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For the First Time, Rocket Attacks from Palestinian Area Kills Israelis

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For more than two years, residents of this economically depressed southern Israeli town considered themselves blessed as they survived salvo after salvo of rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip. This week, Sderot’s luck ran out.

Four Kassam rockets fired by Hamas terrorists slammed into the road Monday outside one of the town’s kindergartens. Two people were killed, one of them a 4-year-old boy.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a special session of top Cabinet ministers to decide on a response to the incident, the first time Palestinian rocket fire has claimed lives inside Israel proper.

The attack turned a quiet summer morning into a nightmare of wrecked lives.

“I still can’t believe it. What a disaster — my darling boy,” cried Yitzhak Ohayon, whose son, Afik Zahavi, was killed by shrapnel.

A passerby, Uzbek immigrant Mordechai Yosepov, 49, also was killed.

At least four other people, including Af! ik’s mother, Ruti, were wounded in the rocket attack. The barrage came only hours after Hamas and Fatah terrorists used a secret tunnel to blow up an Israeli fort on Gaza’s Kissufim highway, killing Sgt. Ro’i Nissim and hurting four others.

Any Israeli retaliation appeared likely to receive support across Israel’s political divide.

“Nothing justifies hurting a child and an innocent,” said Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. “Palestinian attempts at justification have no validity after the government of Israel made the decision to withdraw,” he said, referring to Sharon’s pledge to pull troops and settlers out of Gaza by the end of 2005.

But Israel’s options for retaliation are limited. Since Hamas introduced Kassams into the Palestinian arsenal in late 2001, the Jewish state regularly has hit the Gaza rocket factories from air, ground and sea.

Despite these operations, the Islamic terrorist group’s roving rocket crews still manage to carry out regular forays in w! hich they set up and fire their rockets within minutes. Hamas even has managed to extend the range of its rocket from 5 to 9 miles. Once, the rockets struck close to the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. Hamas also recently began using military-grade explosives in its warheads.

Short of a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip, akin to its April 2002 sweep of the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield, Israel likely will have to make do with continued pinpoint operations. Its challenge will be to offset the spike in attempted attacks by Palestinian groups keen to paint the impending Israeli withdrawal as a Palestinian-won victory.

For Yitzhak Ohayon, any Israeli response will be too late to offer comfort.

“I don’t mean to get into politics or anything to do with the disengagement plan, but I am asking the government not to take this sitting down,” he said, referring to Sharon’s plan to disengage Israel from the Palestinians. “The prime minister has a bodyguard — so does the president — but who looks out for our kids? No one guards! them. Our children are our future. This is my message to the prime minister.”

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