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Rocket Threat Turns Idyllic Town into Frightened Refuge by the Sea

May 19, 2006
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At first glance, Netiv Ha’asara appears like the perfect place to live. An idyllic town on a verdant bluff overlooking the Mediterranean, it’s the kind of community where kids leave their bikes in their driveways at night because there’s no crime, where the distinctive, picturesque houses look like they could grace the covers of Better Homes and Gardens and where everybody seems to know everybody else at the local grocery.

It would be an ideal locale — but for the deadly Kassam rockets fired at, and sometimes into, Netiv Ha’asara nearly every morning lately by Palestinians from the nearby Gaza Strip.

The crude rockets and the damage they wreak — a young woman here was killed by one of the Kassams about a year ago, and just this week a Katyusha rocket landed in a chicken coop in town, killing some 30 birds — are reminders that just beyond the imposing concrete barrier on the town’s edge lies one of the most dangerous, and hostile, places in the world for Israelis — the Gaza Strip.

“Not a week passes without a Kassam falling here,” says Sharly Shabbat, who owns the small grocery in the center of Netiv Ha’asara.

“The whole country doesn’t understand what’s going on here,” he continues. “In Tel Aviv, they ran away from the city when the Scuds started falling there during the Gulf War,” in 1991. “Here, it’s like the Gulf War every day.”

Just as upsetting, Shabbat and other residents say, is the ear-splitting noise of Israeli artillery aimed in the reverse direction. The booms every two or three minutes prevent residents from forgetting, even for a few minutes, that they live in a war zone.

“The kids are scared, the dogs are frightened,” says Shlomo Saad, who moved to Netiv Ha’asara in 1983 after he was forced to leave a Jewish settlement in the Sinai when the peninsula was returned to Egypt. “Kids who are three or four years old have started wetting the bed again.”

The Kassams that streak across the skies here are aimed not so much at small coastal communities like Netiv Ha’asara, but at a far more attractive target just a few miles up the shore from Gaza: the city of Ashkelon.

Home to some 120,000 people and strategic industrial sites, Ashkelon and points south have become the front line since the withdrawal last August of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, about eight miles away.

The desert town of Sderot, which lies to the east of Gaza, also has been a target, but Palestinians are more focused on Ashkelon, and they fire most of their mortars and rockets northward.

Fortunately, Mayor Roni Mehatzri says, the threat to Ashkelon is still theoretical, since the Kassams have yet to reach the city. They have reached the industrial zone just south of town, however, where an oil refinery, power plant and some 60 other sites with around 5,000 workers make a very attractive target.

“This may be just a prelude,” warns Mor Shamgar, chairwoman of the industrial zone’s action committee on security. “If this is not contained and managed right, and the issues are not resolved, it’s going to be all over Israel.”

“It’s not a threat on Ashkelon. It’s a threat to Israel,” Mehatzri told JTA, noting that the oil and power plants located in Ashkelon provide power and gas to people all over Israel. “This is something fundamental.”

A few Kassams have fallen in and around the industrial zone — one recently struck the Carlsberg beer factory — but so far no strategic sites have sustained serious damage.

That could just be a matter of time, though. If a chemical site sustains a direct hit, Shamgar cautions, the fallout could be catastrophic.

For now, the brunt of the Kassam threat is borne by the communities between Ashkelon and the northern border of the Gaza Strip, places like Carmiya, Kibbitz Zikkim and Netiv Ha’asara.

In a bid to give residents some sort of protection, the government recently installed a missile warning system called Red Dawn, which sounds an alarm whenever a missile is approaching. However, given the short distances involved, the system gives little more than a few seconds warning, leaving few options for those in the missile’s path.

That problem is new for Yuval Grady, who moved nine months ago to Kibbutz Carmiya when the Gaza settlement that was his home for some 20 years was demolished when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip last August.

Half of the residents of the settlement, a predominantly secular development called Elei Sinai, now live in Carmiya, some seven miles north. They live in flimsy plaster homes built hastily by the government in the months before the withdrawal.

Grady says he got a raw deal in the move: Not only is he still paying a mortgage on a home that no longer exists in a settlement that has been wiped off the map, but he is paying rent on a new home whose weak plaster walls and roof provide no protection from Kassams.

“This is not like the house I had in Elei Sinai: It had a cement roof, it was sturdy,” Grady says while on his hands and knees, laying bricks for a new patio in front of his home. “Here you have no place to run to. The house will not protect you.”

Without pausing from his bricklaying, he adds, “Have you ever seen a mouse cornered and with nowhere to run? That’s what it’s like. You bring the kids close to you when the alarm goes off, but there’s nothing to do.”

The Kassams have changed the way of life here: Real estate prices in the area have plummeted, young people are looking to move away and a sense of siege has grown.

Most days, the alarms begin sounding at around 5 a.m., heralding every missile headed northward from Gaza. The vast majority of the rockets fall harmlessly or are headed further north, but Israelis who live in the Kassams’ path must constantly be on guard.

Israel’s southern coast has become a war zone, they say.

And if Israel doesn’t somehow bring an end to this problem, they warn, one day Palestinian rocket fire will threaten the entire country — especially if Israel withdraws from areas of the West Bank that are close to major Israeli population centers. Tel Aviv, after all, is no further from the West Bank than Ashkelon is from Gaza.

“We wanted to be in Israel,” Saad says, “but the border followed us.”

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