, but as a member of the government he would have to “represent” the “view of the prime minister,” and, he was quick to add, all this seems quite irrelevant at this time. As long as the Palestinians stay on the sidelines, there’s no point in wasting time on internal disagreements. 

In Obama’s much-anticipated speech in Jerusalem to young Israelis, he seemed more eager than Elkin to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state. However, his message was not necessarily more concrete. We all know that peace is necessary, and coveted, and that it would make Israel more secure — that is, if a secured peace actually is within reach, which most Israelis greatly doubt, before and after Obama’s visit. The president urged Israeli youngsters to “demand” peace. They can make such demands if they want. Alas, the new senior member of Netanyahu’s coalition, Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi, quickly responded to Obama’s call by saying that the people of Israel can’t be called occupiers within their own country. So clearly, the “demand” would not go very far with Bennett.

Which leaves us essentially where we began. And leaves this article conflicted in a way that newspaper editors don’t always like. To grab readers’ attention, a writer is driven to make a choice — either this visit was essential and very successful, or it was a failure, a shame and a waste of time. Black or white. Shades of gray are popular only in steamy books of a bluish nature.

The truth though, is that Obama’s visit was a grayish event. It was a feel-good trip offering the hope to better relations and to clear the air, making future debates between the two governments less contentious. That has merit and should be enough to have made Obama’s trip a worthy one. 

But we should make no mistake: a civil debate is still a debate; a polite and contradictory assessment of threats remains a contradiction; a respectful disagreement is still a disagreement. And so, the potentially explosive Middle East looked at Obama’s visit and returned to business as usual.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at

Gaza rockets hit southern Israel town cited by Obama

Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip landed on Thursday in a southern Israeli border town that U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned in a speech on his arrival in Israel a day earlier.

Police said there were no casualties but some damage in the attack on Sderot near the Gaza frontier.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the strike, the second time rockets launched from Gaza have hit Israel since a truce ended an eight-day cross-border war in November.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama visited Sderot, meeting locals and viewing an exhibit of rocket remnants from frequent attacks by Gaza-based militants.

“I've stood in Sderot, and met with children who simply want to grow up free from fear. And flying in today, I saw again how Israel's security can be measured in mere miles and minutes,” Obama told a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Obama is on a three-day visit to Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan. He will not travel to Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, a group sworn to Israel's destruction.

The president was in Jerusalem, some 80 km (50 miles) from Sderot, when the rockets struck several hours before his visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Hamas's rival, Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We condemn violence against civilians regardless of its source, including rocket firing,” Abbas was quoted as saying by the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.

“We are in favor of maintaining mutual and comprehensive calm in Gaza,” he added.

At Tel Aviv airport on Wednesday, Obama inspected an Iron Dome anti-missile battery, a partially U.S.-funded system that has been used to shoot down rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

Reporting by Ori Lewis, Editing by Jeffrey Heller

Islamist group says it fired rockets at Israel from Gaza

A small Islamist group claimed responsibility for firing rockets on Thursday at an Israeli border town from the Gaza Strip during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to the region.

The small Salafi group called Magles Shoura al-Mujahddin said in an Internet statement that it fired the rockets to show that Israeli air defenses could not stop attacks on the Jewish state during the visit.

Police said there were no casualties but some damage in the attack on Sderot near the Gaza frontier.

“Responding to the bragging of the Roman dog and the war criminals of their so-called Iron Dome, we assert that all their military techniques will not stop God's destiny of tormenting them,” the statement, posted on the Ansar al-Mujahideen website, which is used by Islamist militants, said.

It was referring to the U.S. president, who is on a visit to Israel and the West Bank and who had mentioned the town in a speech on his arrival in Israel a day earlier.

The group had previously claimed a deadly attack in June 2012 on Israel from Sinai.

The Islamist Hamas group, which rules Gaza since 2007, has conducted sweeps against the armed Salafis, who espouse an austere form of Islam and who often try to fire rockets into Israel in defiance of de facto Palestinian truces.

Reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Alison Williams

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. 

Study: Sderot rocket attacks increased miscarriages

Rocket attacks on Sderot significantly increased the number of miscarriages that occurred in women from the southern Israeli city, according to a new study.

The number of miscarriages likely was increased because of the rise in stress, including the release of too much cortisol, a stress hormone, wrote Tamar Wainstock and Professor Ilana Shoham-Vardi of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Department of Epidemiology, Faculty of Health Sciences.

The study was published this month in the latest issue of Psychosomatic Medicine Journal of Bio-Behavioral Medicine.

It compared miscarriages, called spontaneous abortions, or SA in the report, in women from Sderot and Kiryat Gat, two southern cities, between April 2004 to Dec. 27, 2008, when Operation Cast Lead broke out. At that point, Kiryat Gat also came under rocket fire.

All but seven of the 1,132 women from Sderot included in the study had never experienced a siren during or six months prior to conception.

“The findings demonstrate a significantly increased risk of SA among women exposed to potentially life-threatening situations for a prolonged period, both before and during pregnancy, compared with women of similar demographic characteristics who were not exposed to missile-attack alarms or missile attacks,” according to the report.

Rockets pound Israel for seventh day

More than 80 rockets were fired at southern Israel in the seventh day since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, including two aimed at Jerusalem.

An air raid siren sounded in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon; two rockets fell in the Gush Etzion area south of Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the rockets aimed at Jerusalem.

Shortly before the alarm, a rocket struck a building in the Eshkol Regional Council, reportedly injuring several people. Rockets also hit a home in Netivot and damaged homes in Sderot and Beersheva.

An Israeli reserve soldier was injured by a rocket that fell in the Eshkol Regional Council.

A volley of 16 rockets was fired Tuesday toward Beersheva. One hit the road in front of a bus, damaging the bus, which the passengers had exited due to the air raid siren. A second rocket hit a house and a third hit a parked care. Nine of the 16 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that on Tuesday, it targeted 11 terrorist squads involved in firing rockets toward Israel and planting explosive devices at the border. The IDF also bombed 30 underground rocket launchers and a hiding place for senior terror operatives that was used to store weapons and ammunition, the IDF spokesman said. Overnight, the IDF said it targeted 100 terror sites in Gaza, including underground rocket launchers, terror tunnels and ammunition storage facilities.

“The sites that were targeted were positively identified by precise intelligence over the course of several months,” the IDF statement said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reportedly will land in Israel on Tuesday to encourage a cease-fire. She also will meet with Palestinian Authority leaders, but no one from Hamas, Haaretz reported. United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon also arrived in Israel on Tuesday to meet with Israeli leaders.

Southern Israel remains under steady rocket barrage

Communities in southern Israel came under a steady barrage of rockets and the Israeli military said it inflicted “severe damage on the rocket launching capabilities of terror organizations” as its Operation Pillar of Defense neared the end of its first week.

At least 50 rockets were fired from Gaza toward southern Israel on Monday through the early afternoon. A woman in Ashkelon was wounded from rocket fragments while searching for a bomb shelter. Rockets fell in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ofakim and Shaar Hanegev. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted rockets over those communities and over Beersheva.

Overnight Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces targeted some 80 of what it called “terror sites” throughout the Gaza Strip, including underground rocket launching sites, tunnels and training bases, “inflicting severe damage to the rocket launching capabilities of terror organizations operating out of the Gaza Strip,” according to the IDF spokesman.

The IDF also targeted buildings owned by senior terrorist operatives used as command posts and weapons storage facilities, it said. The IDF also targeted rocket-launching squads as they prepared to fire rockets toward Israel.

More than 90 Palestinians — terrorists and civilians — have been killed since the start of the operation on Nov. 14, according to the IDF. Three Israelis have been killed.

More than 540 rockets have fallen inside Israel in the six days since the start of Pillar of Defense, all but 35 in non-residential areas. Iron Dome has intercepted some 320 of them, the IDF said.

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.


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.


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

Obama, Netanyahu talk ‘de-escalation’

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed “de-escalation” of the Gaza conflict.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu called the President today to provide an update on the situation in Israel and Gaza,” said a White House statement released late Frdiay.  “The Prime Minister expressed his deep appreciation to the president and the American people for the United States’ investment in the Iron Dome rocket and mortar defense system, which has effectively defeated hundreds of incoming rockets from Gaza and saved countless Israeli lives.”

The statement continued: “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. The two leaders discussed options for de-escalating the situation.”

The reference to de-escalation came the same day that Netanyahu appeared ready to expand the operation into a ground war, as Palestinian rockets for the first time reached the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“With respect to the ongoing operation the prime minister said that the IDF is continuing to hit Hamas hard and is ready to expand the operation into Gaza,” said a statement from Netanyahu's office Friday, recounting his meeting with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres.

In a separate statement, the White House said Obama had spoken to the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, and also discussed de-escalation.

“The president commended Egypt’s efforts to de-escalate the situation and expressed his hope that these efforts would be successful,” the statement said.  “The president expressed regret for the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives, and underscored the importance of resolving the situation as quickly as possible to restore stability and prevent further loss of life.”

Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement is close to Hamas, has condemned the Israeli strikes and has called for a cease-fire.

Israel's Cabinet on Friday approved a call-up of 75,000 reservists, Haaretz reported.

The operation, launched Wednesday by Israel after an intensification of rocket fire from Gaza, has claimed some 30 Palestinian lives, including a number of children; a top commander of the Hamas terrorist group, killed in the first minutes of attacks; and an alleged informant killed by Hamas.

A rocket killed three Israeli civilians in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi.

Peres briefs Obama on Hamas commander killing

Israeli President Shimon Peres briefed U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday about Israel's killing of the Hamas military commander in Gaza, saying the man was a “mass-murderer”, Peres's office said in a statement.

Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Israeli prime minister, told Obama that the killing of Hamas's Ahmed al-Jaabari was Israel's response to a surge in cross-border Palestinian rocket and mortar salvoes from Gaza.

“Israel is not interested in stoking the flames, but for the past five days there has been constant missile fire at Israel and mothers and children cannot sleep quietly at night,” Peres was quoted as telling Obama.

“There is a limit to what Israel can absorb,” said Peres, who visited the Israeli border town of Sderot on Wednesday.

The Obama administration responded to the flareup by strongly condemning Hamas, an Islamist group shunned by the West as an obstacle to peace.

“There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel,” said Mark Toner, deputy U.S. State Department spokesman.

“We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel's right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.”

Israel's air strikes killed 10 people, including Jaabari and at least five civilians, on Wednesday, Palestinian doctor said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he spoke separately with Obama and “voiced deep appreciation for (his) support of Israel's right to defend itself”.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama came to Sderot and voiced sympathy with residents under threat of rocket attack from nearby Gaza.

He raised that visit during his successful campaign for re-election this month, after being accused by Republican rival Mitt Romney of being soft on Israel's security.

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.

Five hurt as Gaza rockets pummel Israel’s south

More than 65 rockets were fired into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, wounding five people, two of them seriously, and causing extensive property damage, Israel Hayom reported.

Two Thai foreign workers in their 20s were seriously hurt when a rocket exploded directly into a chicken coop in the Eshkol region, and a third foreign worker sustained light shrapnel wounds at the scene. A Border Policeman also sustained light injuries in a separate salvo nearby. Several people were treated for shock. All the victims in the area were evacuated to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.

In the Ashkelon region, another woman was lightly wounded while running to a bomb shelter.

The Iron Dome missile defense system was able to successfully intercept seven rockets fired over populated areas south of Ashkelon.

The rockets scored direct hits on seven homes, with one home sustaining extensive damage. One occupant of the home was treated for shock, but no other injuries were reported.

Schools surrounding the Gaza Strip border were closed on Wednesday, as was Sapir College in Sderot. Crossings between Gaza and Israel were shut down following the exchanges of fire. By Wednesday afternoon, Israel Radio reported that Hamas was evacuating many of its compounds in the Gaza Strip in anticipation of escalating Israeli strikes.

Following consultations on Wednesday, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz decided to scale back participation in the current joint Israel-U.S. aerial defense drill. “In light of the escalation in the south, and a concern that the situation could further deteriorate as a result of IDF actions, it is important that the military is ready for any scenario in Gaza,” said one defense official.