Israel's military named its offensive in the northern Gaza Strip against Palestinian rocket launchers earlier this month Autumn Clouds. But with Qassam missile salvos landing seemingly unabated in this nearby Israeli town, residents have come up with a different moniker: Clouds of Dust.
The sarcasm reflects local frustration at years of rocket fire that has shaken Sderot residents, despite a relatively small casualty toll. Though border fences and army checkpoints have enabled Israel to limit suicide bombing to pre-intifada levels, such defenses are useless against the crude missiles.
Now, with one Israeli dead and two critically injured from Qassam rocket fire on Wednesday, Israelis are debating whether stopping the rocket fire is an exercise in futility. The difficulty of the underlying problem – how to neutralize hundreds of small rockets easily hidden amid a civilian population – was underscored this summer by Israel's inability to stop Hizbullah's short-range Katyushas in southern Lebanon.
"The Palestinians have us in a half nelson," says Michael Oren, a fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute. "They can shell us, and we can't get back at them."
According to Israeli army figures, more than 1,000 Qassam rockets have been fired into Israel in the last year, killing three civilians and wounding dozens. On Thursday morning, three rockets from Gaza fell on Sderot. Palestinian militants said the attacks are retaliation for the killing of more than 20 civilians last week in the northern Gaza village of Beit Hanoun by Israeli artillery shells.
"We're at the point of no return," says Alon Davidi, a Sderot leader who staged a hunger strike earlier this year to protest the government's lack of a solution. "Either the state starts taking care of our security, or we'll start leaving Sderot."
Wednesday's attack has ratcheted up pressure on the government to order an all-out offensive in Gaza reminiscent of the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield push into Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Advocates of an incursion say Israel must reoccupy a corridor along the Gaza-Egypt border to block smuggling of weapons with longer firing ranges and improved precision.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cast doubt on the effectiveness of such an operation, pointing out that Defensive Shield by itself didn't reduce militant bombings. "We have to remember that this war will not be over in one blow," he said.
The Israeli media have carried intelligence assessments warning that Palestinian militants are arming themselves with antitank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as unmanned attack aircraft.
"We're waiting for the worst to come," said Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal a day before the deadly attack. "One day we will miss those Qassam rockets because there are other weapons in the Gaza Strip."
Citing the recent precedent of Hizbullah's Katyusha rockets, some experts say Israel won't be able to counter the Qassams in the air alone and will have to dispatch ground forces in significant numbers. And even though a survey found 51 percent of Israelis in favor of a broad operation, most Israelis don't relish the idea of returning to Gaza.
"I'm not so sure that a massive entry and a prolonged stay is worth its price," parliament member Shlomo Breznitz said in an interview with Israel Radio. "And I'm not sure it will solve the problem, because we've been inside before and there were always Qassams."
The crude Qassam rockets have revealed a weakness in Israel's high-tech arsenal, which includes a sophisticated rocket system to intercept ballistic missiles but lacks an answer to short-range threats. But some analysts suggested that Israel's shortcoming against the Qassams is one of strategy.
Mr. Oren, a military historian, argues that Israel should be directing its retaliation at Hamas leaders – even those in Damascus – rather than the militants who hide among Palestinian civilians.
"[Israel should] stop bombing and stop sending forces into Gaza. You have to make the people who are responsible for the rocket fire pay the consequences," he says. Those launching the rockets "want you to invade Gaza, and get into a situation where you're killing citizens, and then be condemned by the world," he says. "Then you're playing their game."
But other security experts argued that a new equation of deterrence with the Qassam launchers mistakenly assumes that Palestinian militants are acting rationally under a unified command.
"Most of Israel's national security doctrine in counterterrorism has been rendered ineffective in Gaza," says Gidi Grinstein, a former peace negotiator and the head of the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv. "How can you deter a loosely connected network of people who have no central structure of command and control? In such circumstances what is victory, deterrence, and command-and-control?"
Back in Sderot, resident Shimon Ganam points to his shrapnel-pocked house. Though the Qassam rocket – roughly the diameter of a truck's exhaust pipe – left only a shallow crater, he had to knock down the wall to his living room because of fissures caused by the explosion.
"We're just another statistic. Another home that was hit," says Mr. Ganam, complaining that while Israel focuses on rebuilding communities near Israel's northern border with Lebanon, Sderot has been forgotten. "They spent two weeks in bomb shelters. And we've been there for six years. We've exhausted the military operations."