After 200 near misses, Israeli town suffers first fatalities

Palestinian rocket attacks on a town near Gaza Monday killed two Israelis, including a 3-year-old boy.

For three years, Palestinian Kassam rockets rained down on the area of Sderot, a poor Israeli town near the Gaza Strip. But the primitive missiles seldom hit anything, and never killed anyone - until Monday.

Kassams fired by Hamas militants claimed their first-ever fatalities in Israel, killing two Israelis and injuring 11.

One primitive rocket landed outside the Lilac Nursery School, killing 3-year-old Afik Ohayon, and also taking the life of a 50-year-old man. This new escalation in Gaza is driving home a painful reality here: The transition to a possible Israeli withdrawal in the crowded coastal enclave is to be accompanied not by tranquility but by bloodshed on both sides.

In other violence, late Sunday night, an Israeli soldier was killed and five others wounded near the town of Khan Yunis when their position was blown apart by Palestinian militants who tunneled underneath it. Three Palestinians, including 11-year-old Mohammed al-Shourbaji, were killed and seven others wounded during Israeli army gunfire after the incident.

The rockets touched a raw Israeli nerve, since the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is anxious to avoid the appearance that its moves toward dismantling the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza is a result of Palestinian pressure. After the rocket firings, Mr. Sharon met with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to weigh a response, and officials warned they will not allow the Palestinians to gain the initiative in the fighting at Sderot's expense.

"The disengagement [from Gaza] will continue as planned, but there will be no withdrawal under fire," a senior official said. Earlier, Sharon announced that compensation to Gaza settlers choosing to leave would be made available immediately instead of in August, as was initially planned.

After previous Kassam firings, the Israeli army has raided the Palestinian border town of Beit Hanoun, from which the army said the rockets originated. The army raids have focused on destroying citrus orchards the military says offer cover to the rocket firings, but have also included widespread destruction of factories in what Palestinians consider collective punishments.

Last month, Israeli forces invaded and occupied the southern Gaza town of Rafah, causing heavy casualties, many of them civilians, after five Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush in a border corridor. The army said the operation's aim was to stop weapons smuggling from Egypt.

For Sderot, whose residents include a large Russian immigrant population and many Jews of Moroccan descent, Monday's fatalities mark the realization of a nightmare.

"This is the horrible scenario I have been warning about for three years," says Mayor Eli Moyal. Previously, some 200 Kassam rockets fell in and around the town, he says. But in what residents saw variously as luck or divine intervention they caused only a handful of light injuries, he adds. "We have woken up to a new reality, and we do not know what will happen now," says Mr. Moyal. "The main impact is on people's sense of personal security. Now they will be afraid to send their children to school, to go out to the supermarket, to go out to have a good time or even to go jogging. This impacts every facet of life."

Simcha Revivo, who works at the nursery, says she knew Afik Ohayon, the slain toddler, well because he arrived first among the 35 children every morning, at 7:20 a.m. He would talk to her about his father, cousins, birthday parties, and family celebrations, she recalls. "He was a delightful and very cute boy," she says. Monday, Afik arrived near the entrance to the nursery late, at 8:15, exactly when the Kassam landed. "There was a loud blast, and after it another blast. We brought all the children into the shelter and gave them water to drink and calmed them. I went outside and saw Afik's mother lying on the ground with Afik on top of her. The mother was turning her head around. It seemed as if she could not speak."

About a half mile away, at the corner of Jerusalem and Moshe Dayan Streets, another rocket fell, lightly wounding a man, knocking the electricity out, and paralyzing life for several hours. For all the mayhem it caused, it made only a small physical impact - a crater about a foot deep in the sidewalk.

The explosion blew out supermarket cashier Rosa Sabry's windows and littered her bedroom with glass shards. Her response was immediate: She sent her two daughters, ages 9 and 5, to stay with cousins more than an hour away in the town of Dimona.

"My husband has wanted to leave here for years but I was born here and wanted to stay," she says. "But now the idea of leaving is making more sense. When it enters your home, it changes things."

She said her husband, Yosef, was changing the oil of his car when he heard the whistle of the rocket and moved backward, narrowly missing being injured. "It is a miracle, but you cannot count on always having miracles," she says.

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