Gaza rockets: Israelis demand end to militant attacks

An Israeli defense official said 'targeted assassinations' may be used to respond to the increase in attacks.

Joshua Mitnick
Sderot supporters in Tel Aviv Monday rallied for strong Israeli reaction.

If rockets keep raining down on Sderot, then the people of Sderot say they are going to start raining down on the metropolitan centers of Israel – from public squares in Jerusalem to the boulevards of Tel Aviv – to push Ehud Olmert's government to ramp up action against Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Sderot residents and sympathizers have already started taking their campaign to the streets in a bigger way than ever before and putting Israeli leaders on the spot about what their plans are to stop the rockets from the nearby coastal strip.

Following an increase in the number of Qassam rockets launched over the Gaza-Israel border in recent days – several of which have caused serious injuries, including a young boy losing his leg – protesters are growing more vocal and Israeli politicians are vowing to respond. Defense Minister Ehud Barak says he is directing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to prepare for a large-scale offensive in Gaza, he told the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Monday.

"IDF operations are continuing day and night and will even be expanded," Barak said, according to a statement. He acknowledged that while Israel had no formula for putting a quick and immediate end to the rocket fire, it would find a way to solve the problem.

"It will not stop in two days or even in two weeks, but the army will stop the phenomenon," he said.

He indicated that Israel would intensify strikes and ground incursions into Gaza to try to route out militants. Already, Israel has been carrying out regular incursions and airstrikes in the area of Gaza near the Israeli border, killing at least 200 Palestinians in recent months.

Now, with Israeli defense officials suggesting they may start carrying out "targeted assassinations" of political leaders in Gaza, many Hamas officials have gone into hiding. According to the Associated Press, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has not been seen in public for several days.

The intensity of the rocket fire into Israel appears to have increased in the aftermath of last month's break in the wall between Gaza and Egypt, carried out by Hamas forces. Israel has put various resources it supplies to Gaza under a blockade in order to weaken Hamas, and as a result, causing shortages for Gaza residents.

None of which seems to present a particularly optimistic picture of the direction of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, despite recent efforts on the part of moderates on both sides and encouragement from the international community, especially from the Bush administration.

The volley of missiles and airstrikes between the Israeli army and Gaza militants groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Resistance Committee, a multifactional group, has until now been treated as a low-intensity conflict that could probably be managed while negotiations continue. But the events of the past weeks have keep the tense situation between southern Israel, Gaza, and Egypt on the agenda, taking the wind out of simultaneous attempts at political dialogue.

The barrage of rockets over the weekend and the injuries that prompted the recent demonstrations drove home the point to the Israeli public that the government's response to the missiles failed to stop the rocket fire, says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"There was a sense that this is a temporary issue, that eventually they would find a solution. Now there doesn't seem to be a solution," he says.

"The prospects of a reoccupation of Gaza have been rising steadily. But nobody wants to do it," Mr. Steinberg adds. "Hamas has been trying to suck Israel back in, in search of a political victory. No Israeli officials want to go back into Gaza … it's not a good solution."

Eli Moyal, mayor of Sderot, says the government can't do more of the same and expect results. Sitting in a protest tent in Jerusalem, erected in the shadow of Israel's Supreme Court, which ruled recently that the Israeli army could not completely turn off the taps on Gaza's electricity and water, Mr. Moyal makes an argument that is becoming more common: that Israel resume assassinating senior members of Hamas.

"The solution should be to make the Palestinians pay a price. Let's go after [Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyeh, his advisers, and deputies," says Moyal, a razor-thin man who says he keeps losing weight – and sleep – due to the daily Qassam rockets being lobbed at his city of 20,000.

On a recent day, he says, 24 fell on Sderot in a single hour, yet he didn't get a call or a visit from a single senior government or army official. And so he decided to pay them another visit – along with the rest of his city, and anyone else who would join.

Chanting "Olmert, resign," about 150 Sderot solidarity demonstrators blocked traffic in central Tel Aviv and on the Ayalon freeway before marching to the Defense Ministry with a police escort. In a mock simulation of a Qassam attack, demonstrators sprawled out on the ground as loudspeakers blared "Color Red," Sderot's alert for incoming missiles.

"There's one person who is denying Sderot's security and that is Ehud Olmert," yelled Alon Davidi, the protest leader, over a megaphone. "Tel Aviv, join with us together, and we'll wipe out the Qassams, because the government isn't able to,"

Holding up the rusted hulk of a Qassam rocket against a wall of border policeman, who blocked the entrance of the Israeli military's headquarters, Avi Schwartz said that the time had come for a wide-scale ground offensive after years of daily attacks on Sderot.

Though the strikes have been fatal in the past, Saturday's attack counted for many as "the straw that broke the camel's back."

"We're sick of it. We need to put an end to it," says Mr. Schwartz, who added that a rocket touched down about 150 feet away from his home a month ago. "It should be an open-ended operation to stop the Qassam fire. We have the strongest army in the Middle East."

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