Tel Aviv — After years of repeated rocket attacks, the outrage of Sderot reached the doorsteps of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and brought Israel to the brink of a long-delayed invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Carrying signs reading “For how long?,” noisy demonstrators from the battered town near the border with Gaza tested the barricades outside of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Jerusalem office and then stopped traffic on the highways near the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. The impact of the protests went well beyond the modest number of about 150 who showed up.
“Hundreds of residents from Sderot have come to Tel Aviv to explain to Mr. Olmert that we are one country,” said Alon Davidi, complaining about an escalation in rocket fire that left two brothers critically wounded over the weekend. “Mr. Olmert needs to give answers to the residents, and answers to the residents means using the strongest army in the Middle East.”
While unleashing the Israeli army on Gaza would undercut U.S.’s new initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian treaty by the end of 2008, the barrage of missile attacks has created a chorus of pressure on Olmert from Sderot residents, the media, and even ministers from his own government to come up with a solution.
The prime minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak appear to face a lose-lose dilemma, observers say. On one hand, a massive invasion of Gaza would exact high numbers of casualties on both sides, stir worldwide sympathy for Hamas, and risk bogging down the Israeli army in what people here refer to as “the swamp” of Gaza — potentially undoing many of the diplomatic capital gained from the 2005 disengagement.
Labor Knesset member Danny Yatom told The Jewish Week that an all-out invasion of Gaza would be “a suicide operation” for Israel.
“Always in a densely populated areas, the advantage is to those who act in small groups and know the territory better,” he said. “It is impossible to use the advantages of a modern army.”
On the other hand, if the government is perceived as continuing with business as usual after Hamas has stepped up cross-border fire into Israel, it would be counted as a new security failure of the government following the second Lebanon war.
“If Barak and Olmert don’t find a solution their careers are finished,” said Gadi Wolfself, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “There’s been an escalation. The number of Kassam rockets now is not what it was before. The greater the intensity, the more the pressure on the government. And they are not only falling in open fields — they are hitting children.”
That may explain some of the responses of Israeli politicians usually known for their moderation and restraint.
“If they fire on us, we must fight back without hesitation and without compromise,” said President Shimon Peres. “We do not want to harm innocent citizens, but we will not permit our enemies to harm our citizens.”
While Interior Minister Meir Shitreet suggested that the Israeli army should destroy a Palestinian village in Gaza as retaliation, Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon predicted that Israel would eventually run Hamas out of Gaza.
“I believe the combination of [Israeli] steps against Hamas in Gaza will bring an end to the Hamas regime” there, Ramon said. It might take a few months, but “the Hamas regime in Gaza will not last,” he told reporters in Jerusalem.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens said that Israel should have ordered the army back into Gaza a year ago to push the missile launchers out of the range of Sderot. “They have made Sderot into a firing range. It is unacceptable,” he said. “This is a war. Children shouldn’t be on the front line. It should be soldiers.”
Shas Party leader Eli Yishai, meanwhile, said that his party would pull out of a government that continues to negotiate under the threat of Kassam rockets.
Instead of reconquering Gaza, Israel needs to intensify its current activities of limited incursions to pursue terrorist cells, Labor’s Yatom said. He also said that Israel needs to start targeting Hamas’ leadership — both the military chiefs and political leaders.
The shrapnel from the rocket attack on Saturday night forced 8-year-old Osher Twito to undergo a leg amputation and put his 19-year-old brother Rami in the hospital as well. Though the hundreds of rockets killed two Israelis in the city last year, the story of the two brothers and the frustration of the city has grabbed the attention of Israelis in the center of the country.
That drove home to the public the frustration of the government’s failure to stop the rocket fire, said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.
“The prospects of a reoccupation of Gaza have been rising steadily. But nobody wants to do it. Hamas has been trying to suck Israel back in search of a political victory. No Israeli officials want to go back into Gaza. … It’s not a good solution.
“There was a sense that this is a temporary issue, that eventually they would find a solution. Now there doesn’t seem to be a solution,” Steinberg said.
A fair indication of the sympathy could be found in the streets of Tel Aviv on Monday. Motorists caught in traffic jams created by the Sderot solidarity demonstration seemed to accept their delays with a tolerance that has become a scarce commodity on the country’s roads. Nearby, cars honked their horn in support, even though many drivers said that demonstration caused traffic jams that delayed them for as much as one hour.
While waiting in an SUV for the demonstration to clear a road junction where she was stopped, Galia Suleiman, 41, said she was nearly late to pick up a child from day care. But she didn’t blame the protestors, she said.
“I’ve been waiting for 20 minutes,” she said. “My son can wait for me. He is in a protected dare care center. Their children aren’t.”
In a mock simulation of a Kassam attack, a demonstrator sprawled out on the ground as loudspeakers blared “Color Red,” Sderot’s alert for incoming missiles.
Holding up the rusted hulk of a Kassam rocket against a wall of border policemen blocking the main entrance of the Israeli military’s main headquarters, Avi Schwartz said that the time had come for a wide-scale ground offensive after years of daily attacks on Sderot.
Though the attacks have been fatal in the past, the Saturday evening rocket attack counted as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“We’re sick of it. We need to put an end to it,” said Schwartz, who said that a rocket touched down about 150 feet away from his home a month ago. “It should be open-ended operation to stop the Kassam fire. We have the strongest army in the Middle East.”
Even the left-wing Haaretz newspaper seemed to suggest that the time was nearing to act.
Under the headline, “Restraint isn’t possible,” an editorial argued, “if the limited military action Israel is taking to stop the Kassam fire doesn’t stop it, and if moderate countries like Egypt and Jordan don’t rein in Hamas, Israel won’t have a choice other than embarking on a broad military operation. It is up to Israel to prove that the blood of its citizens is not worthless.”