The decision to put Ashkelon, and its 120,000 residents, within permanent range of their rockets from Gaza may turn out to have been a mistake on their part. As if it were not enough that the Israeli government is being asked to solve the continuing hardships of Sderot residents, it is now being faced with a much bigger problem in Ashkelon. Its conclusion, even if action is only taken in a month or two, is likely to be that a major military operation is needed in Gaza. Defense Minister Ehud Barak hinted as much Thursday.
A round of increased violence between Israel and Hamas takes place every two or three weeks. And each time, the latest round is more severe than the one preceding it. Last night, it seemed that the escalation was getting out of control. More than 30 rockets were fired at Israel Thursday (and close to 90 in the last two days), among them a Katyusha that scored a direct hit on a home in Ashkelon. Two Israeli civilians were injured in Thursday's barrage. The casualties on the Palestinian side were significantly worse: The air force struck 21 targets in 24 hours. The Palestinians suffered 15 dead, among them three children and a baby.
In talks at the Defense Ministry Thursday, Ehud Barak said that the likelihood of alarge-scale ground offensive "is real and tangible." However, he added, there are "complex considerations" regarding the right time for embarking on such an operation. On Wednesday night, during a tense meeting at Sapir College with leaders of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip, Barak said that a large-scale military response is "closer than you might think."
But before the IDF launches an offensive whose chances of success are being hotly disputed in both the government and the General Staff, there are immediate steps that Israel must take. Thursday night, after putting it off for months, Barak decided to activate the Color Red rocket warning system in Ashkelon. He also held a series of phone calls with the U.S. secretary of state, the foreign ministers of Russia and Britain, Quartet envoy Tony Blair and the head of Egyptian Intelligence, General Omar Suleiman. These calls are meant to lay the international groundwork for a possible Israeli ground offensive.
Hamas, for its part, has adopted an extreme, uncompromising stance. Conversations with its leaders sometimes give rise to the suspicion that they are out of touch with the military reality on the ground, in which their forces are suffering more and more casualties. One Hamas operative went so far as to refer to the prophet Mohammed in order to stress Gaza residents? ability to withstand the pressure. "The Prophet Mohammed managed to survive for three years under siege by the infidels, while eating moldy food, or none at all," he pointed out.
But notwithstanding such bold statements, Hamas is in trouble. This stems not only from the losses it is suffering, but also from a decline in its level of support among the Gazan public. The organization has been criticized in the Strip, inter alia, for the way it distributes humanitarian aid from Arab states, providing food only to its supporters. When four out of every five Gazans live below the poverty line, this is not the kind of behavior that makes Hamas popular, even if residents do not dare express their anger in public or in the media.
A., who lives in Gaza, blames Hamas for ruining ties with every country in the world, except two: Syria and Iran. "They led us to disaster, and the price is being paid by the ordinary citizens. We have no dreams of a Palestinian state, Jerusalem or the right of return. All we want is a few hours without the electricity being cut and gasoline for our car."
M., a father of three in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, also blames Hamas for the situation, but admits that he dare not say so in public. "Everyone here is afraid to speak out against them, including those who are not connected with Fatah," he said. "Who knows what they will do to you? Several days ago, a Qassam rocket accidentally hit the home of a large, well-known clan in Beit Hanun. Even they did not come out in protest."
But M. added a caveat: "You need to understand that however angry people are with Hamas, their anger at Israel is greater."
Thursday, M. decided to take his children out of school soon after it opened. "I want them near me. Who knows what will happen? In the morning, I heard on Israeli radio about someone injured at Sapir College and we already had five dead, and I understood that this would be another day of fighting."