‘It’s Something You Don’t Get Used To’


Ashdod, Israeli — With 45 seconds to run for cover before the impact of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, Yuri and Ana Friedman had spent the last week sleeping in their clothes for fear of an overnight attack as Israel and Hamas fought their third war in five years — putting this port city just 20 miles from Gaza in the line of fire again.

“I’ll tell you something: It’s something you don’t get used to,” said Ana Friedman, a 27-year-old economist who said that sirens have been ringing on average three times daily. “Our [daily] routine is broken. We don’t have much to do, except to sit at home and wait for the siren.”

But when the couple went to work on Tuesday morning there was hope that routine might be reconstituted: just before 9 a.m. the Israeli cabinet announced said it had agreed to an Egyptian-proposed cease-fire plan, which was supposed to go into effect immediately.

Two hours later, sirens again rang out in Ashdod. Then the explosions, and a phone call from a neighbor telling Friedman that she should come home urgently. One of the rockets had evaded the Iron Dome missile-intercept system and slammed into the front yard of a house right next to their apartment building. The couple returned home and found their floor littered with glass shards from a blasted-out window.

Ana said she started to cry. There was supposed to be a cease-fire, she said. “And it was supposed to be a cease-fire from our point of view. Can’t you see here?” she said sarcastically. “I said, ‘I’m going to invite everyone over to see the cease-fire.’”

Friedman’s frustration reflected the annoyance and dilemmas of an entire country as the first effort at a truce after a weeklong battle collapsed within hours and left Israel seemingly on the verge of a ground invasion into Gaza.

Over the objection of hardliners in his own cabinet and his party beating the drums for a land assault and reoccupation of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to the cease-fire in an effort to keep the international community in Israel’s corner ahead of a possible messy ground operation.

“Hamas chose to continue the battle, and it will pay a price for that decision. … When there is no cease-fire, our answer is fire,” Netanyahu said. “It would have been preferable to solve this through a diplomatic path; that’s what we tried to do today when we accepted the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire. But Hamas isn’t leaving us a choice, but to widen and strengthen the battle against it.”

Netanyahu did the same thing before the start of Operation Protective Edge: with rising missile strikes on Israel, he nonetheless held fire for several days to give Hamas a chance to deescalate, and in doing so win international support. On Tuesday, he argued that after Israel agreed to a truce, the international community should support Israel if it needs to broaden and escalate a fight against Hamas.

But the prime minister’s diplomatic maneuvering didn’t impress hardliners in his government who have started to attack him for being weak-kneed on Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who ended his political partnership with the Likud over Gaza policy, ridiculed the prime minister for “hesitating” and immersing himself in diplomatic “formulations” aimed at the international community.

‘When I say ‘until the end’ I don’t mean landing another blow,” Lieberman said in a press conference. “The Israel Defense Forces must finish this operation in control of the entire Gaza Strip.”

The criticism reflected rising impatience among Israeli residents for an end to the cycle of intermittent war with Hamas. Jacques Kapp, a 29-yea-old Ashdod resident who also lives in the building next to where the rockets touched down, said that he was disappointed in the prime minister for agreeing to a cease-fire.

“We need to continue to take down Hamas to liberate ourselves and the Palestinians,” said Klapp, who said that Israelis can’t suffer the intermittent wars with Hamas. If it continued, young Israelis would soon start looking to move abroad. “Don’t reoccupy Gaza — get all of the leaders and bring down Hamas. We tried to talk several times.”

However, most Israeli analysts say that toppling Hamas is not in Israel’s best interest. For one, such a move would put the onus on Israel for administering the Strip. It would also create a security vacuum, which would most likely be filled by even more radical, jihadist groups.

“They will never occupy all of Gaza, because then we have to take care of everything, like the water and sewage, and who wants to do that,” said Mordechai Kedar, a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University. “If we want to chase out Hamas, then we have to expel thousands of people to Egypt. This is not easy at all. Getting rid of Hamas is not a realistic objective.”

Pledges to eliminate the thousands of Hamas rocket threat also sound unrealistic, said Kedar.

“For this you have reoccupy Gaza for months, and search every home and every tunnel. Many of the houses will collapse. … You’d be on the run constantly from the jihadists. What they might do is to reoccupy a two-kilometer radius from the tunnel, in order to get rid of all the tunnels.”

Hamas ignored the cease-fire out of weakness rather than strength, say analysts. The organization has struggled on the battlefield against Israel, badly needs some sort of “achievement” it can boast about to Palestinians and restore some of its luster.

“There is the issue of prestige; the military wing is very frustrated because all of the cards they pulled out of their sleeve failed,” said Shlomo Brom, a fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Hamas is still reeling from growing isolation, first from Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war. And now from Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who views them as a terror group linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and has shut down critical tunnels used to smuggle weapons. That has created a financial crisis. Hamas needs “achievements” such as Egypt consent to open up the Rafa Crossing or the transfer of money into the Strip to pay its workforce. It has tried to showcase efforts at psychological warfare — such as text message sent to hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

“Their main supporters have stopped,” said Brom. “They’re in a situation in which they ran out of financial resources and they could not pay salaries. That,” Brom concluded, “was the main issue.”