Israelis, Gazans brace for cease-fire's end

A six-month truce with Hamas ends Friday. Violence between Israel and Gaza militants has flared in recent days.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Rockets return: Israelis in the southern city of Sderot reacted after Palestinian militants in nearby Gaza fired rockets on the town Wednesday.

The calm is gone. That much was clear as the six-month-old cease-fire between Israel and Hamas hurtled toward its expiration date Friday and a new burst of Kassam rockets crashed down on Sderot, the southern city hit more often than any other in Israel.

"We are very scared about what will happen tomorrow," says David Yehudaie, looking out from his pet store Thursday at the site of a rocket attack the day before. The Kasssam fired from Gaza landed on a parked car just 50 yards from his store.

At the time, Mr. Yehudaie was feeding the fish and getting ready to say good night to the birds. With the shudder and shattering of the rocket landing, the birds went wild with fear.

"After a few minutes, the animals calm down," he explains. "With their brains, they have a very short-term memory."

But Israelis do not. And the memories are even sharper in Sderot – a city that, until the truce began six months ago, coped with nearly daily rocket attacks.

The very fact that the agreement between Israel and Hamas is officially called a "calm" in both languages – regia in Hebrew and tahdiyeh in Arabic – is a window on how both Israelis and Palestinians saw the deal as temporary, with neither side thinking it would be long-lasting.

That said, the truce did begin with some hopes that it would ease attacks on Israel and reduce the deadly raids by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip.

But now Hamas says it doesn't see many benefits to extending the cease-fire. For one, they see Israel's continuing closure of the coastal strip controlled by the Islamist militants as a life-threatening siege on its people. Second, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has continued striking Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

The IDF, on the other hand, says the time-out has simply been used by Hamas, along with other resistance groups, as a "breather" to rearm. IDF tacticians feel that the agreement has tied their hands in terms of striking at wanted Palestinian militants.

By noon Thursday, 11 Kassams had slammed into Israel's western Negev Desert, near Gaza, and five mortar shells had hit the south. Israel struck back with two airstrikes.

What Yehudaie worries most about is his parents, in their 70s, who live here and don't have a protected room that they can get to when the siren sounds, warning of an incoming rocket. "They don't run, they sit and pray," he says.

He's had a few brushes with the Kassam rockets, which are small and improvised, but sometimes lethal. Two children who lived across the street from him were killed when their house was hit directly.

Last year, a rocket landing in the shopping center parking lot shattered the glass of one of his largest aquariums. Gallons of water – and the huge pink goldfish who lived in it – spilled to the floor. He has no solution to this conflict, he acknowledges, except to close down the border with Gaza.

"I don't want to fight them," he says of the Palestinians. "I just want to cut them off. They're not our responsibility now. Let the Egyptians take care of them."

Paradoxically, this frequently expressed sentiment is, in many Palestinians' eyes, precisely what is causing the problem. The constant blockade of access in and out of Gaza by Israel, which controls access to the strip by land and sea, is itself a kind of declaration of war.

"I think nothing can be worse than the current situation we're in, because already we live under very bad conditions, especially after the cease-fire agreement was signed six months ago," says Salem Taha, a Gaza textile store owner.

"The Israelis are the only ones benefiting from the truce," he says. "The Palestinian militant groups stopped firing the rockets at Israeli towns close to Gaza, and yet the siege on us only gets tougher."

He used to have three textiles stores, but closed down two of them and fired seven workers because of the worsening economy in Gaza. He has electricity only sporadically and lacks cooking gas for his family. "We want the crossings to be opened so we can travel, do business, and travel for medical treatment," he says.

In Jabalya Refugee Camp, Samia Khalid says she sends several of her eight children into the streets to collect empty cartons and pieces of wood to use in the oven now that cooking gas and electricity have become nearly impossible to come by. "We want the renewal of the cease-fire, but only if it means we start living a better life," says Ms. Khalid. "Smuggled things are too expensive. We can't afford to buy them."

Hamas says renewing the calm is unlikely to change the political or humanitarian situation on the ground in Gaza.

"The truce ends tomorrow and our position is not in favor of extending it. It's our legal right to respond to any Zionist aggression against our people," says Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman. "The occupation will be fully responsible for the consequences and our actions will depend on the situation on the ground. All the military wings will get ready to take their responsibilities for protecting the Palestinian people and confront any Israeli aggression."

Safwat al-Kahlout contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza.

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