ASHKELON, Israel (May. 18)
The boom of artillery fire along Israel’s southern coast provides an incongruous backdrop to the bikini-clad girls, scruffy fishermen and ice cream stands just upwind of these sandy Mediterranean beaches, in the city of Ashkelon. But with a Hamas-run quasi-state next door in Gaza, constant rocket fire in the direction of Israeli communities and daily attempts by Palestinians to infiltrate into Israel, this new frontier — occasioned by Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer — has become the site of a massive Israeli military buildup.
The Israel Defense Forces is beefing up positions atop sand dunes all along the coast here, fortifying lookouts, increasing patrols and, lately, firing almost non-stop artillery barrages into the Gaza Strip.
“This border is not cooling off,” says Eli Toledano, vice platoon commander at an IDF base just east of Gaza. “I would not call it a stable situation.”
Hardly a night passes where the IDF does not catch Palestinians trying to infiltrate Israel through the Gaza border fence, hit IDF patrols with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades or bomb IDF patrols.
But the most irksome — and deadly — Palestinian action so far has been the firing of rockets at Israeli towns near Gaza.
More than a dozen civilians, including several Palestinians, have been killed in the past two years from rocket fire. Militants have stepped up their attacks since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip last summer.
Most of the rocket fire nowadays is aimed at Ashkelon, the closest Israeli city to Gaza, about eight miles away. No rockets have reached Ashkelon — yet — but some have fallen in the industrial zone just south of the city, where a major power station, desalination plant, oil refinery and more than 60 other factories are located.
Anat Wienstein-Berkovits, a spokeswoman for Ashkelon’s mayor, says the rockets are terrorizing the 5,000-plus people who work in the industrial zone.
“It’s not the damage that a Kassam causes,” she says. “If a Kassam falls onto a sand dune or a road and doesn’t cause any damage, the workers there still live in fear that one day they will fall in a place where it will cause damage.”
“It’s really terror,” Wienstein-Berkovits says. “It’s just like the threat of a suicide bomber.”
This week Palestinians fired a Katyusha rocket toward Ashkelon. It was the second time in recent months that a Katyusha, which has a range of up to 15 miles, has been fired from Gaza. It landed in a chicken coop in the Israeli town of Netiv Ha’asara, killing some 30 chickens.
The Israeli army responds to the rocket fire with heavy artillery barrages, which the IDF says helps deter Palestinians from firing more rockets.
“Terrorist organizations need to understand that Kassam fire is not worthwhile,” says Tal Lev-Ram, spokesman for the IDF’s Southern Command. “But they are still not convinced and they continue to fire. And our response will continue to be harsh and to exact a heavy price.”
Most days, the IDF fires hundreds of shells into Gaza. They come from artillery batteries to Gaza’s east and north, from navy vessels patrolling the Mediterranean west of Gaza and sometimes from Israeli helicopters crisscrossing the sky above.
The IDF says the idea is not so much to hit the terrorists firing rockets — artillery fire is not accurate enough for that — but to make it difficult for terrorists to safely launch their rockets, and to deter rocket fire through the unpleasantness of the constant shelling.
The IDF says the strategy has reduced the frequency of rocket attacks and ultimately will help bring quiet, without the need for an incursion into Gaza.
“If there won’t be quiet on our side, there won’t be quiet on their side,” Lev-Ram vows.
Two weeks ago, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh reportedly warned senior Islamic Jihad officials that their rocket fire was harming Palestinian interests by provoking the Israeli artillery barrages. Some of those barrages have killed Palestinian civilians.
But Israelis who live in the region say the near-constant refrain of artillery is more troublesome than the Kassams themselves. On one recent day, Israel fired more than 1,200 shells into Gaza.
The artillery fire “has become very troublesome,” Ashkelon’s mayor, Roni Mehatzri, tells JTA. “We demanded that the IDF do everything possible to halt the fire. The noise of the firing of the artillery is simply terrible. It really is harmful. Citizens are afraid of it.”
“We can’t live like this,” he adds.
The IDF says its goal is to protect the residents of southern Israel while disrupting life as little as possible. That means that IDF jeep patrols share the road with tractors and farm vehicles; weekend cyclists may find their picnics interrupted by the roar of an armored personnel carrier nearby; and residents have had to adjust to the artillery refrain.
Residents say they’ve learned to distinguish between the whoosh-whistle of the Kassam rockets, which leave a trail of white-gray smoke, and the booming of the artillery, which is more steady, shakes the windows of houses and frightens dogs.
Roni Nir, who works in the Kukla restaurant in Mefallesim, just east of Gaza, says she doesn’t pay attention to the artillery anymore.
“It’s a little background noise. It’s part of the routine here. I don’t think about it,” she says. “Those who live here aren’t afraid. People who come from away and hear the noise, they get scared.”
Mehatzri says he has conveyed his concerns to the new defense minister, Amir Peretz. Peretz may prove particularly receptive to the complaints because he happens to be a resident of Sderot, a Negev town where countless Kassams have fallen.
Peretz suggested last week that he plans to review the military’s policy on the artillery. He toured the Gaza border this week for the first time since becoming defense minister.
The threat to Israel from a hostile border zone is nothing new. In the 1970s, the problems came from terrorists by way of Jordan. In the 1980s Israel suffered attacks along its border with Lebanon. Both those situations led to major military offensives.
In some ways, the situation at the Gaza border is similar to the current situation along the Lebanon border. In both places there is an omnipresent threat to Israelis living nearby — but whereas the threat in the north is mostly theoretical, near Gaza the threat is actualized every day.
The IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said two weeks ago that he strongly opposes calls in the defense establishment for a major ground assault on Gaza, which could bear a heavy economic, diplomatic and human toll for Israel.
Touring some of the new Israeli army positions along the Gaza Strip’s eastern boundary, Capt. Elitsur Trabelsi says the army has a lot of work to do to bring stability to the border. Nevertheless, he says, it’s better than being in Gaza.
“When we were in Gaza, the threats came from 360 degrees,” Trabelsi says, halting his jeep to watch an artillery battery discharge its shell. He went on after the boom subsided and the smoke had cleared.
“The threat was always here,” Trabelsi says. “But once it was turned inward. Now it’s all outward, and this is what we’re trying to deal with. If the price is that a soldier dies and not citizens of the State of Israel, so be it. This is our mission.”