Gaza Border: Israelis Cheering the Attacks

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David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty

Israelis react to a Palestinian rocket attack in the southern city of Ashkelon on December 24.

In the first 36 hours after the Israeli offensive against Gaza started, Hamas militants fired only 150 rockets, some with a range of about 22 miles, toward Israeli towns. That is below their capacity of up to 200 a day, an estimate by Israeli military sources. "They are keeping their heads down," says a senior military intelligence officer. "Their accuracy is very low right now because of the dense aerial presence by Israeli planes. They know that the chances that they are being spotted by Israel surveillance and intelligence forces is very high." The officer adds, "The clear skies above the Gaza strip did not help them also." (See pictures of Israel's Deadly Assault on Gaza.)

The clear skies have also afforded ordinary Israeli citizens a chance to watch the onslaught — and applaud. At noon Sunday two Israeli Apache combat helicopters hovered in the air two miles east of Sderot, an Israeli town less than four miles from the border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip. Below the choppers, a dozen Israeli spectators perched on a hilltop watched with anticipation. A minute went by and the first Apache fired a Hellfire missile, which went rumbling into the Palestinian side of the border. A few seconds later the crowd broke into cheers at the resulting sight: somewhere between the Jibalya refugee camp and the outskirts of Gaza city a ball of heavy black smoke was rising. (See pictures of Gaza under Hamas.)

Then the second Apache moved forward and two minutes later it shot another Hellfire missile. Another ball of smoke, smaller but just as black, rose half a mile north of the first target. Later on, the spectators listened to radio reports that Israeli helicopters had attacked Qassam launchers, the weapons that Hamas militants have been using to terrorize Israeli towns along the Gaza Strip. The choppers attacked immediately militants had fired a Qassam towards the town of Netivot, six miles east of the Gaza Strip. Hamas claims that the attacks have killed nearly 300 people over the course of two days.

The attacks on Gaza have won widespread approval among Israelis — and have rubbed off on politicians hoping to win big in elections scheduled for early February 2009. In a concrete, bunker-like hall in Sderot, one of those hopeful politicians, the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, came by on Sunday afternoon to show solidarity with the residents of the area as well as to address a few dozen foreign diplomats brave enough to come to a community under threat of Qassam rockets. "Now we need your support to increase international pressure on Hamas. Enough is enough."

The locals need no convincing. Itay Avni, 32, who lives in the nearby Kibbutz of Nir-Am (population 400) is overjoyed at the Israeli assault on Gaza. He was among the crowd watching the Apaches launch their missiles. "Yesterday more then a hundred people from all around were here on this hilltop enjoying to the scene of dozens of aerial raids on Hamas military targets inside the Gaza strip," he says. "If I had opened an ice-cream stand here I would have made a lot money." He adds, "Exultation is the word to describe my feelings. At last, after eight years of defense alerts and hundreds of mortar shells, of Qassam rockets fired at our kibbutz and the area, there is finally some retaliation. People are here to see it happening for real." Nevertheless, the people of the kibbutz are taking precautions. Students and all families with small children have left, moving to live with relatives further north in Israel.

Meanwhile, Israeli ground forces seemed to be mobilizing for a fight. Two hours before the Apaches opened fire, some seven Merkava tanks gathered 10 miles north of the hilltop, right next to Erez crossing to the Gaza Strip. They were part of a full battalion of 35 tanks, ready to penetrate the northern part of the Gaza Strip as part of a ground operation. The soldiers were awaiting orders.

See pictures of 60 years of Israel.