ASHKELON, ISRAEL—Until now, Israel's home front in the war with Gaza has been limited to about 25,000 people in the border town of Sderot and a few nearby farming communities. But the latest escalation brought the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashkelon under Gazan rocket fire, which represents a strategic threat. "The country can't allow this city to be broken. There are 120,000 people living here; there's vital national energy and strategic infrastructure," said Mayor Roni Mehatzri, on his way to visit three residents being treated at a local hospital for rocket shrapnel wounds. The chilling precedent hanging over the city is that of Sderot, which has indeed been broken in body and spirit by seven years of rockets from Gaza, causing an estimated one quarter to one third of its residents to leave.
Israel has been widely accused of overkill in the conflict with Gaza, especially during this latest round in which more than 120 Palestinians, including many civilians, were killed along with three Israeli soldiers. Even visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while supporting Israel's right to self-defense against "blind bombardment of civilians" by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government "not to use this excess force."
Incoming rockets. But Israel faces a grave dilemma. It tore down its settlements and removed its soldiers from the Gaza Strip in September 2005, yet Gaza's militants have kept on firing short-range mortars and Kassam rockets at Sderot, which lies about a mile east of the border. Israel's lethal retaliations not only failed to stop the rockets—which very rarely kill anyone but make life hellish for everyone within range—but usually prompted Gaza's fighters to escalate in kind.
Because getting out of Gaza didn't pacify the militants and superior firepower didn't deter them, Israel has been left to fight a war of attrition. As long as the damage was limited to Sderot and a few farming villages, the government basically played tit for tat, wary as it is of an all-out ground assault on Gaza that would cost many Israeli soldiers' lives while providing at best temporary relief from the rockets, which would almost certainly resume once the Army pulled back out.
But under Hamas's leadership, Gaza's arsenal is steadily evolving, getting a major boost recently when masses of Gazans, under an onerous Israeli blockade, tore down the border wall with Egypt and imported every sort of item—including additional weaponry. Now the militants have a greater number of Iranian-made Grad rockets with heavier warheads and stronger engines than the locally made Kassams. So instead of 25,000 Israelis living within striking range, some 250,000 are exposed.
The radicals' prime target is about 5 miles up the coast in Ashkelon. This is a thriving city whose power station serves the entire southern half of Israel and whose dazzling beaches draw loads of tourists. Some 20 Grads hit the city last week, causing a few minor injuries and damaging several residential buildings. But the potential for a disastrous blow that could provoke a full-scale war was obvious from the close calls: One rocket landed in the parking lot of a major government building, while another hit a house a short distance from three synagogues, a community center, and the homes of two Israeli cabinet ministers.
Under pressure from an angry public and right-wing political parties, Olmert has pledged to continue attacking the militants until the rocketing ceases. "As of now," he told the Knesset, "everything is possible—ground and air assaults, special operations, it's all on the table."
The latest tactic being discussed is for the Army's artillery to "return fire toward the source of the launching [of rockets], even if it's in a populated area," as Vice Premier Haim Ramon, the leading proponent of this approach, suggested in a cabinet meeting. This has become a very popular idea among Ashkelon residents. "For every rocket they fire, if we fire 20 shells at them, wherever they are, then they'll know better than to try again. That'll stop it for sure," insists restaurant owner Rafi Levy. However, Attorney General Meni Mazuz informed the cabinet that such a policy would constitute a "war crime."
Yet even in purely military terms, the problem with hitting Gaza harder, of course, is that Israel has been killing both rocket launchers and civilians in Gaza day in and day out for 2½ years, yet the blowback has only gotten worse. And now a red line for Israel has been crossed. "Until recently, Hamas refrained from attacking Ashkelon, but after the Israeli raid, we showed them that our capabilities are unlimited. We have more surprises for them," said Mushir al Masri, a Hamas legislator and spokesman in Gaza.
U.S. diplomacy. Rice came to the region last week to try to keep a lid on the fighting, but U.S. mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only grows more ineffectual. The Bush administration will have nothing to do with Hamas, working instead through moderate West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has no power in Gaza and is widely belittled by Palestinians as a collaborator. With Gazans being killed in large numbers by the Israeli Army, Abbas felt compelled to suspend peace talks with Olmert, which have gone nowhere anyway and are commonly viewed as a hollow exercise meant to keep Rice and President Bush happy. During her visit, Rice did manage to persuade Abbas to change his mind and agree to talk with Olmert some more. In the virtual peace process, this ranks as an achievement.
The only working model Israel has for shutting down Palestinian terrorism is its military occupation of the West Bank, a burden it hopes one day to shed—and which it dreads taking up again in Gaza. Another option is negotiating with Hamas, but the Gazan regime remains ideologically committed to Israel's destruction, and, at any rate, Hamas isn't offering peace or even an open-ended cease-fire. All it's offering is a tahdiyeh—a lull in the fighting, during which time Hamas would be free to gather its strength—after which it would call off the tahdiyeh and return to battle at a time of its choosing.
Theoretically, there is a middle way. That would be a mutual de-escalation. On the ground, though, that doesn't seem likely. Neither does it seem likely that Israel will let Ashkelon go the way of Sderot. Most likely, the war is going to spin further out of control before it slows down.
With Khaled Abu Toameh in the West Bank