A day after Israel launched its largest offensive against Hamas in years, retaliatory rocket fire from Palestinian militants turned southern Israel towns like this one on Thursday into a war zone, with constant warning sirens, shuttered stores, and the deadliest single rocket attack ever from Gaza.
After the initial heady reports about Israel's surprise assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaberi and the destruction of long-range missiles, the reality of an uncertain war settled in for about 1 million Israeli residents living within the range of fire.
Though Israeli leaders said the purpose of the ongoing air assault on Gaza was to hit military infrastructure and deter future attacks, the goal appears far from achieved as rockets rained down in nearly every major population center in southern Israel, just as in Operation Cast Lead, the last major conflict in 2008-09.
The operation has "entered the stage of mutual attrition. The element of surprise has been exhausted," wrote military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai on the Israeli news website Ynet. "Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have learned the lessons of Operation Cast Lead and they are succeeding even now to launch Grad rockets even though dozens of aircraft are following after them."
Customers in a grocery store in Kiryat Malachi debated whether the hostilities would be over within a day or drag on into the weekend.
"This is something new here," says Angela Malaiyev, the store cashier. "We're used to hearing sirens, but not one after the other."
Hours earlier, two consecutive "Red Color" warning sirens went off in the town, located about 20 miles northeast of Gaza. Not far down the road from the supermarket in a hardscrabble Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, a rocket fired from Gaza at breakfast time slammed into the fourth floor of a nondescript apartment block, killing at least three residents and wounding a baby.
Highest toll in a decade
It was highest death toll from a rocket attack since Palestinian militants began firing homemade pipe bombs a decade ago, and it demonstrated the heightened potency of the Palestinian arsenal. The impact shook neighboring buildings, blew out the facade of an apartment balcony, and left the apartment walls scarred with shrapnel.
"There was a powerful explosion, and I realized it was a direct hit. Everything flew up in the air. It didn't reach us, thank God,'' says Nava Hayut, who was scurrying with her children two floors below to take cover in the stairwell. Ms. Hayut said one of those killed went to the window of the apartment to photograph the incoming missile. "There were shrieks. I took these kids back home to calm them down, and I began to recite psalms. I could barely hold the book.''
Meanwhile, military aircraft continued to strike in Gaza and Palestinians held a mass funeral for Mr. Jaberi. The Associated Press reports that 15 Palestinians, including seven civilians have been killed and more than 100 people wounded, citing Palestinian medical officials.
Israeli authorities said that 180 rockets landed in Israel in the 20 hours after the assassination.
Hours after the Kiryat Malachi hit, Israeli leaders, security officials, and even foreign diplomats rushed to the scene of the rocket attack. Avi Dicther, Israel's Homeland Security minister, said the deaths could have been avoided and urged Israelis to heed the attack instructions of the homeland command.
After inspecting the bloodstained apartment, British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould said that the "indiscriminate" attacks were "intolerable" and expressed solidarity with the residents in southern Israel, but called on both sides to "deescalate."
But as indicated by a nearby sign reading "Jewish blood isn't forsaken, conquer Gaza," many of the neighboring residents said they disagreed. Indeed, despite the limited goals for the operation mentioned by Mr. Netanyahu and the unlikely probability of a controversial reconquering of Gaza during an election season, neighbors said that nothing short of vanquishing Hamas would satisfy them.
"The army needs to widen the operation and destroy all of the weapons of Hamas,'' says Michael Vaysman, who lives in the next building over. "It's a heavy price, but afterward there will be quiet.''