‘People Are Very, Very Afraid’


The Palestinian rocket attack on the Israeli southern city of Sderot Tuesday evening that wounded at least 17 was the most serious barrage in a long time and may have been designed to unite warring Palestinian factions.

By Tuesday, more than 20 Palestinians had been killed in three days of fighting between Fatah and Hamas forces despite several attempts at a truce.

“The reason for launching the rockets was the expectation that Israel would retaliate strongly and that this would unite the two factions,” said Yitzchak Reiter, a professor of Middle Eastern and political studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Hamas officials were quoted as saying the assault was in retaliation for Israel’s killing of one of its members during an attack at a border crossing earlier in the day, as well as to mark the May 15 founding of Israel in 1948, which the Palestinians refer to as al-Naqba or “the catastrophe.”

The shooting at the border crossing came when Hamas gunmen attacked a Fatah-controlled post near the Karni crossing that is used to transfer supplies between Israel and the Gaza Strip. They killed eight Fatah gunmen and in the process drew the fire of Israeli troops when two Hamas gunmen appeared to approach them. One Hamas gunman was reportedly shot. It was the deadliest round of recent violence and threatened to collapse the unity government the two groups formed in February.After the attack, hundreds of gunmen loyal to Fatah reportedly poured into the Gaza Strip from Egypt where they had been undergoing military training. The men were seen as reinforcements for a possible full-scale civil war with Hamas.

Meir Sheetrit, the housing minister, said the security cabinet had discussed the persistent Kassam attacks on Sderot just last week and that this latest attack would prompt Israel to “act shortly.”

David Baker, a spokesman for the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the government viewed the rocket attack “very seriously” and that it “will not be tolerated.”

“Israel will not permit its citizens to be continuously attacked as they were tonight in their homes and schools,” he vowed. “Israel will take stern measures in order to prevent these attacks.”

Yossi Cohen, a spokesman for the city of Sderot, said Tuesday evening that five persons had been taken to the hospital following the attack in which 21 Kassams were fired at the city from the Gaza Strip. He said that although in the past most of the Kassams fell harmlessly in open areas, six of the Kassams fired Tuesday landed “in the center of the city.”

Two buildings were hit—a home and a school – and another fell in an open part of the city. He noted that “many people” were traumatized by the rocket attack.“People are sitting in their houses,” he said. “They are not walking in the streets. People are very, very afraid.”

The rocket barrage was too much for Batia Cattar, chairwoman of Sderot’s Parents-Teachers Association, who dashed off a letter to Russian-born billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak asking that he “help us evacuate the city.”

“Life here has become a game of Russian roulette, rockets are fired constantly and many are injured,” she wrote, according to the Israeli online publication Ynet.

“The prime minister and the defense minister have left us on our own, bleeding in the battlefield,” Cattar added.

Last summer, Gaydamak paid the expenses of about 1,000 Sderot residents who left the city for a weekend respite. The city has about 25,000 residents and is about three-fifths of a mile from the Gaza Strip.Medical teams from Magen David Adom provided immediate medical care for the wounded and reportedly raised the security alert to its highest level in the Negev.

Until Tuesday’s rocket barrage, Magen David Adom reported that at least 14 Kassam rockets had been fired at Sderot from the Gaza Strip since May 4. One hit a house next to a kindergarten on May 7 but caused no injuries. Another hit a house; no one was home.

Magen David Adom is operating in Sderot from an antiquated facility until it completes a $4 million state-of-the-art building.

“It has to be bulletproof and bombproof,” said Dr. Noam Yifrach, the organization’s chairman. “It will have reinforced walls, and its ceiling will be made to withstand a missile attack.”

In an interview during a visit here in March, he said his group had raised $800,000 for the building in less than a year and that he expected construction to be completed in a year. He noted that Magen David Adom has beefed up its resources in Sderot in the last five years and that it now has a staff of 18 there, plus 30 yeshiva student volunteers who are trained emergency medical technicians and ambulance drivers. There are also another 35 youth-trained volunteers, he said.

Yifrach stressed that although Magen David Adom was mandated by the government of Israel in 1950 to handle all kinds of Red Cross activities in Israel, none of its $100 million budget comes from government funds.

“We are not part of the military. We help civilians and we are not a governmental organization,” he said. “We get nothing from the government.”

The American Red Cross, on the other hand, is a nongovernmental organization that receives some limited funding from the United States government.

Although the nature of Israel’s full response to the persistent Kassam rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip was not clear by midweek, Eli Bin, director general of Magen David Adom, said his organization had pre-positioned ambulances and equipment around the Gaza Strip several months ago.