Israelis relieved as army moves in

January 5, 2009 5:48:27 AM PST
Israelis bombarded by Palestinian rockets have begun to emerge from homes and shelters, regaining confidence after columns of Israeli soldiers moved into Gaza to crush the militants who have rained missiles on them for eight years. Towns near the Gaza Strip virtually shut down after Israel's conflict with Gaza militants escalated into a showdown on Dec. 27. Israel launched an air campaign against the missile launchers and against Hamas, the Islamic militant movement that rules the territory, while the militants stepped up the barrage against Israeli towns and villages.

The ground offensive that began Saturday night brought cheer to Israeli civilians, convinced their government meant to end the missile terror even at the cost of what is likely to be heavy army casualties.

However, the armored and infantry assault brought no immediate respite from rocket attacks. At least 45 missiles fell on southern Israel on Sunday, wounding five people.

"It's good that the troops went in. Finally we are doing something," said Yamit Azulai, emptying a shopping cart full of groceries into her car. It was the first time in a week she had been to the supermarket in Sderot, a town just beyond Gaza's northeast corner that has absorbed thousands of missiles since 2001.

"Until now, it was Hamas who decided when to fire missiles. It was always in their hands. Now we are taking control," she said.

Moves toward normalcy were tentative. Some shops and cafes reopened in Sderot, but about half remained shuttered. Schools and nonessential industries stayed shut within a 25-mile reach of Gaza, the maximum range in Hamas' missile arsenal. Some people like Azulai who ventured out finished their chores quickly to return home.

"I'm not letting the children outside," she said.

The offensive brought a kind of vindictive satisfaction to Sderot, which had long urged the government to strike at Hamas and take out the missile threat. With only 20,000 people, many believed the authorities were unwilling to risk a major confrontation on their behalf.

"I'm glad Ashdod and Beersheba got hit," said construction worker Zohar Shapado, referring to two large Israeli cities that were rocketed for the first time last month. "It was only then that they decided to act."

Sderot has built up formidable defenses. Every bus stop has a small concrete hut to protect against the shrapnel and pellets packed into the warhead of homemade Qassam rockets. Homes and apartment blocks are built with windowless rooms with steel doors.

People are edgy, but resigned to being targets.

"We're used to it," said Shapado, calmly abandoning the coffee he was drinking at a sidewalk cafe and moving inside to safety as yet another rocket alert resounded through town. Seconds later, the boom of the rocket crashing harmlessly in a field outside of town was the signal for customers to return to their tables and resume conversations.

Police say 10 people have been killed in Sderot since 2004, including three toddlers. That compares with more than 500 Palestinians killed in Gaza in the last week, including about 100 civilians.

But the damage often is psychological. Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where most casualties from southern Israel are brought, has treated 164 civilian patients since the Israeli air war began. All but 10 were "stress related," Shlomi Cabish, the hospital's deputy director, told The Associated Press.

Not everyone is happy with the decision to send infantry troops into the narrow warrens of Gaza, where Palestinian resistance was fierce and dozens of soldiers were wounded and at least one was killed in the first 24 hours.

Sitting under a date palm in Beersheba's Old City, Benny Fryand argued with his friend Amos Shem Tov over the advisability of a ground war.

"You want to send in the army like cowboys," said Fryand, 59, arguing that the air war had been conducted with devastating effect without a single military casualty. Fryand, who splits his time between Israel and Brooklyn, New York, expected Hamas to take revenge by firing even more rockets.

Shem Tov, 61, voicing what appeared from several interviews to be the majority view, said the war against Hamas cannot be won from the air.

"What would Stalin say? You can't have war without casualties," said the veteran immigrant from the Caucasus region of Russia. "After that comes the victory."


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