Israel's Gaza Front Line Under Fire

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When Gaza is aflame, Sderot is typically the first Israeli town to feel the heat. The small town of about 23,00 people perched on a pleasant bit of countryside near the Gaza Strip is within easy range of the homemade, unguided, Qassam rockets fired by Palestinian militants across the fence. And with Gaza spiraling into a chaotic Palestinian civil war, at least 70 rockets have been fired into Israel over the past two days, several of them landing in Sderot. One even hit a building near the home of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a Sderot native.

The casualties have been minimal so far, with three people injured in the latest attacks. But the threat of rockets from Gaza is unlikely to abate anytime soon, and locals complain that the government has abandoned them. "People in Tel Aviv can sleep at night but we don’t have this option," said Limor Aflalo, a 35-year-old beautician whose home was damaged by a rocket that struck next door. Aflalo and her husband would like to take their two daughters and leave the town, but they said it would be impossible to sell their home. "I don’t know what the solution is, but the government should tell us what to do and we’ll do it," she said.

But the government doesn't appear to have an answer. Since Israel unilaterally left Gaza in 2005, the territory has teetered on the brink of civil war between Palestinian factions. Fatah, which oversaw the creation of the Palestinian Authority in negotiation with Israel and the United States, lost its monopoly on power when Hamas decided to contest the January 2006 elections and won a dramatic victory — one which neither Washington, alarmed by Hamas's hostility to Israel's very existence, nor many of the Fatah activists whose power of patronage required holding onto the machinery of government, were prepared to accept. After tension between the two sides erupted in violence earlier this year, Saudi Arabia brokered a power-sharing agreement that created a unity government. But as of last weekend, the unity government appears to be on the verge of collapse amid fierce new fighting between gunmen of the two parties, and Hamas’ rocket crews may be trying to restore intra-Palestinian cooperation by provoking the Israelis into launching new military actions in Gaza. That leaves the Israelis facing a dilemma: Small-scale measures won’t do much to stop the rockets, while a larger military response could play into Hamas’ hands.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday promised a "severe and harsh" reaction to the recent rocket attacks. But despite the tough talk, it's likely that Israel's response will be restricted to air strikes targeting militant leaders, cells and rocket launch sites — and such tactics have done little to halt attacks in the past. But a large-scale incursion into Gaza to stop the missile attacks would involve too much manpower and too much risk: at least two divisions of soldiers and plenty of opportunities for Hamas to take Israeli casualties in an urban setting that favors guerilla tactics. And at the end of any such operation, the likelihood would be that the threat from Gaza would persist.

Nor is there much that Sderot can do to protect itself. Advanced anti-rocket laser systems are both prohibitively expensive and hardly foolproof against Qassams, which cost next to nothing to build. So, the town makes do with a basic early warning system involving a surveillance balloon moored on its outskirts providing a view over Gaza, and alarms that sound when there is a rocket launch. This gives residents about 15 seconds to take the nearest available cover. The city opened its bomb shelters on Tuesday for the first time since the 1967 war, 40 years ago. And the city school system canceled classes, and began moving to send children to other schools around the country. Moyal Eli, the town mayor, said that militants time their attacks in the morning in order to catch students on their way to school. "They know our schedule," he said. "My biggest nightmare is that a rocket would hit a yellow bus."

For his part, Moyal — whose offices contain a memorial to the 15 Sderot residents who have been killed in terror attacks over the years, including six killed by Qassams — knows what should be done. "The government needs to tell Palestinian terrorists, 'If another Qassem falls, we will do this and this and this,' " he said. The government has made a mistake by showing restraint against in order to avoid killing innocent Palestinians, he said. "There only two options: Do you want innocent people killed on this side, or do you want innocent people killed on that side?" Unfortunately, that's just the kind of moral quandary Hamas wants Israel to be in.

With reporting by Aaron Klein