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Israel’s Southern Discomfort

Israel’s Southern Discomfort

Amidst tensions with Egypt, Beersheva rattled by more than 100 rockets from Gaza.

Israelis in southern Israel were on edge this week, hoping that a shaky cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip would hold after terrorists there fired more than 100 rockets into Israel at the end of last week, forcing more than 500,000 Israelis to return repeatedly to their bomb shelters.

Maya Osher, 27, of Beersheva, said her husband was called to reserve duty after a series of coordinated ground and air terrorist attacks, which killed nine Israelis, began last Thursday.

“I’m afraid to be alone,” she said. “I’m nervous when there is an alarm.”

Osher was referring to the sirens that sound when a rocket is launched from Gaza towards Beersheva.
She said she knows she should be used to it because of the three years she spent studying at Sapir College in Sderot, about 1.5 miles from the Gaza border. Until Israel’s war with Hamas two years ago, Sderot came under repeated rocket attack.

Unlike in Sderot, where the sirens provide only about a 10-second warning before rockets strike, Beersheba’s 200,000 residents get a one-minute warning because it is about 25 miles from Gaza.

At least 30 rockets were reportedly fired at the city, known as the capital of the Negev, last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Many of them were intercepted by the newly deployed Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system that shoots down medium-range rockets in mid-air.

Osher’s brother’s brother, Jonathan Meital, 23, was driving to his sister’s home Saturday evening when the sirens sounded.

“I was two minutes from her house and I knew I had one minute to get to a shelter,” he recalled. “I stopped, turned off the engine and got out of the car. I was looking for a safe place to go, but I was in the middle of the street and there was no safe place. I didn’t know what to do, and then I heard someone yell to lie down. I did and put my hands on my head to protect it and prayed.

“I then looked at the sky and saw what looked like fireworks as two or three rockets exploded” after being hit by the Iron Dome missiles, Meital said. “I was really scared. I then saw a flash far away, and I thought a rocket may have hit the ground.”

The rocket landed next to a suburban home, killing one person.

“I was in shock and didn’t know what to do,” Meital recalled. “I tried to call my mother, but all the phone lines were jammed. I couldn’t reach my sister either, so I decided to go home; I drove really fast. When I finally talked to my sister, she was really scared and crying.”

Asked his reaction to the attacks, Meital said: “I just want to live in peace. I think Israel’s [limited] response was good, but I’m not so sure how good it will be in the future if [terrorists] believe they can just shoot at us whenever they want.”

His father, Yarom, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said Israeli-Egyptian relations “went through a severe crisis last week” after Israel accused Egypt of failing to guard against Gaza terrorists sneaking into Israel through the Sinai.

“I would not say the crisis has ended,” he said. “There are still significant differences between Cairo and Jerusalem. The Israeli army is investigating the killing of five Egyptian soldiers, and if it finds that Israel was responsible, Egypt will be asking for a formal apology and compensation to the families of the soldiers. So it is a very serious crisis.”

Regarding Hamas, the elder Meital said that because it controls the Gaza Strip “it is on the shoulders of Hamas leaders to impose a cease-fire on other smaller Palestinian groups. It is not in the interests of Israel, Hamas or Egypt for there to be a further deterioration [in relations]. We hope the cease-fire will be kept, but no one here is naïve enough to think this is the final solution to these basic differences.”

The whole incident has demonstrated to Israel, Meital continued, that “Egypt today plays a completely different role from what it had played under [outsted President Hosni] Mubarak. And Israel has no choice but to cooperate with the Egyptians mainly because it could risk the [Israeli-Egyptian] peace treaty.”

Idan Gluzman, 26, a student at Sapir College in Sderot, said Israel wants peace with Hamas and that “everyone here wants to avoid [further] fighting. If we can endure this and not fully engage in a major counter attack, everyone here would prefer that. Everyone wants to keep it simple and quiet and not make a big fuss.”

“My grandma is now calling me twice a day; she used to call once a week,” he observed. “The sad thing is that everybody here is getting used to [rocket attacks]. It’s part of the routine. It has been going on here in Sderot for almost 10 years.”

Rachel Saperstein, who lives in a plasterboard house in Nitzan after having been forcibly evacuated by Israeli troops from her home in the Gaza Strip six years ago, said that until her new home is built “we have to run into sewer pipes” when the siren sounds.

She said the Israeli military put the cement pipe there because there was no other protection in the community, which lies between Ashdod and Ashkelon near the Mediterranean.

“It would not survive a direct hit, but theoretically it would protect us from shrapnel,” said Saperstein, 70. “It’s very hot and uncomfortable in there. There is no light, and at least 20 of us go in.”

Asked about world reaction to the terrorist attacks, she replied: “The whole world is concentrating on Libya; you don’t hear a word in the international media about what is happening in Israel. … There is no such thing as a cease-fire. How long are the Jews supposed to sit here like a bunch of sitting ducks while our army — which is considered the best in the world — is told to do nothing?”

Brenda Laster, 70, a professor in the nuclear engineering department at Ben-Gurion University who lives in the Beersheva suburb of Meitar, pointed out that there were more rocket attacks after Sunday’s cease-fire.

“The latest joke here is that a cease-fire means reloading,” she said.

“We go to a safe spot in the house when the siren sounds, and shortly after it stops, you can hear the force of the rocket hitting,” Laster said. “It’s a very strange sensation for us — to hear something drop and not know where it hit and pray that everyone is okay. So you sit there with bated breath.”

She added that she has a daughter who drives from Meitar several times a week to Sapir College.

“It’s very frightening each time she leaves,” Laster said. “She had a trauma a year ago when a student was killed from a rocket that landed close to her classroom.”

And she said that last week she “went through an hour of agony until my son walked through the door,” after she had been unable to reach him when the siren sounded.

Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University, pointed out that some summer school classes were held in basement shelters and others were moved to the school’s Sde Boker campus further to the south and out of the range of the rockets.

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