Qiryat Malachi, Israel – Grief has quickly hardened into rage in this small town, the site of Israel’s sole deaths during its weeklong offensive in Gaza, and one of many in the south where residents hope the government escalates its campaign.
The rocket that struck an apartment building last Thursday morning was the first to land in Qiryat Malachi, a town of Russian immigrants and Sephardic Jews located about 25km from Gaza. The projectile killed three people, including a pregnant 26-year-old mother of three.
On the other side of the conflict, about 100 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli bombing, including more than two dozen children, Gaza health officials say.
In Qiryat Malachi, the stricken building’s damaged façade now stands as a call for revenge, with a banner urging the Israeli army to take over Gaza.
Hundreds of residents turned out for the victims’ funerals, one of which was interrupted by an emergency siren warning of yet another rocket attack. Some of the mourners denounced Israel’s 2005 decision to withdraw its settlements from Gaza, chanting slogans that described the move as a crime.
That was still a widespread view on Monday, and residents here did not mince words about the conflict, highlighting the political pressure that’s being placed on an Israeli government that has so far been reluctant to approve a ground invasion.
“I want the army to go into Gaza, flatten it,” said Yossi Dayan, a musician. “If they won’t give us peace, they deserve it.”
‘Netanyahu should go all out’
|Qiryat Malachi’s barren streets [Gregg Carlstrom/Al Jazeera]|
The offensive has dragged on for a week with thousands of Israeli air strikes, and hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza.
But many Israelis remain divided and uncertain about why the war started – specifically why their government responded to the slowly escalating rocket fire from Gaza by assassinating Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing.
A common belief, particularly among critics of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is that the war is linked to politics – a bid to shift the debate ahead of parliamentary elections in January from socioeconomic problems to the security situation.
Netanyahu, the thinking goes, could claim success after a brief war, one with few Israeli casualties, and then campaign as the victorious wartime prime minister.
The Israeli army said over the weekend it had already achieved “70 per cent” of its objectives in Gaza, and diplomatic sources in Jerusalem say Israel and Hamas could agree to a cease-fire in the few days.
But that short campaign might not be enough to mollify residents in Qiryat Malachi, many of whom want revenge – and believe a cease-fire would be swiftly violated.
“Our army should do them what we did in Lebanon,” said Yoram Selouk, referring to Israel’s month-long 2006 war against Hezbollah, which killed hundreds of fighters and more than 1,200 civilians.
“Netanyahu should go all out. But not on the ground,” he added.
Thousands of Israeli soldiers have already begun to mass on the borders in preparation for a potential ground invasion. The cabinet on Saturday authorised the government to activate 75,000 reservists, and some 40,000 have been mobilized so far. Trucks carrying military equipment and buses full of soldiers streamed down the main highway towards Gaza throughout the day on Monday.
So far, though, the government has not decided whether to actually approve a ground operation. An invasion would be lengthy – several weeks according to military analysts – and would almost certainly involve a significant number of casualties.
“We hope this will not continue,” said Sharon Selouk, Yoram’s husband and the co-owner of their salon. “I think if it does, there will be a lot of people who will die, both the Arabs and their soldiers.”
‘They can’t make a decision’
As the rocket approached Qiryat Malachi early Thursday, one of the victims, Yitzhak Amsalem, stood by his window to watch the incoming fire – perhaps because no rockets had ever struck this town before.
None have landed here since, either, but the emergency sirens warning of their approach have been a constant occurrence. Daily life has been interrupted with schools closed and streets nearly deserted. Most of the shops in Qiryat Malachi were shuttered Monday evening, and only a handful of pedestrians walked the streets.
“This is the point of terror, to interrupt our lives,” said Ron Paz, an adviser at the Israeli government press office who lives near Ashkelon, the major city about 15km down the road from Qiryat Malachi.
The ongoing rocket fire means many residents here, and elsewhere around the country, still support escalating the campaign – some with bombs, others with bullets.
“It’s not Netanyahu alone. It’s the whole cabinet. One says one thing, one says another. They can’t make a decision.“
– Eliko Hamo, restaurant manager
Israel’s major political parties have so far rallied around the flag and endorsed the operation, save for a handful of small left-wing parties.
“You have to defend yourself,” said Michel Younis, a resident of Qiryat Malachi. “In this situation there is no politics. The government has to do what it has to do.”
But unity might not last. Already there are dissenting voices. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, rarely the voice of moderation in the Israeli cabinet, cautioned on Saturday that a ground invasion could be counterproductive, unless it goes “all the way”.
And the war has already overshadowed both the formation of a new center-left party, Yesh Atid, and the possible reemergence of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, either of whom could potentially compete against Netanyahu for the prime minister’s job. Israel’s more liberal parties could choose to reassert themselves by opposing an escalation, a possibility surely not lost on Netanyahu.
Nor is it lost on the residents of Qiryat Malachi. Eliko Hamo, manager of a small restaurant on the town’s main street, said Israeli politicians are out of step with public opinion – wary to approve a wider offensive because they fear the political consequences.
“It’s not Netanyahu alone. It’s the whole cabinet,” Hamo said. “One says one thing, one says another. They can’t make a decision.”