Beersheva, Israel — As the wailing siren signaled an incoming rocket from the Gaza Strip during the fourth day of hostilities, traffic stopped and residents in this southern Israeli town sought shelter near the side of a building.
Taking cover next to the wall of a supermarket, a cross section of Israelis looked skyward and waited for the Iron Dome missiles to intercept a barrage of Palestinian rockets. Inconvenience was more palpable than actual fear.
“Look past the mall’s red roof for the trail of smoke; that’s the Iron Dome,” explained Sebastian, a 30-something lawyer, to a visitor unfamiliar with the sounds of the missiles. “You see?”
An overcast sky on Monday obscured the rocket trails, but the new round of fighting was audible. A large clapping explosion signaled a hit by the new defensive system, while a distant thud meant a rocket falling outside the municipal boundaries, an indication that the Iron Dome’s computer system decided not to track the stray missile.
After the alert ended, normal life seemed to resume immediately. Motorists returned to their cars, and a pair of 11th-grade girls ran off with their shopping bags to an outdoor plaza to make the most of an enforced school vacation.
Despite the worst spike in violence since Hamas and Israel fought a three-week war ending in 2009, Israelis in cities near Gaza displayed a surprising degree of composure — albeit a tense composure — thanks in part to the Iron Dome system, which seemed to shoot down rockets as if it were all a video game.
“We love this stuff,” said Koby Malka, a hair stylist who came to work on his day off to watch the Iron Dome in action even though he lives about an hour away in Dimona. “It’s boring most of the time. Now there’s some action. I like the adrenaline.”
Iron Dome’s 90 percent intercept rate gave residents a feeling of security to continue their daily routine, and even a shot of national pride in a time of uncertainty. (The defensive shield costs Israel about $1 million each time it is used.)
At least 26 Palestinians, including a 14-year-old and three other civilians, were killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza. The majority of those killed were terrorists, including 14 from Islamic Jihad, according to the IDF.
At least seven Israelis and foreign workers in Israel have been wounded, two seriously, and dozens in Beersheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon have been treated for shock, according to reports.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the defense system had tipped the balance of deterrence vis a vis Gaza militants back in Israel’s favor.
“Israel came out on top temporarily perhaps because of the missile interceptions. There was no panic in Israel, and there was not pressure on the government to end the conflict,” he said.
In the three years since the war with Hamas, fringe groups in Gaza have becoming increasingly brazen in firing rockets. This time it was Islamic Jihad, a proxy of Iran that took the lead. But the Iron Dome robbed militants of any Israeli fatalities. Meanwhile, Israel’s improved attack capabilities were able to limit Palestinian civilian deaths while hitting militants.
Unlike 2009, “there was no international pressure on Israel. There was not claim of war crimes and civilian casualties,” Steinberg said. “The jihadists were pressured by Egypt and Hamas for the cease-fire,” which Egypt announced had gone into effect early Tuesday morning. (JTA reported that at least seven rockets and mortar shells fired from Gaza exploded in Israel after reports of an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.)
“Given what is happening in the region,” Steinberg continued, “[the jihadists] felt they wouldn’t get the support. It’s not about the Palestinians right now.”
That’s not to say it was business as usual. Despite the appearance of a bustling lunch crowd at a Beersheva barbecue joint, chef Salim Makdo said daily receipts were totaling only 25 percent of normal. Makdo blamed leaders on both sides for choosing violence, leaving civilians to pay the price.
“The people are suffering, while the leaders sit in their chairs and say everything is OK,” he said.
Indeed, not all Israelis were at peace with this round of fighting across the Gaza border. In an editorial, the liberal newspaper Haaretz accused the government of lacking in strategic direction in dealing with the Gaza Strip.
“Now it is the decision makers' turn to understand that Iron Dome isn’t a substitute for policy making or, better yet, freedom from policy making. The fighting in the south must end immediately. It will not defeat terror nor reduce the Gaza threat. The notion that a wide-scale operation … will create a long-term change is also an illusion."
There were isolated examples of that. When Iron Dome failed to intercept the missiles, the damage was not fatal but gave Israelis pause. On Sunday, due to a failure described as technical, a rocket fell in a school courtyard in Beersheva, spraying ball bearings that defaced one of the walls of the school. No one was injured because school had been cancelled. In the wake of the cease-fire, school was scheduled to resume on Wednesday.
Tal Rotem, a wheelchair importer, spent Monday collecting food for soldiers while his wife babysat for a 4-year-old child whose school was closed. When asked by the son about the sirens, he avoided mentioning the conflict, and instead portrayed it as the viral mobile phone video game.
“I said it’s like Angry Birds,” he told the boy. “The birds are throwing themselves at the pigs, and we have to take cover.”
For all the excitement with Iron Dome, Rotem said Israelis in the south are are still nervous. “When you hear the siren go off, you can see the anxiety in people’s faces.”
Despite frustration with the rocket fire, Rotem said he could offer no solution to the current crisis; his sense of resignation contrasted with the anger of some Israelis who once demanded a ground invasion and regime change in the Gaza Strip.
“I don’t think there is another country that could absorb 100 missiles in two days,” he said. Rotem added that he was against a broad Israeli offensive in Gaza because of it would have little impact. “Violence is not always the solution to violence.”
JTA contributed to this report.