In Southern Israel, Residents Doubt That Rocket Fire Can Be Stopped

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 5, 2009

SDEROT, Israel, Jan. 4 -- Just over the border in Gaza, thousands of Israeli troops battled Hamas fighters Sunday while Israeli warplanes, helicopters and drones bombarded targets from above.

But in this working-class Israeli town two miles from the Gaza boundary, Yoav Peled chased rockets, as he has been doing for years.

"It's the same as usual," Peled, the community's security coordinator, said as he stood in a wheat field examining the mangled remains of a 19mm Qassam rocket that had slammed down minutes before. "They probably built this one just a couple days ago. It's brand new."

Since the Israeli offensive began nine days ago, the country's leaders have insisted that Israel's largest military operation in Gaza since its troops withdrew in 2005 would not stop until it ended the Hamas rocket fire. But residents of southern Israel have no such expectations. The rockets, they say, will go on despite what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described as an "all-out war" on the armed Islamist group that runs Gaza.

Israeli ground forces pushed into Gaza on Saturday night, but on Sunday about 40 rocket and mortar attacks struck half a dozen Israeli towns and cities, roughly the same number as the day before. Since the Israeli operation began on Dec. 27, there have been approximately 500 rocket and mortar strikes.

Most of the Qassams, Katyushas and mortar shells fired from Gaza have fallen without causing damage. But four Israelis have been killed in the barrage, while other strikes have caused injuries or destroyed buildings. Cities once believed to be beyond the range of rocket fire from Gaza -- including Ashdod and Beersheba -- have been hit regularly in the past week.

"I hope the invasion succeeds," said Peled, 65, who is responsible for finding the rockets after they land and making sure they have detonated. "But after so many years, it's difficult to believe this will work."

Israeli military officials say they are not surprised that Hamas has been able to keep up the attacks, even as the group's fighters attempt to stay alive amid the massive Israeli assault.

"That's to be expected," said Capt. Elie Isaacson, an Israeli military spokesman. "Hamas previously had the ability to fire 200 rockets a day. Now at most they're firing 70. So we know for a fact that they're under pressure. If after an eight-day air campaign they're still able to fire rockets, it just highlights the importance of this mission."

Still, a senior Israeli military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is highly unlikely Israel will succeed in stopping the rocket fire entirely. A more realistic goal, he said, is a "lower level of terror."

Other Israeli leaders have adopted that same vague formulation. But some, including top officials, have been more categorical. In announcing the ground invasion Saturday night, Barak, a candidate for prime minister in elections scheduled for next month, said the goal is to "get Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel."

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the operation will end only when Israel is assured that "the civilian population in the south of the country will no longer be on the receiving end of Hamas rockets."

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