Frustration In Israel’s South Over Response To Latest Gaza Flare Up
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Frustration In Israel’s South Over Response To Latest Gaza Flare Up

‘The whole town is in trauma.’

A  bakery in Sderot, was hit by a Palestinian rocket launched from Gaza. The rocket caused a gas explosion and fire that took hours to put out. Photos by Michele Chabin/JW
A bakery in Sderot, was hit by a Palestinian rocket launched from Gaza. The rocket caused a gas explosion and fire that took hours to put out. Photos by Michele Chabin/JW

Ashkelon, Israel — The rocket that nearly destroyed one side of a four-story apartment building last week was so strong that residents in the building across the alley said it felt like an earthquake.

“It broke all our windows, our window shutters, the water heaters on our roof. We don’t have running water,” said Bella Slavkin, an elderly tenant whose windows face the carnage wrought by the rocket, one of an estimated 450 launched by Gaza terror groups last week.

The morning after the Nov. 13 blast, Slavkin and dozens of other residents of Shimshon Gimmel, one of this city’s poorest and ethnically diverse neighborhoods, gathered outside the wounded building, its top floor a gaping hole. The impact killed the Palestinian man and injured the Palestinian woman who lived on the top floor, and injured their downstairs neighbors.

Like many of the residents, Patrick Amar, who lives in Slavkin’s building, expressed anger at the government for not doing more to keep peace on the Gaza border. Located eight miles from the border, this seaside city has been hit numerous times by rockets fired by Palestinians. 

“The government should be ashamed! It’s not doing enough,” Amar said, gazing up at the partially destroyed top level, where scattered belongings and shattered glass covered the stone floor. “The IDF needs to hit Hamas hard, until they have no more weapons to fire. If they don’t, rockets will rain on us again tomorrow or in another two months. The only way to make this end is to end it,” he concluded, shaking his head in despair.

Magen David Adom officials said the rocket attacks have triggered residents’ longstanding trauma-related disorders. Photos by Michele Chabin/JW

Although the IDF did bomb military targets and a Hamas-run TV station immediately after the latest rocket attack, it stopped far short of the hard-hitting military incursion many border residents had anticipated. 

A few days before the latest rockets, hundreds of Israeli youths living near the Gaza border marched to Jerusalem to demand that the government take decisive action against the Palestinians who hold weekly riots on the border and send incendiary devices and explosive devices attached to kites and balloons into Israel. Several have landed in schools and backyards.

“If we lived in Tel Aviv, the government would respond much more forcefully,” a marcher named Tali said during the Jerusalem protest. 

Border residents aren’t the only ones unhappy with the government’s handling of the border crisis.

The latest poll found that 74 percent of the public was “dissatisfied” with Netanyahu’s actions last week. In the poll, taken by the Israel Television News corporation, 69 percent also expressed dissatisfaction with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s performance.

Lieberman said he had wanted to hit Hamas targets much harder, but that Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had tied his hands. He angrily withdrew his Yisrael Beiteinu party from the governing coalition, leaving Netanyahu’s coalition with a tiny one-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

A home in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon was destroyed by a rocket fired from Gaza on Nov. 13, 2018. JTA

Education Minister Naftali Bennett also threatened to quit the government, along with his Jewish Home party, unless Netanyahu named him defense minister, but backed down at the last moment without receiving the portfolio. (See related column on page 28.) For now at least, no early elections are planned.

Pundits have spent the past week debating why Netanyahu was so eager to reinstitute a cease-fire so quickly.

Writing in the Washington Post, David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted that some senior Israeli officials question whether further military action would achieve worthwhile gains.

“Shortly before this week’s fighting,” Makovsky wrote, “Netanyahu stated that Israel does not seek an ‘unnecessary war’ in Gaza, language that he does not usually employ in public. Meanwhile, his government backed efforts by the UN envoy, Egypt, and Qatar to increase fuel deliveries to Gaza, which could help double the territory’s daily electricity supply and improve its sewage capacity.”

Nor do all senior security officials consider Gaza to be their top concern.

“Many … see Gaza as a distraction from Israel’s primary military challenge: keeping Iran from entrenching a Hezbollah-style military infrastructure in Syria,” wrote Makovsky. “The seriousness of this priority became evident earlier this year when Israel broke the taboo on directly attacking Iranian military assets.”

An Israeli bus traveling near the border with Gaza on fire after being hit with Palestinian mortar fire on Nov. 12, 2018. A 19-year-old Israeli man standing next to the bus was seriously injured in the attack. (JTA)

Tamar Hermann, director of the Guttmann Center at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the widespread dissatisfaction revealed in recent polls should not be interpreted as the public’s desire to engage in an all-out war with Hamas.

Rather, Hermann said, the Israeli public “is fed up with the status quo of not here, not there. People are unhappy with how security is being dealt with, but that doesn’t mean they want a more dramatic reaction. They want a more effective reaction.”

While some Israelis, including many of those living close to the border, favor a powerful assault on Hamas, she continued, “my impression is that most aren’t interested in getting into a mess in Gaza.” What Israelis want is a “clear blueprint” from the government on how it plans to end the conflict, Hermann said. “Netanyahu and Lieberman do not really have a clear vision of where they want to go with Gaza.”

At the Magen David Adom station in the rocket-battered town of Sderot last week, while rockets were still landing close by, Yoni Yagodovsky, the MDA’s international director, said the fear of mortars, rockets, Molotov kites and balloon bombs has triggered the local population’s longstanding trauma-related disorders.

“The PTSD is something everyone lives and copes with in their own way. Kids and teenagers are wetting their beds. Parents are afraid to go to work, afraid to send their kids to school. Stress has become a part of life,” Yagodovsky said. 

Standing next to the remains of a smoldering bakery hit by a rocket that triggered a gas explosion and fire, Elad Kalim, Sderot’s deputy mayor, said that 15,000 rockets and mortars have landed in Sderot during the past decade and a half.

“We live as if our lives are one big emergency, and the children of Sderot know nothing else.”

An apartment in Ashkelon hit by rocket fire. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the Gaza conflict is coming under scrutiny this week. Getty Images

Kalim said the situation — the on-again, off-again rockets, the frantic alerts that precede the rockets mere seconds before they fall — “is worse than an all-out war.”

“During war you know to run” into the closet bomb shelter. Eighty percent of Sderot’s residents have a concrete reinforced safe room, and bomb shelters line the streets. Every park and playground has a bomb shelter, often painted in bright colors.

Kalim said Israelis living near the border cannot continue living in fear.

“The whole town is in trauma. Every adult and every child. We expect the government to do everything it can to give our children peace and quiet.”

What the government should do, Kalim did not say.

Instead, he recalled how his young daughter saw some clouds during a rare rainstorm: “She thought the clouds were smoke from rockets and ran into the shelter.” 

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